I recently sat down electronically with my friend Eliel Cruz to discuss his faith, sexuality, and advocacy work. Please enjoy our interview.
Hi Eliel! I love you and your Twitter presence, and as someone who desperately wants to see more queer voices of color in American Christianity, I was so excited to hear that you’re the new Executive Director of Faith in America! Can we start by hearing a little about how your journey as an activist started?
My advocacy came out of necessity. Being an activist was never something I thought I would be doing. I even wrestled with God about it when I first felt the calling. I’ve been hurt a lot by the church as a queer person and I wanted nothing to do with organized religion. I reconciled long ago that I could be a person of faith without having to engage in the man-made structures of the church. Yet, God called me to make the spaces I inhabited in the church safer for queer people like me. I work to make the church look more like the sanctuary it’s meant to be.
But, really, I started 5 years ago. I’ve only attended Christian schools my entire life and the majority of bad things that have happened to me happened at my Christian schools. I was bullied to the point of a psychotic break when I was 9 with no help from my school’s administration. I was asked to leave my academy when I came out as bisexual at 14. I once saw my former pastor at Walmart after I was kicked out of my academy, and said hello, only to have him look at my outstretched hand and walk away. All these things hit my faith hard and I hated God for letting it happen to me.
I was asked to leave my academy when I came out as bisexual at 14. I once saw my former pastor at Walmart after I was kicked out of my academy, and said hello, only to have him look at my outstretched hand and walk away. All these things hit my faith hard and I hated God for letting it happen to me.
It took some time for me to understand the distinction between religious leaders and God. That’s what allowed me to reclaim my faith and that’s what drove me to go to a Christian university. At that university I had an incident that made me fear for my safety and it had to do with my sexual orientation. I didn’t feel safe going to my university’s administration because I was certain I was going to be expelled just due to my sexual orientation. I eventually spoke to my administration and was treated fairly. But it made me think of all the students who were in the closet who didn’t have the safety of having a supportive family who knew the things they were going through in the shadows. My advocacy came out of me not wanting a single LGBT person to go through any of the things I went through.
What can churches do, concretely, to combat homophobia in their ranks? This, of course, implies that churches WANT to combat homophobia, which regrettably, as you know, is not always the case. But if you were approached by a church leader looking to meaningfully affirm LGBT congregants, what sorts of things would you recommend?
Many churches aren’t at the point to combat homophobia in their pews because they have yet to repent of it. Queerphobia in the church is a sin. Denying members of the body of Christ is denying the full image of God. But for those that are on the path of repentance, they must first engage with the LGBT persons in the church. Too often LGBT people are talked about, or to, but never with. Entire conferences, books, and meetings are hosted without centering LGBT voices and experiences. So, start by listening. Start by hearing the experiences LGBT people have with the church and fellow Christians. This process begins to humanize us so that the conversation is no longer simply about theology but about living, breathing people sitting next to you in the pew.
Queerphobia in the church is a sin.
I know that you’ve watched people (people you love, as well as relative strangers) undergo the process of moving from condemning queer relationships to affirming them, and I would love to hear your thoughts on that journey. I really admire the patience and grace I see you extend to people who are moving through that transition.
People don’t go from staunch opposition to affirming queer relationships over night. It’s a process which varies from person to person. I do have a lot of grace and patience I try to extend, but I also have my limits. There are some nonstarters for me: denying the existence of transgender people or promoting ex-gay therapy, for example. But I try my best.
What I like to remind myself and others of is that for queer people, we don’t come out the moment we know we are queer. It takes time — sometimes decades — for us to cleanse ourselves of internalized heterosexism and feel comfortable coming out. The same goes for straight people who learn their child, loved one, or co-worker is queer. It takes them time to accept that their assumptions about you were wrong. Especially parents! Many plan what their kids’ lives are going to be from pregnancy. In an ideal world, people, especially parents, would accept you right away with no qualms. We don’t live in an ideal world. It’s sinful and messed up and far from perfect. As an activist, I try to give them the same space I had to process my queerness. I understand why a lot of queer people don’t engage like this — it hurts and we shouldn’t have to. But this is my work and I want to make this world, especially religious spaces, better for the LGBT people after me.
