I open the link to a black screen and the words of a little-known worship song. “Cry for the sin in you / judgement is coming soon.” Over choreographed piano push-pulls, the chorus of “Open My Eyes” repeats again and again. “Jesus please open my eyes / Show me the sin in my life.”
I can recognize the soundtrack of evangelical Christianity anywhere: the mechanical rhymes, the slow, plodding drums, the pleading chords before a choreographed release. Eyes close and hands lift as the music rises; the rhythms of repentance begin in minor keys. The room swells, a building chorus mingling guilt with relief.
This time, the familiar contours play out not in a smoky auditorium, but in the virtual world of the 2020 Revoice Conference. The video format isn’t the only thing that separates it from an ordinary evangelical worship service.
At Revoice, almost everyone in the audience is “same sex attracted.”
“I am the reason you died,” goes the end of the song’s bridge. The death of Christ is a common call for a crowd well acquainted with shame. An electric keyboard bows our heads on cue, while we wait for the key change that will suck our brokenness out of the air within a final, ecstatic release. “Paradise waits for you,” whispers the end of the chorus.
At the inaugural Revoice Conference two years ago, they sang the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Spafford.
“At the words “[my sin] is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,” the room erupted in spontaneous applause,” recounts Ethan McCarthy in a blogpost entitled “A Tenacious Witness.” “I felt my heart swell up in my chest as I sensed — not for the first time that weekend — the unfettered joy in the praise of these dear Christians, many of whom (most of whom, even) had suffered a pain, shame, and exclusion at the hands of the church that I couldn’t imagine.” That pain, of course, was living with “same-sex attraction.”
I first learned about the Revoice Conference in mid-July, from an email list I rarely check anymore. In a series of messages headlined “Want to bring your LGBTQ+ friends to Jesus?”, Tyler S. Parker ’17, a full time ministry fellow for Harvard College Faith and Action, beckoned his organization’s hundreds of members to join “the nation's largest gathering of LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted (SSA) Christians who affirm the joyful goodness and righteousness of the historical Church teachings on sex and sexuality.”
It had been over a year since I’d thought about HCFA, a student organization I tried out as a freshman. I’d grown up in the world of evangelical Christianity, and was drawn in by their promises of rigorous Bible study and, in Parker’s words, openness to “differing perspectives.” It didn’t hurt that my dad’s face lit up whenever I talked about it. But I quickly realized HCFA reminded me a little too much of the church I grew up in — the same friendly euphemisms, the same limited options.
Parker’s email surprised me. On the one hand, the subject line felt painfully familiar — the same framing of “LGBTQ+ friends” and “Jesus” as inevitably separate. But then again, no one I grew up with would dare use the word queer.
As long as I’ve known about HCFA, they’ve faced criticism from both student activists and University administrators for their posture toward the queer community. In 2018, the organization hosted Christian rapper and writer Jackie Hill Perry, who opens her book “Gay Girl, Good God” by asserting that she “used to be a lesbian.” Several students and faculty members protested the event, calling Hill Perry homophobic and arguing that she condoned conversion therapy. Days later, the University placed HCFA on “administrative probation” and The Crimson reported that it had pressured a female student-leader to resign from a leadership position the previous fall after she began dating a woman.
Several students left the organization, many outsiders continued to protest, and those who remained recounted “a lot of infighting within HCFA,” according to a former HCFA member who spoke to The Crimson on the condition of anonymity to safely describe her own experience with “same-sex attraction.” Many students wondered whether the largest Christian community on Harvard’s campus — and, by proxy, the evangelical Christian church it represents — offered a space for queer believers.
