Ministry Leader and Closeted Ally: How I Stopped Worrying About My Own Reputation and Became an LGBTQ Advocate

I have met many non-LGBTQ individuals whose experiences and understanding of theology have made them "affirming" of same-sex relationships in the Church. However, the percentage of individuals that have publicly stepped out in this way is astoundingly low. Many, afraid of being ostracized from their community OR afraid of losing their job as pastors/leaders have chosen to remain silent about their views on this matter. I'm not sure I can blame them for their silence; however, I can say that those who support us outwardly are change makers. Jessica is one of the few people I know who has had the tremendous courage to step out in confidence for what she believes about sexuality. Today, I am immensely honored to get to share her story.

I’m really good at talking. I’m equally comfortable with strangers and with familiar faces, whispering and projecting, discussing weather and discussing grief. (Actually, I’m more comfortable with the latter – small talk drains me).

Which is why it’s so odd that I didn’t talk for a long time when it came to something about which I cared intensely. Neuroses and dysfunctional childhood patterns aside, I had no legitimate reason not to speak out about my support for the LGBTQ community.

The term “legitimate” is key here because I had a reason - or more of an excuse: I was scared. I was a ministry leader and well respected for the integrity with which I lived my faith, and I was scared people would disagree with me, challenge me, distance themselves from me. I was scared my ministries would lose support and future opportunities would disappear. I was scared my hard-earned integrity and long-cultivated relationship with Jesus would be questioned and my credentials as a Christian would be rescinded by some shadowy board of straight cisgender theocrats.

I didn’t say my excuse was entirely reality-based.

For a long time, I hid behind my lack of knowledge. I had a gut feeling that the way the Bible was used against “that lifestyle” and the people associated with it was incorrect. As a misfit possessing the intimidating personality blend of smart/quirky/macabre/artsy, I existed on the margins and made my friendships there; thus, I knew the caricatures painted in Christian media and by church leaders were inaccurate. Plus, my understanding of God didn’t jive with the way those who said they represented God were addressing this area. Their approach was lacking love and grace, and it had the sour stench of superiority. However, I didn’t think I knew enough to have the confidence to say anything. And I was afraid that, if I were to try to learn something about it, I’d discover my Creator wasn’t whom I’d thought. I feared that Divine grace had limits and love had loopholes.

This didn’t stop me from researching outside of my faith. Being an art college counselor as well as a documented expert on unicorns, I was fully at ease supporting and learning about the queer community in society. The problem was I was skittish about bringing it inside church walls. So I became a closet ally, doing the work, loving my LGBTQ friends, clients, readers, and neighbors, participating in their lives, but not saying much about it.

Eventually, ignorance became too heavy. I don’t recall the exact moment that I realized I could no longer choose willful avoidance - it was more of an accumulation of interactions and information that avalanched on top of me. When I finally came up for air, I grabbed a copy of Andrew Marin’s Love Is an Orientation and sent an email to my pastor challenging him on a recent message he had done about the “sin” of practicing homosexuality. It was the first step I’d ever taken toward resolving my cognitive dissonance, and it felt simultaneously awesome and terrifying.

I feared that Divine grace had limits and love had loopholes.

My husband and I left that church a few months later, with mounting confidence that God was indeed congruent and consistent in love and that we needed a faith community where we could learn more about that. I studied scripture, had awkward conversations, and devoured stacks of books and articles on biblical support for same-sex marriage and trans* rights. This was a side of the Divine I had never encountered, free of human restrictions and definitions, providing opportunities to grow and love in ways I could not otherwise. I was convinced that I had so much to learn from queer Jesus followers, and I was ashamed I had missed many years of that curriculum by hiding out in fear-based silence.

I continued to fly below the radar, but my passion for this community was becoming too enflamed to stay there much longer. Every time I heard a Christian friend decry the proliferation of LGBTQ characters in entertainment, I gritted my teeth. Each time a religious authority made a statement about the “gay agenda”, I seethed. My eyes were eventually rolling so frequently that I looked like one of my kids’ googly-eyed craft projects, but with a grimace.

My original solution had been to play bridge-builder, to be a neutral party who brought the two sides together in a space of education and compassion without sharing my own opinion. It may sound noble, but it was a cop-out: I didn’t want to have to disclose my perspective. I didn’t want to polarize people. I didn’t want to risk anything real.

And then I did.

Like so many others, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016 changed everything for me. I was jolted into the awareness that I had the option of staying in the closet about being an ally without it ever deeply affecting me, but those who were targeted by the shooter did not enjoy that luxury. If they stayed in the closet, it was cutting off parts of themselves - denying their sexuality, a key component of their identity, and eclipsing the chance of deep relationships, integrated wholeness, and congruence in this life. The risks associated with my status disclosure were so much less than theirs. Mine could lead to ostracism, loss of status, distancing of friends, but theirs could lead to loss of life, whether by a domestic terrorist’s weapon or by the slow death of lies and meaninglessness. My decision to stay silent was the decision to be a coward, and it was abysmally disrespectful to those I esteemed so highly for their courage.

