Today I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy to the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23. At one point he says, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23:4 NIV). It’s not new or original to acknowledge how deeply queer people in the church can relate to this picture of having the religious majority pile burdens on them without lifting a finger to help; in fact, that’s the primary metaphor inspiring Bridget Eileen Rivera’s recent book title. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s become almost a cliché metaphor for how queer people experience Christian cultures hasn’t [yet] resulted in substantial changes in our experience, so today I wanted to share four ways I see this happening in the Christian cultures I’ve encountered. (It turns out in the processing of writing, this blew out into four individual posts to come out in instalments – how very typical of my verbosity.)
As usual when I share uncomfortably heavy thoughts, I encourage you to take the time to sit with your discomfort and be curious about what that discomfort is communicating to you before you push it away. There’s an understandably strong impulse to distance ourselves from uncomfortable realities, especially when we might be unknowingly complicit in contributing to these problems, but please know that even the best of us with the best of intentions have contributed more than we know, so there’s no shame in acknowledging to yourself that you might have unintentionally contributed too. Many of the examples of unhelpful responses I give below were by people I love and respect, people who were committed to doing their best but who didn’t always realise the impact of their actions. I still love them, and we’re still on the same ‘side.’ If you’re committed to the dignity and wellbeing of all people including LGBTQIA+ people, then we’re on the same side too, and our opponent isn’t other people on another ‘side’ but rather the shared problem we both need to tackle of precious humans being unfairly burdened. I hope sharing some of these patterns (and concrete examples) helps us all become more aware of subtle dynamics we might have overlooked and helps us aspire to making tangible changes.
1. Telling us how to speak instead of listening to what we say
There’s a phenomenon I see over and over again where a queer person of faith has finally started to speak openly (often after decades!) and has invited people in their faith community to engage with the whole of themselves, but instead of listening and understanding that person’s experience, the religious community responds by critiquing the words, metaphors, and symbolism that person uses. At worst, it borders on a wilful misunderstanding where the religious power-holders tell the queer person they know more about what our words mean to us than we do, and moreover we are apparently using the ‘wrong’ words the ‘wrong’ ways. At best, it looks like a miscommunication where the Christian majority misunderstands our words but takes no responsibility to expand their understanding, leaving us with the heavier burden of doing all the translation work ourselves or risk being mischaracterised.
Effectively it’s thinking:
“When I hear you say ____, what I understand is ____, and I don’t like that… therefore you need to change what you say/how you say it.”
“I realised that when you say words like ____my automatic assumption is that you mean ____… but the way you keep using that word makes me wonder if my assumptions are a bit off. Do I need to revisit my definition of what ____means?”
Let me flesh that out with a particularly common example (which I explore more in-depth here, and yes, this really happens. I’ve sat through an entire seminar at a conference for Christians oriented towards the same gender where we were lectured by a married heterosexual pastor on “Gay vs SSA”—the literal title of the seminar!—and taught what these words should mean to us and which ones were acceptable for Christians to use.)
Adding burdens looks like this:
“When I hear you say you’re ‘gay’ what I understand is that this is a central part of your identity and communicates a desire to align yourself with a sexual ethic that’s incompatible with Christianity, and I don’t like that… therefore as a Christian you shouldn’t self-describe as ‘gay,’ and you should say ‘I struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction’ instead.”
Lifting a finger to help looks like this:
“I realised that when you say words like ‘gay,’ my automatic assumption is that this is a central part of your identity and communicates a desire to align yourself with a sexual ethic that’s incompatible with Christianity… but as I listen to you speak, I wonder if my assumptions are a bit off because you keep using that word in the context of joyfully submitting your sexuality to Jesus. I think I’ve misunderstood what some of these words mean to you – could you recommend a resource where I could learn more?”
