Chris Stedman: The Prophet

2.4.2013

By Sam Lansky

Chris Stedman is a gay atheist on a mission to find a common cause between the devout and the faithless. His compatriots aren’t buying it.

And while his own alienation from the conservative Christian sect to which he once belonged is a distant memory, it’s clearly still painful even now, as he’s working and living in the liberal enclave of Boston, where his days revolve around community-building and spending time with his boyfriend, Alex, an artist and photographer. Those early traumas left scars.

“I wouldn’t have gone through as much personal turmoil if people had more empathy for different values,” he says plainly. “I’d like to think that this work will result in people being able to be more openly different, to not experience the rejection of their communities or their loved ones just because they have a different understanding of the world.” To hear him talk is to realize that while his aims may be broad, his motivation is deeply personal.

And indeed, Stedman likes to tell a story about giving a speech early in his career and being met afterward by a young woman who wanted to speak to him. “She said that I had a demon inside me that was making me gay,” he says. “This was one of the first times I was doing a big public speaking thing, so I was nervous already, and she just happened to hit my trigger—that was the exact messaging that I had internalized when I was younger, the very same message that brought me years of misery.”

He grimaces. “But as I took a moment to pause, I noticed that she was nervous. She was shaking, actually. So what I said to her surprised even me—I don’t know where it came from—but I said, ‘I just want to thank you for coming up to me and being honest with me, and for being so brave. It’s not easy to tell someone something that you’re pretty sure they don’t want to hear, but what you think is important.’ She was so caught off-guard by that. I’m sure she was expecting a negative response or a confrontation. Instead, we had a pretty substantial conversation about my experiences.”

Laughing a little, Stedman shakes his head. “I would love to be able to say that she had a total change of heart and became, like, a gay rights activist. Of course, that didn’t happen. But I often wonder what seeds might have been planted that day. When she hears a minister preaching about gay people, or there’s a gay marriage initiative on the ballot—any time she thinks of those issues, she has another point of reference. She has to connect her ideas to a human experience, to a person she met, to stories that she heard. To somebody who has experienced being human.” He hesitates. “Just like she has.”

Faithiest is out now

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