Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…in Church?
By Christian Piatt
Originally published in PULP
Lots of adjectives have been attached to my name in the past, but “provocative” is one that seems to keep sticking. As a writer of mainly theological material, it’s expected that I’ll use certain buzzwords and will avoid some topics that simply should not be talked about in polite company, let alone church.
Sounds like a challenge. I like challenges.
Enter the new book series I’m co-creating and editing for Chalice Press, called “Where’s the Faith?” The acronym by which the series is known is “WTF?,” a brief nod to the provocateur in me. Part of the idea behind this series of books on matters of young adults and faith is to tackle the issues we’re supposedly not allowed to, so of course, the first book out of the gate had to be about sex.
After about eighteen months of planning and hard work, Oh God, Oh God, OH GOD: Young adults speak out about sexuality and Christian Spirituality hit the streets to – at least so far – rave reviews. The common sentiment, at least from those who will actually pick the thing up, is that it’s about time we started talking about things like alternatives to abstinence-only sex education, homosexuality, pornography and other hot-button topics.
For the essay on homosexuality, I was excited to bring on my friend, Shannon, who attended seminary as an openly gay man with my wife, Amy, back in Texas. In his essay, “Growing Up Gay,” he talks in both humorous and heartbreaking terms about what it’s like being a man living in a faith calling, while also being transparent about his sexual orientation.
“I was afraid of being stabbed in the middle of the night,” he writes, recalling his childhood in North Carolina, and “of being kidnapped, of being beaten up by the bully at school, of failing my grade and of missing the rapture. I was most afraid, however, of being different in general and of being gay in particular. I didn’t want to be laughed at and made fun of and called names. Instead, I just wanted to fit in and be like everyone else.”
As one who serves in a local church, I can tell you that working in ministry isn’t exactly the best way to blend in. But he feels led to a life of spiritual service, sexuality aside, and so the long, uphill climb began.
Actually, the phrase “sexuality aside” doesn’t exactly fit the situation, as I learned while watching him struggle through the ordination process. When a seminary student completes his or her graduate school requirements and practical ministry work in our denomination, they may apply to be ordained by a team of other ministers in their region. Our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), varies widely from region to region in policies, given that we have an intentionally weak central governance structure.
But this also means that, while some states or regions will gladly ordain openly gay ministers, others are less affirming, or even tolerant. No surprise that Fort Worth, Texas, fell into the “less affirming” category. Basically, they take the Bill Clinton approach to this issue, which is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” at least during the ordination process. This creates a system that, put simply, asks people seeking a life in ministry to lie or obfuscate to their peers.
Everyone on the ordination committee who knew Shannon knew he was gay, and if you meet him, it’s not exactly hard to figure out. I mean, the guy has a poster of Barbara Streisand in his entryway, for God’s sake. But he was advised to make his sexuality a non-issue as he moved through the process, buying into the game long enough to get his certification, at least.
Easy enough for someone who is straight to say. As a left-handed person in a right-handed world, I notice how very little righties think about being right-handed. But we lefties encounter things every day, from scissors to keyboards and so on, that make real the bias of the world against our nature.
I can only imagine the anger and disappointment Shannon must have felt in being told that something so central to his identity was a “non-issue.” On the contrary, his sexual orientation had everything to do with his ministry. Not that he wanted to start a “gay” church or anything, but it pointed to the very issues of justice and compassion of which he has become an unfortunate object lesson, far too many times.
So he came out to the committee and forced its members to deny him ordination because of his orientation, which they did. Several times in years since, he has considered leaving the ministry, though we encourage him to hang in there. After all, why would the systems ever change if there’s no one on the inside trying to break down the old walls of intolerance?
It’s tragic, though, that his road is so much harder than ours, simply because of who he is. What in the world would Jesus think?