Philip Graves

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I grew up in a small, conservative town in rural Northern California. It’s about three hours north of San Francisco, but is so vastly different from the city it may as well be on the other side of the world. Red Bluff’s biggest claim to fame is hosting the largest three day rodeo in the United States. It has a population of around 13,000 people, and growing up, we would regularly go to Walmart for “fun”. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the safest environment for queer people. On Election Night 2008, in the midst of being one of the only people in town celebrating Barack Obama’s victory, my heart sank when I saw that California voters had narrowly approved Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in the state. In my home county, it passed with nearly 75% of the vote. I was very much in closet at the time, and that night confirmed that being out wasn’t an option until long after I had left that environment. So, I did the next logical thing–I tried to completely suppress my sexuality and dove headfirst into American Evangelicalism. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. 

My dad was raised Roman Catholic, but as an adult, stopped attending mass and converted to his recently formed “Church of NFL Sunday.” My mom wanted us to attend church, but always wanted to do so as a family because of her close ties with her mother. Dad never wanted to join us, and eventually we stopped going altogether. My biggest spiritual guidance as a child came from my grandma, someone who has Christian Satellite Network on the radio and Trinity Broadcasting Network on the TV to this day. She gave my brothers and me our first Teen Study Bibles, and definitely laid the foundation for my first big exploration into faith, which came in high school.

A few friends invited me to youth group after school one day, and I was looking to procrastinate on my homework, so I accepted. Grandma had taken us to church all summer when we visited so I was familiar with some of the worship songs. It felt like a good environment, so I kept coming back. It didn’t take long for me to really connect with the church. Eventually, I made new friends there, started playing flute in the worship band, making a home for myself within those walls. Before I knew it, I was spending almost all of my free time at church. My youth pastor even asked me to speak at our high school Baccalaureate, where I gave a beautifully generic talk about making sure we all keep God by our side as we move forward with our lives, complete with Philippians 4:13 and everything! I was living a seemingly picture-perfect Christian life at the time.

But throughout all of this, I was having a very real battle within myself. I had been questioning my own sexuality for years, and I was terrified anyone might find out that I was attracted to men as well as women. There were only a few openly queer students at my school, and they weren’t exactly greeted with fanfare when they came out. And then there was the church’s teachings. I remember the youth group lesson that taught us to love our homosexual brothers and sisters by praying for them and inviting them to church so that they can start living God-centered lives. That message absolutely devastated me as a closeted teenager... I was already at church, and had been for some time, but I still had these attractions, so where was I supposed to go from there? We ended youth group each week by taking prayer requests. I usually added an extra “unspoken” one in the mix, praying that I would just wake up and be straight. 

After high school, I moved in with my mom and grandma, still very much in denial about my sexuality, but not in any position to explore it. Grandma was far from affirming. I remember one night the topic of homosexuality came up, and she said to me “If you were gay, you probably wouldn’t be living in my home, because I’d assume you would be off doing sex stuff instead.” That quote burned in my mind and drove me further in the closet. I was still praying on a nightly basis for God to take away my attraction to men, and it was exhausting. I was struggling with depression and self-hatred, and I didn’t see a way out. The only affirming folk I knew were atheists, and I didn’t hear a hint of affirming theology until nearly two years after high school. 

My entire perception of faith and sexuality began to change in April of 2013, when a late night trip down the YouTube “Related Videos” rabbit hole brought me to a video of a gay man named Justin Lee claiming that our traditional understanding of homosexuality in the bible was wrong. He broke down the various verses that appeared to condemn same-sex sexual activity and provided alternative translations based on historical contexts. What surprised me the most about all of this was at the end of the video–he said that he actually identified as a Christian himself. He directed viewers to his website: GayChristian.net. I had only ever heard of those words as oxymorons, so seeing them together in such a direct way really surprised me. My mind was racing and my chest started to pound - I immediately wanted to know more. I opened up an incognito browser window, saw that there was a forum and a community of people on the site, and decided to take the plunge. 

Once connected to the site, I found myself in a world unlike anything I had ever imagined. I read stories from people like me, struggling with what it meant to balance their faith and sexuality. What that balance looked like varied from person to person. The things we didn’t agree about vastly outnumbered the things we did, but it didn’t matter! Everyone agreed that queer people could still maintain their Christian identities without having to change their attraction. Suddenly, I could breathe a sigh of relief. That knowledge gave me the ability to finally come out to myself and begin a process of internal reconciliation.

That process took slightly longer than I expected, as it was over two years before I finally came out publicly. The tipping point came with my attendance at my first GCN Conference in Portland back in 2015, the first time I felt I was able to be authentically myself in a church setting without fear of judgment or shame. The incredibly generous community that I had gotten to know online a few years prior was infinitely more loving in person, and I knew by the end of the weekend that I couldn’t go back to hiding who I was, that I was ready for the world to know. I woke up the morning after Conference ended, opened up a Word document, and 15 minutes later I had a two page long coming out post on Facebook for everyone to see. 

Growing up, I couldn’t even dream up the word “pansexual,” yet I felt an instant connection with the word from the first moment I heard it. I used to find my attraction to men and non-binary people shameful, and I prayed every night for years for God to make me only desire women. Looking back, I genuinely believe that God never changed my heart because She was waiting for me to just accept Her love and start changing my mind. Now I get to look at my sexuality as a gift–God has given me the ability to look beyond a person’s gender and have the potential for attraction and love with anyone I meet based on personality and compatibility. (Though, judging from my dating record, I need to fine tune the “compatibility” meter a bit.)

Four years after coming out, I’m even more confident and comfortable with my sexuality than ever before. GayChristian.net got a face-lift and became QChristian.org, but the organization’s name was never as important to me as the community it represented–a group of people I met in an online forum that single-handedly changed my life for the better by demonstrating truly unconditional love. My relationship with God and the church is completely different now as well. Though my physical church attendance is less frequent than it used to be, I’m constantly surrounded by my church in the friends and family that challenge and uplift me every single day. I’ve learned to love myself and embrace the person that God made me to be, which has only drawn me closer to Them. As a teenager, I was always afraid of God, because even though I spent countless hours at the church trying to live the best life I could, I was taught that the attractions out of my control were going to condemn me regardless. Now, I look to the words of my favorite Rachel Held Evans quote from Searching For Sunday:

“The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”