Wild Goose Festival’s (Mostly) Welcoming Spirit for LGBT Christians

On June 23, 1700 people gathered at Shakori Hills Farm, near Pittsboro, North Carolina, for the first Wild Goose Festival. Inspired by Greenbelt, the popular British festival, Wild Goose would celebrate faith, justice, music, and the arts “from a range of Christian perspectives and traditions” and offer welcome “to all regardless of belief, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, denomination, or religious affiliation.”

But before the festival even started, questions about the extent of the welcome extended to LGBT people were raised when Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a festival sponsor, published an opinion piece justifying the magazine’s rejection of ad copy from the gay-affirming Christian organization Believe Out Loud. Wallis rejected the calls that he adopt a position affirming—and not merely welcoming—LGBT people.

The Sojourners controversy and the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to open its doors to LGBT ordination made inclusion a hot topic of conversation. Though a wide range of issues were covered, including poverty and prison reform, there were enough speakers and individual discussions focused on LGBT concerns that Peterson Toscano, comedian and co-founder of Beyond Ex-Gay, jokingly remarked that conversation at Wild Goose was “all queer all the time.”

Toscano contributed to the queerness by introducing scenes from his play, Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible. “Many of the most important people in the Bible are gender non-conforming,” he said. Recounting interviews with biblical scholars about the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, Toscano said the word used to describe Joseph’s garment only appears in one other place in the Hebrew Bible, referring to the attire of King David’s daughter, Tamar. So Joseph’s coat, Toscano says, was “a princess dress,” one that “opened up a world of woe” for Joseph that resulted in fierce beatings at the hands of his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt. That violence, Toscano continued, “is a part of the long history of oppression of gender non-conforming and transgender people by other people of faith.”

“Who Drafted Me as a Gay Icon?”

There were some jarring exceptions to the generally welcoming atmosphere of the festival. While helping set up his booth, Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network was confronted by a man who began to rail, says Lee, against “the sins of our culture, including homosexuality.” After volunteers complained to staff, the man and a fellow protester were asked to leave. Folk singer Michelle Shocked, who has in recent years publicly rejected her lesbian fan base, became incensed when asked about her “position on homosexuality” by an audience member. “Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks,” she said, before shutting off her microphone to complain, “There is always someone who wants to catch me.” Shocked was not challenged by organizers or staff.

Some of the less-than-affirming messages came from official programming. Tony and Peggy Campolo gave their much-practiced talk, touted in the program as “a model of how to disagree agreeably,” about their differences on the matter of LGBT affirmation (she’s “for,” and he’s “against.”). Off-stage, Campolo lectured LGBT audience members who approached him that “when either side imposes its views on the other, it’s tyranny.” Campolo friend Andrew Marin, whose foundation “works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church,” lectured the mostly-LGBT audience at a Saturday panel on sexuality and justice about what he said was a history of LGBT antagonism toward the church. Toscano remarked that these discussions sometimes felt “like the parents talking about what to do with the unruly children.”

Also overlooked was the failure to include gender identity in the Festival welcome statement. Minister Shannon Kearns later wrote, “as a transgender person, I must say that my community was pretty much invisible on the main stages.” He added that “almost no [out transgender] person spoke from any stage” and that voices advocating for transgender inclusion were limited. Phyllis Tickle and Toscano were the main exceptions.

We Are Not Talking About Sex

One of the strongest advocates for the LGBT community was ally Jay Bakker (interviewed recently by Candace Chellew-Hodge here at RD) who gave voice to the righteous anger that some LGBT participants felt they could not express for fear of being written off, in Kearns’ words, as “whiny queers.” Bakker said the “dirty little secret” about some powerful evangelical leaders is that they support full affirmation for LGBT people within the church but are unwilling to say so publicly for fear of losing book deals, financial support and other trappings of what former fundamentalist Frank Schaeffer calls the “professional Christian.” As Bakker asked, “Are we not supposed to sacrifice for each other?”

We are not talking about sex. We are talking about families and children. I wish pastors would not say they work on “social justice” when they don’t mean it for everyone. The real challenge of the Bible is the question, “Are you going to love your neighbor as yourself or not?” People will say, “I work on poverty” or “I work on war,” and these are terrible things, but we do not have to leave LGBTQ people out. What an amazing difference people can make by simply saying, ‘I affirm you.’”

