Gay and Christian: Not a Contradiction

This summer, two provocative documentaries about Midwestern church camps appeared on the festival circuit. One, Jesus Camp, confronted the frightening rhetoric that the Religious Right inflicts on children; the other, Camp Out, painted a hopeful picture of gay Christian teenagers at a summer retreat. It is telling that the first film got picked up almost instantly, while the second film is still seeking distribution. Jesus Camp is a political call-to-arms, reinforcing liberals' worst nightmares -- including a now-infamous clip of disgraced gay-bashing pastor Ted Haggard. Camp Out is a laid-back character study, but its central revelation is perhaps more challenging: that under the ruckus of right-wing zealots, progressive Christians are quietly practicing the compassion they preach.

Camp Out's queer summer camp is part of The Naming Project, a church-based organization that provides unconditional support for gay and questioning teenagers. The group was co-founded by thirty-three-year-old gay pastor Jay Wiesner, who can be seen in Camp Out leading candid discussions about faith and sexuality. We called Pastor Jay at his Minnesota church to talk about his work with queer Christian teenagers, and how it could change the future of politics. -- Gwynne Watkins

In the film, when you tell the kids "Welcome to the first gay Christian youth camp," one of them responds, "It's about time!" My thoughts exactly. Why hasn't this been done before?
In the past ten years, we've seen a lot of queer Christian things, and we've seen a lot of queer youth things, and we've seen a lot of Christian youth things, but to put all three words together -- queer, Christian, youth -- I think for many people that is troubling and scary. And there's a fear that if you're a gay Christian working with youth, people will think that you're "recruiting."

In the film, it looks like you took the traditional Christian-summer-camp elements and recontextualized them.
That's what we did. All four of the counselors have gone through seminary training, and all of us are queer-identified. We simply wanted to create a camp that we wish we could have had when we were kids. All of the worship services involved around the idea that you are not a perfect human being. We talked a great deal about sin, and about the idea of a God who interacts with and loves you and works with you to go beyond that and free you.

It might be hard for people to believe those words are supportive.
I'm speaking as a gay man who's been in a gay relationship for the past seven years. I know. And that's the struggle I've gone through since I started working. But I don't want to shy away from Christian language. I want to reclaim it. It's powerful. Instead of using it as a weapon, I want to use it as something helpful. During our second year of camp, we were going to use Psalm 139, and one of our counselors said, "Well, we can't use that Psalm." And we looked at him and said why? And he said, "Well, because Psalm 139 is what the anti-abortion people use." And I looked at him like, "So?" If we can reclaim this stuff, we can take away the ghosts that keep haunting people.

In the film, you discuss the idea of allowing both sex and religion into your life. That struck me as a radical notion for a church group. Especially for one dealing with sixteen year olds.
It's a fairly radical idea to say that sex and spirituality are interwoven. This is something I truly believe. Sexuality and spirituality deal with the two great intimacies in your life. Some people would never want to admit this, but sometimes when one is askew, the other goes askew. One pastor has been quoted as saying that when somebody comes into his office and says, "Pastor, my sex life is terrible, my marriage is terrible, my relationship is terrible, I just don't feel like we're connecting physically at all", the first thing the pastor will say is, "So how's your prayer life?" And then, when somebody comes in and says, "Pastor, my prayer life is terrible, I don't feel connected to God at all," the first thing the pastor asks is, "Well, how's your sex life?"

Were you concerned about parents saying, "You're teaching our kids to be sexual?"
No. We weren't saying, "Hey kids, here's how you have sex! Have sex right now!" Our camp is about spirituality and trying to figure how you fit in as a queer person. Their parents are supportive, because their kids are at the camp.

It was fascinating to see these kids in the Midwest coming out at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, when they don't know anybody gay.
The coming-out process is a faith-filled process. It's very much a born-again experience. When you come out, you're putting your faith in something other than yourself. You accept that this is how you've been created. You're finally admitting that this is who you are. For years, many kids and adults say, "I can't be this way," and finally that faith kicks in. It's like, "Even though my community might attack me, even though my church might attack me, I need to take this leap of faith, because this is the only way I'm going to live a full life in this world." My ultimate hope is that kids will be able to come out when they're supposed to, when they hit puberty.

So, the kids that you're working with now -- how do you think they're going to change the political landscape in terms of religion and gay issues?
I'm not sure yet. Right now, society needs a scapegoat, and the Christian Right has taken the queer population to be their scapegoat. And I hope God is merciful for the sin that they are doing. Honestly, they've done so much damage that at times all hope feels lost. I hope we're giving these kids the opportunity to take spirituality back, so it can be a grounding, positive thing. Perhaps that could be helpful in the whole political scheme of things. I think one of the reasons people are rallying and getting all this propaganda out is that they know they're losing the battle, that ultimately good will triumph. We've seen it over and over again. Queer folks need to remember that it was just in 1967 that interracial marriage was deemed okay by the government. Before that, it was against the law, and people still thought interracial marriage was against God. And they were using the same Bible verses.

The kids in the movie didn't see any contradiction in being gay and Christian. It was like, this is who I am: I go to church, and I'm also gay. I don't think anyone was talking like that ten years ago, at least not seventeen year olds.
No, definitely not. I think you're right. I think some kids today are still trying to figure out how to fit the pieces together. We've had kids who come to the Naming Project who come out and they're like, "Well, I need to just forget about this part of my identity." So they try and become super-Christian. Then they realize, "That's not the way I can work," so they sort of shun everything that's Christian and become super-gay. Finally, they realize that if they don't become a whole person and work with these things at the same time, they're always going to be unhappy and unfulfilled. Sometimes it takes a while. But kids today are starting to be able to say, "Yeah, I'm Christian. Yeah, I'm gay. What's the issue?"

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