I wonder sometimes how my life would be without the internet. Specifically, I wonder how my coming out would have been affected. Like everything else, I guess, the internet has its pros and cons. But its gift to g/l/b/t people has been immeasurable. When I could not talk to anyone about my being gay, I could at least find some comfort in reading the stories of other gay people. Ron Belgau and Andy wrote for Oasis back in '97. I didn't actually read their stuff until fall of '98, but what they had shared through their articles helped me a lot - probably because we had gone through similar situations. By the way, kudos to Aztec, Troy, and anyone else who wrote back then and are still writing now.
For this article I want to write about my experience at my first-ever gay gathering. I don't remember when exactly I stumbled across the event's website. I think it was near the end of May or the beginning of June. I had just come out to my friend Curtis a few weeks ago, which was the first time I had ever told anyone in person that I was gay.
The website proclaimed that "Wow2000 will be the first-ever ecumenical gathering of 'welcoming churches' in North America." It went on to say that welcoming churches "are Christian communities which publicly welcome and affirm all persons regardless of sexual orientation." I already knew some things about welcoming churches from reading books and material on the internet.
Almost immediately, I knew I had to be at Wow2000. Up to this point in my life, I had not really talked to any other gay person. What I knew about being gay came mostly from what I knew about myself and from the stories that writers on Oasis shared.
I kept a journal while I was at this event. It may not be as 'edited' as I might like, but it is likely to be more 'true' to the experience than a report I would write up after I got back and had time to think about everything. Wow2000 lasted from Thursday, August 3 through Sunday, August 6. The following is what I wrote in my journal.
Thursday, August 3
It is 1:18 A.M. I am sitting on a twin-size bed in a small dorm room on the eighth floor. This is Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. I am here attending the Wow2000 gathering of g/l/b/t and welcoming churches. I left Lexington at 9:30 A.M. It was about a 7 hour drive.
When I pulled into the parking lot, I immediately saw the many rainbow stickers on people's cars. I felt anxious. I got out of my car, got my stuff together, and went to the dorm's main entrance. People were standing in line on the inside. One lady wore rainbow earrings. Two or three of the guys had the stereotypical 'gay voice'. I didn't talk to anyone except when I got to the desk. The lady gave me the key to my room and I went up to it. The program started at 7:00 P.M. and it was just 5:00 P.M. I went back downstairs and walked to the Student Center to register. On the way, I was walking with this lady so I made small talk. It turned out she was here for Wow2000 also so we walked to the building together. She goes to a MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) in Seattle. I think she said she has been with her partner for six years. She looked to be in her forties or fifties. When I told her I was Southern Baptist, she felt sorry for me. She was really nice and all.
While I was registering, I saw a sign saying that Baptists were here. Baptists (of any stripe) can meet from 2:00 P.M. - 6:30 P.M. in some ministry building. I found it and walked in on a meeting of about six or seven people. They welcomed me in and I sat down on the couch. One lady quickly introduced herself as Peggy. The were all American Baptists. I told them about my Southern Baptist background. We talked about that for a while. One of the guys showed me their newsletter called "The Inspiriter". I looked at it and said, "Hey, Peggy Campolo writes for you!"
He said, "Yeah, that's her right there." Peggy then said I should go to seminary and start an American Baptist congregation in Lexington.
(written sometime the next day)
The worship service started at 7:00 P.M. There were probably 800 - 1000 people there. They sang songs I didn't know and I didn't really get much from the preacher. She told jokes that everyone laughed at but I didn't get. Apparently they were 'gay inside jokes'. We then had to break up into groups. The guy beside me was a Roman Catholic from South Africa. His name was Chris. The lady on my other side was named Kathy. She is from the American Baptist Church, a church called Central Baptist in Wayne, Pennsylvania. It is the same church that Peggy Campolo goes to. There were several from that church. Kathy asked me how it felt to be in the majority for once. The other two people in our group were a husband and wife (I'm pretty sure at least) who were from a More Light Presbyterian congregation. They looked to be in their late fifties or sixties. Kathy was in her sixties. Chris looked in his thirties. They were all very nice.
