How Taylor Swift Helped In This Man’s Gay Liberation

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I have a framed memory in my mind of hearing “Tim McGraw” on the radio. I don’t know why. But I can close my eyes and still see myself at sixteen, driving down the boulevard, hearing the words of You said the way my blue eyes shine percolating into my pierced ears. The K102 host had introduced it by saying: “Taylor Swift recently said she is not a stalker”, defending herself against her own provocative title. I thought, Yes you kind of are and rolled my eyes. The memory ends. So random. So weird. But then again, that’s my brain, always collecting the mundane, useless moments for later review- however, a possible explanation for it’s resilience could be that I was hopelessly in love with Tim McGraw. In the music way, of course. But the gay way, too.

Overall, though, the song wasn’t really for me. It was so wildly romantic. So bubbly with love. And at sixteen, I was decidedly against romantic love. I was convincing myself that despite what the poets said, it was not magic. It was not happiness. It was not what life was about. It was conditional, for starters. Messy. Hard. And Real Life always shattered it. Wouldn’t it be far better to spend my life going it alone, unshackled and free in this big wild world? I had no choice but to believe it would.

The year her album came out, kids at school were buzzing about it. In the parking lot, her music was blasting out of cars Should’ve Said No, Picture To Burn, ear-budded girls sang Our Song as they strolled down the hallway. Her music found it’s way into the social fabric of my life, so I started listening to her too. I downloaded her first album, Taylor Swift, and ran it all the way through, quietly, as I cleaned my room. And that was when the song came on that made me fall for her.

 

You saw me there, but never knew
I would give it all up to be
A part of this, a part of you
And now it’s all too late so you see
You could’ve helped if you had wanted to
But no one notices until it’s too
Late to do anything

So how can I ever try to be better?
Nobody ever lets me in
I can still see you, this ain’t the best view
On the outside looking in
I’ve been a lot of lonely places
I’ve never been on the outside

 

This song, The Outside, was written about her life in school, her feelings of invisibility and the paralyzing anxiety of isolation. Asked to elaborate on the song, she said:

 

”I wrote that about the scariest feeling I’ve ever felt: going to school, walking down the hall, looking at all those faces, and not knowing who you’re gonna talk to that day. People always ask, How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13? It’s because I could never feel the kind of rejection in the music industry that I felt in middle school.”

On another occasion, she said: “I was a lot different than all the other kids, and I never really knew why. I was taller, and sang country music at karaoke bars and festivals on weekends while other girls went to sleepovers… It’s strange to think how different my life would be right now if I had been one of the cool kids.”

 

I had many friends in school, unlike Taylor. I had close friends that I went to movies with and had sleepovers with, played video games with and on the football team with. I had friends in many pockets, my hand in many cliques. I was well-rounded socially, never left out, never left alone.

But I wept a little when I heard The Outside. Then I played it again. And again. And again. The words falling into the blank space beside the long indescribable definition of my life. I was lonely. I was on the outside. I wanted to be in. At sixteen, I had spent much of my life striking the pose of a good christian boy, a popular peer, rooting myself to the center of both spheres- but always, always, always, I found myself staring through the glass at everyone else, locked out.

 

Of course, I never told anyone I was a fan. When asked about her music by people who adored her, I would typically sneer a little, do my best grunt: “Yeah, I don’t really get her…. but she’s pretty hot.” I put Swift beneath other rock and roll bands, the way I put harsh republican politics and harsh Christian theology over my slowly suffocating self. These were the days when I learned to also not talk with my hands and drop my voice one octave, spit into the sidewalk and talk nonstop about boobs. Being a fan of Taylor Swift would expose me.

 

But I kept secretly listening to her music as it has evolved. Throughout the span of her career, she has moved from country star to country-pop star to the world’s biggest star to now the Princess of Pop Star. From Taylor Swift to 1989, she has moved toward feminism, away from purity culture, and has even started speaking out for gay rights.

