Should I Stay or Should I Go? Place, Space, and the Gay Christian Experience

This paper was originally shared as a course requirement for Geography 458 at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 2004 queer teens attended the first ever church camp for LGBT people near the tiny town of Deerwood, MN (The Naming Project). The camp, which still occurs each summer, was created by three gay men who realized that LGBT teens were limited in their access to resources about spirituality in the queer community. The Naming Project is the non-profit organization that hosts the camp. The Project’s mission is to “create places of safety for youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities where faith is shared and healthy life-giving community is modeled” (The Naming Project). For the first time queer teens had access, if only for a week, to a space that is both explicitly queer and explicitly Christian.

The camp was featured in a 2006 documentary by Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi titled, “Camp Out”. In an interview, Grimaldi said that the camp was intended to serve as a space for campers to “bridge the gap between their sexual identity and their spirituality” (Ross).  This negotiation of sexual identity and faith is performed by all queer Christians, not just teenagers in the midwest. A small body of literature focuses on the gay Christian experience, with most research focusing on cisgendered gay males. Space, whether spiritualized, queered, or both, has a strong impact on the formation of the unique homosexual and Christian identity of the gay Christian man. The act of negotiating one’s place in the spiritual world as a gay Christian is a highly individualized experience with trends indicating two basic options: stay or go.

Queering Spiritual Space and Spiritualizing Queer Space

The term queer has become a buzzword in modern LGBTQ+ discourse. For the purposes of this paper, queer is defined as an all-encompassing term for sexualities and gender identities that defy cis-gendered and/or heteronormative constructs. Dr. Kate Cregan of Monash University defines the political act of queering as “an act of re-reading and disrupting narratives of heterogeneous hetero-normativity” (2012, p. 153). Borrowing from Cregan’s definition, the act of queering in reference to space refers to disrupting spaces rooted in heteronormative structures (straight spaces). In exploring the gay Christian experience through the lens of space, it helps to think about the ways in which space may be queered and spiritualized.

The act of queering spiritual space is central to the lives of many gay Christians. Dr. Melissa Wilcox writes in her book Queer Women and Religious Individualism, “the presence of queer bodies in straight spaces, and especially in straight sacred places, enacts in some way a queering of sacred space” (2009, p. 186). Wilcox communicates the idea that by putting themselves in sacred spaces, or in this case Christian spaces, gay people serve to queer those spaces. In her example, Wilcox discusses a lesbian woman named Coco Gallegos who “attended mass regularly with her partner, and felt that the two had even been recognized positively as a couple during a Catholic charismatic conference” (2009, p. 186). According to Wilcox’s research, Gallego’s presence in the Catholic space resulted in its queering, which made the church a more comfortable place for Gallego and her partner. Gallego was able to express her sexual identity without hiding it as a member of the church body (Wilcox, 2009, p. 186).

Dr. Jon Walton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City writes about the queering of his church. First Presbyterian is known publicly as one of the churches that provides water bottles for participants in New York City’s Pride Parade each year (Walton, 2015, p. 56). Walton calls First Presbyterian a queer congregation. He writes, “Our geographic location in Greenwich Village might seem the reason for our progressivism, but while First Presbyterian’s incarnation of God’s love for us is counterintuitive, thus queer as can be, our concerns are shared with congregations across the land. We are queer because we are Christian. This is an expression of the queer grace of God” (2015, p. 53). Walton writes that as an inclusive congregation, First Presbyterian has several same-sex couples among its regular attending members. He says, “When we have a same-gender couple or family standing in front of the church making a promise, and a congregation promising to help them, a very queer and wonderful thing is happening. All kinds of walls are coming down, and the world is becoming a more holy and blessed place, a little more like the commonwealth of God” (2015, p. 52). Their participation in life at First Presbyterian, according Wilcox’s logic, contributes to the queering of the church in Greenwich Village.

On the converse, the spiritualizing of queer space is central to the discussion of gay Christian life. In several interviews and case studies, gay Christians tell of distinctly spiritual experiences in distinctly queer spaces. The most extreme of these examples comes from Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers’ (2016) case study on gay Christian men in the southeastern United States. The study, titled “‘I Found God In the Glory Hole’: The Moral Career of a Gay Christian”, features several men and their spiritual experiences in queer spaces. The first example comes from a man named Peter who had a come-to-Jesus moment while engaging in an anonymous sex act. He writes,

“I was in the glory hole and I had this feeling of peace wash over me, but the feeling was followed by a sense that this wasn't where I belonged. I didn't understand what was happening at first, but I told the guy I was with goodbye, and I stumbled outside as the sun was coming up, and right there in front of me was a poster for a special event at a local church. I remember knowing in that moment that I had to go back to church, I just had to. I mean, God had come all the way out to the glory hole to collect me” (p. 635).