Afterwards, Kathy introduced me to a woman named Dotti who lives in Lexington. She told me what I already knew - which was that there were no welcoming and affirming churches in Lexington. She said she has been asked to leave several churches in Lexington. I also talked with a guy named Paul, who is a young reverend in the United Church of Christ. He told me about having sex with guys when he was in college, but that he denied that he was gay because he considered it practicing to be with a woman later in life. He fit the stereotype pretty well. While talking with Paul, I also got into a conversation with a bisexual girl from Central Baptist in Pennsylvania. She is going to seminary.
At first I connected with Paul and this girl, but they really threw me for a loop when we started talking about the Old Testament. They said it was myth mostly. I brought it up because nobody was talking about the Bible much. I mentioned David's polygamy and that he was still considered a "man after God's own heart." Then when I tried to find out their thoughts on Jesus, the girl wanted to differentiate between Jesus the human and Christ. I didn't really know what to make of that, but I could tell we were using the same words but with some different meanings behind them. Suddenly, I felt disconnected with all this. I can better understand now why Southern Baptists feel the need to "circle the wagons" and define what it means to be Southern Baptist. I felt the temptation to argue somewhat - not a good thing to start doing in such a diverse gathering. I left after a while and ran into Chris walking back to the dorms. I went to my room, took a shower, and went to bed around 1:30 A.M. I woke up during the night cold. I tried to go back to sleep, but I was freezing. I went down to the lobby to leave the building and walk to my car because I have a sleeping bag in the trunk. Well, right outside blocking my way was a skunk! He finally moved a little and I tried to keep my distance from him. I got my sleeping bag and slept for another two hours.
Friday, August 4
I got up today and went to a breakfast Bible study. There were forty-something people present. It was led by Esther, the pastor of an American Baptist church in Berkeley, CA that was disfellowshipped from the American Baptist Convention along with three other churches. Esther is a lesbian whose partner I had met the day before at the Baptist meeting. They have an adopted little boy from Russia. Esther went to Southern Seminary! The Bible study covered Acts chapter 2.
After that, we had denominational meetings. I went to the Baptist one. It was mostly American Baptists, but there were two other Southern Baptists there. Peggy Campolo was there and she smiled and winked at me. They sort of had a business meeting for American Baptists Concerned. There were over forty people present.
Then it was time for lunch. I got my stuff and made my way through the crowded lunchroom. I saw one younger guy (32 I would later find out, but he looked to be 27 or 28) by himself. I smiled but I figured I would just eat by myself.
So I sat down at a table and looked through the Wow2000 booklet while I started to eat. Then a few minutes later I heard a voice asking if she could sit down. I said sure. She introduced herself as Kim. I thought something a little strange was going on and when I looked at her nametag and then took a good look at her I figured it out. Her nametag read Robert (Kim). This was a transgendered person.
I had come to better understand bisexual people, but transgendered people threw me for a major loop. I just can't get over the idea that some have surgery to make their physical self match who they feel they really are. This person hadn't had surgery and told me he/she liked girls. Robert (Kim) has been married to the same woman for thirty-six years and they go to a Presbyterian church in Louisville. I didn't know what to make of this. God obviously knows I am uncomfortable with transgendered people, almost to the point that I would rather refer to gay and lesbian rather than be more inclusive and say gay/lesbian/bi/transgender issues. I just listened, asked questions (some relating to being a transgendered person and some not) and gave some info on myself. Robert (Kim) was a very nice person.
Then I went outside and sat down while waiting 45 minutes until my first workshop started. The guy that was sitting by himself in the cafeteria came up to me and we started talking. His name is Peter and he is from Chicago. He is Presbyterian. I really liked talking with him and I told him some of my story. Then it was time for the first workshop. My first workshop wasn't all that great. The second one, though, was really good. It was on welcoming gay youth into our churches. I came back to the dorm afterwards and rested for a few minutes. Then it was time for dinner. I went back to the cafeteria and pretty much ate the same stuff I had for lunch - mac & cheese, mashed potatoes & gravy. I sat at the "bar" this time. An older guy was there and we talked a bit. He is a Southern Baptist from a welcoming church in Kansas City, Missouri. Then afterwards, I was walking back and saw Peter. We talked along the way and then sat down outside the dorms and talked for two hours. I told him most of my story - even about Leo. He asked me if I still think of Leo and I said, "Yeah, usually everyday."
