So your church is LGBTQ affirming. Congratulations, your denomination has most likely endured years of internal strife and division, and come out on the side of inclusivity. This isn’t something to be taken for granted – entire denominations have split over this question, and still others seem not at all willing to budge on their centuries-worth of LGBTQ intolerance. Yet, as you go to church week after week, you ask your gay or trans friends to join you and you receive a bewildering response. They’re just not interested.
They may seem blasé about it. They may feel a tinge of embarrassment, as if you’d asked them to lunch at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Still others may seem threatened, if not hostile to the idea altogether.
“We’re not those kinds of Christians!” you reassure them, in vain. “We welcome everybody!”
That may be the case, and your church may have made great strides attaining inclusivity and ally-ship. You might march in the Pride parade, and you might be versed in the contributions of queer theology. You might celebrate same-gender weddings regularly. But I speak as a queer person whose relationship with church communities has always been described as “it’s complicated:” at the end of the day, you’ll still find that many LGBTQ+ persons just aren’t interested in going to church, of any kind at all, and you probably won’t know why that is or what to do about it.
So let’s start with listing the reasons why LGBTQ+ individuals might not want to go to church at all. This isn’t to tell you in every case what to do about it, but to get you to understand and think a little deeper about the perspective of queer people in the face of religion, Christianity in particular. The more you understand that position, the more dialogue you can foster with us.
1. In general, people aren’t going to church anymore
It’s a simple number’s game: fewer people are attending church weekly now than they were even 10 years ago, while the number of people “seldom” or “never” going to church is rising. There are several reasons for this.
For one, the culture wars have turned off a great many people to church attendance altogether. People who don’t support the political agenda of social conservatism and the Christianity of those loudest in the public square will not align themselves with those causes. Who really wants to join organizations seen as filled with and run by moral hypocrites and judgmental bigots? Who wants to accept as an option for their life the superstitions, irrationalities, and magical thinking of religious belief? (Or so the thinking goes.)
But more profoundly, the very structure of society is changing before our eyes. Churches used to anchor communities, and were a space where people met outside of the routine of daily, commercial life. Parishes were determined by geography; Protestant churches were determined by denominational affiliation. Nowadays, people form their communities through other means. People develop their values more privately. People no longer go to church out of a social commitment, but out of a personal (some would argue consumptive) one. People go to churches where they feel like they’re being “fed.” Church is a commodity, and an optional one at that.
And for some people, that might mean not going to church at all, because nothing about religious devotion is going to “feed” them in their daily needs, concerns, or values.
No church can simply turn back the clock and return to old ways of building community and meeting the needs, concerns, and values of its people. Our world has changed too much to let the old ways remain effective. Instead, the church has to realize how people are building community, and meeting their needs, concerns, and values. Given the landscape of online communities, fandoms, social movements, and identities that people find meaningful and important, churches have to start taking these seriously as locations of encounter, even, spiritual encounter. By looking at what these spaces are doing, and how they’re doing it, churches can see what they’re called to be doing right now too.
2. As inclusive as yours may be, churches are overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual spaces
Your church may be doing well on the question of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, but two millennia of erasure, discrimination, violence, and outright hatred do not simply go away. Churches as organizations are not just filled with cisgender, heterosexual ways of thinking, but in history were specifically built and developed as cisgender, heterosexual spaces.
Imagine a developer who’s taken an old automotive garage and wants to turn it into a bistro. Think of the structural, aesthetic, and functional changes they’re going to have to make to the space. It’s not enough to move some tables in and start serving customers – all the old equipment, all the junk, the oil stains, the rusty tools, all of it are going to have to go, and habitable fixtures are going to have to take their place.
Likewise, if you take an institution that has structurally and theologically opposed LGBTQ+ inclusion for centuries, you’re going to have to do more than just change your theology. You’re going to have to change the very atmosphere of the church itself. You’re going to need to look at the language, preaching, unspoken yet strictly enforced social norms–practically every aspect of your church’s life–and address how they might exclude LGBTQ+ persons.
Do you overwhelmingly design your programming for families with children?
Do you have separate Bible studies for men and women?
Does your church’s social and devotional life presume marriage to be a goal of every person?
Does your church’s youth program have and enforce anti-bullying, safe space policies?
