I am never sure what to expect when I walk into Christian events. It is not that I am unfamiliar with the church; I am a baptized Catholic, and made a fervent foray into conservative evangelicalism as a teenager. But I felt that my past did not prepare me for the experience of being a queer agnostic walking into an event titled “Loving My Gay Neighbor,” organized by Alaska Family Action, a group intent on defending the traditional, straight Christian family and the religious institution of marriage, and featuring speakers from instantly-recognizable conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family. What would this event mean to someone like me?
It was an older crowd that greeted me, with the average age somewhere around 50. Roughly 60 people sat scattered throughout the disproportionally large auditorium, with fewer than one-third of the seats filled. Is it possible that the so-called sexual revolution is not a first-order issue in the Valley like it is with big name religious organizations? And where were the people my age, the Millennials? Surveys show that in the past decade, Millennials have become increasingly accepting of the LGBT community and of same-sex marriage. On a community level, it seems that the Valley shrugged and wondered, “So what’s the big deal?”
According to Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, the big deal is that scripture is “like the law of gravity” — even if people do not believe in it, it is a constant, unchanging force. In a one-on-one conversation, Minnery explained that “Loving My Gay Neighbor” was supposed to encourage dialogue between the LGBT community and the church, in an effort to better minister to fallen gay people. “If there’s one prejudice I allow myself,” he said, it is that he is “intolerant of Christians who put a scarlet H on the issue of homosexuality,” the people who condemn LGBT people outright.
The first half of Saturday’s talk encouraged understanding. Speakers acknowledged the need for a new church culture, a church culture that does not promise more hurt to those who are already hurting. Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Andrew Walker (the last-minute stand in for Manhattan Declaration’s Eric Teetsel) called for a sanitation of the language used to talk about the LGBT community, insisting that slurs and derogatory phrases such as “That’s so gay!” serve only to isolate gay people from the church. Love into Light author Peter Hubbard took this need for inclusion a step further, pointing out that previous rhetoric that focused on LGBT people as being abominations must be reworked, separating sin, with which everyone struggles, from sinner, attraction from behavior, desire from identity.
This is not to imply that the church has changed its mind about the gravity of same-sex relationships. Catholic author Melinda Selmys and Jeff Johnston from Focus on the Family, both so-called ex-gays, spoke strongly about how wrong life gets when sex is wrong. God has created us, our brains, in a very specific way, they said, and we are made to act in concert with another of the opposite sex. Furthermore the imagery of marriage, the devotion of husband and wife, is central to the conceptualization of the relationship between Jesus; the Bridegroom, and the church; the Bride. God gave us marriage as a reflection of his covenant and it is a love story that must be protected if it is to remain transformative.
In the second half of the talk, the portion that was a large and disorganized Q&A loosely structured around the issue of engaging gay people in real life, there was a curiously revealing moment when the question “What would you say to an LGBT person that would convince them of God’s love?” was asked. For several seconds there was only silence, silence so complete and so awkward that the audience actually giggled. There was no hurried passing of the microphones between speakers, none of the previously exhibited talking over one another as they rushed to present their views. Silence.
Finally, with a giggle of her own, Selmys jumped in with, “I love you?” A couple of the other speakers followed with the platitudes, “We’re all in this together” and “For God so loved the world…”
I have no interest in debating the beliefs of Christians. I believe that all are entitled to their thoughts and opinions regarding the LGBT community. But there is a persistent and chosen blindness that escapes the boundaries of the church, making believers of this sort complicit in the socio-cultural conditions that make same-sex attraction and relationships “broken.”
Minnery believes that he “understands brokenness.” Hubbard insists that, when he looks at the LGBT community, he sees faces, not a characterless mass of theological issues. Yet the church, represented as it was by this panel, continues with an us-versus-them viewpoint; it talks of showing love and compassion for those of us who are LGBT, but consistently works to undermine our civil rights in order to uphold its religious ideologies; it talks about the bleakness of statistics, but does not mention how its political endeavors contribute to them.
The church and its offer of divine healing cannot be both balm to the problems of the LGBT community and part of the aggression that continually wounds us. According to a 2012 report by the Williams Institute, though LGBT youths constitute only about ten percent of the nation’s population, almost 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBT. Do they realize that nearly 70 percent of these youths are homeless because of family rejection? When answering a question from parents about how to get their teenage gay son back to church, Hubbard began by saying that as long his kids are under his roof, they must obey the house rules. Going to church is one of those rules. Does the panel know that LGBT youth have an increased risk of violence, suicide, and substance abuse? Selmys touched on this, even going so far as to mention the “privilege of virtue,” explaining that support systems and stability are very important aspects of making healthy life choices. Despite this admission, the church actively works against social changes that are necessary to provide positive and lasting change for the LGBT community.
If the church is truly interested in communicating with LGBT people and communities in general, it needs to begin with transparency about its intentions. If only when I am marginalized can the church offer the protection of its robustness, the peace of its prosperity, and the authenticity of its love, then what kind of dialogue can it hope to foster? To talk through differences of any variety, whether they be sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, socio-economic status, race, religious belief, or education level, everyone in the conversation must be addressed as people who have rights. Until the church is prepared to engage on that level, events such as “Loving My Neighbor” will be nothing more than the church talking to itself.