 

And as she moved, so did I. Our lives on something of a parallel track of evolution. When the adventurous album, Red, came out, I was in the midst of my own coming out, exploring the treacherous waters all around me, uncovering the scriptures, learning my God. At the very beginnings of owning my acceptance.

When the 1989 album came out, it was declarative, it was self-empowering. It was about shaking it off and learning that the people in our lives are a mix of good and bad, as are we. It poked fun at the public’s caricature, with Blank Space. It spoke powerfully about overcoming, resurrecting, returning to the essentials of who we are in Clean. And I was there, too. I still am. I’ve begun to feel my thickened skin around my tender heart, my ability to claim my acceptance without diminishing someone else’s. I’ve learned how to laugh at the haters. How to laugh at myself.

 

And I don’t pretend to hate her music anymore.

 

Obviously, if you follow me on twitter, you know this to be true. Friends have teased me for having a dog ears whenever her music comes on from some speaker. My first time dancing at gay bar, shake it off sirened me onto the floor. Lately, when I get mad, I put on Bad Blood.

And it’s less about the music than it is about my own self-acceptance. It’s a token. It’s a tribute. I don’t worry anymore about men calling me fem for crooning out her lyrics, the same way I don’t worry anymore about second glances from café dwellers seeing my rainbow stickered laptop. In listening to her music, I am reminded of my own freedom to like who I like, listen to who I want to listen to, to reject the standards of patriarchy.

 

Being a closeted gay, you don’t get little enjoyments like that. Being a closeted gay, you have to learn to like what others like, make yourself into their image, submit to straight pastimes. And then when you’re out and you see how incredibly blessed you are to be on the wrong side of normal, on the outside looking in, you begin to think silently to yourself how differently your life might be if you were one of the straight kids. And then you smile. Give thanks.

for the searchers (a review)

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I was very lucky this Spring, because I got an early copy of Rachel Held Evans’ latest book: Searching For Sunday.

 

Much of the criticism of this book, namely from those that accuse Rachel of slamming the door on the church, comes from the planet of the Things-That-Are-So-Untrue-It-Makes-You-Wonder-If-They-Really-Read-It-Or-If-They-Are-Worried-You-Will. When I read this book, I heard the heartbeat of it. A progression like an honest conversation between two people in love, Rachel and the Church. She is truthful in her struggles with it, frank in the ways she’s been wounded by it, but generously, generously, she gives it grace, love, acceptance, and wills herself to see it for it’s goodness, its’ core, its’ heart: the table where hungry souls gather.

 

Like many who will read this book, my “church story” runs parallel with Rachel’s. I was there for the Chubby Bunny games and I was there in the baptismal pool being in front of my church, declaring my fidelity to a crowd cheering. I was there when my brain swelled against many church teachings like bread in the oven against its’ twine. And I was there the day the Church hurt me, and countless others, in the most brutal of ways- World Vision, a dark moment that Rachel honors with an entire chapter.

 

And with maturity and wisdom and as I said above, grace, Rachel is intent on searching for the pinpricks of light. The bloodlines of church run through its’ seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. In these sacraments, Rachel divides her book, describing them with a poetic voice rooted in scripture, Church history and her own complex story, Rachel exposes the beauty of a church that has been shrouded in darkness for a long time, doing so in a way that draws in both the heart and mind.

 

What I’m trying to say here is that she holds both: the light and the dark of church, offering them up to us, the readers, the searchers, the doubters, the outsiders, as an image of God’s imperfect people. Reminding us that though it rubs up against our better instincts to go it alone, we cannot be Christians by ourselves.

~

 

I have to talk about the sentence that shook me awake to myself.

 

Rachel writes that after the World Vision calamity, she fell into “as deep a religious depression as I had ever known.” She began by shrugging off evangelicalism, sitting in her rage and sadness, taking a break. But she discovered, as she had in previous debacles with evangelicalism, that in her move out from this corner of Christianity, she was slowly stepping away from the faith altogether, one day, one decision, at a time.

 

She sorted through it all and in the end reached what I can only call the height of maturity, the great depth of her faithfulness.