He must have picked up on something I said and asked if I had ever been with a guy. I said no. But I said I was ok with that because Leo is the only one I've ever been in love with. I tried to make sure he didn't see me as being judgmental or anything because he was telling me about his experiences with guys. He wasn't graphical or anything about that, he just sort'a told me that he had been with guys and that it was incredible when it happened. He had previously had a five-year relationship but it didn't work out I guess. I could tell he still loves that guy very much and he said maybe he was still holding out hope. He understood when (talking about my hope for Leo) I said that there seems to be a fine line between holding out and it being romantic and holding out and it being pathetic. We laughed at ourselves then. I really am thankful that I met Peter and got to talk with him.
Saturday, August 5
I got up and went to Bible study. This time it was on Acts chapter 10. That is the chapter where Peter sees a vision with all the unclean animals. God says for Peter not to call unclean what He has made clean. I really like Esther, the preacher who is leading our Bible study. In my small group discussion were Alex and his wife. One of their daughters is a lesbian. The question we were to discuss was "where will the gospel go next?" We talked about how the spirit and the gospel are always ahead of the church. I said that I think there is a real danger that once I receive my acceptance from "the church" that there would be the temptation to not work towards breaking down the barriers that separate other people. I think I went a little too far with this, though, because I admitted my own fault in this and some hypocrisy because I sometimes look at certain people and then look over them towards someone more to my liking or who has gifts that I think will be useful to my "agenda" (whatever that might be). I then named some examples such as the very elderly or people who weren't too bright. This confession seemed to shock Alex's wife just a bit. I don't know, I guess all my talk about inclusiveness just made me realize how sometimes I just mean my being included. That's not a good thing. Afterwards, I talked with Alex and his wife some more. Their daughter came out to them while in college. She is now in a very good relationship. I told them that I wasn't out to my parents and they gave me some advice. They said they sort'a suspected their daughter was gay a long time before she told them. They go to PFLAG meetings and are Methodists.
Morning worship was very good. The speaker was very challenging. The panel discussion was also great. Before that, however, the conference had a little bit of a breakdown. A young black lady got the microphone and was very upset over what happened Thursday night during the service. The leaders had us stand up to be recognized for various things like denomination, age, etc. She had yelled out for them to call for people of color, which they did. This lady was very upset because somebody said, "What color?"
I guess she was hurt since there were only a small handful of black people here (maybe less than 10) and most of them are ones who have been onstage. Still, she could have put it better than yelling at everyone with sharp words. I think it was a breakdown of grace.
The panel discussion talked about how we can't be a 'one issue' type of movement - that we have to see how there are many other hurt people and as Christians we are to help them and not just think about ourselves. Racism is still a huge issue - like at this conference. The one black guy on the panel said he thought he was at the Republican convention - few blacks in the crowd, but some showcased on the stage.
The two workshops that I went to today were fantastic. The first was on using non-violent speech. The lady who was doing that did a great job. I liked her a lot. The second, and last of my workshops, really gave me hope, though. I haven't felt genuine hope in a while now. It was called "Young Adults, Students, and Youth Creating Change." There were probably twenty of us there. It was so refreshing to be with young gay people (not all were gay though) who had a real vision for the church and bringing people in to hear the good news. They weren't cynical at all like I have gotten lately. One guy said that it was harder to tell his parents (who consider themselves atheists) that he was Christian than it was to tell them he was gay.
A month after Wow2000
So that was what I wrote in my journal while at the conference. This event helped me so much. Now whenever I get down, I try to remember myself sitting in that last workshop. In that room, there were people my age who happened to be gay. They also happened to believe that God's unconditional love is the most powerful love they have ever experienced.
Jamie McDaniel is twenty-six and lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He wrote most of this article on his cool new Palm m100, which by the way, can be used while sitting in the bath. If you want, you can email him at email@example.com. Next month: A fictional story.