Imagine fighting for your right to exist every day in spaces that claim they are “welcoming” or “inclusive.” You sit in your college theology class, or attend a special event featuring a renowned biblical scholar, or stand to pass the peace in your place of worship. The message is “God loves everyone.” The branding is “all are welcome.” The prayer or sermon or worship music articulates “love, openness and acceptance for all.” Open wide the doors. Come to the table. Join our community committed to reconciliation and peacemaking. But… unless… except…
Not if I’m gay?
“I am carrying a heavy heart.
On Wednesday [November 14], I joined EMU’s Safe Space, a student organization that advocates for and supports LGBTQ+ students on campus, as they organized a demonstration and protest spurred by their exclusion from being able to engage invited speaker, N.T. Wright on comments he has made in the past that denigrate and dehumanize LGBTQ folks. I was there as a pastoral presence and as a visible witness to these students’ desire to be seen, heard, and believed.”
All are welcome, but you have to check your sexuality, your partner, your family, your life at the door.
“The demonstrations were peaceful. They did not chant or sing or ‘make a fuss.’ They simply stood visibly in front of the entrance to the auditorium as folks entered and exited. I was tasked with handing out flyers that told their story for anyone who wished to take one. They held signs with messages like, ‘We will not be invisible’ and ‘No one can stop the spirit’ and ‘Amen.’ They were colorful. And as folks came out of the event, the demonstrators stood silently with rainbow colored duct tape across their mouths as a prophetic act representing being silenced.”
We are committed to community, unless you’re queer; in that case, we will marginalize you in order to protect our privilege.
“I got to watch the responses of folks as they came out and faced this group of demonstrators. I also got to engage some of them when they had questions. Some were very confused about why the group was demonstrating and so they asked questions. Those folks were often surprised and disappointed when they heard Safe Space’s story. Others came out with smiles and embraced the students and spoke words of love and grace to the students, saying things like, ‘We see you. We love you. You are welcome here.’ These responses, both the inquisitive and the openly supportive responses were uplifting and encouraging. This was really all the demonstrators were asking for. To be seen, acknowledged, and supported.”
Everyone is invited to fully participate here, except those of you who are not heterosexual: LGBTQ “participants” will be tolerated insofar as they do not make anyone uncomfortable.
“There was one person who became very aggressive in harassing and heckling the group who I spent a long time confronting and keeping away from the students. This was exhausting and difficult. But in the end, I do not carry a heavy heart because of him. He was clearly troubled, sad, and repressed. I pity him and pray that God can soften his heart before the darkness he has embraced destroys him. However, what I do carry a heavy heart over is the response of the vast majority of people who exited the building… They hung their heads, eyes cast at the ground. They refused to make eye contact. They quickly, and quietly walked away without acknowledgement, without comment, and without seeing. They literally refused to see the students.”
Let’s be honest: we are not welcome if you refuse to see us. Oh, we see that you look at us, even stare at times. Those unspoken messages come across loud and clear. We’re being tolerated. We’re being allowed to be in your presence. But we are erased – sometimes dressed up to look like you, sometimes used to get things done, sometimes tokenized to make you feel more progressive. Yet you close your eyes to us.
“I knew a lot of those folks. Some of them are faculty at EMU. Some of them are students at the Seminary. Some were friends of mine. And they would not bring themselves to even look at the demonstrators. To read their signs. To receive a flyer that explained why they were doing what they were doing. Each time I watched someone quickly walk by with their eyes cast down, my heart broke a little bit more. They refused to see the humans in front of them. The humans who only asked for one thing: to be seen.
I don’t know what was on the minds and hearts of these folks as they walked by. Maybe they felt guilty. Maybe they felt uncomfortable. Maybe they were distracted. Maybe they were busy processing the lofty ideas and theological concepts that Professor Wright regaled them with. I’m not sure it matters much though. Because when these followers of Jesus were given an opportunity to see a group of young people who were hurting, they continued on, eyes down, refusing to even see them.”
Instead of seeing our pain, you tell yourselves, “Well, we’re nice to you.” Instead of hearing the injustice we navigate, you convince yourselves we need to “be patient” with those who aren’t ready to change. You tell us we’re equally valued by God, but that we have “different roles.” “Why is equality such a big deal if we let you do everything but ____?”
“But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side…’ (Luke 10:29-32).
The problem with this refusal of many to see the students became magnified that night, when someone went throughout campus and defaced the beautiful chalk messages that Safe Space had written throughout campus with hate speech. At least after that, EMU’s administration distributed a public message of love and support of the LGBTQ students on campus. But imagine a day in which you go from being unseen by those you wish to be seen by to aggressively harassed by an unwell man using Scripture to tell you that you are perverse and unworthy of love and then to discover hate messages scrawled on the sidewalks of your home… Unseen. Harassed. Threatened. But it starts with being unseen.”
It is particularly harmful when a community or individual professes to be welcoming, supportive or affirming and then acts in ways that exclude, silence or otherwise marginalize LGBTQ people. So much trauma has been inflicted upon queer Christians who decided to trust only to be betrayed.