HCFA’s invitation to the Revoice Conference — complete with daily “discussion groups” moderated by Parker that functioned, in the words of Patrick R. Koenigs ’22, a friend who also attended the conference, like “AA meetings,” — seemed to signal a shifting posture toward queer Christians. With language wrapped in the earnestness of “self love,” Revoice speakers claim to advocate for inclusivity and affirmation. In an evangelical environment historically hostile to the idea of queerness as an identity, Revoice has angered those on its conservative flank by building queer community that doesn’t revolve around becoming “ex-gay.” I wondered if this conference’s “diverse gathering of Christians,” as Parker put it, could finally be a place where I could love both King Princess and C.S. Lewis, instead of always having to choose.
But Revoice has its own rules, I soon found.
To some, the conference provides a sanctuary where conservative, “same-sex attracted” Christians can come as they are. For others, it represents a softened form of conversion therapy.
So, what, exactly, does the conference “revoice”?
The summer after my senior year of high school, my little sister and I went shopping for bermuda shorts.
It had been three months since I last wandered through the spiral-carpeted Sunday school rooms and secret basement hideaways of the church I grew up in. Grace never asked why I’d started staying home “sick” on Sunday mornings, but there was a silent understanding. I had to give her “happy place” — a tiny Christian music camp founded by friends of Billy Graham — a try. It was a “little old fashioned,” Grace admitted: no phones, devotions every night, morning hymns in a tiny, sunlit chapel, and a strict dress code. I thought of the Sundays we used to sing together, the way we’d stand on our green folding chairs so we could see the stage and fight over our favorite harmonies. I wanted to show her I could still hold on to those memories, that she didn’t have to be so scared to have a gay sister. So I agreed, packed a hymnal, and left my usual wardrobe at home.
Before we left, we spent hours scouring Macy’s clearance racks, desperate to find a long-enough pair of shorts. Per camp rules, if your fingertips extended past the cuffs of your shorts when you hung your arms at your sides, you had to wear sweatpants for the rest of the day. I groaned in the dressing room as we cycled through a revolving sequence of cargos and capris and practiced clenching our shoulders in just the right way so that our arms sat slightly higher.
I still have a pair of those shorts, buried somewhere in the back of my closet. I haven’t worn them in years. I think I like knowing that if I ever needed to, I could still pass the dress code.
If you want to get close to evangelical Christians, you have to follow their rules. Difference is instantly palpable, threatening.
Revoice’s community also has its conditions. On the one hand, it holds out a promise of love, acceptance, and belonging for queer people within a religious landscape that has often held no place for them. But the dress code it requires is, as founder Nate Collins calls it, a “straight-passing” relationship or a life of celibacy.
Collins and the conference’s keynote speaker Wesley Hill have fostered momentum for the “celibate gay Christian” movement since 2015, when Hill published his book “Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.” Many of the book’s tenets would inform the conference’s ideology. But in order to make the “traditional sexual ethic” for which he advocates more palatable to young LGBTQ people — or, rather, LGB people; Revoice uses this language because “sexual orientation and gender identity… are different enough to warrant individual attention” — Collins says he wants to “revoice, or refurbish” the words evangelical Christians use to describe them.
“You’re not alone in this ocean of otherness,” he tells LGBTQ listeners on an episode of “Hole in My Heart,” a podcast hosted by two fellow Revoice speakers. As he puts it, Collins hopes that a young, closeted Revoice attendee’s first takeaway is to “come out to someone.” Revoice says it “models charitable language” — allowing some to use the term “gay,” not just “same-sex attracted,” a phrase that has traditionally been associated with conversion therapy efforts. Revoice also asserts that sexual orientation “very rarely changes.” For this, the conference has earned harsh criticism from conservative organizations like The American Family Association and The Gospel Coalition.
They’ve heard criticisms from the other side, too, arguing that what they’re promoting is, in the words of LGBTQ advocate Heron E. Greenesmith, just “soft conversion therapy.”
Leading the first full day’s morning session for “Pastors and Leaders,” Pieter Valk works to respond to both sets of criticisms.
