In a society where LGBT individuals are ignored, victimized, and criticized by both secular and Christian communities, LGBT Christians face just as much or even more disapproval. Wait. Gay AND Christian? Many respond, “That’s a myth,” or, “That’s ethically AND morally AND biblically impossible!” But they’re not unicorns; gay Christians exist; I attended a conference full of them.
With almost 1,500 attendees who traveled from all over North America and from as far away as Australia, the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference is the largest gathering of LGBT Christians in the world. Meeting in Portland, Oregon this year, the conference’s controversial nature even attracted protestors from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.
Founded by Justin Lee, an activist for LGBT Christians, GCN is a nonprofit organization that offers resources to the LGBT community and allies on topics regarding their spiritual walk and sexual or gender identity. The conference brings together hundreds of Christians for fellowship, worship, and support who all share a common thread: attendees are Christian, LGBT, allies, and/or seeking resources and answers.
Since it began in 2005, the number of conference attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors has grown. This year, conference-goers were informed that nearly 75% were first-timers, which I think is absolutely amazing! I will admit, I had no idea what to expect from the conference when I registered, but I was confident that I would benefit in some way, and I would just have to wait and see what was in store. Now that it has ended, I have nothing but positive things to say about my experience.
The minute I arrived in Portland, which was surprisingly sunny through most of the conference, I met a friendly conference-goer. It turned out we were both lost and had matching I thought I knew where to go but I am lost looks on our faces. In the spirit of the conference, we joined forces and helped each other find our way. I found the first afternoon quiet, as it was mostly first-timers and we were all getting comfortable with our surroundings, but as more people began to arrive, the atmosphere came alive with excitement and camaraderie!
Because I was staying with a friend who lived outside of Portland, I was not able to attend all the main morning or evening sessions. However, I made sure to attend the workshops! Sadly, I could not clone myself in time, so my person was only able to attend one workshop per workshop block:
- “LGBT Conversations In Your Church or Organization” with James Farlow
- “Q&A with Vicky Beeching”
- “The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships” with Matthew Vines
- And a panel discussion with students from Wheaton College and Biola University regarding gay-straight alliances on Christian campuses
Each one of these workshops was incredible. If asked to pick a favorite, I would answer, “all of them.” Each topic was interesting and powerful in its own way and the presenters shared a wealth of insightful information. While Farlow shared three important elements to initiating conversation in Christian churches and organizations, Beeching answered light-hearted and in-depth questions; Vines discussed the six major Bible verses used against same-sex relations, and students shared their personal experiences in working with LGBT students on conservative Christian campuses.
One of the things I did learn at the conference that was helpful and that really stuck with me was the definitions to the positions Christians take regarding same-sex relations. I had never before clearly understood the difference between Side A (abstinence until marriage) and Side B (a life of celibacy), so I was glad to have this clarified and expounded upon in the workshops.
As president of the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay Straight Alliance Coalition (IAGC), a student-led nonprofit organization that works on the campuses of Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities, attending the GCN Conference has been invaluable. IAGC’s role is to start the conversation on gender identities and sexual orientations in relation to faith and spirituality and to create safe spaces for LGBT students and allies. As this subject is too often ignored or misrepresented in society, the IAGC plays an important role in actually starting this conversation and was founded to help make the voices of these marginalized individuals heard – a work that is controversial but crucial.
I joined the IAGC to spread awareness of and find support for LGBT students in religiously conservative communities in hopes that one day these communities will become welcoming and safe environments for all. As the recently elected president, my objective is to create mutual understanding and respect on both sides, in a loving and professional manner. From the workshops I attended at GCN and the information I learned, to the resources I picked up from booths in the exhibition hall and the individuals I met, I am confident the work the IAGC does will continue to move forward.
I believe the GCN Conference plays a crucial role in starting the conversation in Christian denominations, especially among more conservative Christians. It was beautiful to witness how individuals with different denominational backgrounds and the full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations came together, creating a loving and safe environment where all were respected AND heard.
I think the Seventh-day Adventist Church can learn from the GCN Conference – how to bring people together from all walks of life, to listen and to learn, to understand and to respect, and to love and to support each other, as they walk this complicated journey of determining how faith and sexuality coincide. I have hopes that one day the Seventh-day Adventist Church will open the floor for discussion regarding LGBT youth in the Church, because they exist and the only place they will be going is out the Church door if they do not receive the love and support needed.
Although I arrived after the fact, I was told about how Portland residents demonstrated love and support as the Westboro Baptist Church protestors stood at the tram stop to meet conference-goers with messages of disapproval on Sunday morning. Local church members, families, friends, and allies created a wall of signs to counteract the hateful ones, showing their encouragement to conference-goers, making it difficult for protestors to be seen, and singing songs of praise to make it difficult to hear the hurtful words being shouted. And all the while, a rainbow was seen hanging over the convention center.
Attending the GCN Conference has given me hope that one day more Christians will unite and stand as one in love and support for the marginalized and oppressed, for those who are searching for answers, and to welcome them into their church as family. With the work I do, the hardest thing to see is an LGBT youth searching for answers but with nowhere to go because church and society choose to stay silent or misinformed on the topic.
On Sunday morning, before the final keynote presentation, the conference choir performed on a stage lit up in the colors of the pride flag, followed by a mix of denominations holding communion together each in their unique way, and I saw this year’s conference theme truly reflect “Together at the Table.”
Photo Credit: Vicky Beeching. A rainbow hangs over the GCN convention center as protestors and supporters converge outside.
Jefferson Clark keeps himself busy as a full-time student at Southern Adventist University, where he will complete a double major in public relations and international studies in May. His interests include traveling, photography, and cheese. Working with student groups is also a passion – Jefferson is currently president of the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC), a student-led nonprofit organization that works to start conversations on Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities in North America concerning the collide of faith and sexual and gender identity, and to create student groups on these campuses where LGBT students and allies can come together and educate, learn, and support each other in loving and safe environments. To find out more about IAGC, please visit www.IAGCAdventist.com or www.Facebook.com/IAGCAdventist.