A Queer Dreaded Christmas Dilemma

This year I am spending this Christmas with my parents, and I am once again facing my uniquely queer dreaded dilemma of whether to keep the peace and please my parents by attending their homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic church with them, or attempting a rebellion that deeply disappoints them by staying home or seeking to worship in a space that welcomes me.

This church is the church I grew up in, the church in which I received my first Bible, in which I was confirmed, in which I first participated in communion, in which I sang in the choir. It is where I learned what it is to be Presbyterian, from forms of worship to reformed theology to decent and orderly congregational meetings. It is also where, at age 12, I mourned the loss of my youth choir director to AIDS, though the church would never admit he had HIV.

The congregation guided me in my developing faith, sometimes in ways beyond what they could have imagined. During spring break my first year in college, I visited with my former Sunday school teacher. I told her I had been struggling with the misogyny I found in Campus Crusade for Christ (which I had been encouraged to seek out during a Synod rally, but this is another story). My Sunday school teacher advised me to instead seek out the Presbyterian campus ministry; I had no intention of doing so because I had been told by Campus Crusade that the Presbyterian fellowship was not Godly. Days later, on the airport shuttle returning to campus, who should sit next to me but the Presbyterian chaplain, none other than the Rev. Susan Halcomb Craig. She spoke to me about her vision of a feminist and inclusive church, and I was overwhelmed by this intervention of grace in my life.

A year later, in 1991, I sat in the sanctuary of my parents’ church for an emergency congregational meeting the week after the General Assembly rejected the report on human sexuality, which included affirmation of LGB persons and our relationships. My pastor railed against the report, though to his credit he recommended we READ it and ordered copies for the library. An elder stood up and uttered a soul-crushingly exclusionary statement that began with the phrase “As heterosexuals we need to stand up to this ….” It was a defining moment for me in my coming out process, because it jolted me out of my Holly-Near-style “I’m just Donna” identification to a place in which I didn’t want anyone to mis-identify me with this group of heterosexuals. In that moment I knew I needed to claim the bi label and give up the straight privilege I enjoyed through others’ heteronormative presumptions. And when the report arrived later that summer in the church library, I read it and found not only a life-giving message of welcome but also a presentation of sexual ethics that fit with who I am.

My parents’ church is not on the extremes of the PCUSA; it is not a confessing church, but rather a church that won’t talk about sexuality or gender identity unless forced. The 220th General Assembly, happy to recommend that congregations study marriage, stopped short of requiring such discussion. And so this congregation like so many others continues oblivious even in the state of California where marriage has been the focus of public debate for years. Churches like this one will produce commissioners to the 221st General Assembly in 2014 who are no better prepared to discuss marriage than they were in 2012.

And yet, my parents’ congregation is not monolithic. For several years after college I cultivated ties with two different associate pastors who were allies and welcomed the difficult conversations, including one pastor who did some heavy lifting supporting my parents the year I came out to them. In those years I was in the habit of attending two worship services on Christmas Eve – one at the nearest More Light church which happened (by God’s grace) to be pastored by none other than the Rev. Susan Halcomb Craig. Being in a more light community in which I was known and welcomed as a regular, if infrequent, guest made the return to my parents’ church bearable.

In recent years, since Susan Craig’s retirement, I have avoided my parents’ church altogether; without the boost of welcome from a More Light congregation, it has been too hard for me to face the un-welcome of my parents’ church. I have told my parents I do not feel welcome there, but they dismiss me. They read absence of discussion as neutral, not as blaringly heteronormative. They are not aware that in failing to stand with me as their queer daughter they destroy any chance of realizing an authentic vision of us attending church as a family. They live and breathe the church’s mainstream theologies of charity rather than change, racial harmony rather than racial justice, and default masculinist understandings of God. They can’t imagine how these could make me uncomfortable, let alone constitute an all-out assault on my morality and my sense of self. And we have witnessed the same in our national denomination when they meet justice demands with dismissal – they minimize the pain of those who are marginalized, and do not realize how destructive that is to Christ’s body.

I still do not know if I will attend church with my parents this year, but I find myself trying to muster the courage to reclaim the church of my childhood. In my mind I imagine myself queering the space, relishing the knowledge that I am not the only queer person to have been raised in this congregation. I know two men from my high school youth group who have come out, one spectacularly as a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer Nuns devoted to ministry with those at the margins and exposing the homophobia in our culture. And I remember gratefully that this church is where I learned the value of a connectional denomination, one where my Sunday school teacher could send me back to college 3000 miles away confident in the ministry of a Presbyterian chaplain unknown to her; one where my homophobic pastor could refer me to a radically queer church report; and one where a few allies working against the grain might bring an inkling of a More Light presence to LGBTQ people and their families. May it be so.

You can learn more about Donna Riley at our MLP Movement Authors page. All her posts can be found here.

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