Written by William A. Campbell
(Hello readers! Warning: This is a fairly long post, so I broke it into three sections if that is helpful: Intro, Story, Reflection.)
Much of the talk post-Trump election has been around seeking common ground and understanding with those on opposite sides of the political divide. Coming together in “peace and unity” can only happen though at a table where human dignity is respected. The difficulty right now is that certain communities, particularly religious minorities, immigrants, people of color, women and LGBTQ+ individuals are experiencing more vulnerability because of rhetoric, proposed policy, and cabinet appointments of the new administration. Perhaps naively, people are asking folks who have historically not been afforded human dignity to “come to the table” as if everyone is on the same equal ground.
Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) another event happened just prior to this election that touched on this issue as well. Some of you might have been aware of recent events surrounding a national evangelical Christian campus ministry, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). After lengthy discussions, the organization made the decision to ask all staff, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, to affirm theological statements that (among a few things) stated that same sex marriage was not in God’s design for human sexuality. What ensued was quite the storm – articles, op eds, open letters, surveys and even a change.org petition from students and alumni that gathered over 1000 signatures.
Why am I talking about this? Well, because I worked for IVCF from 2005-2010. Prior to that, I was a student leader with them for three years in college. I will not retell my entire experience here (I share some of this in my Queer in the Country series here), but much of my faith identity and journey as a gay Christian has been wrapped up with IVCF.
Now to the uninitiated or more progressive (or even practical) readers, this decision of IVCF might not seem particularly radical. In fact, you might think it makes sense for an evangelical Christian ministry to hold such a view. What made this act so provocative was the fact that IVCF has historically not been an organization that requires agreement on theological issues that are divisive or have precedent for a diversity of beliefs in different denominations. On issues such as women in leadership, abortion, baptism, and even communion, IVCF does not require one belief or the other of staff. Though IVCF has historically affirmed egalitarian leadership between men and women, it does not ask staff who believe only men should be in pastoral leadership to leave the organization. Now, we can get into a long theological conversation about why some may believe the topic of human sexuality is different, but that’s not the point of this post. I only wanted to bring some people up to speed on the conversation up to this point.
Though these two events of the election and IVCF’s decision seem unrelated, they happened so close to each other I cannot reflect on one without the other. Perhaps because the common question for me has been about my dignity.
In the weeks leading up to the larger public outcry around IVCF’s decision, I had heard through the grapevine that something was coming. However, I wasn’t prepared for what would happen to me the moment a friend pinged me about this article.
As I read it, I was shocked by how strong of a reaction I had. I was alone in my house while my spouse was still at work. Reading the decision and the ensuing ramifications for many staff and students, my old companion, rage, came back. I found myself silently screaming without much awareness of why. Though many joke about trigger warnings these days, the truth is that some things really do trigger trauma. In particular, what I saw in that article was what happened to me six years ago.
Six years ago IVCF asked me to quit because I had come to the conclusion that I deserved my own happy life with another man.
When I talk to people who knew me at the time, they seem shocked by this admission. People thought that I quit of my own volition. I did not. I was forced. And suddenly. Hearing this from other people just confirms the feeling that my story had been erased.
So I have decided to tell the story. Not because I want to heap more critique on IVCF. Critique is important, and I hope that the leaders and funders of IVCF make themselves vulnerable enough to engage critique. IVCF has every right to make the decisions they make, and I stand by their freedom to do so.
Why tell this story now though? I was tempted to share this when the news immediately broke, but I was too much in the throws of emotional reaction. It would not have been productive for anyone, myself included.
I’m telling this story now because of the election. Moving into a time when more and more people are entering positions of power that might not respect peoples’ rights, I am attempting to figure out how to engage those on the opposite lines from me. I do not want to disengage, nor do I want to look the other way, but this engagement also cannot be at the expense of my own safety or dignity.
To get the best sense of this story, imagine we’re starting at season two of a TV show. To recap – the previous season was the story of me coming to terms with my sexuality. I had spent years struggling to reconcile my faith with my sexual orientation, due in part to the teachings I had gained while being involved with IVCF. It was in IVCF that I had heard my first speaker on ex-gay theology, a belief that you can change your sexual orientation or at least deny your same sex urges. I found all of the books I would later read on how to overcome my homosexuality published by InterVarsity Press and then it was through IV staff that I was encouraged to seek out a therapist who could help me through this process. (Yes, all of this is true. No exaggeration or fabrication). But after years of feeling like I was put on a pedestal as the champion who struggled righteously with his same sex attraction, I came to the realization that a theology that was leading me to depression, despair, and potentially death was not a theology from the life-giving God. Jesus once said that you will know a tree by its fruit. The fruit of this theological tree was disgusting, and I didn’t want to eat from it anymore.
