At the end of July, in a barely air-conditioned Presbyterian church in St. Louis, Missouri, beneath soaring stained glass windows, a crowd of mostly non-straight people—some four hundred strong—gathered for the first annual Revoice conference, an event aiming to help LGBTQ+ Christians thrive in their churches and families. Appearance-wise, many of the attendees wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Boystown or Brighton. Rainbow bracelets and body piercings abounded (one friend of mine sported rainbow-colored shoelaces to match the rainbow Ichthus pendant on his lapel). Meanwhile, other non-straight attendees, some of them still closeted, admitted that Revoice was more or less their first time to be around other LGBT people. Unfamiliar with queer culture, they were cautious and curious, looking for some insight into how to persevere in homes and churches where their reception was uncertain.
But unlike its more progressive counterparts—from Q Christian Fellowship to The Reformation Project to any number of mainline Protestant activist organizations, such as More Light (PCUSA) or Integrity USA (TEC)—the Revoice conference billed itself as an effort to fortify “LGBT people who adhere to the historic, Christian sexual ethic.” All of the keynote speakers and workshop leaders professed their adherence to the Scriptural teaching that sexual intimacy belongs within male-and-female marriage, despite the pain this adherence inevitably entails for them. (I say this as one of the conference speakers myself.) Still, attendees sang their hearts out to hymns and choruses, wiping away tears while belting out the lines, “It is well with my soul!” Hugs were plentiful, and post-session dinners lasted long into the night. As one attendee put it, the Revoice conference was “the family reunion I never knew I needed.”
From almost any vantage point, the fact that Revoice happened at all seems wildly improbable. In a post-Obergefell America, for hundreds of LGBTQ Christians to gather for three days to encourage each other to remain faithful to historic Christian teaching on sex and marriage could easily be read as self-hating, not to mention oppressive. How could something this counter-cultural have gained so much momentum? From the conservative side, it became popular in the weeks leading up to the conference to denounce it as a dangerous moral compromise—“an attempt,” as Albert Mohler declared, “to build a half-way house between LGBTQ+ culture and evangelical Christianity.” Too queer for some traditional Christian critics and too ascetic for more socially progressive LGBTQ people, Revoice seemed like an anomaly to almost everyone.
The Revoice conference will probably remain resistant to explanation, as author Karen Keen recently noted, unless we bear in mind its historical background. Since the early 1970s and the birth of the so-called “ex-gay” movement, Christians holding to Revoice’s understanding of the moral status of gay sex have overwhelmingly preferred to advocate a clean break with all things gay. According to the “ex-gay” paradigm, far from being a biological or ontological identity, homosexuality is a condition. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and one of the people most responsible for transforming ex-gay experiences and testimonies into weapons in the culture war, wrote in 2002 that there “is no such thing as a gay child or a gay teen. … [Boys with a poor relationship to their fathers] have a seventy-five percent chance of becoming homosexual or bisexual.” Being gay was, in other words, a developmental disorder—and, for that reason, treatable.
I still recall, some time in the months leading up to my own admission that I was gay, listening to Mike Haley, an “ex-gay” speaker who then worked for Dobson’s organization, give a talk in a chapel service at Wheaton College about his conversion to Christianity. On the screen behind him were photos of his blonde, bronzed younger self from when he worked as a prostitute, emblems of his years of wandering in what he termed the “homosexual lifestyle.” Exodus International, at the time the world’s largest ex-gay organization, had described Haley this way in its promotion of his ministry: “Mike Haley was once addicted to homosexuality. Today he is a fulfilled husband and father.” When Haley concluded his talk by projecting a photo of him and his wife with their two sons, he received a standing ovation.
I was never involved with ex-gay ministries myself, but I do remember asking my evangelical professors and pastors whether the outcome Haley spoke about was possible for me. I received equivocal replies. Perhaps my friends and mentors could sense my doubts about the plausibility of any clear-cut answer. On the one hand, I was frightened by the prospect of remaining single and hoped there was a way of avoiding that fate. On a Christian college campus where students joked about getting a “ring by spring,” looking ahead to adulthood without a spouse felt like peering into a long, dim corridor of loneliness. On the other hand, I knew the character of my same-sex desire: It had been inchoately there in my elementary school crushes, it had undergone no fluctuation during the storm of puberty, and now, in my early twenties, it seemed as exclusive and persistent as ever. In light of those givens, I was skeptical of the effectiveness of any therapeutic interventions.
Imagine being asked, “Have you tried this?”—where “this” always refers, by turns, to another book, another conference, another treatment center, another prayer ministry, another charismatic experience, or another counseling technique—each time you shared a story of pain and confusion with your fellow believers. Imagine that, and you will have an idea of what it felt like over the last several decades to be open about one’s homosexuality in traditional churches. Along with many other Christians who chose to acknowledge their same-sex desires in conservative Christian circles from the 1970s onward, I did try many of the suggestions my friends gave me. I saw counselors and received prayer. I read books with diagnoses of my “homosexual neurosis,” as one called it, and struggled mightily to shoehorn my childhood development into their framework, in the hope that some new level of healing might be opened up to me. Being gay in traditional churches, up until very recently, meant always having to ask whether one had prayed enough, hoped enough, hungered enough for one’s own photo with a spouse and children to project on a screen to thunderous applause.
At a time in my life when I wondered whether it would signal defeat if I said simply, “I’m gay, and I don’t expect that to change, and I want to be celibate,” an older single friend of mine wrote a letter to me—one that I now look back on as a turning point in my thinking, illuminating an unexplored possibility:
Perhaps the real question is not how to make unfulfilled desires go away, but rather, what they teach us about the nature of our lives, what is ultimately important. … This, I suspect, is much akin to Paul’s own discussion of the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul prayed but it did not go away. God allowed it to remain in his life that he might know the surpassing greatness of God’s grace in ALL circumstances. Likewise, unfulfilled desires point us to the only eternal source of satisfaction—God himself. … [T]hey help us identify with the true nature of the human condition of all those around us who are suffering [things] over which they have no control. It is an immediate bridge for ministry to our fellow human beings.
Reading those words was a revelation. In their wake, I began to ponder questions I hadn’t known I was allowed ask: Might there be some divine design, some strange providence, in my homosexuality? Might my sexual orientation be something God does not want to remove, knowing that its challenge keeps pulling me back towards Him in prayer? Might it even be something through which more empathy and compassion for fellow sufferers are birthed?
Asking these questions let me abandon my fevered search for some cure for my gayness and prompted me to look instead for what C. S. Lewis once called the “certain kinds of sympathy and understanding, [the] certain social role” of which only those who aren’t straight might be capable. Homosexuality, I continued to believe, is sinful insofar as it represents a thirst for acts that Scripture forbids, but I came to see that it is at the same time—like St. Paul’s thorn—an occasion for grace to become manifest.
Exploring that grace was the point of the Revoice conference. It was the first theologically conservative event I’ve attended in which I felt no shame in owning up to my sexual orientation and no hesitation in declaring my sexual abstinence. At Revoice there was no pressure to obfuscate the probable fixity and exclusivity of my homosexuality through clunky euphemisms. Nor was there any stigma attached to celibacy, as though my embracing it were simply, as the ex-gay leader Andy Comiskey once wrote, “a concession to same-sex attraction.” There was, instead, a kind of joyful and creative moving on. “Yes, we’re gay, and yes, we’re committed to historic Christian belief and practice,” everyone seemed to be saying. “But that’s just the boring preamble. What we really want to talk about is where we go from here.”
In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?
It’s no wonder the hymn-singing at the conference was so alive.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.