A few years ago, I attended a retreat through a prominent ministry that is all about community, creativity, and, as they would put it, “living from your heart.” On the wall, of the main building, there was a calligraphy sign that read, “you have a seat at the table.” As someone who had never felt comfortable in their own skin, the sign spoke volumes to me. At God’s table, there was space for everyone, even me.
Last winter, I decided to apply to their sixty-day discipleship school. By that point, I knew that I was queer*––I had yet to come to terms with my gender identity, but as someone assigned female at birth, I had accepted the fact that I was attracted to women––but I was so moved by the message, “you have a seat at the table,” that I hoped I could attend the school despite my sexuality. I meticulously planned my explanation: “I am gay, and I believe that God will bless my future gay marriage, but like any straight student, I will sign the commitment not to date during the school, so my sexual orientation should not impact my place in your community.” They valued people’s whole selves, so they would value that, right?
I started the application, thoughtfully answering every question, until I got to the “morality” page. “Have you ever struggled with same-sex-attraction?” It was a yes-or-no question with no space for comments. “Who are you working with to get freedom in this area?” Still not enough space for my explanation. And no space for me at the table. I closed out of the application and cried myself to sleep.
Phrases like “same-sex-attraction” and “struggling with…” are homophobic dog whistles from anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies that are so extreme they believe that even identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual––even without acting on your attractions––is sinful, and being transgender is altogether off the table.
Adherents to these ideologies actively strip you of any ties to the LGBTQ+ community, encourage you to repress your sexuality and/or gender so deeply that you forget it’s there, and dangle “true belonging” before you if you can only rid yourself of the very things that make you you.
But this is not the only kind of exclusion that LGBTQ+ Christians face. Some Christian communities prefer not to talk about it, but exclude LGBTQ+ believers from full participation and leadership in their churches. In those communities, you can attend services, tithe, and maybe even join a small group without ever hearing anti-LGBTQ+ messages. But when you ask to lead something or get married to the person you love, you run up against a rainbow glass ceiling.
And there are other groups that call themselves “side B,” meaning that it is fine for a Christian to identify as LGB (these groups are silent about trans individuals, often pretending that we don’t exist), as long as they remain celibate. For them, being “homosexual” is not wrong; only committing “homosexual acts” is a sin.
All of these forms of homophobia do profound spiritual damage to the LGBTQ+ people within their midst. For all of them, the person who is beloved by God is not you: your God-belovedness is dependent upon your ability to squeeze your queerness into a little box and shove it under the bed where it never sees the light of day.
I am now fully out as non-binary, and in a relationship with the most wonderful woman in the world, and the damage that homophobia and transphobia inflict on a soul has never been more evident. The past six months of dating my girlfriend have been the best six months of my life, and the thought of denying anyone the experience of falling in love is absolutely heart-wrenching. And remember that kid who had never felt comfortable in their own skin? For the first time in my life, presenting as masculine-of-center, using a name and pronouns that fit who I am, throwing feminine gender roles out the window and just being me, I feel like I’m truly myself.
God gave me these identities as beautiful gifts, and when I finally stopped suppressing them, stopped running from them, stopped trying to wrench my very heart out of my chest, I have received the most beautiful gift of them all: I am deeply and gloriously beloved.
What can we do to help the cause of inclusion?
A. No matter the context in which you find yourself, one of the best things you can do is to be a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion. It might cause controversy within your spiritual community, but the LGBTQ+ people within your community (and trust me, there are some) will know that you’re a safe person for them. And others, who aren’t sure what to think about LGBTQ+ inclusion will see your example and it will seem a little more reasonable to them (I’ve personally benefitted from vocal allies in both ways.).
There are also so many practical things you can do, and so much of it depends on where your community stands on inclusion.
B. I know this is a big ask, but if you’re in a publicly non-affirming community, you should seriously consider leaving. You may have good reasons to stay, and it’s even possible that you might be making more of a difference continuing to advocate from within your community, but staying should not be an easy decision. Your community is perpetuating significant spiritual harm, and driving LGBTQ+ people away from the loving arms of Jesus. Even if you personally disagree with the anti-LGBTQ+ stance, your tithe dollars are contributing to our oppression.