Does your church specifically address and discuss the “texts of terror” found in the Bible, Catechism, and/or institutional documents?
These are just a few of the questions that are important to discussing ways to make the church LGBTQ+ friendly, and dealing with the transformations needed for that process.
3. Many LGBTQ+ persons have experienced religious trauma, some of it profound
When I was 14 and my parents found out about my sexuality, my mother forced me to read out loud the passages in Leviticus and Romans condemning “homosexuality” (a term which never appeared in any biblical translation until 1946). In the same event, my stepfather threatened to kick me out of the house. That was a moment that profoundly affected the way I would come to relate to religion in the years to come.
Others had it worse, sometimes even way worse. Gay conversion therapy is still legal in the majority of U.S. states, and despite the deadly cost of these programs, many parents still force their LGBTQ+ children into such torture. As LGBTQ+ people, we are intimately familiar with the feeling of being condemned to hell from the pulpit, of having the name of Jesus brandished as a weapon against our very selves, of never being able to achieve a moment’s peace as our religious upbringing and our sexual selves fight bitterly, sometimes to the death. We are the targets of forced exorcisms, ostracism, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in very high percentages across denominational lines. For a great many of us, churches have left us with a legacy of varying degrees of trauma.
For some of us, this literally means coping with a traumatic illness. Religious Trauma Syndrome is a PTSD-like illness that affects people who have suffered chronic abuses in religious communities. Sometimes the impact of leaving such a community causes a deep, lasting trauma. In the same way that surviving an experience that threatens one’s physical integrity can leave a person with deep trauma, so can an experience of losing one’s sense of meaning, coherence, or sense in the world itself.
For us, any religious setting or language has the potential for causing a triggering event. Their day-to-day functioning may suffer, and we may adopt maladaptive habits such as alcoholism. Yet, even for those of us not quite so severely affected by religious trauma, many simply do not have the ability to conceive of church as being anything remotely resembling a safe space.
The first Mass I went to years after I left the Catholic Church was a very painful experience. The liturgy itself brought back deep, long-held memories and habits of feeling I thought I’d left behind. It was so intense I zoned out, dissociating, realizing only after several minutes that I had tears on my face. I specifically refused Communion, and spent the better part of the rest of the day re-centering myself from what had happened.
I couldn’t even consider going to church again for another few years.
4. Religious belief in general fundamentally disrupts the ways that many LGBTQ+ persons have learned to find meaning in their lives
One of the worst habits of Christianity is its tendency to assume that it and it alone is capable of providing meaning into the lives of those to whom it preaches. We LGBTQ+ persons, in fact, have been finding and creating meaning in our lives with and without Christianity throughout human history. If any church wishes to include us, it’s going to have to take seriously and be aware of our vehicles of meaning.
Most importantly, it’s going to have to be fundamentally non-judgmental about them.
We have for so long been excluded from churches and the spiritual lives of faith communities that for many, the idea of making meaning out of our experience is impossible through Christianity. Instead, we may look to New Age, Wicca, neo-Paganism, secular atheism and agnosticism, various “scenes” such as the leather or bear scenes, communities of gamers, intellectual pursuits, personal fitness, and so on. You will find it not uncommon for us to have developed full, rich, and deep mechanisms for living meaningfully in light of adversity, prejudice, and rejection. You will find deep and poignant understandings of what it means to be a family, to be in relationship, to be sexual, to be spiritual.
This is not to unrealistically idealize the inner lives of all of us. There is indeed emptiness and futility here, as there is anywhere. It is to say that the spiritual agency at work in our inner lives cannot be shortchanged or insulted by trite and scripted preaching. We need and deserve respect and recognition. We deserve to exist just as much as Christian spirituality does. We have our own integrity and our own experiences of ultimacy and divinity. To fail to recognize and respect this, even in dialogue with Christianity, is nothing short of the colonization of the LGBTQ+ soul.
5. Church institutions tend to submit everything and everybody to the “pastoral gaze”
Imagine for a second that you’re on an elevator, and halfway to your floor the elevator stops and a stern-looking man wearing a clerical collar gets on. After a few more floors the elevator stops and gets stuck. It’s just you and him. What’s going through your mind? What are you feeling?
