I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trying to write this. Weeks in draft-and-delete mode spawned the post you’re reading, but drafting it at all was half the battle. Having first thought up this piece in February, I’ve spent 2014 with writer’s block – but a block is just the state of not knowing what to say or how, and I’ve felt that way about queer Christianity since leaving the church seven years ago. What I’m about to say’s a long time coming.
I was twelve the first time I came out, sixteen when I lost my faith. In the intervening years I never thought God was against me: mine was the God-loves-the-gays Christianity the gays have since fallen for, and I knew all the scriptural self-defence techniques I needed. No one was without sin; all were one in Christ; homophobic Bible verses had been badly translated; they had to be read in context; Jesus himself made Old Testament ideas redundant; he said nothing at all about gay sex; his was a gospel of love and acceptance.
I’m more embarrassed now of telling myself this than anything I thought about resurrections or virgin births. You’d think perhaps that as an atheist, I’d find all my former beliefs equally odd, but given my upbringing I understand why I thought Christ rose from the dead – within a certain belief set these things make sense. The claim that Jesus was a queer ally seems poor on its own terms, so clear a feat of wishful thinking I don’t know how I convinced myself of it, yet I hear it everywhere.
In the brief time I attended my university’s LGBT society, I ran into people frequently who preached this kind of Christianity – some with extreme religious pasts contorting faith into a more bearable shape, some secular but oh-so-keen to prove queer churchgoing possible. These members, who were a major reason I stopped going, pushed for the group to advertise local churches, host talks by clergy and move meetings so as not to clash with church. They got their way, at times by threatening formal complaints.
This February I was invited to a London university for an event called ‘How Faith and Sexuality Go Hand in Hand’. It began with an eight minute speech by a gay priest and saw a lobbyist from Stonewall argue coverage of extensive church campaigns against gay marriage had unfairly stereotyped believers. No one said anything to contradict or complicate the cosy claim of queer-religious coexistence, and prior to Q&A the audience were warned a ‘safe space policy’ was in effect, though not told what it was.
Two months ago I attended a discussion of religion, race and queer identity where a pfarrer from Germany’s main Protestant church declared that yes, of course one could be gay and Christian, echoing gay evangelical Vicky Beeching’s words that ‘what Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love’. Why, he asked, did people always discuss Christian homophobes instead of Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu?
Recently when a friend encountered Christian queerphobia, a relative took to defending their faith, splaining that scripture ‘must be seen in context’, homophobes misrepresented it for their own ends, Saint Paul was condemning pederasty and Jesus, who put an end to Mosaic sexual laws, ‘did not say that homosexuality was a sin. He didn’t even mention it!’
Arguing with this at the time would have been derailment – queer theology’s existence doesn’t negate Christian bigotry – but it’s worth taking the bullshit by the horns, not least because this isn’t just a Christian-atheist dispute: I’ve heard more secular friends than I can count say Christ himself would condemn the homophobia of the Christian right. I’ve a few responses, first of which is to ask: why are we even debating this?
If Jesus, human or divine, was a queer ally – if as is claimed, his gospel involved respecting and defending us and if he’d take our side today – why hasn’t this been clear to most Christians for most of history? Why is it a minority’s contentious view today, and why did queer-affirming Christianity only become an organised force in the global church in the last hundred years, if that? Why were Christ’s teachings misunderstood for the first 95 percent of Christian history?
Jesus was not a queer ally
Only men seem to’ve interested the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome while the New Testament was a work in progress. When one of them, Antinous, drowned in the Nile, Hadrian named a city after him and declared him a god. This wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows: sex between men was as ordinary in pre-Christian Rome as in pre-Roman Greece and Celtic polytheist cultures to the north, whose men, according to Aristotle, enjoyed it even more.
Jesus might not have mentioned gay sex, but the church fathers did, and what they said was unmistakably damning. Detail aside, there’s little historical doubt the rise of Christianity in Rome was what made it taboo, bringing stigma and legal force to bear. Between the third and sixth centuries the Roman Church and Christian Empire took what would one day be called homosexuality from an accepted part of public life to a capital crime: the history of structural homophobia in Europe starts as the history of Christianity.
In later centuries, largely via colonisation, Christian homophobia spread around the globe. Its impact is still being felt.
After centuries of homophobic laws that began in religious courts, inherited by territories as far from London as Australia, it took till 1982 for gay sex to be legal throughout the UK.
In countries like Uganda and Nigeria today Anglican churches planted under British rule campaign, often formidably and with the aid of US evangelicals, for the survival of colonial sexual laws. The same is true in India.
In the US itself, churches’ power to push homophobic laws is only just starting to wane. In South America, packed with conservative bishops by John Paul II, Catholic resistance impeded even modest gay rights work for decades.
In Russia, Orthodox Church officials are among the Putin government’s staunchest allies in its crusade for ‘family values’, whose illustrations in world media are videos of queerphobic violence, often bloody and sometimes fatal.
