Pride Month Long Read: A Guide to Christian Theologies of Sex, In (Approximate) Order from Most Queerphobic to Least Queerphobic

Before we can begin to discuss what Christianity has said, and says today, about human sexuality, we have to make one big important point: Christianity is not, and never has been, monolithic about its approach to it. Even the relative consensus of history is complicated by dissent, evolutions, minority positions, and so-called heresies that have remained influential nonetheless. Yet, when discussing sex and sexuality, everybody is so quick to claim to have “THE” “Christian” theology of it, seemingly unwilling to admit to the plurality of contemporary and historical viewpoints.

This list is a rough sketch of the ways particular Christians have approach sex and sexuality. One of the dangers of this list is that it presents viewpoints as discrete systems of thought, while they’re more like a spectrum of views that sometimes overlap, sometimes emphasize different things, and rarely exist in a pure form. What this list is intended to do is to help show the different viewpoints available, and show their relationship to queerphobia and queer persons.

Procreationism

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More of a general category than a separate theology, procreationism is the view that all sex must be for the intended purpose (or at least be in all ways open to) producing offspring. In a sense, all queerphobic Christian theologies are procreationist: this automatically and without deliberation places all types of sexual activity that does not lead to pregnancy outside of the realm of morally acceptable actions. While prohibiting queer sexuality, in some iterations it takes a tacit (as opposed to explicit) condemnation of queer identity.

Within this viewpoint, there are varying degrees of rigidity in terms of understanding how to apply it. While procreationists may differ on questions of, for example, how to apply it to masturbation, or, as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, whether birth control as barrier is prohibited while chemical contraception is allowable, the general thrust remains that sex is intended for reproductive purposes, and any and all actions that divorce sex from reproduction is a moral sin. For some procreationists, sexual desire itself in all forms is sinful, with sexual activity only allowed for the purpose of childbearing. The only moral options in this paradigm are procreative heterosexual marriage or celibacy.

Proponents of procreationism find support for their position in the letters of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, the work of Augustine and various other church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Catholic moral teaching (which generally and usually means scholastic thomism), and the practices of the Amish and Hutterites.

Complementarianism

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Complementarianism today is one of the more popular theologies among conservative Evangelicals. Its focus is less on the sexual act itself and more on the relationship between the male and female genders. As such, it provides a rationale for sexual ethics rooted in the “essential natures” of male and female, as understood by Evangelical theology. This belief prohibits, not only queer sexuality, but also queer identity, believing anything outside of the categories of “heterosexual cisgender male” and “heterosexual cisgender female” to be morally prohibited.

Together with procreationism, complementarianism presents a range of attitudes concerning specific questions of application, and varying degrees of severity in its appraisal of the relationship between the genders. While most of its proponents would argue that the two recognized genders, while “functionally different,” are “ontologically equal,” this position nonetheless circumscribes all sexual, indeed, all human behavior on the basis of one’s gender. Men are to be strong leaders, heads of households, take to traditional fatherly duties, be recognizably and traditionally masculine, while women are to be “helpmates” “submissive” to their husbands, domestic in their duties, and to be nurturing, traditional mothers and recognizably, traditionally feminine. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopia brought about by what is essentially militant complementarianism in action. Both procreationists and complementarians are more likely than other types of queerphobic Christians to endorse conversion therapy, or, as they would call it, “reparative” therapy. Complementarian theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-trans and anti-nonbinary gender identities and non-cisgender expression, while procreative theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-gay and bisexual identities and expressions. They overlap so much, but remain distinct because of particular communities identifying with one or the other, with complementarianism being a popular one these days.

Those who adhere to complementarianism find support in particular interpretations of Genesis, the Levitical and Deuterocanonic Laws, and the letters of Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians and Ephesians (though the authorship of Ephesians is subject to great dispute).

