I recently spent time with a friend who is a pastor. He was in the middle of a sermon series on contemporary issues and the topic for the following week was same-sex marriage. He held to a fairly stock-standard conservative evangelical approach and it was clear that his congregation expected him to articulate it.
I suggested that when he preached the sermon his target shouldn’t be the 55 year old man or woman who wanted to hear a strong condemnation of same-sex marriage, but the 15 year old kid who is homosexually oriented but terrified of coming out.
Suicide rates among gay youth are many multiples higher than among their straight counterparts. The key factors are the inability to accept oneself and the absence of supportive and caring community.1Gabs Rosnestreich, “LGBTI People, Mental Health & Suicide” (National LGBTI Health Alliance, 2011) Despite their rhetoric of love and welcome, most of our churches are places that are anything but supportive and caring communities for people whose sexuality doesn’t fit a heterosexual norm. The 15 year old who’s grown up in the evangelical wing of the church has spent his entire life in a faith community where it is assumed that heterosexual orientation is the God given norm for sexuality; where almost every discussion of homosexuality will have focussed on what’s wrong with homosexuals; where the “gay lobby” is fiercely denounced; and where friends and parents and other adults make derogatory comments about homosexuals without censure from their peers. There’s a good chance that that 15 year old has internalised all these messages, wakes up every morning convinced God hates him, and is terrified of rejection if his true self is known. I know this because over the last few years I have become friends with a number of gay Christians and this is the story so many of them share.
Others have found the same. In 2013 Nigel Chapman, who was part of a Baptist church in Surry Hills, Sydney, that established strong relationships with the local gay community, wrote that
The lasting impression gained by listening to the experience of same-sex attracted Christians and community members is that a same-sex attracted person who grows up in one of our churches experiences alienation and fear, expects to be stigmatised and misunderstood, and is given every motivation to stay silent about this issue.2Chapman, “Evangelical Churches & Same Sex Attraction”, 2013. http://chapman.id.au/files/EvangelicalChurchesAndSameSexOrientation.pdf
It’s backed up by research. A 2010 study3Lynne Hillier, Tiffany Jones, Marisa Monagle, Naomi Overton, Luke Gahan, Jennifer Blackman, Anne Mitchell, “Writing Themselves in 3. The third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people.” by LA Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society found that compared to other same-sex attracted youth, religious same-sex attracted young people were:
- More likely to feel bad about their same sex attraction.
- More likely to have experienced social exclusion or had to tolerate homophobic language from friends.
- More likely to report homophobic abuse in the home.
- More likely to report feeling unsafe at home.
- More likely to not be supported by their mother, father, brother, teacher or student welfare coordinator/counsellor, when disclosing their SSA.
- More likely to report thoughts of self harm and suicide or to carry out self harm.
As a member of the church this makes me weep. Surely something has gone horribly and tragically wrong when being part of a church means gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersex young people are more likely to suffer social exclusion, feel unsafe, not be supported, to report thoughts of self-harm and to carry out self-harm.
We’ve been so eager to remove the splinter from the eye of our gay, lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters. Perhaps it’s time to take Jesus’s advice and start removing the logs from our own.
I believe we must begin with a period of introspection and repentance. Let’s put an end to all the sermons denouncing same-sex marriage as though this is the key issue for the church on sexuality. The key issue for the churches is surely our failure to be places of grace and safety for LGBTIQ people.
Human understanding of sexuality and gender has progressed rapidly in recent years. For example, it is now widely accepted that people do not choose their sexual orientation but that it is fixed and given for most of us by the time we reach adolescence. We have learned that the variations within sexualities are far more nuanced and complex than we previously thought. We have learned that people whose sexuality does not fit a heterosexual norm are not perverted or deviant in character, but beautiful creatures made in the image and likeness of their Creator.
Yet our churches remain repositories of bigotry and ignorance. In our efforts to defend a traditional sexuality we have failed to subject that sexuality to the blowtorch of critical reflection. It beggars belief that views that came to us from a time when there was widespread ignorance about sexuality, when sexually different people were thought to be morally deviant, and when violence was perpetrated against them in the name of Christ, do not need changing. Whatever we may end up retaining from a traditional sexuality, we must recognise that there is much in the traditional sexuality we inherited that is not pure nor Christ-like.
We must come to grips with the fact that our churches are toxic, life destroying environments to LGBTIQ people, even when it is not overtly spoken out. I was at an event last night in which a transgender person described the opprobrium that has been thrown at her by members of her church. She concluded by saying:
In the end it wasn’t harassment that made me leave . It was quiet, peaceful, passive rejection.
Those of us who are heterosexual must stop doing all the talking and start listening to the stories, experiences and insights of LGBTIQ Christians and then having listened, consider afresh what God might be saying to us and the way God might be leading us.
|↑1||Gabs Rosnestreich, “LGBTI People, Mental Health & Suicide” (National LGBTI Health Alliance, 2011|
|↑2||Chapman, “Evangelical Churches & Same Sex Attraction”, 2013. http://chapman.id.au/files/EvangelicalChurchesAndSameSexOrientation.pdf|
|↑3||Lynne Hillier, Tiffany Jones, Marisa Monagle, Naomi Overton, Luke Gahan, Jennifer Blackman, Anne Mitchell, “Writing Themselves in 3. The third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people.”|