In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed the controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, this legislation seeks to ban public school teachers in Florida from referencing gender identity or sexual orientation. DeSantis condemned such discussions as “inappropriate” for children.
On April 26, celebrated around the world as Lesbian Day of Visibility, I wonder why my own government seeks to make my community invisible. Many children are already looking for information and vocabulary to understand their experiences, even if they are not LGBTQ+ themselves. One teacher in Clearwater mentioned first-graders from families with two moms or two dads. Part of her curriculum involves discussion about students’ families. In an interview with NPR, she asked,
“When I talk about families in my classroom, am I going to be violating this law because the children were having discussions about what their family looks like?”
Currently, nine other states are considering 15 similar proposals.
Showing our support for the community, my church in Bradenton, FL staffed a booth at our county Pride celebration last month. Before attending my first Pride festival before COVID-19, I was hesitant about showing up at all, much less inviting others from where I work at Peace Presbyterian Church to sponsor a vendor booth. Like most Christians, I grew up with a much more negative image of Pride and LGBTQIA+ people than my lived experience would eventually reveal. However, among the arts and crafts vendors, Manatee Pride is also filled with church vendors and leaders from various Christian denominations spreading hope and love. From the main stage, a local pastor even shared a brief message of God’s love to the attendees, who were mostly children and families.
People were so receptive to discussions about faith because they trusted that any church willing to show up at Pride must truly mean what we preach about God’s love. Amid the stories of total rejection from the church, others from mainline denominations told me of their shame in discovering their orientation or gender identity within churches that did not openly condemn LGBTQIA+ people, but also never mentioned them at all. Hearing no one “say gay,” these kids could not readily discern whether or not their faith community would accept them. They understood that there must be something inappropriate or abnormal about themselves when only cisgender, heterosexual experiences were discussed.
After my church’s Director of Children, Youth and Families led a small group at Montreat’s youth conference, she told us how many young people voiced their appreciation when Montreat had its first LGBTQIA+ open house at the 2021 event. When kids can see their experiences or their families reflected in the church, they don’t have to look elsewhere. Many youth in the small group also shared prayers for a generally accepting, welcoming atmosphere for every child at the conference. Regardless of their individual identities, they all benefited from a posture of open hearts and minds. Removing stigma and shame creates a kinder, more compassionate culture.
In Glory to God, Hymn #300 reminds us that when we “guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,” then “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
One of the activities at my church’s booth included acrylic paints available in a variety of colors for anyone to paint their hands and leave their handprint on our tablecloth. When I told attendees that the tablecloth would eventually adorn our Lord’s Table, I received one of two responses. Many kids lit up with recognition at the mention of Communion and expressed their excitement as they selected the colors that most closely represented their place in the family of God. Others asked three words that quickly became my favorite phrase of the day: “What is Communion?”
Although I’m confident that Calvin did not have this in mind when he described the sacraments, a Pride festival generated countless conversations about the visible signs of God’s covenant promises.
Every beautiful handprint on the cloth represents one such discussion. Whether or not each community member consciously remembers the interaction, I hope that some memory of grace remains with them, imprinted like their hands on our cloth. Among the stories of terrible church trauma, I listened to many people bravely describe their strong faith in Christ even when they did not know whether they could actually practice that faith with an affirming church community. One elderly lesbian couple said they had no idea that any churches in this area would welcome their family to worship.
Our church’s chancel furnishings were designed by a PC(USA) minister, the Rev. Dr. Erich Thompson, who also contributed his work to the Montreat Conference Center. This ministering artist and theological woodworker designed our Lord’s Table to open toward the congregation with a dramatic curve. From one point of view, a worshiper might perceive a ship’s hull, the ancient symbol of the church, with twelve ribs for the apostles atop a Trinitarian base. Other congregants see the inviting shape representing outstretched arms. From my orientation, the curved table resembles a rainbow.
As a lesbian Candidate for Ministry of Word and Sacrament, I am visible in my church’s pulpit only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Whether we are gay, lesbian, transgender, non-binary, heterosexual, cisgender, or still wondering how to even label our experiences, the Son of God is reconciling all of us into one beloved family. Sharing the bread and cup each week, the church lives into that reconciliation. Since Acts 8, people have been asking, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Ethiopian eunuch, a Gentile of indeterminate sexual identity, asked a fair question. When we dare to “say gay,” we can answer such questions with good news.