Emerging gay religious leader Cody Sanders, who bridged faith and sexuality at an early age, takes his LGBT-affirming message nationwide
Growing up playing a pastor in the little church his father built for him in his backyard, Cody Sanders knew from a young age he would become a man of the cloth.
Raised Southern Baptist in South Carolina, Sanders said he would play church in his backyard at the age of 6. His father and grandfather, both contractors, built him the spiritual playground complete with a stain-glass window and steeple.
But as certain as Sanders was that he would become a pastor, he was equally certain he was gay.
“I grew up knowing from 5, 6 years old that I wanted to spend my life in ministry and service to the church in some way,” he said. “And it was around the same time, as a child, that I started to realize I had an attraction to other boys.”
His sexuality in a conservative town made him hide who he was. He viewed his sexuality “as a piece of internal tension I didn’t know what to do with” until he conducted his own research by reading and studying to determine that his feelings were not against the church.
“I resolved in my mind — probably in high school — I came to the realization that being attracted to other men was not a problem,” he said.
Now, Sanders uses his personal experience of uniting his sexuality and spirituality as a pastoral counselor resident at the Pastoral Counseling and Education
Center in Dallas. Counseling individuals and couples in a variety of topics, he said he has a specialty in sexual orientation, as well as faith identity.
Because sexual and religious identities strongly identify people, Sanders said many young LGBTs are forced to choose between the traditional church beliefs and their sexuality instead of finding an affirming church.
Sanders is exploring the “ideology and theological undertones that that kind of violence often has” as he pursues a doctorate at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
Sanders has researched the topic for the last three years at Brite and said he’s about halfway through his studies.
A contributing factor to many young LGBT youth feeling pressure to choose between their sexuality and faith is the emotionally violent ideology the church, and society as a whole, spreads.
“That kind of micro-aggressive violence is much more subtle. It’s difficult to recognize,” he said. “It’s the kind of violence that’s internalized. The kind of violence that tells LGBT teenagers that there’s something wrong with their very being.”
Sanders also staffs an office at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, a satellite location for the counseling center.
A member of Broadway Baptist for about two years, Sanders wasn’t there when the Southern Baptist Convention dropped the church in 2009 for its welcoming views of LGBT members and began putting same-sex couples in its directory. Sanders said he was a member in 2010 when the church left the Baptist General Convention of Texas because of its anti-gay views.
Baptists are still largely non-affirming, Sanders said, but because Baptist churches have autonomy to join different groups, there are not national standards that each church must adopt. However, the SBC does cut ties with churches that do not adhere to its strict conservative values, he said.
On the other end is the Alliance of Baptists, a completely affirming fellowship to which Sanders belongs. Although the SBC is the largest of the Baptist fellowships, Sanders said many churches are now moving toward a more moderate stance by beginning the dialogue about homosexuality.
The Corporative Baptist Fellowship is a moderate organization that hosted a national conference on human sexuality in Atlanta recently where Sanders spoke.
The 500 people in attendance from across the country had not discussed issues of sexuality including sexual orientation on a national scale before, Sanders said.
“I was a bit anxious going into it about how this conversation would take place,” he said. “But it was a very generous, non-defensive, non-anxious conversation.”
Although he was the only speaker that spoke exclusively about sexual orientation, he said it was entwined in several other topics at the conference.
Sanders has taught workshops on sexuality over the past few years at dozens of conferences and events for religious and counseling organizations, such as the American Counseling Association.
In 2010 he was selected to join 11 other religious scholars to discuss their research in the inaugural class of the Human Rights Campaign’s religious and theological study summer institute at Vanderbilt University. And he has published more than two dozen articles for various religious media.
The Rev. Steve Sprinkle, an openly gay professor at Brite Divinity School who has overseen some of Sanders’ research, said Sanders has been at the heart of education and activism among Baptists locally and nationally. Sprinkle said Sanders’ influence among Baptists will only increase in time, calling him “one of the most significant leaders Baptists produced in this generation.”
“Among Baptists, he’s one of the leading voices among progressives helping people look again at the lives and worth of LGBT people,” Sprinkle said. “People of faith are hungry for progressive leaders who know what they’re talking about, are deeply authentic and speak solidly out of their own faith tradition, and that’s what he does.”
Sanders discovered and accepted his sexuality early in life but worried if he came out, his “pathway into ministry might be put in jeopardy.” So he remained closeted.
In college, Sanders began to research how he could personally reconcile his faith with his sexuality. He also met his partner there. The two were both interested in ministry and attended seminary together in Georgia. But they kept their relationship a secret, choosing to serve in silence.
“Toward the end of our seminary, we decided that we just could not live keeping our relationship a secret anymore,” he said. “We found a church that embraced our cause, that embraced our sexuality and our relationship and celebrated those two things.”
During seminary he also came out to his family, and he never looked back.
Instead of focusing on the question of accepting LGBT people, Sanders said the church — and straight couples — should try to learn from LGBT relationships, mainly in the gender power roles. Whereas many churches still focus on male dominance in straight relationships, he said gay relationships are not “necessarily constructed around preconceived gender power relations.”
LGBT people also provide examples of how church members can analyze the integration of their faith, spirituality and sexual identity, something not many do unless they are struggling to come to terms with an LGBT identity, he said.
Although many churches are welcoming LGBT members, showing “a remarkable evolution of the Christian landscape in the United States,” Sanders said churches need to unite in denouncing violent rhetoric and acts whether they accept LGBT people or not.
“Ultimately, what is most helpful is for people, gay people, straight people alike to stand up against that kind of verbalization of violence against LGBT people,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 25, 2012.