Despite having lived openly as a gay man for years, Justin Lee says he still speaks fluent “Evangelical Christianese.”
That should come as no surprise, as Lee grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist home. But when his sexual orientation began to surface in high school, the Christian language of his traditions began to fail him. He had no words for the feelings he felt or the dread that grew in him as he came to grips with who he really was.
In his new book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate, Lee documents his journey from high school “God Boy” to discovering his true sexual identity and to the ex-gay ministries that tried to make him straight. The hardest part of the path? Learning the new language of progressive religion and exploring the world of the minority within the minority—LGBT Christianity.
His journey led him to start an online group—the Gay Christian Network—where he could talk with others who had similar experiences, going through ex-gay ministries after coming out in conservative Christian households. The ministry has become his full-time job, with an office in Raleigh, North Carolina, and annual conferences that attract hundreds of LGBT Christians from around the world.
Lee took time recently to talk with Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge about his new book and why he thinks his fluency in the language of his Southern Baptist youth can help bridge the divide between anti-gay Christians and the LGBT community.
What prompted you to write Torn?
The issue of LGBT acceptance in church and society has become a significant wedge issue in both, and it’s an issue that is splitting people and congregations and families. More and more I keep meeting people who feel truly torn over how to respond to all of this.
That’s particularly true, I think, in the more conservative wings of the church: conservative evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even conservative mainliners. I think people on all sides find this issue is tearing apart relationships in their lives—I wanted to write a book to try to help people come back together.
I argue that the gospel itself shouldn’t be overwhelmed by this “gays versus Christians” mentality. It’s not and never has been about LGBT people being on one side and Christians being on the other.
The gay-versus-Christian dichotomy has become so prevalent, it’s even affecting the LGBT community, as you point out in your book. It’s difficult to even come out as a gay Christian within the LGBT community.
It really can be. We who are gay and Christian often get torn in two by the debate ourselves because if it seems like the LGBT people in your life don’t want anything to do with Christianity or organized religion and the Christians in your life don’t really get the gay thing—or, even worse, are openly antagonistic to LGBT people. You wind up feeling like you have to be half of yourself all the time. That’s not a healthy way to approach life or to approach your faith, and it’s not a healthy way for the church to move forward.
I think that the church needs its LGBT members. Those of us who are LGBT in the church have experienced things that give us a different perspective on the gospel and on how the church, as this body of Christ, can be there for people. If our voices are not being heard, or we’re not able to be authentically ourselves in the church, then that does a real injustice to the global Christian community.
Your journey may sound familiar to LGBT people who have felt different from an early age but also felt like they have no choice in their sexual orientation. How have you put those pieces together?
I grew up conservative Southern Baptist. My nickname in high school was “God Boy.” I was that really obnoxious kid with the Bible in his backpack ready to witness to everybody.
Growing up, my understanding was that being gay was a choice and a sinful one. So, certainly I wasn’t gay because I would never choose something like that. It took me until I was 18 to acknowledge to myself that I was gay, but that was after years of turmoil, struggling with the fact that I knew I was attracted to other guys and I didn’t know why. I kept thinking it was something I would grow out of, but when I didn’t I found myself ultimately crying myself to sleep, begging God night after night, “Please don’t let me feel this way anymore.”
I was dating girls. I considered myself straight, but eventually I had to acknowledge I wasn’t straight and that there was a word for guys who were attracted to guys and that word was “gay.” That sent me through a real period of struggle and a journey trying to understand what in the world that meant for me.
I got to know gay people and I talked to my Christian friends about it. I even got involved with the ex-gay world and tried to become straight. That didn’t seem to work, and ultimately it forced me to acknowledge that the Christians I had always looked up to and respected didn’t have all the answers on this particular question—and that the church as a whole, or at least the church as I knew it as a conservative evangelical, was not handling this very well.
I needed to speak up and tell my story and try to help my fellow Christians better understand what it’s like to be a gay person in the church.
You mention you tried ex-gay ministries, which are highly touted by many conservative Christians as the answer—that you can “pray away the gay.” What was your experience in this ex-gay world?
