Monday, January 16, 2017

GCN Conference Was My First Time Not Being "Just An Ally"

Justin Lee (GCN Executive Director) on stage at GCN Conference.
The 2017 Gay Christian Network Conference was my first time attending an LGBTQ event as a queer person instead of "just an ally." See, I recently figured out I'm asexual (also called "ace"). And I'm wondering how exactly that fits in with LGBTQ.

First let me tell you all about the conference. The were about 1000 people there- including LGBTQ people, a lot of parents, and other allies. People of all different ages. But almost all of them were white. And (as far as I know) all the speakers I saw were either gay, trans, or allies; none of them said "I'm bisexual" or any of the other letters. (Which is weird because, in the world in general, there are probably more bisexual people than gay people.)

The conference had speakers on the main stage who talked to the whole huge group, and tons of smaller "breakout sessions" where speakers gave talks to smaller subsets of us. The breakout sessions seemed to cover more practical things or more in-depth things, like the biblical case for same-sex marriage, or LGBTQ identities in worship, or what it's like for a trans person and cis person to be in a relationship. The speakers on the main stage proclaimed, over and over, using many different bible passages and anecdotes from their lives, that God loves us and nothing can change that. God loves us just as we are. We don't need to earn it.

And wow, can I just say, wouldn't it be great if that was what the church was preaching?

It's a message this group needs to hear. I know the statistics about suicide among LGBTQ people, but wow, to hear people mentioning it so many times over the course of those four days- people saying "I attempted suicide but thank goodness it failed" or "GCN literally saved my life" or talking about somebody they know who committed suicide- wow, this is real. As a group, LGBTQ Christians have experienced so much hate and rejection disguised as "love." People talked about being kicked out of church- sometimes explicitly, sometimes in more indirect ways. A gay man leading one of his church's small groups, until rumors started going around other churches in the area that "there's a practicing homosexual leading a bible study" and his pastor said he couldn't lead it anymore. Another man came out as trans- he says he is in the middle of the gender spectrum and is okay with either "he" or "she" pronouns- when she started wearing makeup and a dress to church, most people acted nice, but the pastor said she couldn't volunteer anymore. And people started gossiping, and it was so difficult to continue going to church, and then one day the pastor said in the sermon "everyone is welcome here" and she just got up and left, and cried, and never went back to that church again.

And wow. This is a crisis. And GCN really is saving lives. Preaching that it doesn't matter who told you you're not worthy, that you can't have a relationship with God, that you can't be a pastor- they're wrong. God loves you just as you are and nothing can change that.

A lot of LGBTQ people have also experienced rejection from their families. Some were even kicked out by their parents. Which is why everyone was so happy to see so many parents there at the conference to support their LGBTQ kids. Many of the parents were wearing pins that said "Free Mom Hugs" or "Free Dad Hugs" and hugged anyone who needed it. Jane Clementi, the mother of Tyler Clementi (who committed suicide because of anti-gay bullying), was one of the speakers on the main stage- and she called on the church to evaluate its beliefs and policies, to ask "does this steal, kill, and destroy, or does it give life?" Another woman I talked with, who has a gay son, said "My church wanted me to choose between God and my son, and I'm not going to do that." When a young person comes out and their family supports them, sometimes the whole family is no longer welcome at church.

A mom and dad wearing pins that say "Free Mom Hugs" and "Free Dad Hugs", respectively. Image source.
So it was a little weird for me, being ace, seeing how much hate and rejection gay and trans people often face, and wondering if it's even right for me to say I'm part of the LGBTQ community, since I'm not at risk for anything that bad. In a technical sense, yes I am part of LGBTQ, because it's defined as gender and sexual minorities. But is it even useful to put so many letters together like that? They're each so different. They have different needs, and face different kinds of discrimination or stigma. We keep adding more letters because we want to be "inclusive," but how inclusive is it, really, when there's nothing at the conference specifically for bisexuals, or specifically for asexuals?

Maybe adding more letters is because they want to be the kind of group that includes all those different identities, even if they aren't right now. Add the letters to get those people to come, and when they do, they can educate the rest of the group about identity and their needs.

Unfortunately, though, there was one thing I saw which was NOT very "inclusive" at all. There was a big whiteboard at the conference where people could write messages to be read by everybody- most of the messages were about finding and meeting up with people from the same hometown, or who attended the same college, or have some common interest to talk about. And someone had written something about poly people meeting up. ("Poly" means "polyamorous", which means having several relationships at the same time, but it's not cheating because everybody is honest with each other about it.) It got erased. I saw another message there later about "for 2 years now, the poly message on the whiteboard has been erased" and how they weren't okay with being judged and excluded like that. Later that had been erased too. I find this to be shady as hell. I have no idea who did it, no idea if GCN has any kind of official position about poly people. But geez, you have to accept and include them. How can you not? Isn't that what this whole thing is about?

About pronouns at GCN: there were free pins we could take, which said "My pronouns are" and then you would write your pronouns. (For those unfamiliar with this "your pronouns" terminology: it means you tell people you want to be called "she/her", or "he/him", or "they/them", or whatever.) And actually, this was the first time I've ever heard someone- in the "real world" rather than the internet- use "they" as the pronoun to refer to a non-binary person. ("Non-binary" means someone who is not male or female.) It's very very common to use "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun when you don't really know who exactly you're talking about, so you don't know their gender- I've heard that TONS of times, that's pretty accepted in spoken English. (For example: "If anyone asks where I am, tell them I'm busy." We use "them" because we have no idea who this hypothetical person could be, so we don't know their gender.) But I had never heard someone use "they" when they do know exactly who the person is, and they know that person actually is not a "he" or "she." (For example, "They were sitting really close to me because they were having trouble hearing." This is talking about a specific person, but that person actually is not male or female, so we use "they.")

At one point, someone asked me what my pronouns are. It felt very weird, because I very obviously look like a woman, so I figure it's not necessary to ask. I don't know- is that a thing we should do more often? Is it something you should only ask about when someone doesn't clearly look like a man or woman? Ehhhh no, I saw people at the conference who didn't look very "gender-neutral" at all but wanted people to call them "they." So, obviously we should call people what they want to be called, otherwise that's just mean. But beyond that, I don't know very much about non-binary people, and I'd like to find out more.

Another fun thing that happened was people assumed I was gay. I was like "I'm getting married this year" and people would ask questions like "did you meet her in China?" and I'm like "actually I'm marrying a man." It's fine, I don't have a problem with people assuming I'm gay, because gay people live their ENTIRE LIVES with people assuming they're straight.

I felt pretty good about being ace and telling people I'm ace. (Interestingly, I did not tell people "I'm straight" even though I am...) I even met some other ace people, which was great. It definitely feels different, being at an event like this as an actual member of the LGBTQ community instead of "just an ally"- but at the same time, a lot of the problems that people talked about are things I can't relate to or don't affect me. Maybe I should say I'm an ally for an issue like marriage equality, for example, because that's not something that directly affects my life. Again, I wonder what the usefulness is of just squashing more and more letters together. I'm queer now, but in a totally different way than, say, a trans woman, or a gay man, or a bi woman who's married to a man... I see a lot of talk online about how allies are very much not counted as LGBTQIA, a lot of people very strongly disagreeing with "A is for ally." But as we add more letters, and "queer" becomes more and more diverse, every person in LGBTQ will definitely have some LGBTQ-related issues which affect them and some which don't affect them at all. Maybe we all have to be "just an ally" on some things.

Anyway that's a basic overview of my time at the GCN conference and how I felt about being asexual instead of "just an ally." In the next post, I'll talk about the Christianity I saw there.

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