Trigger warning: The following post contains frank descriptions of the hate speech against LGBTQ people that my church used to inculcate fear and contempt in its youth. It’s probably not something you want to read if you’re already having a bad day. I have decided to write about homophobia for two reasons: first, to demonstrate the falsity of fundamentalist rhetoric about “hating the sin and loving the sinner,” and, second, to shed light on the tools fundamentalists use to instill fear of LGBTQ people in their children.
In my church, homophobia was a matter of course. We didn’t spend a lot of time hashing out the Scriptural arguments against homosexuality. Occasionally Paul and Leviticus were cited, but more often, sermons would rattle out evidence of modern depravity along these lines: “…and Satan has so perverted this generation that it thinks there’s nothing wrong with divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and girls throwing their babies in trash cans and doing drugs.” Defiance of gender roles was just one of the most obvious signs of demonic control.
Whether or not my church explicitly intended for me to receive this message, I understood homosexuality as one of an array of perversions. Homosexuality, promiscuity, pedophilia drug addiction, alcoholism, cheating, self-harm, unwed pregnancy and abortion were not treated as separate issues. I was afraid of gay people because I was taught that it was impossible to be gay or lesbian without partaking in all of the above. It was a slippery slope argument of the worst kind. One image that absolutely never came to mind when my church talked about homosexuality was a committed, loving gay or lesbian couple. We were taught that sexuality was like a fire: if it was not contained, it would consume a person, annihilate their love for other people and cause them to abuse each other sexually. In other words, a gay man was a straight man who had failed to keep his carnal desires in check (or a straight man who had fallen prey to a demon).
My church badly wanted to pin an image on homosexuality, to label it abnormal and self-destructive. My church, after all, was fixated on the end times and craved evidence of increased moral depravity. The trouble is, sexual orientation is invisible. You can’t know that the feminine guy at your office is gay unless he tells you. You can’t spot lesbians in the grocery store, no matter what you think of the butch outfit the manager is wearing. You can’t even look at a crew-cut military officer, the paragon of masculinity for my church, and know that he’s straight. In order to be homophobic, a person has to have an image in mind of what homosexuality is. For my church, that image was pretty much Adam Lambert:
The great big argument against homosexuality? Blue hair, leather and chains. It scared us, just like the lost souls of the Hell’s Angels scared us. Goths and motorcyclists didn’t look holy. Therefore, they were probably gay.
Now, obviously, there’s more to it than that. There were all the justifications, the lies that enabled us to pretend we weren’t just scared:
- Gay and lesbian people are sexual predators.
- They all have AIDS.
- They hate God and want to drag us down to hell.
- They have abortions for fun.
- They want to spread their “lifestyle.”
Did reproduction matter? Tangentially, yes. My church taught that living beings that can’t reproduce are “dead.” William Branham used this expression to talk about what was wrong with denominations: they mixed God’s word with human ideas and produced death, just like a horse and a donkey could produce a mule, but the mule would not be able to reproduce with another mule. Looking back, the emphasis on reproduction was pretty strange to find in a religion about transcendence and eternity. “Unnatural” entities that couldn’t reproduce were the target of so much derision that seemed to come from anywhere but the Bible. It came from disgust, rooted in the transgression of gender norms. It was a taught response (not a reflexive one) to deviations from the standard family we were being trained to reproduce.
When I was a fundamentalist kid, I was never afraid of “catching the gay.” My discomfort was more generalized: gay people represented something Out of Order. A possibility of existence outside the Truth, that made the Truth suddenly seem small and parochial. I wasn’t afraid of a “gay demon,” but rather of the demons of sexual perversity that only manifested in some as homosexuality. But I could never articulate what I expected would happen to me if such a demon did leap onto my shoulders as I walked past a liquor store or two men kissing. My fear was grounded in emptiness: gay people were Impure. Out of Order. Perverted. But I couldn’t for the life of me say why that belief made me feel so threatened.
“Touch not the unclean” defines homophobia for me. It’s a sense of generalized discomfort and disgust with others that is founded on nothing. It’s not rational, so it defies rational explanation. It’s a conditioned emotional response that causes fundamentalists to pull away from “corruption” wherever they imagine it might be lurking. It’s also a response that makes no sense in Christianity: such an attitude towards publicans, lepers, poor people and Samaritans was exactly what Jesus opposed. And he didn’t oppose those attitudes only to replace them with a sanctimonious missionary attitude that says, “I hate the sin but love the sinner so that I might bring him into the fold.” He genuinely loved, respected, and accepted them as human beings. For all their frenzied frothing over “worldly” perversions, one wonders whether fundamentalist preachers have ever actually read John 3:16.