Part of an occasional series celebrating Whosoever’s Silver Jubilee.
(Author’s note: I use the term “queer” throughout this essay for consistency, even when it is anachronistic.)
If I remember correctly, I saw a print edition of Whosoever at a newsstand near my college. I was excited to see a resource for queer Christians but saddened when I couldn’t find it anywhere back home, at least until I stumbled on the website a few years afterward and became a contributor.
Founding editor Candace Chellew was dedicated to providing information and ideas to help her readers’ spiritual development. But the writers were blessed as well: I was just beginning to heal the division between my sexuality and my faith, and my time writing for Whosoever gave me the opportunities I needed to work through my own theology.
Still, I could not have known 25 years ago how much the internet would radically change how we access news and information, but also how it would multiply the number of queer Christian resources available, with websites, bulletin boards, Facebook groups, Twitter tags, Tumblr threads, YouTube videos, podcasts, and other social media sites existing alongside — and often supplanting — print, radio, TV news, and movie documentaries as sources of information for our community. In fact, social media has allowed many of us to find community — including finding affirming churches—in ways we could never have imagined in 1996.
These positive developments have been reflected in U.S. culture as well. One of the biggest changes has been, of course, the SCOTUS decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States — resulting from years of hard work among activists, lawyers, politicians, and others behind the scenes. At the same time, in “front” of the scenes, the queer community made itself more visible to the public. Queer actors, musicians, dancers, artists, writers, filmmakers, and designers showed they could be out of the closet without losing their audience.
Nowadays, television shows and movies not only include queer characters, but some of them actively focus on them: Gays and lesbians, trans folks, drag queens have all been in the spotlight, and bisexual, asexual, pansexual characters are becoming more prominent as well. Outside Hollywood, openly queer politicians are now taken seriously as candidates for nationwide office. Likewise, openly queer athletes are competing at the top levels of both individual and team sports — as I write this, the first active NFL player (that’s American football) came out of the closet — and sports organizations are taking their queer fans (and the problem of homophobic fans) seriously.
We’ve even had openly queer Christian leaders at congregational, regional, and denominational levels. These are changes that, 25 years ago, we were hoping to see, but the speed at which they have happened has been breath-taking.
Perhaps the most significant sign of cultural progress in the United States has been the increased visibility of trans people and trans activism. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, all I knew of trans experience came from sensationalist news stories about sex change operations or cross-dressers.
We can be thankful that the past few decades have seen those simplistic categories replaced by a much broader set of terms that cover a much broader set of experiences: transgender, gender fluid, non-binary, etc. We, as a culture, are being challenged to rethink binary notions of gender and to recognize a much more diverse set of gender experiences and expressions.
Notice how often people now post their pronouns! Simultaneously, trans visibility has dramatically increased. When I first learned about trans experience, I was taught that trans people were expected by their doctors to be able to pass in public — implying that anonymity meant success.
In 1996, there was no Trans Day of Visibility—the first Transgender Day of Remembrance was still three years away — whereas today we have openly trans public figures as well as movies and television shows featuring trans storylines. And politically, it seems the old argument that fighting for trans rights would doom the fight for LGB rights has been proven wrong — we accomplish more when we work together.
There is clearly a lot to celebrate. Many of us no longer feel afraid to be out to our families, coworkers, and neighbors.
Backlash and cultural lag
But we aren’t fully equal yet — culturally or politically. Every change brings a backlash, and for all our political victories, there are politicians working to turn back the clock: To undo same-sex marriage and adoption rights, to prevent teachers from acknowledging the existence of queer people in their lessons, to prevent trans people from being able to function as their true selves in public. Churches and denominations are splitting over queer affirmation. People continue to boycott queer-friendly advertising. We still face a cultural lag — as if we have progressed so quickly that our society is suffering jet lag.
A conversation I heard about 10 years ago demonstrates this lag — and reveals that some of the fault lines are now internal to the queer community. I was working at a state university in the southern U.S. and was visiting the student LGBT Resource Center — a small office space where students could hang out between classes, work on projects, hold events, etc.