 

“What I’m learning this time around, as I process my frustration and disappointment and as I catch those first ribbons of dawn’s light on the horizon, is that I can’t begin to heal until I’ve acknowledged my pain, and I can’t acknowledge my pain until I’ve kicked my dependence on cynicism.”

 

That sentence wrecked me. For many of us still nursing wounds, it should serve as a reminder that we are stronger than our cynicism. That we cannot heal until we learn to lift our lean on it.

~

 

A raised Baptist, I was a bit taken aback by how much the section on baptism affected me. Of all the seven, it was the one I thought I knew most about, having been dunked in our church pool at the age of eleven, having spent the eight weeks prior in classes preparing my soul for that very moment. (I wrote briefly about that when I participated in Addie Zierman’s synchroblog.) But maybe my memory is foggy and I just don’t remember learning this. Maybe I wasn’t told. Or maybe I simply hadn’t heard it told in such beautiful prose.

Rachel recounts a story of Martin Luther who, in his most grief stricken moments, would repeat to himself: “Martin, be calm, you are baptized.” If I had read this on my own, I would’ve thought it bizarre that he used that term, baptized, instead of, say, saved or Christian. Baptism feels so outward and ritualistic. But Rachel explains the significance of it, writing: “ultimately, baptism is a naming. When Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan, a voice from Heaven declared, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased.” Jesus did not begin to be loved at the moment of his baptism; nor did he cease to be loved when his baptism became a memory. Baptism simply named the reality of his existing and unending belovedness.” And so it is with you, so it is with me. We are brought into this family not simply by a ceremonial ritual, but by a God who bore us into it. In baptism, we put on our name. In church, be it in a river or in a few drops on the forehead or on a stage before millions, we are baptized. That is something to hang on to.

~

 

This book is a must read. Especially given all we’ve gone through. It doesn’t dole out pretty lies about the church in order to puff up her image, there is not a broom to be found sweeping difficult history under the rug. It doesn’t strike against the church, again and again, joining an already loud chorus of writers.

 

 

Instead, it offers Hope. Rest. Compassion. Grace.

 

It is a story that will makes you feel heard and understood and then inspired. It is hilarious with her’ familiar stories of Chubby Bunny games and youth group nights of introvert hell; tender with her stories of her marriage to Dan; breathtakingly poetic in her plays on the Biblical stories, recasting them in a gripping, moving light.

 

 

Also, there’s Taylor Swift. And I have it on good authority that Rachel included T-Swiz as a tribute to me.

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To be completely honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that Rachel wrote this entire book for me. But maybe that’s just because she wrote it for all of us. The Searchers, the Dreamers, the Outcasts, the Alone. Those who long for a Sunday that smells like a feast, looks like a table with room enough for all.

 

This book is available today. Do yourself an enormous favor and order it here!

On “Persecution” and Indiana

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(above is the cover Time Magazine is running with. I want write all over it. Gays are Christians, too. Christians in America aren’t under attack. Also, check the facts. Correct the error.  LGBT people are attacked on a daily basis.)

The night after the video of the twenty-one Coptic Christians was released, I wanted to write a post. In the post, I wanted to talk about how when words like persecution are overused and broadly used, used to describe events in varying contexts with dramatically different degrees of severity, they become words that are banal, lost, stripped of their meaning. The accurate word to describe for that horrific night was, absolutely, persecution. This was the night the world saw the terrible truth of that word and it mattered that we called it exactly what it was. That we tagged these murders committed because of religious beliefs with the term. That we wrote down the word and saw the men on the beach, remembering their bravery, remembering they overcame, remembering they were persecuted. That we identified for the world, for each other, what persecution was. It mattered that we saw how dark and violent it is in that assembly of eleven letters that led to the deaths of twenty-one men. And then, in the post, I’d go into how often we say what happened to them is the same thing that happens to us when the store clerk smiles: Happy Holidays!

 

But, alas, I didn’t write that post, for good reasons. Though it wouldn’t be out of a desire to exploit a tragedy to prove a point, it might look that way and it might, reasonably, offend others. I didn’t write it because I hate when people do that, too.

