Why We Need LGBT Role Models in the Church
I was twelve years old when Ellen DeGeneres came out to Oprah.
As a homeschooler in the Bible Belt before social media was invented, I studied her pictures in magazines when my parents weren’t watching. Observing Ellen with teenage wonder, my conversation with myself went something like this:
She made it. She’s an actual lesbian who made it to adulthood and she’s, like, normal. She’s relatively well-adjusted and some people kind of like her and I wonder if people would still like me, too, if they knew?
Every young person scans their network to identify role models they can look to when they try to imagine future stories for their lives. Whether it’s a father, a coach, a youth pastor, or an art teacher, kids observe those they identify with so they can sketch a rough outline of what life might look like down the road. They try to locate their experiences in leaders around them, both to confirm that they belong in the community and to find wisdom for how to lead their specific lives. When I scanned my network, though, I only saw straight people. I’m sure there were closeted queer people, but there was not one single openly gay Christian that I could look to for even a vague idea of a possible narrative for my life.
Occasionally LGBT people were mentioned, and almost every time it was about “those people,” a community that “we” needed to reach out to or we were against. Whether the message was positive or negative (and it was almost always negative), it was never assumed that LGBT people were in the room, an integral part of the community. And it certainly wasn’t assumed that we had gifts to offer the community.
As I searched for role models and bounced between camp counselors (for the Christian part) and Ellen (for the lesbian part), I knew the answer to the question of whether or not I could be honest and loved as a lesbian in my church: No. The lack of people to look to was a strong indicator that it simply was not possible to tell the truth and stay in the church. I felt I would have to choose between my faith and my sexuality, and since my orientation was something I had not chosen, I worried the choice would be made for me. As I memorized books of the Bible and dreamed of a life devoted to ministry, that was devastating.
What Ellen showed me was that it was okay to exist as an openly gay person in society.
What we need now are leaders in Christian communities who, by their existence, communicate that it’s okay to exist as an openly gay person in the church.
If we do not have LGBT leaders in our churches, young people who realize they’re not straight will assume they have to lie or leave. Having a bisexual elder, on the other hand, tells the young bisexual boy that it’s not only possible to exist as a bisexual adult in the church, but that bisexual people are wise and they have gifts to offer the community. It’s a positive message to a young person who doesn’t hear many positive messages from the church.
We’ve come a long way, and LGBT teens can now google their way to Christian leaders who look like them. But as wonderful as it is for them to work through questions about theology or everyday existence by interacting with others online…
- Do we want our youth to have to turn to YouTubers for spiritual care?
- Wouldn’t we want them to feel connected in our communities?
- When they have specific questions about a life of discipleship in their context, wouldn’t we want them to feel safe enough to come to us?
This will only happen when they see living examples of people who love Jesus and share their experience when they look to our leaders to try to imagine their own futures. As it stands now, very few sexual minorities have people in their day-to-day communities who love Jesus and look like them.
When they ask whether or not they belong in the church, most scan their circles for role models and then, with disappointment, turn to google.
This will change when we begin to tell a better story about LGBT people made in the image of God.
That will reassure them it’s safe to tell the truth about themselves in our communities, and that they will not simply be tolerated in doing so—they will be wanted.
Julie Rodgers is a writer, speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ people in the church. Julie works for restoration within communities that hope to learn from those on the margins. She has served as an advisor to sexual minorities at Christian colleges during a time of tremendous cultural transition, and she’s been transformed by the youth she’s served in low-income communities. More than her own story and the wisdom gained through advocacy, personal relationships have shaped her vision for how we will heal. Get to know more about Julie at her website: Julie-Rodgers.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.