This example may seem somewhat sensational, but Peter was by no means alone in his spiritual experience in an explicitly queer space. Another respondent discussed hearing a voice in his head saying, “You know you were meant for more than this” while engaging in a sex act at an adult bookstore. Historically these bookstores have been hotbeds of queer sexual activity. The man said that after this experience he stopped by a church on the way home (Sumerau et al., p. 635).

The spiritualizing of queer space is not exclusive to the North American gay experience. In a case study of Chilean gay men, one respondent wrote about the first time he kissed a man. He said, “I felt so bad, in fact I left there [a party], I left before the end, I went home crying, walking blocks and blocks and then I came home crying. I felt extremely guilty because I thought I had done something to Jesus, because I was a Christian” (Figueroa & Tasker, p. 282). In this case the respondent spiritualized his first physical experience as a gay man. This act of sacralizing was paired with strong feelings of guilt which were common across nearly all of the Chilean respondents.

As evidenced by the stories of men in the glory hole and beyond, queer spiritual spaces and spiritualized queer spaces challenge gay men to evaluate their place in the Christian world. In continuing the discussion of the gay Christian experience, it is important to examine the ways in which gay men are navigating spiritual spaces. In order to understand the intimate relationship between place, space, and gay Christian life, it is crucial to study the choices gay men make when deciding where to go to church, if at all.

The Should I Stay or Should I Go Narrative

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, was the first to theorize on the concept of cognitive dissonance. According to Festinger’s book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, the term refers to “the existence of nonfitting relations among cognitions” (1962, p. 3). Dr. Martine Gross defines cognitive dissonance as, “a tension between a value system to which one adheres and practices experienced as contradictory to that system” (p. 88). This concept applies to the idea of being a gay person who practices a religion whose text explicitly condemns homosexual behavior. Gross uses this concept to discuss strategies used by gay Christians to reconcile the dissonance between gay and Christian identities. This theoretical framework may be applied to the discussion of gay Christian men’s options in navigating spiritual space.

Common across interviews was the discussion of where to go when one is gay and Christian. According to several surveys and interviews, gay Christian men have three main options: stay in a traditional church, leave the church and do not return, or leave the church and find a new inclusive congregation. Gay Christian men must negotiate their place in the Christian world by choosing to stay or go.

Staying in a traditional church is a surprisingly common option for many gay Christians. In a French study of 311 gay men and 84 lesbian women, 21% of respondents who attended a church regularly said that their church was “very or quite hostile” toward the issue of homosexuality (Gross, 2008, p. 84). As such, one-fifth of the respondents regularly attend a church with a traditional stance on their sexual identity. One reason gay people might stay is a feeling of safety in their home church. One man from Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers (2016) said:

“I remember when I was a kid the only times I really felt safe were when I was with God. I’m not downplaying the pain I felt in church, but somehow being in church overshadowed that pain because I felt like God’s special friend” (2016, p. 630).

Gross writes that gay Christians in France choose to stay “either because their loyalty prevents them from looking for alternatives in a cultural context where Catholicism is strongly legitimized, or because, in the end, the welcome they receive in their home traditional parish suits them just fine” (2008, p. 94).

Gross (2008) explains that remaining a member of a traditional church rarely comes without a price. He writes, “Nevertheless, for many, the price of parish participation is to leave a part of oneself in the closet. Indeed, 40 percent of the 171 respondents who attend a place of worship told no one about their homosexuality” (p. 85). In this case, the choice to stay in a traditional spiritual space requires nearly half of gay Christians surveyed to mask their gay identity in order to maintain membership in their Christian community.

For some gay Christians, continuing to attend a traditional church is not an attractive option. Some choose to leave the church and do not seek out a new one (Gross, 2008, p. 80). As Gross notes, this aligns with Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance which postulates that “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance (Festinger, 1962, p. 3; Gross, 2008, p. 88). Several respondents in Gross’ study left the church because of discrimination they faced in their home congregation. According to the study, 18% of respondents said “they have personally had negative experiences relating to homosexuality in the church they used to attend” (Gross, 2008, p. 80). Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers found that the gay Christian men they interviewed “all recalled getting ‘clobbered’ (i.e., marginalized, demonized, and/or denigrated) in the churches of their youth, and experiencing traumatic emotional experiences as a result of condemnation” (2016, p. 629). In his interview on the podcast “Oh God I’m Gay”, filmmaker Larry Grimaldi remarked that many gay people leave the church and do not return because “there’s so much hatred there or people don’t understand them that they really have no place to turn so instead of staying within an organization they run and hide because they’re feeling like they’re not accepted and there’s no place for them within those institutions” (Ross, 2007).