 

But now it might be time.

 

The term is once again being grabbed at for reasons that have to do with people like me. Praise the Lord at least some improvements have been made in that Indiana discriminatory law, but even though the improvements are slim, evangelical Christians are not happy about it. They claim vulnerability. They claim the outrageous. If I had a dollar for every pastor I have seen on social media talk about their fears of being forced to marry same-sex couples, I would be rich enough to buy every single one of them a United States Constitution and an insightful book on the separation of Church and State.

 

It’s not new for Christians to claim persecution. Sadly, this important term has been a busy member of the Christian lexicon, being used to describe everything from liberal agenda-wielding college professors to insurance coverage of contraception. A laughable movie came out last year that was literally titled Persecution. It’s about a famous pastor with an unpopular opinion having to outrun the animal that is The Secular Liberal State which is trying to kill/coerce/brainwash him (I only watched the trailer, I don’t know what the State wants from him.)

 

I spent a semester in DC in a political program for Christian college students, a program in which we were all assigned an issue to investigate. Ours was energy policy and it rocked. At the end of the semester, our professors who were the united conservative academics of America and where limping towards the end by our surprise liberal politics, asked us, warily, if the next crop of students they had should study Religious Liberty, because it was becoming a bigger issue with same-sex marriage.

 

Most of us frowned and said no, because most of us in this generation, gay or straight, realize that LGBTQ, Muslim, Liberal, Atheist neighbors and friends were not threats to our religious liberty. We recognized it with that bullshit detector we’ve all grown, that beeping that goes off whenever we here a variation of that crank-filled-phrase: “well, back in my day…”

 

And what we know is that we are not persecuted. We live in a pluralistic world. We live in a faith that has a great diversity of beliefs. And as Christians, we do not fight for the power to discriminate against others, because the essence of Christianity is not about being right, it’s about being humble. It’s not about wielding our power to take away from others, but giving to others the fruit of our gifts. Everything we’ve got to give we give. Especially to the marginalized (amongst whom, you’ll find Jesus [Matt. 25:40].).

 

There’s something so parallel to the way many evangelical Christians claim persecution to the way they read scripture. Picking and Choosing. Building a religion within a religion. Narrowing the gates for only those they like or things that make them comfortable. Many of these bakers, florists, photographers have probably provided services for Barmitzvahs and secular weddings and unknowingly, wishy-washy Christians. Just today, CNN interviewed one such gay-offended individual, asking her if she would serve adulterers and those who’ve dishonored their parents, two big no-nos spelled out in the Ten Commandments. She said Yes. Why, the reporter wondered, was she willing to be a part of one kind of sinner’s celebration and not another’s.

 

She answered: It’s just a different kind of sin to me and I just don’t believe in it.

 

I could almost hear her saying in the same breath how the Bible is the literal bulletproof word of God, but the Levitical commandment to kill disobedient children is completely bound to context and culture.

 

The truth that I want to whisper into her ear is that people all of over the world are being killed for their faith and that is persecution. Our non-muslim brothers and sisters in Nairobi, just today, were ripped from their dormitories and slaughtered in the streets. 147 of them. Lives precious to God and to their grieving families. Do you dare use the same term, assign the same crime, to both your inability to deny service to others and their bodies lying bloodied all over campus? It’s a damn fair question.

 

Words matter. And to use a word that is dripping with so much pain and violence and tears and blood to describe your experience with a gay person wanting a pizza or a bouquet or a marriage license is not just insulting, it’s downright dangerous. It steals from the dignity of those who’ve paid the full price of their beliefs and only serves your own self-righteousness and prejudice.

 

You are not being persecuted. You are cloaking discrimination in the gospel. You are blinded by ideology and fear and might not even realize it. Please, wake up from this nightmare. The world needs to know what persecution really is.

 

Side note:  Some evangelical Christians are the worst. Not all. Also, I’m tired. Also, I want to say, I find so much peace with the fact that I no longer pledge loyalty to this culture. My fidelity is only to Jesus: Friend of Sinners.