Today we hear from Dawn Holt, PFLAG National Regional Director in the Pacific Northwest, and President of PFLAG Portland. She is the mother of a 26 year-old gay man who serves as her inspiration for her work in the LGBTQ community. In addition to her service in PFLAG, Dawn served as the Co-Chair of Equity Foundation, an Oregon-based community foundation for the LGBTQ community and, as a practicing Buddhist, serves on the board of her Zen community.
Dawn shares with us her personal experiences attending the annual conference run by the Gay Christian Network.
Over the weekend of January 8-11, over 1300 LGBTQ Evangelical Christians gathered in Portland for the annual conference of the Gay Christian Network (GCN). The GCN was founded by Justin Lee over 10 years ago to bring gay Evangelical Christians together for four days of worship, speakers, workshops and Bible study. It’s the only gathering of its kind in the country and it grows by 100s of people each year. Through our connections at PFLAG National, PFLAG Portland was invited to table at this event. And what an experience it was!
Throughout the conference, many, many people came to our table and told us about their struggles being Evangelical and gay. A man in his late 60s told us without the slightest hesitation that he has been attracted to men since he was a teenager. He’s been married for over 40 years to a woman--who knows about his attraction to men--and together they’ve raised three children. “I could never come out,” he said, “my homophobic church would never understand.” “I’m telling you this,” he continued, “so no other young person has to go through what I went through.” Then, with tears in his eyes, he headed off to the next workshop. We sat down, stunned at his honesty and humbled that he had told us his story.
Then there was the young man that had been thrown out of his home by his parents at the age of 17 when they discovered that he was gay. “But I’m not a statistic,” he said, “I couch-surfed until I could get my life back together but I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs.” And clearly among this group, he’s found a purpose--and a family.
Twice during the gathering, a woman approached our table and told us that she and her partner of many years have chosen the path of “Side B” and what that has meant to their relationship and that with their church.
“Side A” and “Side B” Christians were not terms I was familiar with before this event. Coined by the CNG founder, Justin Lee, Side A people want to remain in their churches and believe that being gay is not necessarily a terrible sin. These folks want to find a partner and marry (marriage being highly valued in this community). In short, they are setting out to change their churches or to worship in inclusive spaces like GCN.
Side B people want to worship in their churches and be openly gay, but they choose celibacy as a way of reconciling a literal interpretation of the Bible with their orientation/identity. In other words, it’s okay to be gay as long as you don’t act on it. Side B grew out of the grudging understanding that reparative therapy probably does not work. This conversation is nuanced and steeped in the Evangelical style of worship. It’s controversial even in this gathering. But GCN makes space for both of these viewpoints at their gatherings. As one woman pointed out to us, “how can we begin to talk about being LGBTQ people of the Evangelical tradition if we’re not even at the same table?”
And thank goodness for it. Because as PFLAGers, I worry that we are not up to the task of meeting the needs of Evangelical LGBTQ Christians. I talked to several people at the GCN who were PFLAG leaders from other parts of the country and who worship in this tradition: Every one of them told me that PFLAG was only a marginally helpful resource (my words) and what they really craved was a group of people from their religious tradition who could walk with them through their journey. Three parents told me they would like to see Evangelical PFLAG chapters or support groups. I had dismissed this idea in the past. But now I see their point.
So, where do we go from here? The Evangelical community is another example of when PFLAG has expected people to come to PFLAG instead of PFLAG doing the very hard work of going into those communities, listening deeply, and learning about their needs. It’s time to sit down with our Evangelical neighbors and ask them to them tell us how PFLAG could be of service. There are literally lives on the line.
I know for myself it has always been a little too easy for me to dismiss this group of people by saying they are the ones that would never seek out PFLAG anyway. Now I’m not sure. I think there is more we can do, starting with deeper dialogue.
I consider myself much better educated now, and hopefully much less “judgey.”