Gay All of a Sudden

Published June 15, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

In the 1938 classic, “Bringing Up Baby,” Carey Grant has cause to open the front door of a home wearing only a woman’s highly feminine robe. When asked why he was dressed in such a shocking way, he does a little hop and says, “I just went gay all of a sudden.”

I have felt a little bit that way recently.

Now, I have been out to myself as certainly not straight since middle school. I was desperately in love with my best friend. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her, and when her mom was dying, I helped with almost every aspect of my friend’s life, including letting her copy my homework since caring for her mom took all that she had. So, pretty gay. But I also had a boyfriend. And, by age 19, I had a husband.

I divorced at 23 and came out to my family as gay. In graduate school by then, I went on to become a leader in the campus queer coalition and to help a human sexuality course with an annual speaker panel that I liked to call Gays on Parade. I also passed as a man and so effectively that the gay guys in Chicago’s Boys Town hit on me. Again, pretty gay.

Over time, though, as both I and my career grew, that initial emphasis on out-ness faded, taking a back seat to the work of paying off student loans and wondering what it meant to feel like God wanted me to be a pastor. When I ran a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, I learned to balance my personal integrity with the mission of the organization, a mission that often took me into highly conservative Christian churches.

I never closeted myself or my wife, but I felt no one’s marriage really need be a central issue at work. I brought the affiliate out of millions of dollars of debt, while building a record number of homes with the help of many of those churches, corporate donors and city government.

A memorable home dedication included the local lesbian choir and a men’s group from the most conservative church in our community; they had worked side-by-side to help the family build their home.

Of course, my marriage couldn’t be anything but a major issue when I began my work as a pastor. My childhood denomination rejected me on the grounds of my sexuality. My new-found denomination, United Church of Christ, had (and still has) only limited room for LGBTQIA+ people. Nationally, only 35 percent of our churches are what we call Open and Affirming (ONA), and in Iowa, the number is a disappointing 15 percent.

In my search for a church, I found ome congregations wanted to use me as evidence of their politics, a token of their self-interest. In my first church, which had been ONA for 20 years but had never had a gay pastor or a female lead pastor, I was regularly reminded of how lucky I was it had made an exception for me.
It was all very frustrating. I didn’t want to be the “lady pastor” or “the gay pastor.” I just wanted to be afforded the same deference and given the same space to do God’s work as the legion of straight, white, male pastors that had gone before me.

In the extra work I had to do to get through the door of an institution—the Christian church at large, which not only closed doors against me, but was and remains the primary perpetrator of spiritual and physical violence against queers — I came to mute my own acknowledgment of the genuinely powerful witness of a female-embodied, same-gender-loving preacher.

But I am living into it now.

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