Defining Justice for GLBT Equality

June 9, 2007

I’ve been thinking lately about the many-layered role of justice in the work towards equality for GLBT people within the church.

I think that most of our focus tends to be on equality in rites– and of course that is where it should be because that is the canonical definition of justice.

But the reality, I’ve been thinking, is something much harder to define.  The justice issues surrounding GLBT issues are much more complex.  It is not as if a “wave of a magic wand” that somehow automatically gave us a place at the table would fix all of the injustices.  Don’t get me wrong- it would be the best possible thing that could happen in our debate within the church, but it is part of a much larger and nuanced picture.

My thinking is that there are at least four components to this picture, all stemming from the basic underlying problem that begins with a theology that GLBT folks are somehow less than “normal”, “not ok”, “more sinful”, or however you choose to phrase it.  The fallout from that comes in about three or four different places:

  1. Growing up as a gay or lesbian person takes an enormous psychological and spiritual toll on oneself as one deals internally with the competing forces of authenticity to the way one was created and the way the world says one ought to be;
  2. Messaging from and actions by the Church cause deep spiritual wounds, from which many never recover;
  3. The underlying theology has allowed society to develop a heterosexist attitude, fostering an environment where disturbed individuals can dehumanize us and carry out crimes of hatred on us because we are “just faggots”;
  4. Our spiritual wounds become further deepened as we are cut off from rites within the church and not treated equally.

As I said, I think that number 4 gets plenty of “airtime”– things like consecration of openly gay bishops, performing same-sex marriages, and so forth.

I’ve been publishing a fair amount of material on #3, hate crimes, already, so I’m not going to speak much about that today either.

But numbers 1 and 2 seem to me to be perhaps the most import aspects to the daily life of GLBT people and also perhaps the least publicized.  Everywhere I go I hear stories from GLBT people about their spiritual life.  I don’t believe I have heard from one single GLBT person yet whose spiritual journey was not deeply affected by their experience of being GLBT.  I don’t think I can say the same of heterosexual persons.

For me, for example, I had a close family member tell me shortly after I came out that she could not understand why I would “choose” such an “anti-family lifestyle.”  God doesn’t approve, she said.  I shouldn’t use the word “gay” but homosexual, because “gays” were those “punks” who hung out on street corners in leather.  Of course, she knew all these things because her church had told her so, and so had all of the anti-gay material found in her church’s library.

I was devastated.  How could God’s institutions be used to undermine love in this way?  God is love!  This person who had known (and so I thought) loved me since birth had chosen to believe things from books and church members instead of asking me about them directly.  I was angry at God for letting his institutions become so warped.  I fell away from the church for 10 years as a result of that and similar experiences.  Who needs this kind of judgment?  I put myself on the line, made myself vulnerable to let the people I loved into my life, and how was I treated in response?  Not the way Jesus treated people.  That’s for sure.

I have heard so many similar stories.  Stories where bishops, priests, wives and/or husbands, children, friends, fellow church members, and all different kinds of people have taken their flawed theology out on GLBT people.  Some stories are filled with anger.  Some are filled with sadness, depression, or even, unfortunately, remorse at letting their loved ones into their lives honestly and authentically.

I’m reminded of it now because I was recently in a meeting with people of diverse theological points of view.  Now I have a pretty strong personality, but when some things were said that did not indicate a full understanding of what we experience as GLBT people in the church (that is, the conversation steered towards making room for those who want space at the table at our expense instead of wanting space at the table with everyone else) I fell into that same oppressed mindset– “well, yes, I guess we’ll have to give way again.”

 I’ve noticed that since coming back to Texas that pattern comes out in me more often.  I think that’s because in a more conservative part of the church– even when talking to progressive people here– there is a tendancy for straight people to assume that we need their approval.  The subtle tones and implications of conversations just put us in a place of inequality.  Of course the problem is that many GLBT people in the area are so used to the unfair treatment they don’t mind the unfair treatment– they are just glad to be let in the door.  It takes a very active and intentional effort to say, “Hey, wait a minute, your assumptions are heterosexist and here’s why…”  (which is what I ended up doing eventually in this case).

Some people respond to such oppression with anger (in another recent conversation, this one with gay folks, we called this the “BOQ syndrome” for bitter old queen), some respond to it with submission, some with depression, and there are probably other ways.  But it is a justice issue.  So getting equality in rites is a huge victory in the justice struggle, and in the end it may come back down to that issue.  But the other steps are important too.  We just can’t quantify them up nice and neat for introduction at General Covention.  But I think that they are really what the gospel is all about.



2 Responses to “Defining Justice for GLBT Equality”

  1. Michael Says:

    I am glad to have run across your site via Chris over at Betwixt and Between. I am a former (is one ever a”former”?) Catholic priest, and a gay man who grew up in the (not United) Church of Christ in East Texas.

    I remember after I came out to my parents that my mother told me that she and my father could accept and love me, but “we can never accept that lifestyle.”

    I asked her what “that lifestyle” meant? Did she think all gays were young shirtless guys in leather and chains, drinking it up and having anonymous sex at highway rest stops? Did she think I — her beloved son and a man of the cloth — lived like that? Or that I had plans to do so?

    Of course she didn’t think that, once she stopped to think about it. But like the relative you mention, that basically was what her church and society had told her it meant for me to be gay. That was her reflexive reaction to the news that I was gay and was not going to go back into the closet. She had thought that there were two options — closet or an exaggerated parody of one small part of the richly varied and complex reality that is gay life.

    At that time, I was still in the monastery and faithful to my vows — ALL of them. She had never considered that responsible celibacy might be one of many gay lifestyles — just as it is one of many straight lifestyles. She is coming to understand, now that I have left the community and the priesthood behind (quietly and amicably on both sides), that gay lifestyles can also include responsible monogamy, simple living in small-town rural America and so on.

    Yet she still lives in fear that other family members will reject me if they learn I am gay. This despite the fact that in every instance thus far, I have met acceptance and, in some cases, even delight. Her fear is based on the assumption that they must think the way she used to. I think she has been particularly surprised at how wrong she has been about this when it has come to my nephew and nieces — perfect examples of the generational difference to be found even among many evangelical fundamentalists regarding LGBT issues.

    On a side note, when I am back in Texas visiting, I feel somewhat oppressed, even though I experience nothing directly or even hear much in the way of homophobia. Probably just my own baggage, but I am acutely aware that it is there.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Michael.

    Godspeed on your journey.


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