My wife and I went to see the recently released movie, Boy Erased. It follows the story of Jared Eamons, a young Christian college student who admitted to his mother and father, a pastor, “I think about men. I don’t know why. And I’m so sorry.” His parents sign him up for Love In Action (LIA), a Memphis, TN based ex-gay ministry that offered an intensive “conversion” program for youth. Having interacted with and worked for Exodus International in my early twenties, his story was not at all a surprise. I’ve heard so many similar stories of participants in ex-gay ministries and programs. The trauma Jared and his fellow participants experienced triggered memories of my own traumatic experience within ex-gay culture. The years I shared my story of “overcoming homosexuality” I was being harmed and harming others. While watching the scene where the participants in that youth program surrounded a young man and literally beat him with bibles, I felt sick to my stomach. I have felt assaulted by non-affirming/ex-gay Christian beliefs, and I have perpetuated that assault by promoting the ex-gay narrative at a certain time in my life. In the movie, Jared’s parents sent him to the LIA program in a well-meaning attempt to save him from “fundamentally [going] against the grain of our beliefs.” They loved him, yet they submitted him to serious harm. The young man beaten with bibles ended up committing suicide. Tragically, many stories end this way because of the deep trauma experienced because of even well-meaning people. LGBTQ Christians have endured so much harm and pain at the hands of those claiming to love them and promising to help them. LGBTQ Christians also endure much harm and pain at the hands of those who “welcome” them into relationship and prove unaffirming of their personhood, health and life. Walking out of a lecture on bible and theology and ignoring or avoiding queer Christians and their allies protesting the harm experienced by the work of the lecturer may seem insignificant to those with gaze averted and step quickened. “But I didn’t harass them. I didn’t graffiti threatening messages. I didn’t spew outright hate at them.” True, but you allowed it to happen. You dismissed them by refusing to see them. That dismissal is as much an assault as screaming in their faces or vandalizing their homes. You benefit from an oppressive system of heteronormativity and patriarchy. Your silence, your disengagement, your passing by is an abandonment and betrayal of “the least of these.”
Mark Baker, Professor of Theology and Intercultural Studies at Fresno Pacific University Biblical Seminary, reflected in a recent sermon (Nov 11) on the connection between inequality and violence. “Shame [is] the root of violence, and inequality feeds shame. Inequality is a catalyst for shame.” He drew from social science statistics, noting, “As inequality gets worse, these things get worse: life-expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, incarceration rates, mental illness, addiction, social mobility, obesity and homicides.”
Refusing to look at those suffering within your own community, avoiding the difficult work of seeing and understanding the dynamics of that suffering, is to label them “other” – it is to dehumanize them. This dehumanization makes it easier for others to perpetuate injustice while it strips LGBTQ people of their sense of belonging and safety. Shame is the result. Trauma is the outcome. Queer lives are threatened by silencing, ignoring, dismissing, excluding or other forms of marginalization.
In the opening keynote of the 2018 Reformation Project Conference in October, Rev. Brit Barron, makes a similar connection between othering and violence.
“It is power that lets us think that someone else is ‘other’ and we are ‘normal,’ and the minute that you ‘other’ someone, the last domino that falls is violence. That’s the only place that it can go. So, as I stood at the site of violence [Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL], I thought of all the places in which powerful people are telling people that they are ‘other.’ And it can be so simple. Like when I go to Target and it just says haircare, haircare, haircare, multicultural hair. It’s just saying, ‘Hey, your hair is different. You’re other. There’s normal hair and then there’s your hair.’ And that’s fine, and you can think whatever you want to about it. But the last domino to fall is Trayvon Martin. The last domino to fall is violence. The first domino is power telling you that there’s something about you that makes you normal and something else about someone else that makes them other. And we live in a world that is constantly giving messages about being an other, that is constantly trying to conserve their power. Then we have this book that has been co-opted by powerful people telling us its about not having sex before you’re married. It’s about confronting power!”
The fruit produced when LGBTQ Christians are othered by their families, churches, schools and communities is shame – the deep feeling of not being worthy of love and belonging. That shame drives many LGBTQ people to hate themselves, sometimes turning violence inward through self-harm, self-destructive behavior, addiction and/or suicide. However, as Mark Baker also pointed out, the outcomes associated with shame are experienced not just by the group suffering inequality, but by the entire community. “It’s not just bad for the people on the bottom. It’s bad for everyone.” So, another fruit produced by LGBTQ inequality and marginalization is the community’s shame, fear and hate directed toward LGBTQ people. We see again and again the last domino of that social and systemic injustice: violence acted out upon LGBTQ people. And if someone lives at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, they are more at risk. For example, transgender women of color are especially at risk of assault and murder. If the fruit of marginalizing or othering LGBTQ people is death, I think the church needs to wake up to the fact that its tree is rotting.
I’m with Brit Barron: I believe the resurrection the church needs is going to come through the LGBTQ community. “Jesus knew that to get to Sunday you need Friday. And [we are a group of people] who have had Fridays. And when we go into churches and we are fighting for our existence and we are bringing our experience [of suffering], that’s the only way to get to Sunday. And the church needs to get to Sunday.”
Will you see us? Will you hear us? Will you evaluate your own complicity in our suffering and dehumanization? In other words, will you really welcome us?
Note: Reflection on student protest from S.A. King’s Facebook post.