An edited version of this talk was given by Harley Leggett at our Celebration Communion Service on 2nd September 2018.
Yesterday I went to my first ever Pride event. I was very proud to be there, particularly representing Christians at Pride. But this was my first Pride, because this is the first time that I have ever felt genuinely proud of being gay. Before that was fear, denial, guilt and shame. Its been a long journey, but at 41 I think I can finally say that those things have gone and I’m left pretty much just with Pride.
So, what am I proud of? I am proud of being me. I am happy with who I am and what I am. That hasn’t come easily. But a verse that has seen me through most of my life is Psalm 139. God made me and he knows me. He knitted me together, which to me implies time and care and making something carefully according to a pattern. It means I am not an accident, nothing about me is by accident. He made me, like this, for a reason. God has purpose in all things, some of which may seem insignificant, but may turn out to be important to someone else. He made me to not fit my gender, to challenge rules about being a girl, to be a tomboy that never grew out of it. So I’m proud that girls that came to my school after me were then allowed to play football, proud that female cadets can now wear a suit to the boring dinners.
God made me autistic. For a reason. It gives me a sense of justice, it makes me stubborn and it means that I mostly don’t care about other people’s opinions of me. I am proud to be autistic, now that I finally understand why I don’t fit in. I’m proud that I can understand children at my school in a way that other adults maybe can’t. I’m proud that my autism makes me really good at building complicated Lego models without any ‘oopsies’.
God made me gay. It has taken a long time to realise this and even longer to be ok with it and even longer still to be absolutely, deliriously happy about it. That part is mostly due to my partner Kate. But there were many years, when this wasn’t the case. I had a very sheltered upbringing in Norfolk. Diversity was NOT a thing. I learned about diversity when I came to Loughborough University. Halfway through my first year, in 1995, one of my best mates, who wore tartan trousers, doc martens and had a bleached blonde crew cut had to tell me that she was gay. I nearly dropped the teapot. I managed to stop myself asking what that word meant. Sadly this was followed a few weeks later by one of the moments I am least proud of. The moment I showed her the bible verses in Leviticus that told her, I thought at the time, that she was wrong to be gay and God did not approve. Somehow, due to her grace and forgiveness, we stayed friends. But I had been taught that what the bible said was right, and simple, and not to be questioned. Even into my thirties, various forms of church and Christian teaching were still telling me that to be gay was wrong. Now I was caring more and listening less.
For many years it was easy to accuse God of making me gay, just to make life even harder, to make it seem even less fair. My mum finally understood and accepted me when she heard a good friend of mine give a sermon in my previous church about homosexuality. He had quoted someone who had explained to him that being gay was never a ‘lifestyle’ choice that they had made, described how impossible for them being gay had made simple things like wanting a partner and kids and to have the respect of their family and they had said “why would I choose this?” Mum hadn’t realized that person was me.
But God did create me this way. With His reasons in mind. To quote Psalm 139 again “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” “you are familiar with all my ways, before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely”. He knew from the start the days He would need to help and carry me, just to go on existing, He knew the days that would shape me and mould me into who I am today and he knew the days when I would finally be ready for His purpose.
Another verse that has seen me through life is Jeremiah 29v11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” There are times when I have clung to this verse, desperately trying to believe that things will get better. There are times when I have failed to believe it and have given up on my faith in a good God, and given up on living, to the point where I tried to end the life He gave me because I was heartbroken and could see no hope for the future. Right now I know that hard work and patience and faith and prayer do pay off in the end and the hard times are worth it. I’ve learned that God made me for a purpose, not to make things hard for me or to harm me, but to give me a hope and a future, for His purpose and my good. It finally feels like now he has put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people, to serve his purpose. But I have had to go on a painful journey to get to that right place at this time. Each step of that journey has been important, and as much as it has hurt, it has made me who I am today. So I am proud of the person that God made, from when he created my inmost being as I was fearfully and wonderfully made and woven together in the depths of the earth, to the plans he had for me, to slowly grow and educate and shape me into who I am now and what I will grow to be.
I am proud to be a Christian. I have properly been one since I was about 12. Sometimes I have been close to God and felt like he might be proud of me as a Christian. And lots of times I have felt very far from God, and felt that he would not be proud of me. Sometimes I have wondered if God even wanted me as a Christian. There are lots of people and churches and books and sermons that have told me that I cannot be both who God made me, and also a Christian. But Jesus never said that I could not be both. Jesus was the best role model ever for accepting people as they are, and welcoming every person into his merry band of followers. In fact He went out of his way to bring in those on the edge of acceptance in society.
Some things in the bible can be argued either way, or endlessly debated with consideration to context and tradition. Some things are just clear and indisputable. Like John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Whoever. Whoever believes. There are no qualifiers. No ‘unless’ to start the next verse and then a list of exclusions. It does not say ‘only if’, it just says whoever believes in him. This is what makes me proud to be a child of God and a believer in Jesus.
1 John 4 v 9 and 10 tell us “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”.
So salvation, and being Christian is not about us. It is not affected by my labels, my diagnosis, my body, my mixed up gender. It is not determined by what others may call my ‘lifestyle choice’, or what I call my heart and how I follow it, it is only about God. It is his love that saves us, and so I am proud that he chose me to be Christian, to be aware of and grateful for what he did for me.
