Beauty and the Beast had a special draw for me as a child (let’s be real, it still does along with the rest of Disney). It was the first movie that I saw in theaters (unless you count my mom going to see Steel Magnolias when she was pregnant with me). But this story of love was so powerful to me. Ask any of my family members and they can tell you about the Beauty and the Beast poster that is still hanging in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house.
Surely liking Beauty and the Beast does not mean much, though. But it became fairly evident to me that most of the things that I were drawn to were not what the prevailing culture had deemed appropriate for little boys. I knew—let’s be clear that I certainly did not have the language for this as a 3 year old—that I was queer. By this, I mean that I was different than the other kids. I didn’t fit in the way that people thought I should fit in. I didn’t mind playing with Barbie—in fact, I wanted to play with Barbie. I didn’t mind allowing the culture’s understanding of gender to be a little less rigid. But I could tell that other people did mind.
Fast-forward to little Lance going to elementary school. I had left the Deep South and moved to Tampa, Florida. We had to wear uniforms for school (even though it was a public school) and I remember wearing a necklace (which I loved) as a form of self-expression. After school one day, I was standing with a group of my peers and they began to mock my necklace…and ridicule me for wearing a necklace. The reason was apparent: there is no space for my expression of myself. The pain of rejection for my honest self-expression was enduring. Why could I not be loved the way that I was? Why did I have to change to fit the cultural mode to be loveable? I knew that I was queer. I was different and to be different was not okay.
If elementary school was rough, middle school was even worse. I became accustomed to being unacceptable to others by being authentic so I developed a new habit: wear a mask and challenge the cultural mold only occasionally. Keep in mind: none of this had to do with liking boys—it was simply my self-expression. Middle school became the place where the term “gay” was applied to me, however. I remember, eighth grade, the girl that I was “dating” broke up with me because the other kids made fun of her for being with a “gay boy.” I also remember having my first explicit sexual fantasies for other boys in seventh grade. Puberty was weird, though, and I assumed this happened for all boys—you just chose to like girls, right? I mean, liking girls was what I was told to do.
If I had learned anything through elementary school and middle school, it was this: to be who I was meant to be unworthy of love. The message was clear: To be worthy of love, you must conform to the expectations of the world around you. For me, this meant not being queer.
High school perpetuated this myth in many ways. But a new narrative also formed in ninth grade: God loves me for who I am. This was one of the most liberating moments of my life. To look into the mirror for the first time and say to myself, “I love you and I have a right to do so because God loves you” was healing in a way I cannot explain. Yet the more that I became steeped in my conservative, charismatic church, I also realized that it was still not okay to be queer. It was not just my peers at school who thought so…it was also God.
College was so exciting and formative for me. Attending a conservative Christian school was both a blessing and curse. I loved the exuberant worship, the genuine desire to love God, and the academic community I eventually found. A few of my professors helped me to think outside of my conservative, charismatic box for the first time in my life—especially when it came to understanding who God is and what God wants for the world. God became more real to me than ever before and for the first time, I realized that it was okay to encounter God through my intellect.
But the message from the culture of the school was very much the same: it is not okay to be queer, because God says it is not okay. So I conformed. I fought to be right in the eyes of what I believed God was saying. I denied that I could possibly be queer for to be so would mean that I was not okay in God’s eyes. I never allowed myself to imagine any other reality. Did I recognize that I was different from the heteronormative culture? Absolutely. Did that mean that I was gay? My answer had to be no to be loved.
Yet it all changed when two things happened. First, I married someone who genuinely loved me for who I was. She loved me more than I loved my own self many times. It challenged my presuppositions about what the boundaries of love were. Second, I began to hear stories of others who had acknowledged that they were queer—they were different from this dominant culture and they had accepted it. But they also believed that they were accepted and loved by God.
For the first time, my heart had hope: what if God loved me not in spite of being queer but as a queer person? I began to challenge what I had been told about God’s “truth for homosexuals.” My inquiring heart got the best of me: What if there was more to the story than I had been told?
The more I searched, the more I found and indeed, I did find that there was more. Much more. What I found was Love. I found hope that God, my creator, could and did love me as a queer. I remember the warmth of love in the realization that my attractions to my own gender did not change the way that God felt about me. And so eventually, I stopped worrying about the clothes that I wore, the way I said things, the movies I enjoyed, what other people thought, and I began to just love myself, because God did.
And because of this, I realized: to be queer is not to be unworthy of love; quite the contrary, to be queer is simply another means of being loved.
So I tell my story because of this: there are many in the world today who still believe that being queer makes a person unworthy of love. I believe that this narrative must change. We have to tell a new story. A true story. A humanizing story. People must be empowered to be their full selves, loved by God (for my readers who are having a heart attack right now, please know that I am fully aware that this is complicated and requires a lot of conversation, discernment, prayer, and love; I do not mean to suggest that everything goes no matter what—this is another conversation).
But how can we know the love of God apart from the love of one another?
Besides, let’s be real: everyone is a little “queer” (I mean this in the most literal sense—just “different”) in her, his, or their own way. Everyone fails to fit into the cultural script that has been given to us in some way. And may of us have bought into the lie that we are unworthy of love, because of that. To you I say, “It’s not true. You are worthy of love. Be honest with who you are. Be vulnerable. Find God’s embrace.”
“We love because God first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibiling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their siblings also.” – John (1 John 4:19-21)
So may we be the hands and feet of God today. Let us remind people that they are loved and they are enough.