Back (and Forth) to Basics

Austen HartkeComment
Photo by Ariel Udel

Photo by Ariel Udel

A couple of days ago I had lunch with my dad at the local faux-English pub. As I dug into my beer-batter cod, we got talking about my upcoming trip to speak at the Reformation Project conference, and I told him that I wished he could be there. Not necessarily to see me speak, but to hear the way other Christians are wrestling with issues of LGBTQ inclusion. My dad laughed a little bit, and said that he thought the people who would attend this kind of conference would be "way over here," gesturing far to one side of the table, "and I'm back over here," sweeping his hand far in the opposite direction.* What he meant, I think, is that he has a hard time imagining himself on the same page as folks who ardently believe that gender identity and sexual orientation can be reconciled with the tenets of our faith. It's not that he doesn't believe it's possible, necessarily--he just senses that there's a canyon between where they stand and where he is now.

My dad is a great guy, and he's always been welcoming of my wonderful girlfriend, but despite this he still has a hard time believing that things like homosexuality are compatible with a biblical worldview. He's definitely not alone in this, and in fact it was his question ("how do you explain being transgender, theologically?") that planted the seed that grew into the Transgender and Christian project. There are so many people  out there (LGBTQ and otherwise) who are wondering the same thing--can you be gay, or trans, or asexual, etc. etc. and still believe in the importance of scripture and have a relationship with God and the church?

While the answer for those of us who have spent years learning and processing may be an unequivocal "YES," that kind of pat answer doesn't help those who are still struggling to understand. It's a bit like being back in high school math class--if you don't show your work on a problem, nobody knows if the answer means anything.

And I'll admit, with the latest influx of spiteful articles hosted on so called Christian sites after the Jenner interview, I've grown frustrated with the process of having to constantly defend my identity. There's a certain amount of wear-and-tear that's caused by facing people who insist that you're mentally ill and possibly dangerous. This frustration can quickly become an urge to shut down conversation--to refuse to continually attempt to educate people at a basic level--especially when it seems like nobody really wants to learn.

But like I said, it's incredibly difficult for folks to go from hateful to unsure to curious to accepting if we don't show them how we made it through that process ourselves. Yes, there may be a vocal faction of people who refuse to listen, but the vast majority of Christians, especially in mainline denominations, do have at least some desire to engage in conversation around LGBTQ issues. This need stems from the fact that more and more Americans now know someone gay, and I've found that at least one fourth of the comments on my Transgender and Christian videos are from straight, cisgender folks who've felt like they couldn't return to the church until there was some way to love both God and their queer sibling. People are hungry for conversation around these topics, but most don't know how to start.

We need queer Christians to step forward courageously and be willing to do the 101 work needed in these contexts. We need people who are willing to not only tell their story, but to also go through the basics like "what does transgender mean?" and "which terms are not okay, and why?" It is, in a sense, putting the burden of proof on the marginalized, to expect those of us who are queer and Christian to stand up, identify ourselves, and do the work, but what's the alternative? Either not having the conversation at all, or allowing others to speak for us.

So while I'm not advocating that we beat our heads against a brick wall trying to get the Matt Walshes of the world in our corner, I do pray that LGBTQ Christians will be given the courage, patience, and gentleness we'll need to work as educators for those with honest questions. I have a great hope that someday my dad will be able to sit in a room with other reconciling folks and feel like his doubts are as welcome as his love for his children. I hope he'll be able to engage in conversation without running up against suppositions that require a masters in gender theory.

In the meantime, I promise to do my best as a resource, even if it means acting as both Google search and Wikipedia entry for those who aren't as familiar with the internet (and as someone who spends a lot of time talking to church secretaries, let me assure you of this necessity). Not all of us are called to do this work--we need graduate professors as much as we need kindergarten teachers--but personally, I always need a reminder that this is where I choose to work:

In the early stages. In the grey morning light. Right before the light bulb goes on.


*Not true! In fact, the Reformation Project works to promote conversation between LGBTQ Christians and Christians who aren't sure how to talk about these issues. The conference will be attended by people who are curious, skeptical, and confused, as well as those who know where they stand.