Southern boy bridges gap between gays and the church
Justin Lee is the executive director of The Gay Christian Network. The Web site (gaychristian.net) began in the late 90’s as a site for Lee to recount his beliefs and convictions of what it means to be a gay Christian.
Since then, his Web site has taken him to numerous media outlets including the Dr. Phil show, The New York Times, OUT magazine and CNN's Anderson Cooper 360.
Not bad for a Southern Baptist kid who grew up in North Carolina in a family he describes as “the perfect 1950’s sitcom.”
While many individuals might not embrace a conservative Christian environment, Lee is more than proud of the home and family he grew up around.
“I grew up in a loving, conservative Christian home," Lee said. "We were very involved in a Southern Baptist Church. For me, my faith and the church were my whole life.
“I had a very happy childhood and great relationships with both my parents. My faith was the center of my life. I was the kid with the Bible in his backpack ready to witness to anyone who would listen.”
However, Lee’s faith and his relationship with Christ would be put to a test. During Lee’s senior year in high school, he realized he was gay. He knew he was attracted to men, but hoped, like so many others, that it was simply a phase. He was dating a girl at the time and had no reason to believe he wouldn’t get married.
“I started to connect the dots, and soon realized there were others who shared the same feelings I had," Lee said. "But I was also frustrated because at the time, I believed being gay was a choice and that it was a wrong choice. How could this straight-A kid that every parent wanted their kid to spend time with be gay?”
For Lee, being gay was an unthinkable option. He eventually told his girlfriend because, more than anything, he wanted her to pray for him. However, her response was completely unexpected.
“I guess she was a bit more theologically progressive than I was…she gave me a book on gay Christians," Lee said. "I was so angry at her. I just couldn’t accept this.”
Eventually, Lee came out to his parents who were willing to do whatever it took to get him 'fixed.' They quickly put him in touch with the leading ex-gay leaders of the world. However, Lee soon realized this was just a sham.
“First let me say, the ex-gays I met were well-intentioned people," Lee said. "But they never seemed to deal with the issue. Instead of saying they were still attracted to the same sex, they labeled it as a temptation. They often said their members had 'walked away from homosexuality,' but what they really meant was that their members were no longer hooking up with different people each night. They were still attracted to the same sex.”
In the ex-gay world, it is often believed that individuals are gay due to strained relationships with parents, but Lee knew this was not his case.
“Again, this just didn’t apply to me," Lee said. "I had a wonderful relationship with both my parents.”
Lee’s time spent with ex-gay ministries hadn’t helped. Fortunately, his struggle to reconcile his faith and his sexuality led him to a deeper study of the Bible. He eventually realized the Bible was actually a lot more affirming than many people interpret.
The anti-gay passages so many in the Evangelical Christian community use had been taken out of context. So, in the late 90’s, Lee began to write down his process of reconciliation in the form of a website.
Initially, his Web site was an attempt to gather his thoughts and responses for people who had questions.
“It seemed people always had the same questions and suggestions, ‘How can you be a gay Christian?’ or ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right girl,’" Lee said. "With the Web site, I could easily refer them to it and, hopefully, it would answer their questions.”
What Lee didn’t expect was the amount of e-mail he began to receive. On a daily basis, he began receiving e-mails from around the world from people who felt trapped, alone and confused because of their inability to reconcile their faith and their sexuality.
“Many in the Christian community don’t feel comfortable coming out," Lee said. "To them, to be gay means clubs and pride parades. They don’t identify with that. And to come out to their Christian friends would often mean a huge fear of rejection. So they are trapped. These people were living horrible lives terrified someone would discover their secret. It hurt their faith. It hurt their sense of self-worth.”
As Lee continued to minister to those who were writing, his e-mail inbox continued to grow.
“I was literally getting thousands of e-mails," Lee said. "So my Web site continued to grow and I formed an on-line community.”
This past January, Lee held his fifth national conference for gay Christians. This year’s conference was held in Anaheim, California and there were more than 300 people in attendance.
As The Gay Christian Network continues to grow, Lee said he expects the reach of his organization to continue to add new dimensions.
“I want to reach out to the Evangelical community," Lee said. "I feel conservative Christians have got a bad rap from the LGBT community and understandably so. It is easy to demonize them as a group. But I feel many Christians have been woefully misinformed on what it is to be gay. And they are acting on those misconceptions.
“I love the Evangelical community and am still a part of it. However, I do feel they have gotten a couple of things wrong. Instead of fighting the Evangelical Christian community, I want to 'fix' it. I want to help them understand what it is like for their GLBT members. I feel if they understand, it will change their whole perspective.”
To aid this understanding, Lee and The Gay Christian Network have developed a DVD called “Through My Eyes.” The DVD takes a look at more than two dozen teens and young adults and their faith, internal struggle, coming out process and their response from family, friends and church. Additionally, it debuted at The Gay Christian Network Conference held in Anaheim, Cali., this past January and is available for purchase on his website.
The Gay Christian Network began several years ago as an easy way for Lee to answer the many questions he received about being a gay Christian. His organization and website have now grown to non-profit status with 1.5 million page views in an average month and more than 10,000 members.
He and his staff maintain an online community, a YouTube video series, a regular Internet radio show and a national conference now in its fifth year. Lee continues to bridge the gap between the GLBT community, those that are estranged from their faith and the Evangelical Church.