I had so many terrible experiences with them. Early on, one of the things I realized was that when I called myself gay it wasn’t because of anything I was doing. In a lot of ways, my story was very different from others—at least those that I met at that time, who came out and got involved with somebody or going to clubs, or whatnot. I realized I was gay, but I was this really conservative, sheltered Southern Baptist boy so I had never held a guy’s hand, much less gone to a gay club or had sex or anything like that. So, I knew right away, when I called myself “gay,” this is about how I feel not about anything I’m doing.
Yet I would go to these ministries and I would hear this testimonies like, “I used to be involved in this lifestyle and I did this and I did that and I haven’t done any of those things in five years or ten years, whatever.” There was never any talk about, “and then my attractions changed and I’m no longer attracted to the same sex, I’m attracted to the opposite sex.”
When I would ask those questions point blank I would find out these people weren’t changing. Not only that but they push these theories. I heard over and over again that I must have had a distant father or an overbearing mother and this was why I was gay. When I told them that was not true and that I have a great relationship with both of my parents, I was basically called a liar and told that couldn’t be the case because this is what makes people gay.
One guy even said to me, “Well, I thought I had a great relationship with my father, too, until I got into therapy and started looking harder.”
I thought, “Wow, what kind of ministry takes people who think they have a great relationship with their parents and then convinces them they should blame all their problems on their parents?”
In the book, you talk about another man who did come up with a theory for why you’re gay.
Yes, he told me that maybe I was gay because I had grown up Southern Baptist and that didn’t give me a chance for artistic expression, whatever that meant. I felt that was the strangest theory I’d ever heard.
He kept asking me questions about my childhood and finally he said, “Wasn’t there anything unusual about your childhood at all?” I told him, “Well, the only thing that comes to mind is that I have a genetic autoimmune disorder that causes me to lose my hair, so I lost my hair when I was four.”
He just pointed his finger at me and said, “Aha! That’s it! You lied to me!”
I said, “How did I lie to you?”
He said, “You told me you had an idyllic childhood and that clearly was traumatic.”
First, I never told him I had an “idyllic” childhood, I said I had a happy childhood and I did. And secondly, while it may seem to him that losing my hair was traumatic, I lost it when I was four, before I had any kind of concept about hair being important. I’m used to it. It’s been my whole life. Having alopecia can be traumatic for some people, especially women, but it never was for me and I don’t know how to convince people of that. But, he was convinced that because I lost my hair, that’s what made me gay.
That’s a thread you pick up in the book. When LGBT people tell about their experiences and about how they feel, no one believes us. Instead, they have to find some sort of “cause” or “trauma” that made us gay or lesbian. Why won’t people believe us when say we’ve always been this way?
I think that most Christians really are compassionate folks and so I think that when Christians read passages in the Bible that convince them that gay sex or gay relationships are sinful, I think then they want to believe that there must be some choice in the matter.
Deep down it’s unsettling to think that God would create people in such a way that they’re gay and don’t have any choice about it—that they can’t ever fall in love and have a relationship because that would be sinful. So the way that people reconcile this cognitive dissonance is to assume that there must be some kind of choice. There must be some way you can become straight, because surely God wouldn’t do that to anybody.
I find that when I tell my story to folks and they understand that this isn’t something that I chose, and I did all the things that you would expect me to do to try to become straight and nothing worked, it leaves people then having to say, “Well, I guess God is calling you to lifelong celibacy, and that’s a sacrifice you have to make.” I can hear in their voice, when they say that, they’re kind of uneasy saying it because it’s not really a happy thing to have to tell somebody.
What do you think about laws, like the one recently passed in California (currently on hold), banning ex-gay therapies? Is that the answer?
On one hand, I think reparative therapy is horribly damaging to folks and I think the psychological community has a certain responsibility when there is overwhelming evidence that this kind of therapy not only doesn’t work but does lasting damage to people—to their faith, their self-esteem, their emotional stability. We now have decades of evidence that this is a harmful thing. The psychological community does have a responsibility to say this is unethical and can’t be practiced.
By the same token, because religious groups will always find a way around the laws about this or that kind of therapy, citing religious freedom, I think the bigger issue is that people need to be educated about why this kind of stuff is so harmful, so we eliminate the demand for it. That’s happening bit by bit but there is still a lot of work to do to educate Christians.
When I go speak I meet Christians all the time who honestly believe that there are all these people who have just changed their orientation by prayer and therapy and that if anyone who is gay who didn’t want to be it’s a simple matter of going to a group or saying a prayer and God will make you straight. It just doesn’t work that way.