“Limited, high-quality research demonstrates that only three to four percent of people who participated in sexual orientation change efforts experienced any meaningful change in their same-sex attractions,” he says to a global audience of around 1,500. For these parents and pastors of queer teens, he advises them to “mourn in private, so as not to hurt your child.” He also advises to “pray for a miracle” — but not expect one. Then, he encourages parents to counsel young people that “if you realize your broken sexuality is impacting you in any way, I want you to know that it’s not your fault.”
For more than 40 years, conversion therapy — efforts to change sexual orientation via emotional abuse, public shaming, or forcible associaiton of negative, painful stimuli with queer attraction — was evangelicalism’s default. Many of Revoice’s keynote speakers either led or attended conversion therapy programs, but they’re quick to tell you that Revoice is different.
“‘Pray the gay away’ practices inside churches and counseling centers have led millions of LGBT+ Christians to lose their faith or commit suicide — and these ideas and practices continue today, albeit in more subtle ways,” Valk writes in a blog post called “Church, Repent.” “The Church must repent of what we have done, and we must make sure it never happens again.”
When I tell him about criticisms that Revoice amounts to “soft conversion therapy,” Valk responds with three paragraphs. He writes that he himself was the victim of conversion therapy programs that sought to change his sexual orientation, and claims that Revoice is fundamentally different from these programs in that it encourages gay Christians to “recognize their sexuality.” Rather than forcing them to become “ex-gay,” then, Revoice offers gay Christians the option to “embrace either celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage in a way that is mentally and emotionally healthy.”
Valk asks that I print his response in full. I decided to honor his request:
In other words, Revoice doesn’t want you to “change your orientation” — just to avoid queer relationships.
Other Revoice speakers hold similar opinions.
“I don't know of anyone who believes that accepting our sexuality means living a life without any sexual boundaries or sexual ethics,” says Gregory Coles, who spoke at the conference on his book “Single, Gay, Christian.” “We all have views about sexual ethics that are distinct from our views on sexual orientation. We need to normalize loving, respecting, and advocating for people of all sexual orientations in the midst of our differing understandings of sexual ethics.”
But of course, there isn’t a single speaker at the conference who’s “understanding of sexual ethics” is a same-gender relationship.
I didn’t expect my interview with Nate Collins to be so hard.
The Revoice founder has long identified as a “gay man,” but has been married to a woman for 13 years. In his words, they’re in a “mixed-orientation marriage.”
“I will never say that I’m straight, or that I’m bi, even,” Collins explains. “My latent orientation is 99 percent gay — but I also have a ‘one-woman orientation.’” He goes on. “I hear from people who say that they’re wanting to be open to mixed-orientation marriage, what should they do? What kind of best practices are there?”
The question takes me by surprise. I feel my breath catch.
“Pursue more intimate relationships with friends,” he says, answering his own question. “Grow in your faith.”
For a second, I want to stop the interview and tell him I spent 18 years trying to do just that.
He keeps talking, and my mind throws the words back at me. “Grow in your faith.” I think of entire days memorizing Bible verses, furiously writing down notes in every sermon. “Pursue more intimate relationships with friends.” The ritual of listening to the same mismatched love songs and searching for every hint of their words in the boy I thought I loved. The pit in my stomach when my dad liked him right away, just like I knew he would. The stifling Sunday afternoons when I was finally alone, watching the air collapse around me as my lungs forgot how to breathe. The trying only made it worse.
Eventually I remember the next question I was supposed to ask. “Is it healthy to go through life with a desire to meet that one person that might be ‘the exception’ to your general orientation?”
I hear him hold his breath for a second, too. “It’s hard to answer.”
After the interview, I forget to turn off the recording. When I finally replay the silence after he hangs up the phone, I can hear myself gradually begin to breathe the way I used to.
For critics of Revoice, these “mixed orientation marriages” are one of the conference’s most blatant offenses. Koenigs, my friend who also attended Revoice, found them particularly troubling. “The way they talked about mixed orientation relationships...made it seem like it was really just a matter of will: If you worked hard enough, you could be in a straight relationship,” he says. “They’re saying ‘we’re not asking you to be straight,’ but ‘we're asking you to be in a straight relationship and you should pretend to be straight,’’ he continues. “I don’t know what the difference is.”
