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'Torn': Living As An Openly Gay Christian

Justin Lee was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home. He had two loving parents, and was deeply committed to his faith. In school, classmates even referred to him as "God Boy" because of his devotion.

But, as he was entering high school, Lee's whole world began to change, as he came face-to-face with feelings that he'd tried for many years to suppress.

"I didn't know I was gay at first, because I was the kid who was preaching against folks accepting themselves as gay," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Lee formed the Gay Christian Network in 2001 to try and help other gay Christian kids and their families talk to one another, as well as with their respective churches. His new book is called Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays Vs. Christians Debate.


Interview Highlights

On coming out

"I absolutely believed it was a sinful choice to be gay. But I knew that I was attracted to guys and I kept thinking that was a phase I would grow out of. And as the years went by and I wasn't growing out of this phase, I got to the point that I was just crying myself to sleep, night after night, begging God, 'Please don't let me feel this anymore.' When I turned to the Christians I most respected in my life — my parents and my friends and my pastors — I found that they didn't have a lot of answers for me, other than just don't be gay. And I thought, well, I could not act on my feelings. I could not talk about my feelings. But I can't make myself straight. So that really sent me on this journey trying to figure out how do we address this as a church."

On being 'too gay' or 'too Christian'

"I talk to people still every day who are just living in that constant feeling of being alone, and it's very depressing when you feel like nobody understands you. You feel like you've been caught up in the midst of this culture war between the gay folks on one side and the Christians on the other side. And here you are, a gay Christian, and there's no place for you."

On reconciling with family who disagree with your choices

"I hear from so many folks who are just desperate for a way to sit down and be a family with their family members who don't agree with them on this, or hold their church together ... and I tell folks it's all about continuing to express your love for each other and continuing to share stories."

On his relationship with his parents since coming out

"I love my parents dearly and we have a wonderful relationship. And through the whole process they have been nothing but loving. We've disagreed; sometimes quite strongly. We've had a number of arguments over the years, and ultimately my position has changed on some things, and their positions have changed on some things. What I can say above all else is that I know that they love me and that they're proud of me, and even when we disagree we do that in a way that's loving and respectful of one another."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Justin Lee was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home. He had two loving parents, and he was deeply committed to his faith. In school, classmates referred to him as God boy because of his devotion. But as he was entering high school, Lee's whole world began to change as he came face-to-face with feelings that he tried to suppress for many years.

He's written about it in a new book. It's called "Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate."

JUSTIN LEE: I didn't know I was gay at first because I was the kid who was preaching against folks accepting themselves as gay. I absolutely believed it was a sinful choice to be gay. But I knew that I was attracted to guys, and I kept thinking that was a phase I would grow out of.

And as the years went by and I wasn't growing out of this phase, I got to the point that I was just crying myself to sleep night after night begging God, please don't let me feel this anymore. So it wasn't until I was 18 that I finally began to admit to myself that I was gay.

And then I didn't know what to do, because my whole life I'd believed that was a choice, and I wasn't choosing it. And when I turned to the Christians I most respected in my life - my parents and my friends and my pastors - I found that they didn't have a lot of answers for me other than just don't be gay.

And I thought, well, I could not act on my feelings. I could not talk about my feelings, but I can't make myself straight. So that really sent me on this journey trying to figure out how do we address this as a church.

RAZ: In your book "Torn," you write you were too gay for Christians and not gay enough for the gay community.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Yes.

RAZ: Who were you able to talk to at the time?

LEE: Well, at the time, I didn't know of anyone to talk to. I couldn't have felt more alone. And I talk to people still every day who are just living in that constant feeling of being alone. And it's very depressing when you feel like nobody understands you. You feel like you've been caught up in the midst of this culture war between the gay folks on one side and the Christians on the other side. And here you are, a gay Christian, and there's no place for you.

RAZ: The sort of the focus of this book is the argument that you make, which is the gay issue is literally tearing the church apart and something must be done to fix it. What do you propose?

