This Young Trans Man Will Celebrate Gay Pride — At Church

Photo courtesy of Graham Bridgeman.
This Sunday is New York City’s annual gay pride parade. Just like every year, Downtown Manhattan will be overrun with crowds of nearly naked revelers day-drinking and partying and dancing on floats. But a few streets over, in a slightly quieter spot, a different group of people — some LGBTQ, some not — will be gathered to celebrate pride in a much more surprising way: a church service. Members of the Middle Collegiate Church, one of the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the United States, will gather for their annual Pride Worship. Among them will be Graham Bridgeman, a 30-year-old transgender man who works for a foundation called Astraea that funds LGBTQI grassroots activism. Bridgeman, an active member in the church year-round, can seem like a rarity: a young member of the LGBTQ community who’s proud of his sexuality, gender identity, and his faith. We caught up with him to talk about all three — and why so many LGBTQ kids fall out of step with organized religion. Were you raised Christian?
“I was. I grew up in the church; my father is a minister in Southern California, and I had really, really positive experiences of faith growing up. When I came out, there weren’t a whole lot of resources for LGBT kids who wanted to come out and also maintain their spiritual connection. A lot of LGBT communities were like, You have to pick the church or us — and a lot of churches were like, You have to pick the LGBT community or us, in a way that was really damaging.” Was there a point when you felt like you had to leave the church?
“Yes. There was definitely a point when I felt like, in order to come out, I had to leave the church I grew up in — though my church never railed against homosexuality. I spent some time in the push-and-pull that was 'you get to be gay or you get to be Christian, but you don’t get to be both.' “Staying in the closet and trying to be Christian didn’t work very well for me, but trying to disassociate the things I had grown up with and my lived experience of God wasn’t any more successful. I came to this place when I realized that I was miserable when I pretended that I didn’t believe in God and I was miserable when I pretended that I wasn’t queer. There had to be a place where they both existed. In order to survive and flourish and be happy, I had to reconcile those things.”

I spent a lot of time thinking, 'you get to be gay, or you get to be Christian, but you don’t get to be both.'

What’s different about the church you ended up a part of, the Middle Collegiate Church?
"I think the best thing about about my faith community is that the congregation looks like your subway car; it’s multi-ethnic, it’s multi-class, it’s cross-generation, and unapologetically so. Martin Luther King said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, and that’s just not true where I worship. There are people from all different faith traditions; some of them are atheists who come for the music. But there’s something compelling about the message we’re telling — that a church can be a place that works for social justice in the world. “I’m fairly involved in Middle Collegiate Church and the Collegiate Church more broadly. At the local level, I’m a deacon, I’m part of their young adult leadership lab, and I’ve been a lay worship leader. Within the Collegiate system, I’m also on the outreach committee and I chair the the Collegiate board of deacons. So yeah, I’m just lightly involved [laughs].” In New York, it can be easier to find a young queer person than a young person who’s an outspoken member of a church. Does this ever come up when you meet new people?
“Well, I met my fiancée coming from church. I was late to our first date because I was coming from church, and I’d underestimated the length of the service. We don’t have the same beliefs, but she understands that religion is a force in the world, and...given that, she’s glad someone like me is involved in it. “Because I’m a pastor’s kid, it became clear to me early that I never wanted to proselytize anybody. I never wanted to go up to anybody and be like, 'Let me tell you the good news.' What surprised me about Middle Collegiate was that I found myself talking about church. I was just so moved by what was happening and the messages that were coming out and how accepted I was that I couldn’t not talk about it. “In daily life, it’s not always the thing that I lead with, but when people find out, some are like, Oh, I don’t want to talk about that, but what more often happens is that people are really excited to talk about it, to tell me stories.”

Lots of people — gay and straight — have been really hurt by the church.

Why do you think so many young people, especially (but not only) LGBTQ kids, have left the church?
“Lots of people — gay and straight — have been really hurt by church. There’s some damage that’s been done; I can’t undo that, but there hasn’t been any place to mourn. If you grew up in the Christian Church, and you loved it, and then you came out, and the response was vitriolic — well, maybe the thing you needed to do to survive was to shut down and cut off that thing. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. I’m working towards a world where we can just sit at a table together." What would you tell someone who feels hurt by church — but maybe also misses it?
"I think, as somebody in the church, I miss those people, too. I’d tell them it’s okay to be hurt and to be sad, to mourn the loss of the thing. But don’t let the sins of the church take God away from you. Healing takes time and patience, and we have to be kind first to ourselves, and then maybe even gracious to people who we don’t particularly feel like being gracious to. "Just remember that you are are deeply and radically loved, and any entity that’s trying to tell you differently is lying to you. There is so much hope and joy and beauty to be had in our connections with each other and to the divine."

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