Interestingly, one of the reasons that gay Christians choose to stop attending church is because they “don’t need a place dedicated to relate to God” (Gross, p. 81). This sentiment was shared between about one-tenth of the respondents (p. 81). This reconceptualization of faith as a personal relationship not bound by spatial limitations is another strategy for reducing cognitive dissonance.

The third option explored in the stay or go narrative of gay Christian identity negotiation is leaving a traditional church to find an inclusive congregation. According to Gross, an “inclusive” church is one that “welcomes every person regardless of sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender, or biological sex” (p. 79). In the French context, about 20 of the 395 respondents of Gross’ survey said they found an inclusive church to attend (p. 79). Gross postulates that the number would be higher in the United States where the Catholic Church has a less finite hold on religious norms. Moving to a more inclusive church in the United States, Gross said, means joining a church that tries to be “‘as real as’ or ‘better than’ the mainstream (94).” Because the Roman Catholic Church is so dominant in French religious tradition, finding an inclusive congregation in France implies a conversion to a new religion (Gross, p. 94).

The men in Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers’ fieldwork were members of an LGBT-friendly church affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Churches. One man said of returning to a church, “This is simply us coming back to where we were always supposed to be” (p. 618). In the case of these men, the response to cognitive dissonance was to change both their social environment and to forge new cognitions of how being gay and being Christian can be compatible. Some strategies noted in Gross’ study include redefining God and reinterpreting problematic passages of scripture (p. 89).

Conclusion

In studying gay Christian men and their navigation of space, both queer and spiritual, it becomes clear that Christian and gay identities are nearly equal in their complexity. In each case, individual experience plays a strong role. Some gay men are content to separate their Christian identities from their gay identities and continue attending traditional churches (Gross, p. 92). Others seek out inclusive Christian spaces not unlike the camp offered by The Naming Project beginning in 2004.

The most striking findings in this research were not actually findings at all but, rather, gaps in queer Christian literature. This discussion focused on gay men because resources on lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other queer Christians are quite limited. Similarly, while some information on gay men in Chile was available, the information was highly anecdotal. Future research must devote resources to surveys of queer Christians in Latin America. This will help paint a more inclusive portrait of the ways in which queer Latinos are negotiating their place in the Christian world. With the liberal policies of legal gay marriage in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay, an exploration of gay Christian life in those nations may be of value in understanding the impact of liberal legislation on religious discourse.

This research indicates a need for an increase in resources for gay Christians to help them negotiate individualized methods of approaching the cognitive dissonance linked to gay Christianity. The discussion of gay identities and queer rights are at the forefront of religious discourse in many denominations of the Christian faith. As such, the future of navigating spiritual space as a queer person remains unclear as clergy continue to battle with this divisive issue.

References

About The Naming Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 03, 2016, from https://www.thenamingproject.org/about/

Cregan, K. (2012). Queer. In SAGE key Concepts Series:Key concepts in body and society (pp. 153-156). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781473914650.n35

Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Figueroa, V., & Tasker, F. (2013). “I Always Have the Idea of Sin in My Mind. …”: Family of Origin, Religion, and Chilean Young Gay Men. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 10(3), 269-297. doi:10.1080/1550428x.2013.834424

Gross, M. (2008). To Be Christian and Homosexual: From Shame to Identity-Based Claims. Nova Religio, 11(4), 77-101. doi:10.1525/nr.2008.11.4.77

Ross, A. (Logo). (2007, July 20). Oh God I’m Gay [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/oh-god-im-gay-episode-1-larry/id260344109?i=1000017493293&mt=2.

Sumerau, J. E., Cragun, R. T., & Mathers, L. A. (2016). “I Found God in The Glory Hole”: The Moral Career of a Gay Christian. Sociological Inquiry, 86(4), 618-640. doi:10.1111/soin.12134

Walton, J. (2015). A Congregation Embodies Queer Theology In K.T. Talvacchia (Ed.), Queer Christianities: Lived religion in transgressive forms. (pp. 50-58). New York: New York University Press.

Wilcox, M. M. (2009). Queer women and religious individualism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

LGBTQ+Peyton Chance