LEE: A lot of things need to happen, but I think chief among them is that folks on both sides of this debate need to be better about listening to one another and really hearing each others' stories. We spend a lot of time arguing about the Bible passages in question, and as a Christian, I believe those are important conversations to have. But to be honest, a Bible argument is not going to change people's minds.

RAZ: There are six passages in the Bible. They're often referred to as the clobber passages by gay-affirming Christians. Many Evangelical Christians who argue that homosexuality is a sin point to those passages. What do you believe the scripture says?

LEE: Well, those passages, there are sort of two schools of thought. One suggests that these passages condemn all same-sex sexual activity, and then gay Christians ought to be celibate, which is the position I held for many years. And then the other position says that these passages actually refer to situations of temple prostitution and sexual assault and things like that and don't condemn modern, loving, committed relationships. And that's the position I ultimately came to, but it took me a long time.

But I think that the bigger question for me is even for those Christians who disagree with me, how do we learn to talk to each other and love each other even across such a big theological divide on a divisive question?

RAZ: Are you in a relationship?

LEE: I'm not.

RAZ: Like, when did you sort of change your view on abstention?

LEE: Well, the - it was a slow, long, and often frustrating process of going back and forth and studying the scriptures and studying what other folks had to say about them and really being frustrated with a lot of the arguments and thinking: Well, this sounds good, but this also sounds good. And I don't know what to believe, and I don't want to convince myself of something wrong.

So I don't blame other folks who come to different conclusions than I do. I have many close friends and family members who disagree with me on this, but I think it's a conversation for the church to continue to have.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Justin Lee. He is the founder of the Gay Christian Network. His new book is called "Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate." Many Evangelical Christians use the refrain: Love the sinner, hate the sin.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: You laugh about that.

LEE: Well, I used to say that so often. I used to say: Love the sinner and hate the sin. And I thought that was a great way to approach things. But I really like what my friend Baptist minister Tony Campolo says. He says Jesus never said love the sinner and hate the sin. Jesus said love the sinner and hate your own sin.

And I think that's a great attitude, that my focus needs to be on getting my own life right with God, and then my attitude towards others needs to be loving them regardless.

RAZ: When it comes to questions about being gay in America, obviously, a big part of that is over the issue of marriage.

LEE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And to many traditional faith-based groups, that is a threat to the traditional form of marriage. Do you believe that by addressing theological differences over gay issues the church also has to confront its position on marriage?

LEE: Well, I do think that's an important question for the church to wrestle with. And it's a complex issue too. Often, we end up conflating the political side of that and the religious side of that. But, you know, C. S. Lewis, when talking about divorce, said that there ought to be a distinction between church marriage and state marriage, that they're not the same thing.

And I think that's an important point on this issue, that what a church believes marriage should be may not always be the same thing as what the state believes. So there are a lot of complex issues there to wrestle with.

RAZ: When people contact you or they see you speak and they're kind of going through the same things that you went through, what advice do you give them?

LEE: I hear from so many folks who are just desperate for a way to sit down and be a family with their family members who don't agree with them on this or hold their church together. I hear from parents and from kids who say: My mom, my dad, my child and I just do not see eye to eye on this subject.

And so what do you do when the family gets together for Christmas and the son brings his partner and the mom believes that that's a sinful relationship? And how do you, in the midst of that disagreement, still act as a family and love each other, you know? And I tell folks it's all about continuing to express your love for each other and continuing to share stories.

And we, as the Gay Christian Network, offer a lot of resources for families who are working through those kinds of questions to help them do that.

RAZ: What about with your parents now?

LEE: Well, I love my parents dearly, and we have a wonderful relationship. And through the whole process, they have been nothing but loving. We've disagreed, sometimes quite strongly. We've had a number of arguments over the years. And ultimately, my position has changed on some things, and their positions have changed on some things.

What I can say above all else is that I know that they love me and that they're proud of me. And even when we disagree, we do that in a way that's loving and respectful of one another.

RAZ: Justin Lee is the founder of the Gay Christian Network and the author of the new book called "Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate." Justin, thank you so much.

LEE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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