For LGBTQ advocate Heron E. Greensmith, who specializes in advocacy for bisexual and pansexual people, this mindset is “toxic” — and not just for people like Collins who are “99 percent gay.”
“To say that you can be yourself if you only behave in certain ways is incredibly harmful to folks who are bi who are really struggling with accepting themselves and think, ‘If I maintain this specific relationship, then I can have a relationship with my family or a relationship with my church.’”
They continue: “Queer identity is very complex. It’s not just the way you act; it’s the way you love, the way you are, the way you present yourself. And to reduce it to this facile understanding that it is a way that you act and therefore only a choice is certainly harmful, both to folks who grew up with that understanding or are finding it now in places that they would normally find shelter and support.”
Collins did not reply to a request for comment on those concerns.
On its face, Revoice, with its emphasis on acceptance and self love, stands far removed from its explicitly conversion therapy-oriented predecessors. But at least for some, the inevitable end of its ideology is functionally the same: a gay man smiling in a photo next to his wife and three kids. What, after all, differentiates a “straight-passing” relationship from a “straight” one?
I hadn’t realized how much Revoice would still rattle me. I stop writing this piece for a week or so, toying with the idea of just telling HCFA to take me off their email list and finally moving on. But something doesn’t sit right.
Revoice’s ideology isn’t limited to my laptop screen.
When asked to comment on the connection between HCFA and Revoice, co-presidents Caleb K. King ‘23 and Joshua T. Walton ‘21 chose their words carefully. “HCFA is not affiliated with Revoice,” they wrote, “nor did HCFA officially advertise or encourage members to go. HCFA members going to the conference simply shared it over our groupme and email list.
“Since HCFA does not, nor has ever, supported conversion therapy of any sort, we saw no reason to stop the pubbing of Revoice Conference, an organization which does not support conversion therapy,” they added.
Still, Revoice’s ideology is woven into the community HCFA offers for “same-sex attracted” people — and into its rules, too.
I talked to Tyler S. Parker, the ministry fellow who had first advertised Revoice over the HCFA email list, too. With every other breath, he tells me how much he loves the organization that became his home at Harvard, long before it was his job. “The kinds of friendships that I found in HCFA are friendships that I’m positive I will have for the rest of my life,” he explains. “I regularly dream about being in my friends’ weddings.”
Parker, who identifies as “bi” or “same-sex attracted,” explains that Wesley Hill’s book “Spiritual Friendship” “literally changed my life.”
“What God desires to make out of my attractions to people of the same sex is far more beautiful than sex with somebody of the same sex would be,” he continues. “God desires to make me ‘spiritual friends’ with people of the same sex, and He desires to make me a generous servant of people of the same sex.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Parker has continued to live a life modeled off of Revoice’s ideology. When interviewed, Collins answered how “same-sex attracted” Christians could fulfill the need for family and “domestic intimacy,” by suggesting “a scenario where a single person is actually living with a family and taking on duties as part of that family unit.”
Several months ago, Parker’s former HCFA student leader offered him just that. “At the beginning of COVID, because I’m a radical extrovert, I got lonely almost immediately,” Parker recounts. When his old friend asked him how he was doing, Parker mentioned feeling lonely.
“[He] immediately said, ‘Well, it’s kind of boring here, so why don’t you just come hang out with us?’” Parker recounts. “I think that that’s spiritual friendship, where people are sort of willing to lay down their comfort and almost lay down their rights in order to ensure that other people get to experience the fullness of life.”
Being a self-described “radical extrovert,” outreach comes easily to Parker.
“We make fun a lot — a good reason half of our fellowship is in HCFA is because Tyler reached out to them,” explains Walton, who counts himself among that group. “He chased down freshmen in the Yard; he’s just persistent trying to find people and trying to get them in the community.”
