The Church and Homophobia: A Few Anectodes
I’ve been told that the Church (meaning, in this context, those who call themselves conservative Christians) in this nation is not homophobic, that we are just firm in standing against sin. I’ve been told that we don’t really treat homosexuality as any more or less of a sin than anything else the Bible condemns. And for most of my life, I believed that was true.
Someone I know once said to me that the Church is like a bunch of fish in a pond. The pond is homophobia. We swim in it, and it is so familiar, so easy, so comfortable to us. We just slide and dive through it, and we don’t even realize what we’re surrounding ourselves with. It doesn’t look like hate and fear, but if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s often what we feel for “them”, the LGBT community. It doesn’t look like fear. It just looks like a faceless acronym that is firmly entrenched in our heads but nowhere near our hearts. And it doesn’t feel like we’re accusing anyone of anything, or painting anyone in a caricature, or drawing circles in the sand, but that’s what we’re doing.
I say these things from time to time, but I always get push-back when I say them to other Christians. So, to make it clear why I think this way, here are a few short stories from my own life that illustrate the homophobia that I have seen displayed by Christians in my life. And I’m not just pointing fingers here, because a couple of these stories are my own, before this book opened my eyes wide. Just as a short disclaimer, my stories mostly involve the way I internally processed the issue of homosexuality, and not much else. Growing up I was never very close to anyone who was gay, and the friends I did have who were gay never confided in me. Looking back, that might be a blessing, because I don’t know how I would have reacted.
Anyway, here’s what I want you to think about as you read: none of these stories seem to perpetuate hate. They don’t seem extreme or Bible-bashing or starkly anti-gay. But they are. It’s in the undercurrent. It’s in the attitude behind the words and the choices. But that doesn’t make it any less hurtful to our witness as followers of Christ.
I was a senior in college, and I was sitting on my bed doing homework when my roommate walked into our room. She entered with a flurry of energy, and I could tell straight away that she was agitated about something. She said to me, with this voice that was so firm and decisive, “Tiffani, I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance group on campus.” I blinked in surprise, and the wheels in my brain started to turn. I wasn’t really sure how to respond, so I just laughed nervously and gave her half-hearted, totally insincere affirmation. But in my mind I was thinking…what is she doing? She knows homosexuality is a sin, and she knows she really shouldn’t be supporting sin. I don’t understand why she’s joined this group at all.
But the thing was, the only thing I knew about that group was what it was called. People who say they are gay teaming up with “normal” people and setting out to convince the campus that being gay is normal too. Or at least, that’s the mental description that flooded my mind when my roommate told me the name of the group. Because really, what else could a group like that be about? No way it had anything to do with spiritually and emotionally supporting struggling, lonely gay students who had—God help them—chosen to attend a Christian college best known for its conservative values. In my mind, all I saw was my friend’s beliefs being compromised by weirdos who had turned their backs on God. Never mind that she hadn’t said a thing about what she believes concerning homosexuality. Never mind that all she wanted to do by joining that group was to love and support students who in all likelihood felt ostracized.
That never entered my mind, and that’s because in my mind, gay people didn’t need support so much as they needed to be told their live were sinful. And I believed that because I was homophobic at the time.
This past August, I attended a girls’/women’s conference at my church. I blogged about it in this post. Throughout the day, they had breaks every so often. During one of these breaks I struck up a conversation with an older woman in the pew behind me. We made small talk for a bit, and I ended up asking her if this was her home church. She said it was, and that she and her husband had recently switched churches. They had been going to a United Methodist church in town. My interest was instantly piqued, because I’d been browsing around on Sundays looking for a new church to attend, and I’d heard a lot about this one and had attended it the previous week. So I asked the woman what she thought of it, and why she left it. I saw her demeanor change instantly. And she said to me, in a tone so cold and disdainful that I regretted asking, “We left because the Methodists don’t take the Bible seriously, and they refuse to take a stand on homosexuality.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was so angry and frustrated. Until I’d asked her about the church, she’d been very kind and friendly. But it was like the topic of homosexuality flipped a switch in the woman’s brain and deprived her of every ounce of agreeable dialogue. I ended the conversation right away, because if I’d continued it, I probably would have said something I regretted. It just infuriated me so much that this woman would pick one “sin” out the Bible and leverage it as a legitimate reason to leave a denomination she’d been attending for her entire life.
Growing up, my sister had a friend. They were quite close, and he was over at our house all the time. I knew he had a really sad home life, and that he lived with his grandmother because his parents were screwed up in some way, but I didn’t know the details because they weren’t really my business. I’d always thought something about him seemed a little…”off”. But I couldn’t really put a finger on it and didn’t really concern myself with it too often. It was just this idea I had that there was something strange about him.
