In the fall of 1983 I started my first "real job". That is, not a summer job, or work study, but the beginning of a career. And I was lonely. So lonely. I started to look for a church, mostly as a way to meet people.
Here's the rub. How do I find a church that accepts all of me, that doesn't require that I pretend to be someone I'm not? Would I be welcome as queer? (In those days most of us commonly used "gay" to describe ourselves; "queer" was a slur. I'll use today's language throughout this story of my past.)
I remember picking up the phone and calling churches, listening to the dead silence after my question, the hangups, the sweet and horrible undertones as someone said "honey, we love all sinners". I remember my silence when I finally reached a church that said "yes, we will care for you exactly as you are." I sobbed with relief.
It would be later that I'd fall apart and Jesus would assure me that God says I am okay. It would be much later that I'd turn to ministry and sharing the good news that God cares for each person exactly as they are. In 1983 that welcoming church provided community with others that wanted the best for me.
Over time our culture has developed signs for marking that a church is safe, often by voting to be "Open and Affirming" (UCC) and "Reconciling" (UMC). Straight people and cis-gender people studied how to be affirming, not just welcoming, how to trust our LGBTQI family members, neighbors, and ourselves. We started to hang up flags.
The rainbow flag makes it clear that "we welcome all" means more than "you can come in". It means that we will do our best to love all the parts of who you are. You don't have to pretend to be straight, or even to pretend that you have figured out everything about yourself.
When Ashburnham Community Church put out our flag we got a steady stream of phone calls. Some sounded just like me in 1983, tentatively asking "does this mean I can be queer at your church?" Crying when I said yes. All of the calls were expressions of thanks and relief. Overwhelmed, surprised, relieved to be seen.
Of course some Community Church members have heard negative feedback, mostly from people concerned that it meant they had to be LGBTQI to come inside. Oddly enough, almost all of our congregation is straight! We want you to know that you can be who you are when you are in church with us. You are welcome to wrestle with who you are (and what you believe) in our space. We are wrestling ourselves.
Right now Ashburnham is struggling with whether flags--the rainbow flag and the blue-white-pink trans flag--are appropriate in our elementary schools. Honest, caring adults are wrestling with whether the flags cause division, or if children are too young to think of themselves as GLBTQI people.
Here is what I know--I was in third and fourth grade, in public school, when other children started calling me "Lezzie Lizzy". I didn't know what it meant, but I certainly knew that it was meant to hurt me. I can't imagine how much better the rest of my schooling would have been if someone had said "Lesbians are people who are love other women, and we don't make fun of that." I wish there had been a rainbow flag in my classroom.
Kids recognize gender at age two and start thinking about their own gender at age three. Many trans kids who come out as teens or pre-teens remember feeling mis-gendered when they were three or four.
For most of us, gender is pretty secure--being around trans people doesn’t affect my identity as woman, and being around people who doubt them doesn’t affect a trans person’s gender identity. A trans flag in a classroom is a lifeline for a young person who knows their gender doesn’t match what they have been told.
What's in a flag? A chance to offer welcome, a chance to reassure a child they are safe in this space. It's a sign; in a church it is a sign that God loves you, in a school a sign that the community loves you.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.