Chances are you’re going to relate to this man far differently than you would to almost anyone else. Your emotions are going to be a tad more complex as you both consciously and unconsciously self-censor and subject your inner self to a kind of surveillance that is completely different from self-reflection and self-awareness. A priest or minister may not be judgmental per se, but their very presence incites a sort of self-judgment. It’s like a revered grandparent, phlegmatic schoolmarm, and police officer all in one, and you don’t know whether any given offense is going to offend them or offend yourself more in that moment.
This is the “pastoral gaze”: it contains a moral authority, a therapeutic soothingness, and an overarching totality that overtakes one’s whole sense of self in moral insecurity. All of a sudden, you’re no longer acting in the moment, but you’re self-conscious. You’ve moved from “is” to “should,” and your chief motivation in that moment is to be a “better” person.
Churches themselves are spaces defined by perpetual surveillance by the pastoral gaze. This is not to say that they are necessarily authoritarian or totalitarian, but that values and morals operate as the primary priority of thought. The challenge for any church is to channel the “pastoral gaze” into the “contemplative gaze,” one marked not by judgment of inadequacy but a peaceful resting in a spiritual centeredness.
No matter how progressive your church, such a pastoral gaze is exhausting. Some of us simply don’t want to subject ourselves to an environment with the subtle but constant pressure to be something or someone different. Churches are, quite simply, not particularly great spaces for LGBTQ+ persons to integrate their whole selves, and that self-surveillance can be toxic. We need, instead, spaces of love defined, not by some moralism, but on the contemplative grasping of the goodness of God and neighbor.
6. Churches tend to micromanage even healthy sexual expressions
Now that the entire U.S. has marriage equality, the general social expectation for all LGBTQ+ persons is that we will at some point get married. While not a bad thing in itself, this does not represent the full spectrum of options that we have for our relational lives. Marriage, in a sense, renders sex invisible–making of it a private act between spouses, in the privacy of the bedroom, apart from public eyes. The theologies and practices of marriage in churches tend to aid and abet that invisibility by micromanaging the sexual expressions of it members, even in LGBTQ+ affirming churches.
This doesn’t mean that such churches necessarily dictate the exact sexual positions and dates of acceptable sexual activity (though there’s certainly historical precedent for that). It means that, even among progressive Christians, the ground of ethical reflection isn’t on the sexual lives and desires people actually have, but on some script of how they should be. Very few churches have the conceptual, pastoral, or theological space necessary to support the non-monogamous, polyamorous, or BDSM aligned relationships, nor to explore the significance of non-platonic, non-romantic relationships.
We largely don’t go to church because church doesn’t allow us to articulate, explore, and deepen the meaning we find in our actual sex lives. Churches more often than not assume without any actual inquiry that our non-monogamous, non-vanilla, non-traditional sexual expressions are transitory at best or pathological at worst. Queer sex scares people in churches, and largely only allow it when hidden behind the veil of marriage. We want and need to integrate our sex lives with our religious lives. Moral prudishness tells us either we have to give up our sex lives, or go home.
7. Your church isn’t as LGBTQ+ inclusive as it thinks it is
It’s a little disconcerting the amount of times I’ve encountered a church that claims to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but has no actual queer members. I’ve seen churches that claim to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but through some theological sleight of hand, resist actually affirming LGBTQ+ identity or expression. Some will refuse to hold same-sex weddings in the sanctuary but allow them in the parish hall (I’m looking at you, UMC congregations), others will “welcome” LGBTQ+ persons but still expect them to be celibate or closeted.
Even actively affirming congregations stumble by hiring only straight, cisgender people for ministry positions. Some denominations will ordain LGBTQ+ persons, but those ministers will then struggle to find a job in any church within that denomination. Your denomination may profess inclusivity, but individual congregations may resist or reject it. Put quite simply, your ostensibly LGBTQ+ affirming church, may not be as inclusive as you think it is.
If LGBTQ+ persons express concerns to you about this, listen to us. It can be very difficult to understand where we’re coming from because you have such a different position, but in pretty much every case assume what we say is honest, valid, and legitimate. Only then can the church begin to have the necessary – and difficult – conversations about where it’s failing and how it can do better.
For further reading:
Cody J. Sanders, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow: What All Christians Can Learn from LGBTQ Lives
David J. Kundtz & Bernard S. Schlager, Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk: LGBT Pastoral Care