If it’s worth staying, put your straight privilege on the line, and keep speaking up, even if you face consequences.
If I came to your church, I would be shown the door or shoved into a conversion therapy closet, so even if you get kicked of the worship team, you’re still being treated better than I would be.
C. If you’re in a community that prefers to sweep LGBTQ+ inclusion under the rug, you can advocate for clarity. Church Clarity (www.churchclarity.org) is a US-based organization that encourages churches to be open about their stances on LGBTQ+ inclusion so that people can see their position and make their own choices. Look up your church on Church Clarity. If they don’t have a clearly articulated stance, email your pastor, and forward the reply to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name, location, and pastor’s name of your church.
Here is a sample email:
It has recently come to my attention that we do not have a public policy on LGBTQ+ inclusion, so I wanted to ask about it. If I was openly gay, and in a relationship, would I still be allowed to attend small groups? Serve on the worship team? Lead a small group? Would you be willing to marry me and my partner? Could an LGBTQ+ person serve as a pastor here?
I know that our church values being a welcoming space for all, but what are we doing to make sure that all people are able to fully participate in this community?
D. If you’re in a Side B community, one of the most important things you can do is to ask about trans people, and keep asking! Side B theology doesn’t survive when trans people come into the picture: either they affirm us transitioning, or they don’t. There’s no “third way.” So don’t let Side B theology erase us.
Another thing you can do is to be intentional about not just supporting LGBTQ+ individuals, but supporting LGBTQ+ couples.
Side B theology doesn’t mind us as people, it only minds when we start doing what God made us to do: fall in love. So support our love.
E. It’s wonderful if you’re in an affirming community, but there’s always more to be done. Ask yourself: does your neighborhood or city know that your church is affirming?
Some churches fly Pride flags outside or use inside their doors. Some churches have a booth at Pride. Even if your church can’t do these things, you can apply to be Verified Clear: Affirming on Church Clarity (link: https://www.churchclarity.org/resources/how-to-be-clear), and you can list your policy clearly on your website.
But people knowing about you is not enough, you actually have to be able to support the community that comes. Are your people educated on trans identities? Do they know how to use our pronouns and talk to us normally?
Consider holding a workshop on trans inclusion.
If your worship services use binary language like “sons and daughters” or “brothers and sisters,” change those phrases to “children” and “siblings.” It’s fewer words, and it keeps the liturgy from excluding non-binary people.
You should also seek out LGBTQ+ people to lead, not just attend. There are so few places where LGBTQ+ people can exercise their calls to ministry, so even if you can’t hire more people, bring us in as guest preachers, have us give workshops, support our work.
F. Lastly, and this is for everyone, don’t neglect intersectionality. I’m grateful for the visibility that Mayor Pete gave to LGBTQ+ Christians in his presidential bid, but we’re not all wealthy cisgender white men.
Every marginalized identity forms into a whole.
This is why over 20 trans women of color were murdered in 2019 (source: https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/11/12/black-trans-women-pay/).
If your church is affirming, but there’s no space for people of color, or there’s lots of cis gay men, ask yourself what’s missing, and work to make your space more inclusive.
We love to say that everyone has a seat at the table, but let’s be the ones who actually make it happen.
Footnote: *A word about the term, queer: This term is a reclaimed slur, and is widely used among LGBTQ+ individuals, especially among those whose sexuality is fluid, or who, like me, identify outside the gender binary, and thus need different terminology for their sexual attraction than words like “lesbian” or “gay.” However, as this term is sometimes still used as a slur, it’s also highly offensive to other LGBTQ+ individuals, and the word is a strong source of debate among the community. A good rule of thumb is that you should never use the term “queer” to refer to an individual unless you have heard them use it to refer to themself, and if you are not part of the LGBTQ+ community, try to use LGBTQ+ when referring to a group of people unless you know that they are all comfortable with the word “queer.”
-Alex M. Griffin
Alex M. Griffin is a queer, non-binary seminarian at Montreal Diocesan Theological College. After graduation, they hope to serve in the Anglican Church of Canada. You can find Alex at @alexegesis on Twitter, or read more of their work at http://www.alexmgriffin.com