Growing up in the American South, Curt Allison never imagined it was possible to be both openly gay and a good Christian. His Pentecostal community taught him that homosexuality was a sin, incongruent with a life of faith.
By the time he was 27, Allison was living an ideal Christian life as an ordained minister married to a woman. But his attraction to men simply wouldn’t fade away — despite his heartfelt prayers.
“I felt I had to deal with this same-sex attraction so I spoke with some trusted friends about it,” says Allison. “We prayed, and everything was fine until a cute guy walked by.”
When prayer didn’t work, he joined the local chapter of Exodus International, an ex-gay organization that supports people in their pursuit of “freedom from homosexuality.”
“Exodus didn’t work,” says Allison. “They are not these evil hate-filled people. They are very loving, but very wrong. They really think they are doing the right thing. For me, ironically, it helped me come out. It gave me a safe place to talk about this for the first time.”
Although Exodus was designed to rid Allison of his homosexual tendencies, its effect was just the opposite: it was his first opportunity to talk about issues of sexuality and identity out loud.
Within 15 months he realised he wasn’t going to change. “You can talk, study the Bible as much as you want, but the final analysis was that I wasn’t changing.”
He eventually found a church in Oklahoma City that affirmed his identity as a gay Christian. “Their words of love and acceptance were so healing and melted all of that stuff I was brought up with right away,” Allison says.
Still, it took him years to heal.
“It took me four or five years to come and say, ‘I am gay and a Christian.’
Now Allison wants to share the support he found with others trying to reconcile their faith and sexualities. As a part-time minister of urban outreach, he’s been leading the queer discussion group the Word is Out at St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church for the last two years.
“The original goal was to discuss issues unique to us, spiritual needs of the GLBT community,” he explains. “It was also designed to attract GLBT people who were interested in a formation and spiritual life but maybe had bad experiences with church in the past. We wanted them to know this was a place to be who you are.”
While some other church groups assist queers with full inclusion in their faith communities, Allison’s group is geared towards queer people who want to come out as people of faith within the queer community.
“I have friends who were fine being gay, but they weren’t out about going to church,” he says. “It’s a little twist on which closet you’re in. This discussion is going to be more about what’s your experience with that: being out as gay but not being out as a church person.”
“We really want people to know, who have been part of a faith community but burned by organized religion, this is a place where you can maybe reconcile those two things together. Be fully gay and fully a person of faith — be a Christian.”
Other queer church groups fall short of encouraging their members to fully embrace their sexuality.
The Roman Catholic Church hosts a local chapter of Courage, which ministers to gay Catholics who want to live a life in conformity with Roman Catholic teachings on chastity. For gays and lesbians in their movement it means giving up sex with people of the same sex.
Maria Yiu joined the Vancouver chapter of Courage three years ago. “I don’t identify as gay or lesbian,” she explains. “I am a Roman Catholic woman with same-sex attraction. My identity is in the Lord Jesus Christ. He gives me pure love and pure joy.”
Yiu has known from a young age that she was attracted to other women and has had girlfriends in the past but found those relationships unfulfilling. She says she receives all the support, love and affirmation she needs from the church. Despite the fact she is not currently sexually active with women she has no intention of changing her orientation.
Courage International was founded in 1980 and has chapters all over the world. Rev John Pinto, a priest at St John the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Kerrisdale, has led the Vancouver chapter of Courage for a year and a half. They have about five regular members who range in age from 22 to 75, according to Pinto.
“Nobody should undergo same-sex attraction alone,” says Pinto, carefully choosing every word. “When others have that orientation they support one another to live what we call a chaste life according to Roman Catholic teachings.”
He dismisses my suggestion that it’s an ex-gay group, insisting they don’t ‘correct’ gays or turn them straight.
“We don’t work on changing sexual orientation. That might happen in the later stages, but it’s best left for therapists to do. Some of the members who have joined the group said [same-sex attraction] only sometimes comes up. One said he doesn’t have any same-sex attraction anymore.”
Pinto, originally from India, admits he had little knowledge of gay culture before he became Courage’s chaplain.
“The archbishop asked me to and I did it,” he says. “I did personal study because in India it’s not very common to have gay people, at least not in public. Whatever I know about gay issues I learned from a Catholic perspective. I went through it with the religious perspective.”
Allison believes that Courage may serve a legitimate purpose for some people.
“If people need it that’s fine. If they want to have community in the parameters of their faith that’s fine. What I object to is saying that should be for everyone. That was the implication in Exodus: they never affirmed other beliefs, it’s always ‘wrong.'”
Pinto says meeting times for Courage are advertised in Catholic newsletters. But meeting times for Dignity, a gay and lesbian organisation that affirms queer people within the church, are not.
“If a person is struggling, [Courage] may be an appropriate transition point to have a time out to consider the issue, but they do nothing to help people gain a current understanding of gay and lesbian sexuality,” says Kevin Simpson, a member of the Vancouver chapter of Dignity.
“In the end I think they do damage to people who are not strong enough to pursue all the information they could to have an informed conscience.”
Simpson, a practicing Catholic, stresses that Catholicism is not necessarily a homophobic faith.
“I just think that the general population of the people in the pews are much ahead of the official church in attitudes towards gay and lesbian people,” he says, pointing to a 2003 Ipsos-Reid poll on same-sex marriage in which 57 percent of Catholics supported same-sex marriage compared to 38 percent of Protestants.
Simpson doesn’t believe that his identity as both a Catholic and a gay man are mutually exclusive. He is both. He has, however, encountered some resistance within the gay community for being an out Catholic.
He says that mention of his group and its activities at gay events goes down like a stone.
“People kind of think you’re a bit off the beam to have anything to do with religion anymore. I can understand that if they think I’m completely supportive of the Catholic Church’s position, but that’s a misunderstanding of who I am. And if they can’t see that in my lived life, well that’s a bit narrow too, because obviously I live with another man and have for 30 years, and you’d think that that alone would tell them I challenge the church’s teachings.”