This is a particular danger in conversations using newer/less familiar terms where the tendency is to tell someone else what that word ‘really’ means or jump to conclusions instead of doing the work to keep listening to the word in context until you have a more nuanced understanding. Some words aren’t easily defined on the spot and can’t be reduced to a google search; instead they take a bigger time investment to hear its nuanced usage in a variety of contexts. This is how we learn most of our vocabulary as infants! Even the word “nuance” is a good example – I remember asking someone to define what “nuance” meant when I was a kid, and no one could give a satisfactory definition. They all had some level of understanding because they kept using the word, but that understanding wasn’t easily transferred to my brain in a single interaction. Instead, over many conversations, I’ve developed a richer understanding of the word in its varied contexts until I feel comfortable using it helpfully myself now.
People on the asexual/aromantic spectrums face this frustration all the time, especially women. I’m not even ace myself, but the number of times I’ve heard someone try to explain they’re demisexual only to have another person immediately tell them demisexuality isn’t real because ‘that’s just how all women experience sexuality’ makes me grieve the constant emotional labour of translation exhaustion ace people suffer.
Here’s a hot tip: if someone you’re talking to uses language that you think either a) doesn’t need to exist, or b) could/should be replaced with other ‘identical’ words, then chances are you haven’t fully understood the nuance of their meaning yet.
This applies to imagery and cultural symbols as well as words. Cultural symbolism is beautifully complex and multi-layered and in a constant state of flux developing new meanings. I promise you, even the more controversial symbols might not be as black-and-white as your initial assumptions suggest (and even if they are, taking more time to understand will always pay off anyway). Rainbows, cake, wearing purple, coming out of the closet, and pride flags all have very complex meanings for every queer individual, and if your mind just made the leap to thinking about reasons you think Pride is wrong as a Christian, then that might be a sign your posture is more oriented to jumping to critiques than listening to understand.
If you hear of some LGBTQIA+ Christians enjoying a rainbow cake, before jumping onto an email list to warn the national denomination of “heresy” (yes, this really happened), consider, I dunno, having an actual conversation to hear more about what that imagery symbolised and what that celebration meant to those people.
Those of us who have the relative privilege and safety of speaking out loud about our experiences of queerness already carry such heavy burdens: the constant code-switching; translation fatigue; the constant micro-decisions of either sharing and being misunderstood or keeping those thoughts confined to your own head; the emotional labour of privately reading books/blogs and journaling for years until you finally have the words to start telling your story, only to have Christian leaders rebuke you for telling it wrong; having to invent our own terminology because the secular queer community doesn’t always have language for our intersectional experiences with faith. When Christians add even more burdens to this pile, it takes everything we have not to buckle under the pressure: being expected to do your emotional labour as well as our own when you task us with the responsibility of educating you in these areas; being censored and critiqued (implicitly and explicitly) for our word choices before you’ve even let us finish telling our whole stories; and putting the burden of being understood entirely on ourselves instead of taking responsibility for understanding. (And no, asking us to explain ourselves to you doesn’t count as taking responsibility, even if we will sometimes oblige.)
When you put the entire burden of our being understood on our own backs without taking responsibility to expand your own understanding, you communicate that we aren’t worthy of being understood. Being understood, for a queer Christian, is a special luxury we might only attain if we work hard enough to merit that bonus privilege for ourselves.
It should not be this way.
In contrast, I think of people who are doing the work to lift a finger and shoulder some of these burdens with us. People like my friend M who, in the first conversation where I came out to him, realised that he’d always heard the word “gay” as a slur. Hearing the way this word was weaponised against gay people in school, he assumed it was an offensive term that he as a straight person should never use. But in that conversation, as he noticed the way I used that word, often as part of a longer self-descriptive phrase “celibate gay Christian,” he realised that what the word meant to me didn’t align with his assumptions. He didn’t tell me I was misusing the word, he didn’t ‘reassure’ me (as some have done) that ‘I don’t see you as gay – I just see you as a person,’ and he didn’t tell me that “struggles with unwanted same-sex attraction” would be a more Christian word choice. He paid attention to the whole story I shared and let that broader understanding reshape his understanding of the smaller word choices. He gently gave me the opportunity to share more without demanding me to explain for his benefit, and he ended the conversation by asking what specific steps he could be taking to shoulder some of the heaviness I was carrying in that Christian space.