While I was working as a manager at a movie theater, I asked the new manager, Tim, if he had a girlfriend. I did not ask him in the privacy of the manager’s office, I asked him in front of a handful of employees as we were closing the theater for the night. I only asked him because I had a girlfriend and we were in the middle of a fight – I was looking for advice and I was trying to connect with Tim.
He said that he did in fact have a girlfriend but asked if we could talk about it later since he was busy working. I tried to hide how much I’d embarrassed myself but one can only wait for the blood to drain from the face once it has flowed to the cheeks. Tim was cool and just kept training an employee on the proper cleaning of the popcorn machine.
A few days later Tim asked to talk with me in the office. Our general manager was there and I could tell she had been included purposefully. Tim explained that he did not have a girlfriend, that he’d lied when I asked him publicly if he did. He laughed and said he didn’t know why he’d lied, that he’d been out of the closet since middle school, but somehow when I asked such an unexpected question he found himself lying.
I felt terrible. I apologized for putting him on the spot, for asking such a private question so publicly, and for being so presumptuous with someone I had only just met. Tim was gracious and generous in his forgiveness and I left that meeting with a genuine appreciation for how kind he had been to me. Before I left the office, he mentioned that he knew I was a youth pastor and extended an invitation to discuss or debate with him the finer points of homosexuality in the Bible.
I was 19 years old and deeply entrenched in a fundamentalist evangelical church that taught that “homosexuals and lesbians” (as though people could be identified solely by their sexual orientation) were out to “destroy America with their gay agenda!” This is no exaggeration. This position may not have been held by everyone in our congregation but it was certainly the consensus of the majority.
I had never been convinced of a “gay agenda.” Back then I did believe that homosexuality was sinful, but I also knew that I was sinful. Surely, same-sex attraction couldn’t be sinful since we can’t willfully be attracted or not-attracted to someone. So I held the belief that sex acts between people who were unmarried was sinful whether homosexual or heterosexual. This allowed me to believe that queer folks could be christians, that they could go to heaven, and that they weren’t out to “destroy the American family;” they were just born with a heavier cross to bear. There are plenty of problems with this theology, but perhaps the most obvious problem is that it damns all queer people to a life without sexuality simply because of the way that they love; the way that they exist in the world.
A couple of weeks later, I was invited into another conversation in the office by the general manager, Jeni. She told me that Tim had begun to worry that I was uncomfortable working with him because of his sexual orientation. He told Jeni that she should cut his hours if I was uncomfortable. He didn’t want me to lose any shifts since I had been there longer.
The truth is, I probably was uncomfortable. The culture I had been raised in demonized people in the LGBTQIA+ Community. I didn’t know how to be around someone who was out. But my respect for Tim’s gesture and the way he treated me far outweighed my prejudice and homophobia. I told Jeni that Tim was a damn good manager and I would be glad to work every shift alongside him. As I left the office I choked back tears. While I had been judgmental, arrogant and homophobic, Tim had been gracious, merciful, and Christ-like.
Tim and I became very close after that. I looked forward to working with him and we spent hours laughing together, talking, and learning about each other’s lives. By the time I left that job I knew Tim. I knew about the ins and outs of his love life, the ups and downs with his family, and his plans for the future. He knew my girlfriend (who later became my wife), my struggles with the exclusivity of the church I belonged to, and my ever present financial woes. I never did accept his offer to “debate” the Biblical texts about homosexuality. Instead, I got to know Tim and I learned about God.
The last time I saw Tim he was dropping a deposit off at the bank I was working at. He was managing somewhere else and, I’m sure, doing an amazing job. He really was a gifted and natural leader. He was worried about his car that day because a light had come on informing him that he had a tire that needed air. He was clueless about how to fix it so I tried to explain what he should do.
“Can’t you just fix it for me?” he asked.
“Of course.” I said.
We drove to a nearby gas station and I inflated his tires to the proper pressure. He didn’t get out of the car to pretend he wanted to learn and I found that delightfully charming.
When he dropped me back off at work he parked his car, got out, and hugged me goodbye. As he drove off I smiled and I reflected on the course of our friendship. We had come a long way since we first met. I said a small prayer for him. I prayed that God would keep him wherever he goes. That God would help him find love that was fulfilling and that God’s love would protect Tim and preserve his beautiful heart.
It was then that I realized I loved Tim. I loved him just exactly the way he was. When I prayed that he’d find love, I did not mean with a woman. I envisioned a man who could love Tim the way Tim wanted to be loved romantically. When I prayed that God would preserve Tim and keep him, I did not want God to fundamentally change him into someone who was heterosexual and then preserve that imaginary version of Tim. I wanted God to preserve Tim exactly as he was; as a gay man and a wonderful friend to me.
This realization was a seed that, over time, grew into a revelation for me. If I loved Tim just as he was, then God must love Tim even more perfectly. God, after all, is Love. And Tim is queer. Imagining Tim as numerically identical to himself without his queerness is the same as imagining me as numerically identical to myself without my relationship with my wife. I would be fundamentally different absent that relationship. In fact, I find that trying to define myself without naming the people I love is impossible! Go ahead and try it. Try to explain who you are without naming your partner, your children, your parents, your friends, your chosen family, or your loved ones. I’d wager that you cannot do it.
Love is who God is – how could it be any different for us? And if God is Love, how could he despise the Love in us? That would be a self-loathing God.
This week, the third largest christian organization, the United Methodist Church, voted to officially exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ Community from their fold. In doing so, they rejected the very essence of so many of their members, their clergy, and queer folks everywhere. They called into question the morality of our siblings existence by assaulting their Love.
In response, I want to say publicly that Tim and countless other queer people have enriched my understanding of God through their work, their presence in my life, their love, and their most courageous existence. I will never eat at a Table where they are not welcome.
To my LGBTQIA+ siblings, and especially those in the UMC, I love you. I need you. I am not me without you being you. Thank you for enriching the world I am so honored to live in. I’m with you, wherever you go.