In an ideal world, people, especially parents, would accept you right away with no qualms. We don’t live in an ideal world. It’s sinful and messed up and far from perfect. As an activist, I try to give them the same space I had to process my queerness.
Speaking of making things better for your peers, I would love to hear about your involvement with Faith in America!
I was brought on as the Executive Director of Faith In America a little over a month ago — it’s really a natural progression of my work. The organization is going into its second decade and we’re doing so in a time that’s pivotal for the LGBT movement. More than ever, it’s important to engage faith narratives as we respond to religious based bigotry towards the LGBT community.
We are dedicated to influencing media and faith community narratives on religion and sexuality. Our goal is to move the needle forward on LGBTQ equality in the pews and in our legislation. Our mission is to educate the public about the ongoing harm caused to LGBTQ persons, especially youth, by religious-based prejudice. Our dream is to change the hearts and minds of religious communities on the “sinful” nature of homosexuality. To remove it permanently from “the sin list.”
What this means for me in real time is that I pitch stories, I continue to write, FIA will host events, and we’ll launch various digital media campaigns to accomplish our goals. It’s important to end this false dichotomy between religion and LGBT folks. It’s even more important to let both LGBT people and straight people know that being LGBT isn’t a sin.
Speaking of the B in LGBT, you are a bisexual man who has spoken frequently about the importance of bi visibility, can you talk a little about how being bisexual intersects with your advocacy?
My bisexual activism came after my work in faith organizing. I’ve identified as bisexual personally since I was 11 and publicly since I was 14. When I started writing about faith and sexuality, I would say things like “As a bisexual Christian…” This always, without fail, would derail the column, turning it about bisexuality in the comment section. So I wrote a blog post for feminist and best-selling Christian author Rachel Held Evans on bisexuality.
Shortly after, I started writing for The Advocate as their first and only freelance reporter on bisexuality. I’ve now written about bisexuality for dozens of platforms (here are 25 of my favorite essays and pieces on it!) and have given talks about bisexuality at universities across the country.
It can be daunting as there are very few of us doing this work and most of us aren’t able to make any income from it. Funding for bisexual organizations is dismal (far less then even trans funding) and no national LGBT organization has any bisexual specific programming or staffer. Not one.
It’s getting better but there’s still a lot of biphobia to be dispelled from monosexuals (gay & straight people). There’s still many gay activists who just “don’t get” the bisexual thing and make disparaging comments. Bisexuals don’t really automatically have a safe and welcoming space in the queer community so I do my part to change that.
Before we wrap up today, you and I have been grimly commiserating about the decision to invite Doug Wilson to be a presenter at the Q Ideas conference in Denver. Can you talk a little about the experience of attending an event which would welcome Wilson?
I attend these events because I think it’s important for LGBT people to show up. The conference had a few presentations about sexuality and gender identity featuring white, straight people. Too many times they talk about us and not with us so I show up to these places to let them know we exist.
I didn’t realize Doug Wilson was scheduled to speak until I arrived. Q Ideas doesn’t share the schedule until the first morning of the conference. I was shocked and disgusted. This man is a noted bigot who has covered up sexual abuse, said slavery wasn’t so bad, and has even said LGBT people could be put to death.
When Wilson spoke, about gun rights, I was shaking I was so upset. What’s even scarier is that people around me were agreeing with what he said. His views are dangerous and puts people like me in danger. But more than anything, I was thinking “how is Wilson OK to speak but not actual LGBT people? How is his voice acceptable but not mine?”
I’m right there with you, buddy. Thanks for the work you do.
Handsome photo of Eliel courtesy of Joshua Martin
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.