Roman Catholic Moral Theology

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Roman Catholicism is itself a big, complex, beautiful, ugly, messy beast. It stands to reason that a faith so self-professedly steeped in history would reflect the complications of the last 2,000 years of mostly-European civilization. In the end, however, queer persons around the world throughout that history have lived a relationship to Roman Catholicism that, for whatever richness they’ve taken from it, has been overwhelmingly destructive for queer persons (among others, cf: “Colonialism”). Roman Catholic moral theology rests on a number of factors, including Thomistic/Aristotelian Natural Law Theory, an Augustinian foundation of Original Sin, and a rigid systematization that makes for the efficient use of institutional and theological power.

At heart, Roman Catholic moral theology attempts to harmonize Scriptural revelation with the natural world. It seeks concepts and philosophical tools to make Christian morality coherent, and to make of it a “reasonable” faith. While the results often appear incredibly abstract and remote, this whole project serves a very important practical purpose: it provides the intellectual framework for the consolidation and effective deployment of the male-driven, hierarchical social and ecclesial power of Catholicism. The very intent of the project itself, that precedes any of its propositions or systematizations, is inherently queerphobic. Queer sexuality (known variably as “sodomy” or “acts against nature” in this tradition) cannot possibly fit into its philosophical schema (and, frankly, jurisprudence) because queerness inherently resists systematization and the juridical regulation to which Roman Catholic morality aspires. While Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between “acts” and “persons” in such a way as to affirm the dignity of queer persons while describing queer orientations and identities as “morally disordered,” its aim in affirming personal dignity is precisely to remove personal autonomy.

Proponents of Roman Catholic moral theology often argue for the “natural”  dimensions of sex, constructing a “Natural Law” that regulates and determines the ends, legitimate means, and internal disposition necessary for sex to be morally good. It preaches that legitimate sex must be “procreative” and “unitive” – it must bear children (or be open to it), and must be unitive between the opposite genders, furthering and deepening the marital relationship. And queer sex doesn’t – and never can in any possible way, by the definitions set down by Catholic moral theology – make that cut. Orthodox Roman Catholic theology, as found in the Catechism, every theological tome bearing a nihil obstat and imprimatur, and the works of figures such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Demian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the moralist of the Catholic tradition all serving as architects of this massive machine, have all built a system hellbent on defining, for the very sake of excluding, queer identity and sexuality.

Catholic Phenomenology

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Catholic phenomenologial theologies of sexuality are something of an oddity in the landscape of Christian theologies of sex and gender. Uniquely rooted in 20th century phenomenological philosophies, particularly those of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Max Scheler, the aim of this viewpoint is to ground traditional Catholic moral theology on family, marriage, and sex in the language and methods of European Continental philosophy. Intending to uphold but not in any way alter or progress Roman Catholic moral theology, it by nature is abstruse, lacking systematization and thus resistant to the many, many attempts to state it in accessible terms. It remains controversial even among orthodox Catholics.

What makes it difficult and dangerous from a queer standpoint is the intense personalism deployed by this method. Catholic sexual phenomenology’s chief architect Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) begins by locating his reflections in human experience, taking the sexual union and the marital relationship itself as a source of theology. He not only does so in a way that reinforces the traditionally-concocted roles of male, female, and procreativity, but he also completely erases queer experience – so much so, that in several secondary sources of this theology, his work becomes the rationale for either condemning queer sexuality and identity or by arguing that, phenomenologically speaking, queerness doesn’t even exist. Catholic phenomenology demonstrates that one of the most vicious ways to attack queerness is to pretend to be speaking from inside its personal experience while fundamentally denying its perceptions – to state in another way, Catholic phenomenology attempts to deny queer ontological validity precisely by affirming every person’s universal human validity. To state in yet another, this time phenomenological way, it attempts to foreclose on the disclosure of queer appearance by erasing the possibility of queer being.