But it wasn’t just that. I mean, that was big, but this was equally big, if not eternally bigger. By staying silent, I was allowing them to be spiritually abused. Because when it comes to Christian culture - at least in its current iteration - the default setting on this conversation is anti-. I thought keeping my mouth shut indicated I wasn’t participating in the conversation, when in actuality I was inadvertently giving permission to those claiming the same faith as me to speak on my behalf. If I didn’t protest against their statements, it would appear I didn’t feel the need to. Staying silent was being complicit in these attacks.

So I outed myself. Shortly after Coming Out Day on October 11, I publicly stated on social media that I was an LGBTQ ally, and that this was informed by my faith, not an exception to it. I continued this conversation in personal interactions and pursued routes to better inform myself so I could impart knowledge to others who may be interested. I informed those with whom I was in ministry where I personally stood, and I accepted more than one resignation.

We left another church after discovering it had approved a membership bylaw while we were attending that affirmed heterosexual marriage and denounced anything else. Although we had engaged the staff in conversations on becoming more inclusive, in hopes the church might move toward an affirming stance, they stated they were eager to welcome their gay neighbors but would not reconsider this bylaw. With pained hearts, we concluded this was no longer a safe place to invite queer friends since they were, in essence, being singled out by the church’s official and published position due to who wore their matching wedding band. And because it wasn’t safe for them, it wasn’t right for us.

Our actions didn’t make sense to a lot of people. In my personal life and in ministry, I was questioned, misrepresented, rejected, and subject to character assassination.

And you know what? It was amazing.

Because every piece of it was worth it. It hurt, yes, and it forced me out of my comfort zone into a bizarre liminal space where everything I believed was refined, metamorphosed, or gutted. My friendships and culture and faith were included in this triage and transfiguration, as were my activities and leadership roles, which went on to attract whole new demographics with entirely different dynamics. And it was amazing.

I stopped caring about those blasted Christian credentials and relaxed into the non-label “Child of God”. This allowed me to offer others grace because I was basking in it, not worrying so much about morality-policing them, but instead using our time together to learn new ways of embrace. And it was amazing.

Don’t misunderstand me: Remaining a silent advocate was a valid option for a season. I had to take time to study enough so I could come to a place where I was convinced about my footing, not wavering in a way that might leave those I was trying to create space for feeling abandoned. There are a lot of wounded members of minority communities who received some of their deepest gashes from overly-ambitious, under-informed, or inconsistent allies.

But staying in such an innocuous role was not a long-term solution. I needed to unequivocally state my position and support so the queer community and the Christian community and the world at large would see one more person who passionately loved Jesus and those identifying as LGBTQ. Too much damage had been done, and it was time for those of us who recognized it to start making reparations.

I read a piece recently about how allies need to not talk so much. I chuckled to myself because that was the opposite of my problem. Still, I got the point: Those of us who identify as straight and cisgender can easily command the spotlight, but we mustn’t. We can bring it to ourselves to start the conversation from it, but our role is to then step out of it so those to whom we are allies can have that spotlight to represent themselves. We amplify their voices; we must never speak over them.

This is significant to remember as I progress along the spectrum as an advocate, that I not venture too far to the other end of it. However, the reason I’m writing this is not to address the loud ones on that end. I’m writing this because I suspect there are a lot of people who identify as Christian who fall into the trap I was in, that of keeping quiet and being a closeted ally. If that is you, allow me to speak directly to you now.

To The Silent Ally

I get that the fear is real, that the sacrifice is great, and that you don’t have to come out. But your voice is desperately needed. Spiritual abuse is happening, and your LGBTQ neighbors in humanity are receiving a message that they are not welcomed by our Savior - who never said that. They are being kicked out of homes and nudged out of churches, being told that God will love them after they change what they cannot, and hearing that they are loved but only to a point. They are being marginalized and criticized and terrorized by those who hold the keys to church buildings, and we are basically standing by with our hands in our pockets thinking positive thoughts and casting sympathetic glances.

Unless we stand up and use our words, privilege, and faith, they will not hear an equal counterargument. We are the counterargument. We are the representatives of Christ’s arms to the hurting world. You don’t need to be well-versed in the debate on sexuality; you can always read Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian or Justin Lee’s Torn or so many other amazing books out there on this subject when you have some free time. All you need to begin to be an agent of change, Jesus’ love in human form, is to simply say to members of the queer community, “I love you without limits. Now, how can I help?”

The answer may very likely be, “Say something! Stand up for us!”

Coming Out Day just happened this year, but it’s not too late for you to come out as an ally if you’ve been living in secret as one. I urge you as a sister by the Savior to seriously consider making the sacrifice of your comfort for others’ livelihood. It’s a risk well worth taking.

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’
— Matthew 16:25-26 (NRSV)
Jessica Marquis

Jessica S. Marquisis the founder of Milkweed Ministries and the CAST (Coming Alive, Scheming Together) event series, as well as the author of the humorous how-to book Raising Unicorns. She intermittently tweets (@bizette) and blogs about her musings on spirituality at Cottonwood Blessings and unicorn news updates at Unicornomics.