Now we’re ready for the story to begin. It’s October 2010. It had all started when I reached out to a staff director at the time who was heading up a new LGBTQ taskforce for the organization to clarify its position. After some previous conversations, he had asked if I’d be willing to share more of my story with him. He felt like it was important for him to hear from actual LGBTQ people to inform the work of the taskforce. This invitation felt genuine to me, and though I was nervous, I was happy that my journey could be of help for other people struggling to reconcile their faith and their sexuality.
I can’t remember any of the actual phone conversation, but luckily, gmail keeps our email records. I shared with him my process – where I started and how my interpretation of the Bible had changed. In the course of the conversation, I had also talked about how I was possibly shifting my theological position on same sex marriage. I had said I would respect IVCF’s position while I worked for them, but that I no longer believed there was anything wrong with same sex marriage.
For those readers who might not be familiar with the nuances of these kinds of conversations, it is common for people to hold a stance that says a “gay identity” is acceptable but that same sex behavior or even same sex marriage is not actually in God’s desire for human sexuality. Some believe this is a legitimate theological position while others believe this is essentially a riff on “hate the sin but not the sinner.” Regardless, many who end up fully reconciling their sexuality and faith go through a phase where celibacy or singleness is a step on the journey to full acceptance.
It is also important to name that this entire process of acceptance for me was wrapped up in my employment. Where many people have the luxury to engage these questions in intellectual freedom, I knew that wherever I went with my beliefs, it might have employment ramifications. It is not an understatement to say that the slowness of acceptance of my sexuality was tied to these implications.
What I quickly found out was that even though I had been invited to share my story, there had been a secret set of words that I wasn’t ever supposed to say. Like a twisted game of Taboo, I stumbled my way onto those secret words when I said I was open to same sex marriage. I received an email saying that because of this, the taskforce leader needed to meet with me. I asked back in email if this had job ramifications, and he said that unfortunately, bringing up same sex marriage moved me “out of the green” in my conversation. No one had ever told me that naming that belief in same sex marriage was apparently a fireable offense in the eyes of the organization.
He would be in town and wanted to meet for breakfast in four days time. But I could pick the restaurant. Lucky me. Why not Panera? At least I’d get free refills on my coffee.
It’s odd to look back at yourself through email. I had been in grad school, and this email conversation had happened on a library computer. When I realized that this was going to be a job security conversation, I felt like everyone in the library could see me.
I thought back to whether or not I should have told my story – not just to this particular taskforce leader, but all the way back with other colleagues in the organization. I was forced to second guess my journey, and the profound changes happening in my identity and beliefs at the time. I knew telling my story was right, yet within days I was going to be unemployed – and there was nothing I could now do about it.
I had leapt, and there was no net to catch me.
So on October 19th, 2010, I exchanged awkward pleasantries at Panera with this taskforce leader and my supervisor.
We talked about this theological sticking point, and that this was the end of my time with the organization. He said I didn’t need to make a fuss and in fact, we could take care of it right then and there.
I asked how we this would all work – was there paperwork to fill out?
They said it was simple. Just write out somewhere, “I resign” and sign it. I can’t remember if it was a napkin or just a piece of scrap paper, but they slid something over, and I did as they asked.
That was it. No fight. No yelling.
They were free from me, and I was free from them.
To this day, I don’t know if I was manipulated or played a bit for a fool. Part of me feels so stupid that I didn’t make a bigger deal of it. Perhaps because they were so nice about it then I was nice about it. Many marginalized folks are pushed to think they should just be nice about everything or else they’ll be labeled “the angry person”.
But the other part of me knew then as I know now – that organization was my cage. This was my chance to be free. The problem was just that it wasn’t on terms that allowed me to be financially supported. My price for freedom was unemployment, credit card debt, and the loss of community.
In the years since then I’ve refrained from actively “telling my story” on this topic for many reasons:
- Some times because I still hear that voice in the back of my head, “But what’s going to happen to me this time?” A part of me is still caught in that old world where talking about my sexual orientation meant that some one had control over me. This is just one part of the long tail of the internalized shame that homophobia and non-affirming theology causes. I still worry that I’m going to some how get in trouble for this or that if I make waves or rock the boat, I’m doing damage to “peace and unity”. There is no “peace and unity” when there is no dignity.