The chief texts of Catholic phenomenology of love and sexuality are all deliberative reflections on the corpus of Christian theology as a whole. Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility and Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body serve as its inaugural texts, with an entire cottage industry of popular workshops, popularizing books, formative curricula, and educational organizations committed to disseminating this mode of sexual ethics. Adjacent to this is Jean-Luc Marion’s text, The Erotic Phenomenon, the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the school of 20th century Catholic theology known as La Nouvelle Théologie, which stand as its kindred and its accomplices. If there exists a need to develop a robust, invaluable phenomenology of any particular queerness, then it will arise independent of, and at least partially in opposition to, this kind of phenomenological terrorism.

Communitarianism

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Christian moral theology tends, as both habit and goal, to attempt universal moral principles that apply to humankind as a whole. The advent of late 20th century poststructural approaches to ethics rightfully disrupts this until-recently unquestioned orientation of ethical reflection, as does the increasing awareness of the complexity of a pluralistic world that frustrates any attempt to produce binding moral structures. Communitarianism refers to a particular reaction to that frustration: by focusing the scope of Christian moral theology only to extant and active Christian communities, its proponents aim for a sort of comparative moral excellence defined by the “uniqueness” and “oddness” of the Christian life as distinct from the modern world.

In this view, queerness is considered something of a “worldly” decadence, a defining feature of the fallenness of the outer world. Those who find themselves with a queer sexual orientation or gender identity, insofar as they are to remain faithfully Christian, must find the strength to live a life of sexual holiness as defined by traditional Christian notions of chastity and marriage. Communitarians place less emphasis on individualistic questions such as the nature or meaning of sexual orientation, and more on how those with particular orientations contribute to the “witness” of Christian holiness as shared by the whole community. Perhaps most communitarians would consider a same-sex or bisexual orientation, or non-cisgender identity, as an unfortunate “affliction” calling for great compassion and support, but so would some complementarians and procreationists. Communitarian Christianity struggles not only because of its queerphobic tendencies, but also because of its more subtle but no less pernicious forms of misogyny and sexism.

Communitarian sexual ethics are especially popular among many those embracing “Emergent” theologies, such as that of Shane Claiborne (though several Emerging Church theologians, such as Tony Jones, support marriage equality), and it also finds support in earlier texts of Stanley Hauerwas, and the late Mennonite theologian (and serial abuser) John Howard Yoder. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and A Secular Age are the major philosophical works for the overarching ethical framework of this viewpoint.

Accommodationism

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With accommodationism, a major shift in theology take place which begins to assess the Christian moral tradition, not in terms of philosophical or theological reflection, but in terms of the pastoral dimensions of its sexual ethics. Its aim is to provide a means to reasonably “accommodate” the presence of queer persons in the life of the Christian community without sacrificing the “integrity” of Christian sexual ethics (as defined by any combination of the main strands of anti-queer theology discussed above). An accommodationist mindset might be referred to as “welcoming but not affirming,” as it still, at least in theory, values the presence of queer persons while denying the value of their queerness.

The accommodation in question can take may forms, but each allows, at least to some extent, the living out of a queer identity. Some churches may allow queer members to identify as queer, as long as they don’t act on it sexually; some may allow for same-sex relationships but without formal blessing through marriage or official recognition; some may understand queerness as sinful, but no more sinful than any other act such as divorce or masturbation; others may simply take a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” approach to the personal lives and identities of its queer members. In either case, accommodationism preserves and sometimes exacerbates the dialectical tension between queer experiences and queerphobic theologies; in the guise of the “pastoral,” theological systems go unexamined and inflict profound damage on those embodying queer experiences.

Recent decisions within the United Methodist Church, as well as the practices of more moderate Roman Catholic parishes and some mainline Protestant churches, demonstrate accommodationist tendencies. These are more robustly articulated in “Third Way” churches, those that seek a “middle ground” between the condemnations of traditional sexual ethics and the ethical innovations of queerness. The Gay Christian Network (now Q Christian Fellowship) refers to such a positionality as “Side B” in its binary imagination, between Christians who affirm (Side A) and don’t affirm (Side B) gay people. Its proponents tend to take the fallacious view that courting fire from both the right and the left is a signal of inherent virtue, and interpret that bilateral opposition as a source of pride and confirmation. Texts supporting it include those of N.T. Wright in an interview at First Things on “gay marriage,” Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and the moral theology of Charles Curran’s The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis.