Bakker’s public support was particularly noteworthy since no one from the LGBT community was invited to speak about sexuality issues from the main stage. Some gay men spoke at smaller venues, including Toscano, Glen Retief, and Paul Fromberg. No out lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people were afforded their own stages, except for lesbian rocker and former contemporary Christian music star Jennifer Knapp, who was invited to give a musical performance, not speak about LGBT justice.

Knapp made the most of the opportunity, raising her hand a few minutes into her set and asking, “Did anyone here not know that I’m a lesbian?” Referring to the condemnation she has received from some Christians, and noting that her “Facebook ‘likes’ go down every time I say anything gay,” Knapp told her audience, “My family has been far less understanding about why I persist in my faith than why I persist in my love. I know that some of you might get up and walk out. That’s okay. People have been standing up and walking away from me for years when I tell them I’m a Christian.”

Knapp energized the crowd when she said the It Gets Better project had asked her to film a video from the stage. “I’ll only do it if you all will help me out,” she said. When the audience responded enthusiastically, Knapp’s tour manager stepped onto the stage and started filming:

My name is Jennifer Knapp, and I’m hanging out here at the Wild Goose Festival celebrating art, music, and spirituality. I just wanted you to know that you’re a child of God, and I’m a child of God. No matter what your sexual orientation is, you are a child of God. I sincerely want you to know that it does get better, and there are a lot of people at this festival who would like to tell you that as well.

The large audience—which included many evangelical Christians—echoed the video’s promise in an act of solidarity that would have been impossible to imagine in such a crowd 10 years ago. One audience member later wrote, “I was so choked up that I couldn’t even join in with the crowd as they shouted out. It was a moving moment.”

“Dressing It Up in Designer Jeans and Hair Gel”

Many LGBT people I spoke with had largely positive experiences at Wild Goose. Volunteer Brian Ammons, pastor of Raleigh’s Trinity’s Place, said he felt “a call to continue in conversation” with non-affirming individuals, and found the experience encouraging. He expressed respect for what he called the organizers’ “sincere attempt to create spaces where we can disagree.” Retief, author of the new memoir The Jack Bank, said he felt welcomed and accepted,

“because I felt the center of gravity of the mostly young, cool, hipster social justice-supporting attendees was overwhelmingly pro-queer. I thought Campolo and his cohorts were on a bit of an intellectual island… Pro-queer statements got cheered at panels; antigay statements were generally met with silence.”

But not every emergent-church hipster uniform suggested progressive politics, as attested by the presence of Devin Murphy, a young member of the evangelical Calvinist tradition who noted that his pastor trained for the ministry under the late R.J. Rushdoony, who famously called for public execution of LGBT individuals. Though Murphy stressed that neither he nor his pastor is interested in working for capital punishment for gays, he did say that his church, which works to distance itself from the extremes of Christian Reconstructionism, was unwilling to join the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) because of its gay-friendly ordination policy. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an “emergent” figure and a vocal ally of the LGBT community, acknowledged the presence of what she called “young warriors,” her term for “traditional conservatives who are not rethinking their theology,” but “dressing it up in designer jeans and hair gel, emulating the suburban ideal of what it means to be hip and urban.”

Wild Goose organizers were undoubtedly sincere in their effort to create a welcoming space, and they largely succeeded. But the effort was marred by the inclusion of non-affirming contributors. The discussions at Wild Goose mirror broader conversations taking place in Christian communities about the distinctions between welcome and affirmation, about who takes responsibility for reconciliation between the church and its LGBT members. In the future, festival organizers should invite a range of LGBT people to lead conversation from the main stage on their own terms rather than Campolo’s or Marin’s. And they should take to heart these words from the Gay Christian Network’s Justin Lee:

When we talk about reconciliation, it’s wrong to posit Christians and LGBT folks on opposite sides. It’s not a simple issue, and it’s not just a matter of two sides coming together on equal terms. The burden is really on the church as a whole to correct the mistakes we—as the church—have made when it comes to this issue… Our organization tries to figure out ways of constructively and strategically working to change these beliefs in the church… We are not interested in saying, “I want fellowship with you even though you believe I’m going to hell,” but in asking questions like, “What could change in the church to make it more loving?”