The day I was there, a group of students was upset because one of them, from a small, conservative, rural town, was not yet out to his family. They could not believe that in 2011, an adult man was still closeted.
The fact that he needed his parents’ financial support to stay in school did not seem to satisfy their sense that he was behind the times. Their disbelief surprised me more than his continued use of the closet, since for my generation closets remained a necessity when parents were paying for school.
But these students had grown up in more progressive (often more urban) environments — many of them had come out before high school and had been supported by their friends, teachers, and even family. They seemed unable to comprehend that people their own age still needed the closet to finish college.
They could not imagine that the support they had found in high school was not the norm across the state. They could not understand how exceptional their own backgrounds had been, how fortunate they were to grow up in progressive areas.
This is the lag, the gap, or divide that we need to address in the next few decades: The queer community has diversified to an extent that some of us have trouble understanding the experiences of the people marching next to us in the parades. Things have come a long way — for some people, to some communities, in some contexts.
But not for everyone, at least not to the same degree. While we continue to face the backlash from the larger culture we live in, we also need to recognize that not everyone has the same level of freedom to be safely out and open.
The conflicted church
Other denominations have organizations that help individual churches publicly affirm queer folks. Not all denominations are willing to make this leap of faith, of course, and some of them are blatantly ugly regarding queer issues.
But a more complicated problem is that there are many non-affirming congregations inside affirming denominations. Church members are often more traditional and more conservative than church leadership, including their own pastors. This can be dangerous for queer folks looking for a safe congregation — just because a pastor is supportive doesn’t mean the members will be too.
I live in the suburbs of a large southern metropolitan area, an area with a Southern Baptist Church every five miles. Even among the local churches that belong to affirming denominations, such as the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians (USA), and the ELCA, it has been difficult to find congregations that publicly affirm the full participation of queer people in the church.
And then there are non-affirming churches that don’t want to be known as non-affirming: the pastors are not in fact supportive but claim to be welcoming, in hopes that they can later “save” queer folks from their queerness (look up #ChurchClarity).
In my experience, even people who attend these churches are often unaware that gay couples will not be affirmed or that gay or trans singles will not be allowed to serve in leadership. They will invite gay folks to attend, not realizing they might be setting up something ugly down the road.
Worse, some of these churches continue to promote the old menace of “conversion therapy,” despite many of the big ex-gay groups having closed up shop, admitted defeat, and publicly apologized for hurting people, and all major professional psychological associations rejecting it as harmful.
There are huge and dangerous gaps here: Non-affirming congregations in affirming denominations, affirming members in non-affirming churches. And where you live can significantly impede your ability to find a safe place to worship.
I have been at churches to which people drove over one hour because it was the only safe church in the area. Imagine what it is like for people without reliable transportation, for people who have to work on Sundays and can’t drive that far, for youth who depend on family to drive them to church. Access to safe churches is highly uneven across the USA.
Conflicted as Christians
We queer Christians have gaps among ourselves too. We are still divided on the boundaries of our own affirmation: the long-running Side A/Side B debate over whether gay Christians can be sexually active is still active (I confess I don’t know how that debate plays out regarding trans issues). Can this division between traditional and progressive theologies of sexuality be reconciled? Or will we be forever divided amongst ourselves over how queer we can allow ourselves to be? This debate can get ugly, and it can divide congregations.
Meanwhile, a more subtle debate is whether we should attend all-queer congregations or assimilate into mainstream congregations with largely straight, cis memberships.
Going to an all-queer congregation brings an element of safety, and the sermons are bound to touch specifically on topics relevant to queer folks; however, it is vulnerable to the charge of self-segregation and to the concern that we are not giving our straight, cis neighbors the opportunity to get to know us or to see God’s work in our lives. Plus, it is often not an option for many people, if there are no such churches within reasonable driving distance.
In contrast, going to a mainstream church has the benefit of integrating the congregation, but perhaps at the expense of not getting the queer-specific instruction we need and at the risk of becoming the token queer person.
Both approaches are useful — your choice might depend on any number of factors ranging from how comfortable you are being the only queer in the room to whether there is a queer congregation within reasonable driving distance. But the debate is often more ideological than practical, and that could be a problem down the road.