- Some times because I have no desire to lash out at IVCF or those individuals who did this. For everything that happened, IVCF is still the place where I learned so much about my own faith, social justice, and what it meant to be an active citizen in the world.
- Some times because I am just so tired. It might be difficult for some of you to understand this, but it is so exhausting to have to engage in these conversations. I determined long ago that my life matters, and it does not help me live a healthy and resilient life if I’m engaging in debate over what the Bible says about human sexuality.
- Some times because I’m scared of my own anger and sadness. I am someone who prefers to see the best in people, and I know that the individuals who believe what they do in IVCF about same-sex relations and marriage are those I respect on a many number of other issues. But when I sit and actually reflect on what happened to me… when I allow myself to see events through a lens of self-respect, then even I’m shocked at what happened. Speaking directly to you who might be reading this who was a former colleague – there have been years where I couldn’t respond to emails because I was so angry. Not only that, but I was completely alone. In the following months, people stopped talking to me and then started saying it was because I was awkward with them. Well of course I was going to be awkward with you. Not only was I just forced to quit but you still worked for an organization that affirmed the act of removing me. In that time, I needed people who I could trust, and you were not people I could trust. When people did reach out to me, it was only to talk about my theology and have a “gentle” but not inconspicuous debate with me on what the Bible actually says. You wanted to treat me like an equal with you in this conversation but you failed to recognize that we were not equals. You had all the power. I had none. I spoke up, and I got put in my place.
I’ve tried to understand my complex feelings about these events for years, and I couldn’t have named it then. I was recently at a wedding, though, of a former IVCF student who had also come out as gay and was getting married to someone of the same gender as him. In his vows he talked about how the other helped remind him that his dignity was important. That’s when I realized that what had happened to me was about so much more than just theology, power, and orthodoxy.
I had been humiliated.
This is why I am choosing to tell this story now. It is not about IVCF, it is not about what is right, it is not about critique – it is about my dignity and the dignity of those going through this now. In a post-Trump world where we are going to have to find new rules of cooperation and engagement, one of those has to be at the common table of dignity. And I am the only one who gets to say when I feel like my dignity is honored.
It is in the retelling of this story and finding a new narrative that I reclaim my dignity. When I stop and look at all that has happened, I see how far I have come. After being dropped in the cold while being a poor grad student living off of loans, I climbed my way up tooth and nail. I found a front desk job at my church where I could get enough money to pay for groceries and rent. Then I nabbed a job at an LGBTQ+ organization in Chicago that at first seemed like a dream job. Unfortunately, that organization was unhealthier than most, but I found some of my closest friends for life. In my time there, I saw the distance between faith communities and queer communities and new that as always, my place was in the “in between.” Just like a child of parents from two different beliefs – an evangelical Christian father and an agnostic/atheist mother – I was never comfortable in just one place. This realization turned me on to Interfaith Youth Core where in a long shot application I got a job I was never expecting. Then slowly, year after year at IFYC, I carved a new path, one where I was able to tell my own stories, take back my power, and use all aspects of my identity – gay, Christian, and many more – to teach people how to affect change in the world. With all sides of my identity and beliefs affirmed, I found healing and the ability to finally recognize my mission in life – I am here to help people become their best selves. I was only able to get to this place, though, through community and the support of family, friends, and coworkers. This is not a Horatio Alger story where I just picked myself up by my bootstraps. But it also isn’t one where I don’t look back on myself in pride.
Because I am damn proud of how far I have come.
So that is it. That is my story. I know it was long, and I know it may have been a rambling mess. But for once I don’t care. I did not share this to attack IVCF. I shared this because I needed to in order to take back my story -to gain a stronger sense that I too am powerful; I too have dignity; and I too am deserving of respect.
In my attempt to figure out how to engage others, I use this as a way to carve out my part of the table of dignity.
In closing, I want to say a word to those in IVCF (or recently removed from staff) who are going through some of this right now. The last six years were hard. There were times when I thought that I was too damaged to become a functioning human being again. There were times when I was full of rage, and wanted nothing to do with certain people. There were times I felt so lonely I couldn’t leave the house. Feeling all of that is normal. It’s ok. You matter. You deserve to be free, to be healthy, to choose your own beliefs, and to be in it for the long haul. It may seem scary and yes, it will feel like you have no net. But be a net for each other. Remember that in the pursuit of justice, community is life. We find power and resourcefulness in each other. Do not stake your identity and your life right now in the fight. Take the time you need to walk away. In whatever way you need, go find a way to be resilient.