Relevant truth telling with a queer twist


Layton WilliamsIt’s time tor the body of Christ to come out
Why the inclusion of LGBTQ people is not enough

by Layton E. Williams

I had tucked one leg awkwardly under me as I shifted in my kitchen chair. Across from me, my friend John was sipping his coffee and beyond us, through my window, seminary life was playing out. Nervously, I gave voice to my thoughts.

“You know, I totally support my queer[1] friends. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with it. But when I think about accepting that it’s true for myself, it’s different. It’s not okay.”

That was the day John taught me about internalized homophobia and queerphobia, and I realized that the hardest person to come out to was myself. It was one thing to accept queerness as a reality in general, but a different challenge entirely to accept that it was a part of my own identity. What was easy to embrace in others I loved still felt terrifying for my own life.

Around the time that this blog post will go live, a revised edition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order will go into effect, reflecting our denominational shift to a more inclusive understanding of marriage as being “between two people.” The change comes four years after the Book of Order was amended to allow for the ordination of queer people to ministry. Both changes have come as the result of decades-long advocacy efforts within the church. We’ve even made national headlines.

With such a positive upturn in LGBTQ inclusion in the PC(USA), the question I keep hearing people ask is, “Now that equality has been achieved, what’s next?”

Though I appreciate the spirit in which this question is often posed, I admit that I groan a little when it’s asked. As a bisexual female pastor, I know that inclusive stances on ordination and marriage have hardly sealed the deal for queer equality in the church (let alone gender and racial equality).

When people ask, “What’s next?” I’m overwhelmed by how much more there is still to be done. I believe the hardest work for the PC(USA) and the church universal still lies ahead. What God calls for isn’t inclusion of queer people. It’s justice. And for that, the church—the body of Christ in the world—must name and embrace its own queerness.

Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. “Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,” the thinking goes, “but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.” Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning; the body of Christ was born this way.

‘What God calls for isn’t inclusion of queer people. It’s justice. And for that, the church—the body of Christ in the world—must name and embrace its own queerness.’

The work of the church is not merely to accept those of us who are transgender, asexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, and intersex. The work of the church is to accept and celebrate that the church—the body—is itself queer. The body of Christ is queer because it isn’t defined or bound by human constructs or binaries. It transcends and subverts norms and boundaries. It contains multitudes. But the body is also queer simply because its queer members are a vital component of its identity. When I was dating a cisgender (i.e., identifying with the gender assigned at birth), heterosexual man last fall, we were in a queer relationship. My queer identity made the relationship itself queer, even though he was straight. The body of Christ is queer in this same way because it contains queer identities. 

It is time for the church to sit down nervously at its own Table and confront its internalized queerphobia. It is time for the body of Christ to come out. Some of us who have come out ourselves are happy to be the friend that talks the church through it.

Coming out is not easy. It is not just about moving forward in celebration and inclusion. It is about accepting that in some ways you are just now becoming acquainted with who you really are. It means recognizing you have missed opportunities for relationship, happiness, and growth. It means grieving the years lost to fear and the heartbreak of relationships with loved ones who cannot understand. It means holding with grace the wounds you will always carry.

Coming out also means relearning your own story and listening to the voices within you that you’ve long ignored. Since the body of Christ is made of many bodies—the nuances and intersections of experienced oppression within it are multitudinous. We are queer and have disabilities. We are trans and people of color. We are bisexual or asexual or genderqueer and face discrimination even in our own queer communities.

The work of truly recognizing and then addressing these layered realities will take longer than any of us is comfortable with. Though they are a good start, it will take much more than a marriage license or an ordination service. But it is the only path toward justice. It is the only path toward becoming whom God has made us.

Coming out means welcoming the utter transformation of your life—not into something new but finally into whom you were created to be.  This is the work the church must do.

The good news about coming out is that you finally get to recognize that this part of you that has been a fearful struggle and a divisive issue is actually a beautiful way that God is shining through you. In the hard work that lies ahead for the church, Christ is with us. Indeed, we are—all of us—his body. The hope we find in him tells us that LGBTQ pride should one day be a celebration for the whole body of Christ. Not just because the church has included those of us who are queer, but because the church has finally recognized that it is us. Down to its kneecaps and its toenails and deep in its beating heart.

Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.

[1] Queer is a word with a painful history for many people and it must be held carefully. However, many LGBTQ folks, like myself, use the word now both to reclaim it from its derogatory use against us and because it is inclusive of those whose identities are not clearly defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.