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They’re Christian. They’re Gay. Get Used To It. 

He'd heard it before, but somehow this time was different. Black gay men, the pastor's words read, are a "disgrace to the race."

All his Baptist-believing life, Jeffrey Knight Williams had been told inside and outside the sanctuary that homosexuality was wrong. For most of his life, Williams had struggled to reconcile his attraction to men with the condemning interpretations of scripture he heard in church.

That day, after reading his pastor's column, he decided there would be no more of that.

No more sitting before a man of God and being castigated for who he was. No more feeling awkward as the message from the pulpit deepened the conflict within.

When Williams read the printed message that expressed even more harshly the sentiments he had heard regularly on Sunday, he vowed never to return to that church.

"I just decided I wasn't going to take that, and I didn't have to," Williams, a 41-year-old engineer in Charlotte, recounted recently. "I wasn't going to subject myself to that."

Thus marked a momentous point in his journey from a Christian who kept his sexuality hidden to a Christian whose faith told him he was OK with God.

Struggle for acceptance

For years, gay and lesbian Christians have struggled for acceptance within their churches.

Public efforts like Soulforce, a Virginia advocacy group co-founded by Mel White, a former ghostwriter for conservative Christians such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, have adopted the nonviolent protest techniques of Gandhi and King. The group has picketed denomination conventions as clergy and laity inside debated gay issues. Founders White and Gary Nixon have been regulars at Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg. And private efforts, from heartfelt conversations with pastors to impassioned debates with parishioners, have exposed rifts and changed churches.

Below the surface are the debates that go on not just behind closed doors but also within the recesses of human conscience, both gay and straight. For gays and lesbians who read the Bible, pray regularly and attend church, the path to reconciling their faith and sexuality can be a particularly painful journey.

Even more painful than their internal struggles can be the messages from religious leaders who say their faith is fraudulent if they don't renounce their "gay lifestyle." Not many gays have escaped the thundering reminder of Scriptural interpretations that traditionalists say deliver an unyielding rebuke of homosexuality. And then there are the popular cultural stereotypes, which don't exactly portray gays and lesbians as concerned with religion.

But those who identify themselves as gay and Christian tread the path nonetheless, as a burgeoning network of churches and pastors becomes more welcoming. Some gays and lesbians have blended in at churches with understanding pastors. Some are finding homes in churches that have publicly welcomed gays. Still others are seeking out predominantly gay congregations.

"Just because you're gay, you don't have to bend in your faith or your church or your synagogue or what have you," said Santiago Hernandez of Raleigh, president of North Carolina's only chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group.

For many gays and lesbians, that's a realization that comes only after many years of introspection, self-realization and determination.

Breaking through the walls

John Mayes was always in the church.

From his earliest memories, scarcely a service started without this son of three generations of Presbyterian ministers. It wasn't family fealty that delivered him to the pew, he recalled recently. If anything, the precocious Mayes was more conservative than his father, chiding the older man for nursing a bourbon-and-coke after a long day of counseling parishioners.

Nevertheless, the questions of Mayes' sexuality that nagged at him became spoken when a neighbor asked Mayes' father about the new earring his son was sporting. The question came bluntly: "Is your son gay?"

Mayes confessed his struggle to sympathetic parents, but that isn't to say he felt they were accepting — or even that he was.

"I had this image of myself as not being a good person," said Mayes, 40. "It's not like I had done anything (sexually), but I was ashamed of who I knew myself to be."

His religious faith led him to the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Virginia, where he earned a graduate degree and trained to become a youth minister. He knew other gay people there, and he even attended a coming-out party for a fellow student. But he didn't trust himself to let his guard down with either straights or gays.

"I put up walls," he said. "You begin to develop behavior to hide yourself, because you recognize that you or something in society says it's wrong. You spend so much time hiding and pretending, it's just unhealthy."

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