Just as we have gaps among ourselves regarding our roles in church, so also the general queer community has political gaps that seem to be getting bigger every year. As support for queer rights grows among the general population, queer folks have felt freer to disagree with the political strategies of the queer rights movement, and our internal political divisions have become more evident.
Queer conservatives argue that traditional values and conservative policies are more important for society than the needs of queer people. Some queer folks vote for conservative politicians — even anti-queer politicians — for economic or foreign policy reasons, perhaps because believing that these issues are of greater import or that queer rights are “resolved” and safe.
Sadly, we also see that being queer does not prevent us from being racist, not just on dating profiles but in the voting booth as well. Nor, at least among the gay male community, does queerness prevent misogyny, as found in disparaging statements about women’s bodies or about “femme” men.
These divisions hold us back, reinforcing gender/racial separation and distracting us from our common issues, including the rights of our queer siblings in other countries. It is as if our progress has lulled us into forgetting how much our progress has depended on the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. But worse, it suggests that we would be willing to sacrifice parts of our coalition given the right circumstances — a willingness that could easily be turned against us.
Gaps in terminology
Finally, we still have gaps regarding our own terminology. As mentioned earlier, we are much more aware of the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation: We now understand that some people are non-binary or asexual or pansexual or demisexual or sapiosexual, etc.
For people like myself, who were already adults 25 years ago, the profusion of labels can be a bit overwhelming. But I have found that the situation is worse than simply being overwhelming: These new terms have completely escaped the notice of many people in my generation.
When I use the terms ace or demi in online groups for queer men, guys say they’ve never heard those terms — or that those identities are not “real” (think of how often bisexuality has been dismissed by gay folk).
This issue seems to be more of a lag than a gap. The unfamiliarity is unfortunate but somewhat understandable and can at least be neutral; the dismissiveness is troubling and suggests an unwillingness to update our understandings of identity and orientation. We cannot fight successfully for the rights of people whose experiences we consider invalid.
Perhaps the biggest gap around terminology, however, continues to be around the Q word: Queer. Although the term has become widely used as an umbrella term for the whole set of trans/homosexual experiences and as a useful term for people who have not found which term best fits their experiences, many people still associate the term with bullying — hurled as an insult, sometimes accompanied by physical violence — and forever incapable of being recuperated as a positive or even neutral term. When the popular website Gay Christian Network (GCN) changed its name a few years back to Q Christian Fellowship, it created quite a bit of controversy among its users: Some people left the site completely, and others refused to use the new name.
It is unclear how much the resistance to the term is generational — I hear much more resistance from older folks — so the division may fade over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, we need to address the problem that our labels have shifted from useful tools that help us explain ourselves to fixed boundaries we feel we must defend when challenged. The generations need to understand the differences between their experiences if we are going to be flexible enough to adapt to whatever the next 25 years brings.
I point out these divisions not to be pessimistic, but to show how much has changed. With the increased acceptance of queer people among the general public, new challenges have arisen that perhaps we could not have anticipated 25 years ago.
Whereas we have always known there would be pushback from churches and political groups, we might not have foreseen how we ourselves would push back on the diversification of terms or how we ourselves would refuse to let go of racial and gender biases.
Maybe we could have seen that some queer youth would grow up in safe environments. But even then, how could we have prepared teenagers to understand how geography complicates the already complicated intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and religion?
And how do we help older folk understand that the younger folk don’t see the word “queer” as a threat? Each generation must learn for itself the limits to its understanding of people from different backgrounds. Those of us who were adults 25 years ago must learn that the labels we adopted back then are not the full expression of sexuality and gender identity.
Those of us who weren’t yet born 25 years ago must learn that people their own age might have very different experiences of coming out or staying closeted. We all need to recognize the dehumanizing effects of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, and other prejudices that we have learned. And as queer Christians, all of us must continue to be patient with our church siblings who are learning about affirming Christianity for the first time. May we be shining examples of the love of Christ and the inclusivity of the Realm of God.
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.