Welcoming & Affirming Theology

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Churches taking the first step toward embracing queer persons and identities will often refer to themselves as “welcoming and affirming.” They acknowledge the value of both queer persons and their identities, though they tend to be predominantly heterosexual cisgender communities. Welcoming and affirming churches accept and sanction same-sex marriages, same-sex adoptions, and oftentimes advocate for LGBTQ rights. They march in Pride parades, give gay-friendly sermons, and work to provide safe spaces for their gay congregants.

I say gay, and not necessarily queer, because the greatest shortfall among welcoming and affirming congregations is their frequent blindspots toward trans and non-binary genders, as well as overly simplistic schemas of pastoral care and ministry in LGBTQ spaces. Any attempts at theological formation or education on LGBTQ matters happen almost exclusively on the “101” or apologetic level, the interests and social structures of the church rendering any deeper or more queer-nurturing formation unnecessary. The questions being asked, and the answers being produced, center around finding support for committed, heteronormative same-sex relationships in Scripture or tradition, and the only exploration of the lived experience of queer persons centers around the legal question of discrimination and the inaugural drama of “coming out.” The vast majority of gay-affirming churches are in fact theologically moderate, sharing only a few breath’s difference between themselves and the “Side B” types above. Sometimes they even exist within the same congregations, sharing an “agree to disagree” truce on the matter. “Open and affirming” in practice mostly involves a highly domesticated version of gayness – monogamous same-sex marriage isn’t so much allowed as it is expected. Actual instances of queer sexuality still frighten the moral and social sensibilities of open and affirming Christians.

The difficult truth about welcoming and affirming Christianity is that it is still beholden to a deeply heteronormative imagination concerning gender roles, procreation, and one’s sexual life, including number of partners, types of sex being had, and the purpose of that sex. It still emphasizes procreation, but more subtly – either through childbearing itself, or through the question of what the talents, contributions, and presence of gay Christians adds to the life of the church, community, and world. Further, the types of queers being affirmed tend overwhelmingly to be gay white men and white lesbians. By semantic construction, in order for a space to “welcoming and affirming” of queer persons, that space must be fundamentally a straight space – and thus the systematic and structural mechanisms that create and deploy queerphobia remain in place. Including particular queer persons into a queerphobic structure doesn’t make that structure any less queerphobic – it just neuters actual queerness and renders it unthreatening. Figure that write in such terms include Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, Justin Lee in Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay-vs.-Christian Debate, and Brandan Robertson’s Gay & Christian, No Contradiction.

Queer Theology

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When discussing queer theology, we’re not discussing any particular content or claim necessarily, but rather a method, or pattern, by which one does theology. It is an attempt at both a recovery and a disruption: it seeks to recover queer voices that have been silenced and erased through heteronormative histories and theologies, and it aims to disrupt those heteronormative structures at their core. Queer theology differs significantly from merely pro-LGBTQ, pro-queer, pro-gay theologies in that it operates independently of the legitimation of heteronormative approval. Queer theology, in other words, doesn’t ask permission to exist in church spaces – it is always-already present, even in those spaces where queer persons have been forcibly oppressed.

