LGBTQ Christians are expanding the discourse on queerness in the unconventional space of the church.
Text by Kylie Yamauchi Images by Sean Grado and Jason Welch
On a Sunday morning in Kakaʻako, smiling, well-dressed young adults saunter into Bevy, a cozy bar known for its extensive list of craft cocktails. Inside the dim room, people lounge at the bar conversing, while others score spots on the patchwork denim couches. A preschooler weaves her way through the foldout chairs to the front of the room, where a mic is set up. An impressive collection of spirits lines the walls, but no one is ordering drinks here; Bevy is closed on Sundays. The bar is being used as a church.
At Imagine Hawaiʻi, an independent, non-denominational church founded in 2014, a longstanding evangelical conservatism is being combatted.
It’s no secret that the LGBTQ community and Christianity harbor a hostile history. In the most liberal appearing churches, pastors condemn homosexuality in sermons, while at others, queerness is not even discussed.
Struggles and Faith
In response to this religious landscape, founding pastor Kevin Sweeney and Jade Higa, an LGBTQ Christian and doctor of English, led a four week series of dinner conversations called Saying Grace, offered three to four times a year. Around a dining table, between mouthfuls of pizza and sips of wine, 10 Christians—half of whom identify as LGBTQ and half of whom identify as straight—conversed about their identities, their struggles, and their faith.
I joined Kevin and the Saying Grace cohort at the second dinner in the series, a night dedicated to the stories of the LGBTQ participants. At the first dinner, each person was asked to share a time they felt excluded. The latter end of the series was centered on discovering what the Bible actually says about same-sex attraction and sharing final thoughts from everyone.
Throughout the second evening, as one person after another shared, as wine was passed and questions were asked, a common narrative arose: The LGBTQ people had to create their own theology of what the Bible said about LGBTQ issues.
“The way I see it, queer theory is about being open to multiple ways of thinking. As Christians, LGBTQ folk, even students, you need to be OK with uncertainty. – Jade Higa
For all of the LGBTQ people present that night, the Bible fell short of providing a clear stance on same-sex attraction, and understandably so—there are less than 10 verses addressing the topic. Realizing these limitations, the participants had directed their imploring gazes from the ancient text to modern sources.
For Jade, studying queer theory in graduate school matured her understanding of sexuality and Christianity. The modern theory addresses many subjects beside gender and sexuality, such as class and race, working to investigate and dismantle such categories.
“The way I see it,” she explained, “queer theory is about being open to multiple ways of thinking. As Christians, LGBTQ folk, even students, you need to be OK with uncertainty.”
Straight to the Source
As an English doctoral student, Jade turned to outside texts to strengthen her understanding of biblical scripture.
One source she found was the 2012 book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, in which queer author Justin Lee gives his own interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Religious conservatives view this Genesis story as God’s denunciation of homosexuality, but Lee interprets it as condemnation of rape.
According to the tale, God destroys the city of Sodom, after “the men of the city, both young and old, all the people to the last man” threaten to rape Lot, a male follower of God.
Lee writes, “For one thing, how is it possible that the entire city could have been gay?” Lee makes his case by drawing on histories of male-on-male rape being used as forms of domination and violence rather than as a reflection of sexuality. Jade assigned this chapter from Torn for the cohort to read and discuss at the next dinner.
For the other LGBTQ people, all of whom are Millennials or Gen Z, a plethora of internet sources guided their views on queerness.
A 21-year-old bisexual woman, who asked to remain anonymous, shared with the group that a coming-out video by YouTube personality Matthew Schueller was her first connection to LGBTQ people who were Christian.
In the 2013 video, Schueller summarizes his 10-year journey of trying to “pray the gay away” and battling suicide.
He clarifies that he no longer believes his sexuality is a sin or an illness, and he ends the video, which has since garnered more than 306,000 views, with an invitation to religious queer folk to reach out to him. She sent him an email and received an encouraging response.
“I always knew that I couldn’t be the only one who was LGBTQ and Christian,” she said. “I had just never met anyone like me before that I was aware of.”
While the LGBTQ people taking part in Saying Grace found guidance in Christian sources, they also embraced secular ones.
A 31-year-old gay man, who also wished to remain anonymous, was introduced to the podcast series UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America. The series features stories from around the country of people involved in conversion therapy and the detrimental effect it had on their lives.
Conversion therapy, banned in 18 states including Hawai‘i, attempts to forcibly change a person’s sexuality to align with heterosexuality. Although not in all cases, conversion therapy has been promoted or offered by religious institutions.
“We [Christians] grew up thinking all secular things are wrong,” he said. “But as I’m learning about everything now, people outside the church seem to be more loving, more embracing, more compassionate.”
The LGBTQ people who attended Saying Grace represent a minority within a minority—LGBTQ people within the Christian community. Because of this, they’ve had to navigate their faith in ways not spelled out in a Sunday morning service.
“You can either medicate with a Bible verse or step back and figure out what’s actually going on,” said the 31-year-old gay man. None of them have rejected the Bible. Rather, they are doing the opposite. But before they could re-devote themselves to the text, they had to prove they weren’t condemned by it.