On every continent on earth (except Antarctica), Christianity has othered and outlawed queer sexuality. Whatever Jesus thought about it, assuming he lived at all, this is the movement he inspired. If he preached love and respect for queer people, most Christians throughout history and probably most in the world today have managed to get the opposite message. If you mean to come to queer people’s aid but end up prompting brutality that lasts thousands of years, what sort of ally are you exactly?
It’s not Jesus’ fault Christians have twisted and ignored his words, one might argue. It’s entirely his fault. When your life’s work is to broadcast your views, particularly if you mean to build a church on them, it falls to you to make them unmistakable – and when people whose life’s work is obeying you do just what you oppose, you may well be in the wrong job. If as liberals claim, Christianity’s impact over millennia has been antithetical to Jesus’ words, the question is not why Christians have missed Christ’s real message – it’s why Jesus was the worst communicator in human history.
He says nothing about gay sex, we’re told as if this proves he had no objection. (Curiously, the same doesn’t apply to slavery or rape.) He doesn’t even mention queer people. I’m afraid when I hear someone takes my side, acknowledging I exist is the least I expect from them. In her 63 years on Britain’s throne and 89 on earth, Elizabeth II has never once spoken of LGBT people, attracting sharp rebukes as a result – yet many of the same activists claim Jesus’ silence shows progressiveness.
Superstitiously worshipped though she is, even Elizabeth’s platform is dwarfed by the billions of devotees he’s gathered since the first century. If Jesus was God he must have known this would be so, but even if not, every account of him suggests someone aiming to start a movement. Elizabeth’s reign, in spite of her tight lips, has seen great advances for queer people; Jesus’ alleged society punished gay sex with death just as its forebears had. Had he wished to confront this, preempt its continuation in the Christian Empire or prevent millennia of queerphobic religious violence, saying something would have been all he had to do. From a supposed radical killed as a revolutionary, who says perfectly concrete things about tax and divorce, it doesn’t seem an outrageous ask. Was he too busy cursing trees?
‘Till heaven and earth pass’, he might have said, ‘one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law. Except the death-for-gay-sex part. Lose that.’
‘Ye have heard that it hath been said,’ he might have commented, ‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. But I say unto you, It’s fine.’
Less than poetic, I admit – then again, had Jesus wished to avert his church’s queerphobic history, one supposes less poetry and more prose might have helped. Consistently since his reported death, Christ’s followers have voiced their own views on gay sex, for or against, far more clearly than he voices any – indeed with far more clarity than they claim he does. It’s all but amusing that as tensions rock the global church today, both camps insist Jesus was obviously on their side. To any Christian not madly self-absorbed, the fact this is a major argument should demonstrate he wasn’t self-evidently an ally.
Thanks to the Internet it’s possible this blog will still be online in two thousand years. If so, I guarantee no one who reads will think I was queerphobic any more than they’ll think Desmond Tutu was or Fred Phelps wasn’t. From Paul on, the believers made their views about queer people more intelligible than Jesus made his. Christians today, whether our friends or foes, are more articulate about it than he was, as are most ten year olds.
Why I can’t take LGBT-friendly Christianity seriously
The last resort is often to point out the cuddly ideals Vicky Beeching cites of ‘welcome and inclusion and love’ – teachings, typically, about loving thy neighbour or judging not lest ye be judged. Since she came out, how many ex-fans in the Bible Belt have called for her records to be burnt in the same sermons as they proclaimed this unconditional love? These people are hypocrites, the answer goes – it’s on them if they can’t practise what Christ preached. But if something’s immoral, messages of general kindness don’t excuse it. In the eyes of Christian homophobes, ‘love thy neighbour’ is no more a call for tolerance of queerness than of rape.
Why do we talk about bigots, the German pfarrer asked, and not Christians like Martin Luther King? For one thing, King distanced himself from gay men in the civil rights movement, cancelling a march where Bayard Rustin was scheduled to speak when a former pastor in the US Congress threatened rumours of an affair between the two. For another, King endorsed conversion therapy. In 1958 a young black man wrote to him, asking ‘I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?’ In a column for Ebony magazine, King replied:
I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that led to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.
Assuming King was a friend to queer people because he spoke of love and community is not just wrong but a worse insult than acknowledging his faults: it shows more concern with giving liberal Christians a respected name to drop than with the facts of what he said and did. In reality, speeches about loving thy neighbour have exactly zero impact on the likelihood someone is queerphobic. Claiming either Jesus or MLK was on our side simply because they’re deemed ‘nice’ is bizarre: most bigots are nice people in general.
It’s hard not to note the case for Jesus as a queer ally requires an absurd degree of generosity, applying uniquely low standards of allyship.
- It is absurdly generous to call someone a queer ally whose name we only know because they spurred a movement that overwhelmingly harmed us for thousands of years.