You made waves yourself in the ex-gay world when you invited Alan Chambers to a Gay Christian Network conference last year and he said quite candidly that he has not seen anyone changed by these ministries. How did all of that transpire?
That was a drama all in itself. I had known Alan Chambers from many years ago. We had participated in an online discussion group called Bridges Across the Divide. A year or two ago, I told Alan that I was interested in going to an Exodus conference because I had been speaking out against Exodus and ex-gay ministries for many years, but it had been ten years since I had attended and Exodus group. I didn’t want to criticize them for things they weren’t doing anymore. I wanted to be fair.
I told Alan I wanted to go and just sit in the back and not cause a disturbance, but just hear what’s being taught today and see if it was any different than what I had heard before. He was very gracious and invited me and it was a positive experience for me. It was also a heartbreaking experience because I saw a lot of things I hoped I wouldn’t see, like kids being pushed to be there by their parents.
Then Alan called me and said he wanted to come to the GCN conference—which is tricky because we have members who are survivors of ex-gay ministries who have experienced a lot of trauma. Seeing Alan at our conference would be a very big deal for some folks in a good way and in a harmful way for others.
I had worked out what I thought was a good compromise. We would have a time that wasn’t on the official schedule where Alan and I would have a conversation and talk bluntly about why we disagree. People could choose to come or not. We didn’t announce it in advance because I was afraid we’d get a bunch of media and it would just be a spectacle.
Good things and bad things happened. The good thing is that I was able to get Alan on a stage with several former ex-gay leaders and really confront him with the damage that ex-gay groups are doing and get him to say publicly that, in his words, “99.9% of people” he met in those groups didn’t change their orientation. Those were a really big deal.
The bad thing that happened was that there were some people at the conference, and some who weren’t, who felt like I had handled it poorly because we didn’t announce it in advance. They felt that those who had been traumatized by ex-gay groups needed advanced notice that he would be there, even though he was just in that one room. I apologized for that because that last thing I wanted to do was to traumatize anybody.
I’m glad we were able to have that conversation, though.
Do you think ex-gay ministries have changed any over the years?
I think they have changed, but they have not changed enough. When I went to the more recent Exodus conference I noticed that some of the language has changed. For instance, I noticed at this conference there was less emphasis on the “distant father, overbearing mother” theory. It was still held up as a possibility but there was more acknowledgement that there were other possibilities for people being gay. Even those folks holding up the “distant father, overbearing mother” theory took a much more nuanced and healthier approach to it—even though I despise the whole theory.
All that said, I think the nicer language and the nuance hasn’t changed the fact that in many of these ministries, particularly in the small groups that Exodus is referring people to, people are still being told that they can become straight. Exodus has not done a lot to change that perception, even though they don’t say anymore that you can become straight. They allow people to believe that’s what they’re offering and they allow kids to be pushed into these groups against their will by their parents and be subjected to all this psychological torture.
We really need to get rid of these groups. I would like to see Christians, en masse, abandon these groups, to recognize that they don’t work. If they want to help people be celibate because that’s what they believe people are called to do, more power to them, but to tell people they can become straight and torture them psychologically is incredibly wrong.
In your book, you propose some steps to moving forward on this issue so people don’t have to feel so torn. What are your ideas?
One of the ways we need to move forward is that there needs to be a place for celibate gay Christians in this conversation. A lot of my fellow gay Christians were surprised when I first said that because I don’t actually believe gay people need to be celibate—I’m hoping to find the right guy someday and get married.
But I say that because if the issue here is that some people believe the Bible condemns gay sex, then certainly that’s a conversation that needs to happen. If somebody believes that it does, if it means there is a place for them to say, “Hey, I’m going to live my life as an authentic gay person who chooses to be celibate,” I think that choice should be respected just as much as someone who chooses for moral or other reasons to abstain from meat or coffee.
By allowing that to be an option, it eliminates the motivation for people to try to become straight and find a place in the church. Because, we’re basically saying is that if you’re gay the only way to be accepted in the church is to become straight—but if that is no longer the issue it takes the foundation out from under ex-gay groups. Also, having LGBT people living authentically as themselves and speaking up in their relationships within the church, having those voices be heard, being able to listen to one another’s stories and talk about this issue in a way that it’s about people and not issues—all of these are the kind of things that will lead to the disappearance of ex-gay groups.