At its heart, queer theology begins with a simple but profound assumption that “gay,” “lesbian,” and otherwise queer voices have always existed in history, the Bible, and the theological tradition of Christianity. It looks, not simply at what is present in these bodies, but what is absent. Queer theology would look at, for example, Peter Demian’s 11th century polemic Liber Gomorrhianus, the text which coins the term “sodomy” and provides a vituperative condemnation of it as a sin of the highest gravity warranting forceful suppression even and especially among the clergy, and note a few peculiarities of erasure. For one, Peter Demian doesn’t actually name (explicitly) any individual guilty of or supportive of “sodomy.” This is true throughout the history of same-gender love in Christianity: while condemnations are plenty, there are no surviving voices that speak in support of it, or in defense of it. A queer theology would argue that anthropologically, condemnations of this force do not exist in isolation. If there are such texts condemning certain practices as widespread and insidious, then it stands to reason that these practices had practitioners, defenders, and apologists. Where are these voices? Who are they? Either they’ve been lost to history, or placed under erasure – censored, annihilated from the discourse altogether, removed from the written history by the dominant powers. The task at hand is to retrieve those voices, and then allow those voices to disrupt the dominant power’s hold on the way sexual ethics are produced.

Queer theology, in the end, rests not so much on any claim or assumption, as important as they may be, but on its positionality. In essence, it has no “essence;” it has positionality, but no content. It is whatever is self-consciously “not normal,” whatever is marginal. The task of retrieving erased voices requires a great deal of intellectual prowess and a kind of “detective’s” logic, meaning queer theology can be very complex, cerebral, and challenging, much the same way that queer theory itself can be. When your goal is to disrupt power structures and their truth-claims, language and logic dismantling the very concept of truth-claims can go to the very heart of our assumed reality itself, making it appear as esoteric and arcane as an operating system’s source code. But it is also surprising, eye-opening, and highly rewarding, and thankfully, there are several figures who have produced accessible, digestible texts on queer theology. Various figures within it include Mark D. Jordan in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, and the collaborative Queer Bible Commentary.

Queer Liberation Theology

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If queer theology hinges mostly on theory, then queer liberation theology centers primarily on practice. More specifically, it emphasizes resistance, solidarity, and intersectionality. Queer liberation theology may best be described, in fact, as “liberation theology, queered.” It centers on the sexually oppressed and places them in solidarity with the marginalized, including those in poverty and the colonized.

Early forms of Latin American liberation theology left alone the needs and struggles of the sexually oppressed. It took the passionate voice of one of its students, Marcella Althaus-Reid, not only to call them out on that erasure, but to pioneer a theological standpoint that seeks to further the cause of an explicitly sexual liberation. She would argue that the Christian European colonization of Latin America (the Conquista) disrupted and destroyed the sexual way of life of those who were conquered. The tool used by the colonizers was that of “decency” – the system of purity and virginity, of acceptability and normativity that regulated the sex lives of the subjugated. Queer liberation theology dismantles notions of “decency,” placing an emphasis on the role of sexual transgression and the essential intertwinement of economic and sexual justice. It demonstrates how the indecent excess of desire found in queerness proceeds from the excess of Incarnation, of the desire in God to dwell within humanity. To encounter God is to encounter indecency.

One of the greatest contributions liberation theology offers is the ability to arrive at a point of praxis in resisting any number of types of oppression, all while viewing oppression through an unmistakably queer lens. This sidesteps the need for “decency” in liberative struggles of any sort, and it achieves a means by which oppressed sexual expressions such as BDSM, pornography, promiscuity, etc. become mediums for encountering God. Perhaps more than any other Christian theology of sex, it takes seriously the body and lived experience. Texts relevant to this kind of theology include Marcela Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics, as well as The Queer God, Miguel A. De La Torre’s Liberating Sexuality: Justice Between the Sheets, and Pamela R. Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.


The clear takeaway from this survey is that Christianity is not a monolithic entity with one single approach to sex and sexuality. That being said, those working to examine its theologies of sex and sexuality from the benefit and perspective of LGBTQ+ persons would do well to understand that power dynamics that infuse the relationships between these viewpoints. Christianity, historically and even in contemporary society, remains a hostile space for LGBTQ+ persons because those who bear the most power within it use that power to oppress.

To find a queered Christian community is to find a community of resistance.

And for some, any Christian community is an option they can never authentically consider.

7 Reasons Why LGBTQ+ People Don’t Want to Go to Your LGBTQ+ Inclusive Church

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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.

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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

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