In 2001, little did Justin Lee, a recent graduate from Wake Forest University and 23 at the time, realize what a monumental contribution he would make to LGBT Christians around the globe.
Born in Marietta, Ga., his family moved to Raleigh when he was four. He came from a loving and supportive Southern Baptist family. When he was 19 he came out, but felt confused and tried to go straight. He had felt for years that gays should be straight and took a sojourn in the “ex-gay” movement, but felt it was alien to his upbringing. He shared that the “ex-gay” leaders’ stand was that kids who came from overbearing parents were more inclined to be gay or lesbian. This was totally not true for him. His were the complete opposite. He had tried to get answers from his church and friends. His background had been along the evangelical lines.
So, he abandoned this ship and set sail for other ports. He began to write on the internet about issues. He wanted to make sure that there was a place that was welcoming and provided a sense of community for gay and lesbian Christians and their allies. And, this grew into a worldwide attention-grabbing phenomenon.
From that seed, the Gay Christian Network (GCN) was born. Participants came from a wide range of people. Ministers wrote to him asking questions for their own use and to support their clerical responsibilities.
A decade later, this religious support group is doing its part to help bring about change within Christian communities. They do this by bridge-building and changing mindsets about being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians. With 18,000 members and growing, it works with individuals, faith communities, families, friends and the broader church to garner support for more acceptance. Over the years, it developed a documentary (“Through My Eyes”), YouTube videos, podcasts (which is coming back online soon through GCN Radio) and conferences targeted at providing a positive experience for those who utilize these tools.
On Aug. 17, GCN, a non-profit ministry, celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Lee says that his work is vital to the health of people and church bodies. With the use of the documentary, he is working to get it out to every church across the country. It tells the story from those who have wrestled with the issues surrounding self discovery. He feels that working on the local church level will help them write inclusivity into their bylaws. This falls in line with GCN’s mission, “Sharing Christ’s light and love for all.” They have a five-core component direction: Promoting spiritual growth; cultivating safe community; supporting family and friends; educating and encouraging the church; and engaging the wider LGBT community and the world.
Staff includes Lee who serves as executive director, along with board of directors Bill Caldwell, Ling Lam, Mark Lawrence, Ryan Kuseski and Michael Zwiers. With the support of a director of operations, community manager and a plethora of volunteer team leaders, it covers the gamut of Christian communities worldwide. They abide by the group’s statement of faith, which includes: “We believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians are full participants in God’s kingdom, and that the ways of holiness and the ways of sinfulness are equally available to them as to others.…”
GCN uses its website to disseminate information and serve as a point of contact for those who are seeking answers or support. They also are engaged in social media through Facebook and Twitter.
As far as the type of response they get from fellow Christians who are not gay and may not fully understand why inclusion is important for the church, Lee says that he hears that people think that they can’t be gay and Christian, don’t understand the issues, are frustrated over the level of dialogue that they have found, experienced antagonism in respective churches and want to learn more in open dialogue. Even parents are jumping into the fray and getting the support they have been searching for.
The organization reaches out to both potentially welcoming and unwelcoming faith institutions. They send representatives to conferences and work on coordinated efforts. They are constantly engaged in private conversations behind the scenes with unwelcoming groups to help bridge build. This year they received an Arcus Foundation grant so that they could go to 20 universities, mostly in the Bible Belt, to provide training to create change in these communities. This will be their pilot program. Next year they hope to be able to go to Christian schools and hope to get funding to achieve this expansion.
They also set up at public events, such as NC Pride and Wild Goose, and work to network with affiliate groups. They have been in touch with Rev. Mel White over the years and want to do more with Faith in America. Currently, there are no projects on the table, but Lee says that there is mutual respect among all of them.
The website is the best place to gather information, Lee states. It includes daily Bible passages and Bible study, book recommendations, audio and video resources, message boards, calendar, a store and giving options.
Being headquartered in Raleigh makes sense for GCN, Lee says. He feels that since North Carolina is not as progressive as other states, it helps to keep them connected, grounded and aware of the work that needs to be done.
For more information, visit gaychristian.net and facebook.com/gaychristiannetwork. To keep up with dialogue follow GCN at twitter.gaychristiannetwork. : :
From Jan. 5-8, 2012, an annual conference will be held DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. Last year over 400 attended. Speakers include blogger Misty Irons, former ex-gay organization founder Jeremy Marks and Lee. Until Sept. 30, cost is $115, $135 until Dec. 3 and $160 onsite. Scholarships are available by request only. Family and friends may also attend at $35 each.