Walton and King call Tyler a “role model” and mentor for many in the organization.
That kind of mentorship is integral to HCFA’s mission. “From the moment I got into HCFA, there were adult mentors, people that were graduated that were mentoring you,” Jadyn K. Broomfield ’21 says. “Every course has [leaders] who are a year older [than the students taking it].”
As a student-leader herself, she said she would often “go to a place in the Square with the girls — Tatte was a favorite spot.” (Student-leaders, like ministry fellows, receive a budget for meals with their mentees.)
For Alice, a now graduated HCFA member who spoke to The Crimson on the condition of anonymity, that mentorship was the reason she stayed in the organization. As someone who grew up “nominally Christian,” she hadn’t planned to join a Christian group in college. Then she heard about the free ice cream.
Struggling to transition to life at college her freshman year, Alice says she was drawn in by HCFA’s “intentional” and “deliberate” approach to “friendship building.” She soon joined the organization’s Bible courses and talked to fellow members about her “same-sex attraction.”
“Was HCFA important in the process of navigating same-sex attraction?” I asked her. Alice answered that “a lot of figuring out in this process was talking to them. Just, like, them listening to all the craziness that was going on in my head was incredibly valuable.” She decided whether or not to act on her same-sex attraction was “too big an issue for me just to choose for myself… I couldn’t keep hearing so many different voices telling me different things.”
In describing HCFA’s “involved” approach to outreach, Aric B. Flemming — a former freshman proctor — has his concerns. “First years coming in who are easily influenced, looking to find community, could get sucked into like HCFA thinking that it’s a faith organization that’s really for them, and then they come to realize that no, this is not what I need to be in — and then the damage could already be done.” In other words, extricating yourself from this “tight knit community” is easier said than done.
In response to this criticism, Parker writes, “HCFA’s outreach isn’t aggressive. It’s just thorough. We want students to feel like we actually care about them, so we follow up with them, ask them how their days are, pray for them, and stuff like that.” He continues, “When I was a freshman, HCFA was one of the only clubs that actually followed up with me and invited me to fun events that helped me get over my homesickness.”
Walton and King add, “In a year that has proven to be isolating and lonely for many first years at Harvard, we are striving to serve all of Harvard by being an open and welcoming place.”
I ask Alice — who herself stumbled into HCFA as a lonely freshman, and who found one of the most formative communities of her college experience there — whether her leadership role in HCFA was conditional on celibacy.
She requested a few days to answer, so she could “follow up with her [HCFA] ministry fellow.”
Three days later, she sent me this:
“I was honest and open with peers and leaders in HCFA about my same-sex attraction in the same way I was honest about my other spiritual battles, and in the same way other members of HCFA often shared their struggles with trusted friends. I was welcomed on ministry teams and as an assistant bible course leader (ABCL). I was honest about my genuine commitment, even if imperfectly practiced, to observing a traditional Christian sexual ethic inconsistent with acting on same-sex attraction. To be Christian sometimes requires us to be at war with ourselves in order to be what God has called us to be, and it is critical to remember that sexuality is not the only battlefield in this campaign.”
Alice ultimately chose to never act on her “same-sex attractions” and has remained celibate to this day.
“During my four years in HCFA, I never felt like I fought alone,” she concludes.
Of course, that was never the problem. The problem was “fighting” in the first place.
“In that moment… I felt God. There was no shame. There was no guilt. It was crazy. I mean, ‘cause I spent so many years believing that kiss would mean one thing, and in a second, I realized everybody had been wrong.” — Joy Oladokun, “Sunday”
The day before I finish this piece, I scour the internet for the perfect song. Two minutes into the music video for Joy Oladokun’s “Sunday,” I know I’ve finally found it.