So, I’ve come to a place in life where there are lots of things that give me a sense of Pride. However, there are still things I am not proud of. There are times when I have not been proud to be a girl, probably most of the time. To be honest I am still confused on that one. There are times when I am not proud to be me, especially autistic me. I am not proud of the times when I have been stupid and insensitive and I have not realized the power of my words and actions to hurt others. There are times when I have not been proud to be a Christian. When people use their claimed Christianity to use the power of words and actions to hurt and destroy others, all believing in their own righteousness and claiming to act in the name of God. Three recent examples are the book I was recently given, that had been bought by the person’s teenage daughter that contains a chapter which states unequivocally that homosexuality is a choice, an abuse of the body and says that God will help anyone redirect themselves to a heterosexual path. Secondly the leaflet that I was handed on a street in New York this summer which tells me quite specifically that God will send my soul to Hell for eternity. Lastly I could direct you to Vicky Beeching’s facebook page, where nearly every post receives a comment offering condemnation from a fellow Christian. These, and so many other things day to day, can almost make me feel ashamed to be a Christian, to be associated with these sort of attitudes.
There are times when I have not been proud to be gay. Most of my life in fact. That’s partly due to what being brought up in a Pentecostal church taught me, partly about what subsequent churches, and pastors and books and Christian festivals taught me. Partly due to what growing up in the 70s and 80s taught me. Even once I knew for sure that I was gay, and had accepted it as unchangeable and unavoidable it was something that I kept hidden. When I taught in a high school I had to keep being gay a secret. Initially because of the law, as section 28 was still in place, then because of the beliefs of the school’s senior management, and also the need to survive. The rumours and graffiti and verbal abuse from the pupils was bad enough when they just assumed their PE teacher might be gay.
After the initial coming out via text message to my Dad, my sexuality has never, ever been openly mentioned again in my family. In ten years. Until the awkward moment of introducing my girlfriend. Which again I had to do in writing in case I cried.
When Kate forced me to sit down and write this speech she said that I had to “remember how you are going to get across that it’s a celebration of your proudness to be gay, and I think that’s tricky, cause I think you are not proud to be gay yet… the vibe I get is that you still don’t feel like its absolutely right and perfectly normal” she then added that “maybe only because of what others believe”.
I was about to defend myself and tell her that of course I am proud. Then I stopped and thought about it. So I added in those bits I’ve just said about hiding it at school and the awkward silence with family. And as I think more I am realizing that she is right (I have a feeling she will always be right), my head understands all the theory and theology of the counter arguments to those verses that have been used to condemn homosexuality. My head knows, and my heart knows that God made me like this, for a reason, and prayer did not and will not change it. For me I know that being gay is absolutely right and perfectly normal. But it’s not that way for others. Being gay still isn’t absolutely right and perfectly normal in this society, never mind others worldwide, it isn’t perfectly right and normal in my sheltered Norfolk family and it certainly isn’t in the church as a whole.
So, the opinions of others, or the fear of what those opinions might be, is what leads me to try to hide who I am, or to not be openly and loudly proud of being gay. Those opinions don’t stop me being gay and being proud of who I am. But they have made me someone who doesn’t usually talk about it. In fact, on reflection, its only since the arrival of Kate in my life that I actually want to shout it from the rooftops, because I am immensely proud to be gay and immensely proud to be her partner. I walk down the street holding her hand with the biggest smile on my face. I never thought I would dare hold hands in public, now I can’t stop myself. The joy is way bigger than the fear. I am so proud of her, and that she loves me. I still can’t believe it, that those years of prayers have been answered so wonderfully.
So. I am hugely proud to be gay. And I am hugely proud to be part of this church. I have not been here long, but I am proud that this church chose to be an Inclusive Church and went very much out of its way to become that. I am proud of how accepting this church was of me, scooping me up from being someone sat nervously listening to a questionable sermon on gender hoping not to get noticed, to being asked to get involved in many aspects of church life. Three of the proudest moments of my life have been when I have stood under a rainbow flag representing this church and spreading the word about Inclusive Church, at our own fete at the Mela in town and at Leicester Pride. I was proud to have members of this church stand by me at those events, proud to call this my church. I am proud of this church every time I hear us use the Inclusive Church affirmation of faith. I am proud of this church for welcoming my partner, particularly considering that this would have been the part that would have got me rejected from other churches, when being gay goes beyond being a theoretical thing that we don’t actually really have to deal with into a real thing, that we can’t politely hide under the carpet. I am proud of this church for having this celebration service, for being out and proud as an Inclusive church. As I write this, I am proud of being the token gay that Wendy asked to do this talk. As the time to deliver it approaches I will either want to throw up and run away, or kill her for making me do this. If I’ve got this far reading it, then I’m proud that I didn’t take any of those options.
So. I want to finish with three things that I want everybody here to be proud of.
Sometimes in life you have to choose between respectability, and love. Sadly respectability and reputation are more important than love for many Christians. This church should be proud that it has chosen love. Your respectability within the wider church may well have suffered, but you are an open door to those who really need it. Be proud of that.
I want you to be proud of being a church, and individuals, that are willing to ‘stand up’ and ‘stand out’. Be proud that this church has made itself stand out from the crowd, and said yes, we are a church that welcomes gay people. We really mean it when we say ‘all are welcome’. Be proud that this is a church that will stand up, with and for gay people. You stand with us, literally, in church and at fetes and melas and pride marches, and you stand up for us when you act as our advocates and allies.
Lastly, I want you to be proud of who and what God made you. He made you the person you are for a reason and a purpose. Be proud of the journey that it took for you to become the person you are. There were hard bits and there are joyous bits. You may not see it at the time, but being true to yourself and becoming who God made you as you go through your journey is all God wants from you.
Gods wants you to know that you are loved. As you are. Be proud of that.