- It is absurdly generous to call someone a queer ally because they never said a word about us, particularly to a violently homophobic audience.
- It is absurdly generous to call someone a queer ally for preaching nonspecific love and kindness. That never stopped anyone, let alone preachers, persecuting us.
I don’t just bash this theology for fun. Its claims are so preposterous it seems strategically contrived, less a good-faith belief than a desperate pragmatic attempt to reconcile queerness and Christianity. Who could be taken in by such bad arguments apart from willfully?
There was a time believing in a god who loved me got me through the night – I’ve no desire to take any queer person a private belief they need to get by, nor am I cavalier about it, but private belief and public theology are different things, the latter always having been a political choice. The list of encounters atop this post should illustrate that queer religiosity is a less and less private thing. I worry about its effects.
My fear is that my community’s response to religious persecution is increasingly to try and prove itself godly, ignoring that religious respectability is a double-edged sword – and that as a result, a steady religionisation of queer spaces is afoot.
I worry they’re becoming places liberal clergy come to deliver sermons, where believers explain God’s love to others even when not invited to; where God and Jesus in particular feature heavily in activists’ rhetoric, where we’re exhorted to pray and told what our creator meant for us.
It worries me when meetings are moved so as not to clash with church, LGBT groups advertise services in their newsletters, giving out religious flyers at their own meetings, and reservations about this are called ‘hate’, declared a form of bigotry as real as queerphobia. It worries me that when I hear queer theology’s contentions reeled off, it’s usually to deny and dismiss realities of Christian homophobia, both current and historical.
Religious voices being broadcast throughout my community may not declare me an abomination, but this doesn’t put my mind at ease. Religionised environments, even superficially ‘progressive’ ones, are themselves marginalising and exclusionary for many: not everyone can join the circle and sing kumbayah.
Why queer spaces must remain secular
I see why ‘doing God’ as a community might seem politically expedient. I understand the urge to demonstrate religion need not entail queerphobia. Despite this post, I value religious allies – and I recognise queer believers face all manner of challenges that mean they need inclusion and support. I’m not here to deny them that – queer spaces, most of the time, should welcome those of all beliefs and none – but I will argue the following: overt public religiosity stands in the way of this, and believers (queer or not) in LGBT space should be considerate.
Religious reformists are embattled. They deserve acknowledgement because of this, but it’s also why heavily religious spaces can feel tough even for them: being a liberal Catholic or progressive Muslim is frequently hard, and pressure to serve as an exemplary queer-religious role model in LGBT venues filled with prayers and church flyers can be asphyxiating. Those who can’t stand the sturm und drang of a progressive religious identity, as ultimately I couldn’t, often leave, declaring themselves secular as is their right, and a queer community where talk of God and Jesus never stops is an uncomfortable reminder of past angst.
Many in queer communities have histories of religious abuse, whether ordinary queerphobia or physical, sexual or emotional varieties: the mere presence of guests in holy orders, even entirely friendly ones, can make an event a no-go area. There are apostates from all forms of religion who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in LGBT groups that have been godded-up, as I did at university. There are atheists and believers alike with reservations about God-loves-the-gays theology who feel expected to keep quiet. There are undecided people who feel put on the spot, pressured to be louder and prouder. There are people who want to discuss religious queerphobia without attaching endless caveats, or who just want to hear it acknowledged.
Welding together religion and queer identity is a false economy. Communally, it makes us more exclusionary rather than less; politically, it writes off queer people and others who’ll never be godly enough, pushed to the margins by religious structures.
The call for queer space to be secular is not a demand to exclude believers – nor do I buy that LGBT groups where sermonising and official links to churches are left out are exclusionary in this way. To say the inclusion of queer believers requires loud-and-proud expressions of belief at every turn echoes the logic of the Christian right. It suggests the same thing prosthelytising nurses and homophobic registrars insist: that there is no inappropriate domain for faith, and asking believers not to evangelise in any context is discrimination.
By all means call my atheism evangelical, but I evangelise in my own time, on my own blog, and when it comes up in conversation. I don’t mouth off about religion being crap at the post office; I wouldn’t at work if I had a nine-to-five job; I don’t ordinarily at LGBT groups. To do so would likely intrude on something personal in quite the wrong time and place – one that can only be inclusive if it’s secular. Asking believers to show the same awareness and restraint is not exclusionary – if they did, I’d never have needed to write this post. (If you insist on talking Jesus, I will too. If you don’t want an argument, leave him out – I will too. I’d prefer that.)
It’s not an accident queer-affirming Christians have emerged as an organised force within the last century, with major figureheads like Desmond Tutu: they follow a long, slow period of secularisation in which Christianity’s social heft diminished (largely thanks, I must point out, to loudmouth atheists). Only secularisation allows genuine plurality, giving every point of view breathing space – the price of this, as the queer community must learn, is not placing God at the heart of public space. It’s a small one.