Then my sister told me he’d confessed to her that he was gay. And it was like something clicked in my head, and I thought, “Aaah. Now I get it. That’s why I’ve always thought he’s a little strange.” Just to clarify, at the time there was positively no room in my religion for “gay”. The way I saw it, gay and bisexual orientations didn’t exist, and anyone who claimed them was confused, promiscuous, disdainful of Christianity and/or probably had a rotten home life. So I’m very ashamed to admit it now, but my very first thought was that the boy’s admission made sense. This kid had a hard life. His parents weren’t really there for him, and I’d heard from my sister that he experienced bullying. “No wonder he says he’s gay,” I thought. I felt sad for him, and I was glad that my sister was such a good friend to him, because the way I saw it, he was a very confused, hurt, lonely boy who needed such a friend. In my mind his “gayness”, his bad home life, his odd personality, and the bullying were all connected. Fix the last three, and you’d fix the first one. I did feel compassion for him, but it was compassion laced with pity, and that sort isn’t really genuine at all. I thought there was something wrong with him, and I thought there was something to fix.
This story is another that occurred at my church. This time it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to a sermon. It was the Sunday after DOMA had been overturned, so of course I’d been expecting the pastor to address it somehow. I mean really, it doesn’t get much hotter than this issue, and we all know churches love hot-button issues like gay marriage.
Of course, predictably, the pastor addressed it. And he addressed it the same way I’d always heard Christians talk about gay marriage: in a tone that begs mercy from God for the terrible depravity of our nation. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were something very close to this. And of course he didn’t just speak them. He wailed them in just the perfect “woe-is-me” tone. You know—hands raised in the air, anguished face lifted up to the church ceiling. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d dropped down to his knees. It was all very melodramatic. He apologized to God on behalf of gay couples who want to marry. Really, he sort of apologized to God on behalf of the whole nation for legalizing gay marriage. It was quite presumptuous, if you ask me. And then he talked about God’s judgment, and how awful it will be for sinners on the day when they must answer for their sins. Of course, he concluded with a hasty reminder that we must love the “homosexuals” and that they deserve God’s love just as much as we do. But considering it was a quick sentence tacked on after minutes of railing about how terrible it is that they are now allowed to marry, the words kind of lost any impact they might have carried. The call to love was an afterthought. Reminding God that we as a church were totally not okay with the legalization of gay marriage was what that tirade was really about.
I shared this story quite recently, but it really impacted me deeply so I feel the need to add it to this little collection anyway. This past summer I went home for my sister’s bridal shower, and that Sunday I went to the church my family attends—the same church I grew up in and attended since childhood. I don’t remember what we discussed in Sunday school that morning, but I remember that afterwards our conversation veered off topic. We started discussing some pretty controversial issues, which included discussing homosexuality, scripture, and the Church. One lady, who I’d known for many years, and who had always been extremely sweet, started talking about Romans 1 and the authority of Scripture. She said that God knows best, and his instructions are laid out very clearly and authoritatively in the Bible. Then, to my utter shock and dismay, she said that Romans 1 is a clear commandment from God that gays and lesbians are not welcome in church. And that was that, no questions about it.
Nobody skipped a beat. No one challenged her, myself included (in my defense, this was more because I was shocked that such homophobic words would come from the mouth of such a kind lady than because I was too scared to say something). To everyone else’s credit, they didn’t exactly agree with her either. They just kind of shoved what she said under the rug and very abruptly changed the subject. I can’t say for sure, of course, but my guess is that they’d forgotten she’d said anything at all shortly after the class was over.
But I will never forget it. It was the moment my very positive perception of this woman was irrevocably crushed, and it was the moment when I realized that homophobia is just as pervasive in my home church as it is in the larger evangelical world.
I’ve shared these stories not to cast judgment on the Church, or to rail about how awful all the Christians are. I can’t do that, not really. Because I was a part of that group—the homophobic group, I mean—for most of my life. I share these stories because I think they demonstrate how subtle the homophobic mindset can be in the Church. With the exception of perhaps the last story, none of these really seem all that bad. I mean really, come on. Of course Christians shouldn’t support sin by joining gay/straight alliances on their college campuses. Of course a church’s failure to stand up against sin is a legitimate reason to leave it. Of course homosexuality is caused by living in a broken home. Of course the pulpit is the right place to take a political stand against gay marriage.
Of course gays and lesbians have no right to sit in our pews and fellowship with us.
It hurts my heart so much to know that I was part of this problem for so many years. I bought into all the stereotypes hook, line, and sinker and saw nothing but sexual immorality when I saw gay people. I was swimming blissfully about in my pond of homophobia, and I had no idea where I was, or what I’d bought into all those years.
But I’m not there anymore. I’m not ignorant. I’d like to say I’m not homophobic, but twenty-four years is a long time to live with those stereotypes intact, and I don’t think recovering from that will be an overnight process. But I am now guarding my thoughts and words carefully, trying to reject anything that sees my LGBT brothers and sisters as something less than God’s beloved children.
Homophobia is real. And it is pervasive. And if you look clearly, if you look with a heart that is seeking to practice agape love, you might just see that homophobia is not limited to places like Westboro Baptist Church. You might see that it is subtly present in your own church.