For the first few minutes, you can feel the dancer holding her breath. “Sunday, bury me under the weight of who you need me to be,” Oladokun sings. Pulsing beneath anthemic drums, tension twists through the dancer’s shoulders. “Sunday, carry me, carry me down to the water / Wash me clean.” But near the end, the camera finally pans — and you realize she isn’t dancing alone. Just behind her, her girlfriend slips her arm up her shoulder, and you can feel her entire body breathe. After 12 years as a contemporary dancer, it was only the second duet with two women that I’d ever seen.
It’s the most natural thing in the world.
“‘Sunday’ is the song that 12-year-old Joy, seated in the back of church youth group, needed to hear,” Oladokun told Pride (she’s talking about herself, of course, but the irony is striking). “She needed to hear that you can be queer and happy. Queer and healthy. Queer and holy. She needed to see married women kissing and playing with their kids.”
“Queer and holy.” Was there a possibility for the full, authentic embrace of queer love, queer families, queer joy within the walls of Christianity?
Flemming — who, in addition to being a proctor, is a Harvard Divinity School Graduate and “third-generation pastor” — would answer with a resounding yes. “Church as an idea is functioning antithetical to its origins if we’re not doing the work of looking out for the people who stand the farthest on the margins,” Flemming says. As the pastor of UNDRGRND Church, Flemming has chosen to live out that commitment by using his church’s tithes not for food or building upgrades, but for donations to “homeless trans brothers and sisters who have been in need of shelter.”
He bases his beliefs in a stance against biblical literalism: The Bible is “not one big document that God dropped out of the sky,” he says. When reading it, you have to take into account the text’s sociological context. “Homosexuality was not even a word until after the text was written. Most of the time when you read words referencing this idea of homosexuality, they actually mean a kind of a focused, sexual violence against someone, more like rape, molestation, or abuse — not a consenting, same-gender loving relationship,” he explains. “Two totally different things.”
For Mandi Rice, a fellow Harvard Divinity School graduate who’s interviewed nearly 100 LGBTQ Americans on their “spiritual journeys,” religion isn’t just compatible with queer love — it can help strengthen it. “From a theological claim, she shares, “I do feel like divinity is supporting me and supporting other queer people in making truly affirming and loving space for one another.” She’s found her church in particular, which “had a trans man in leadership roles and a queer woman as the rector of the church,” to be a “space of religious healing.” As she’s come to embrace that “Christian and queer can be overlapping things,” she’s found “queer people in religious leadership... have expertise in doing spiritual care with people who've experienced this kind of harm and rejection.”
Since I first signed up for the Revoice Conference, I’ve asked every question I can think of of evangelical Christianity. Out of all of them, though, I think Revoice speaker Gregory Coles, the author of “Single, Gay, Christian,” got the hardest one. We’d already been talking for over an hour — about failing our driver’s tests, loving English because of C.S. Lewis, feeling at home in a body our evangelical upbringings had often taught us to hate.
“I was doing some driving lessons with my dad,” I started off, tentatively. These days, we spend more time talking about Heaven and Hell than the rules of the road. Coles and I had been equivocating for a while, and I just wanted to know what he really thought. “If I did everything right, if I followed every scriptural teaching to a T, and I still ended up marrying a woman — would that mean that I was going to hell?” I took a second to brace myself.
“His answer was yes. Is that the answer you would give?”
In an answer over ten minutes long, Coles gave me just about every thoughtful, eloquent qualification in the book. He cited one of my absolute-favorite C.S. Lewis quotes (“I tell no one any story but his own”), wove in and out of analogies about the impossibility of entirely knowing “the going to Heaven people and the going to Hell people,” sent me the entire chapter of his book he’d written on the implications of this exact question. But, eventually he still worked up to the fatal words of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, two verses I guessed we both already knew by heart. “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality… will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Wrapped in the most well-meaning, compassionate words in a biblical-literalist dictionary, the answer was still the same.
Correction: September 20, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a former HCFA ministry fellow offered Tyler S. Parker '17 help. In fact, a former HCFA student leader did so.
— Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.