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. 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.
This is the third and final part of a series called Homophobia: It Really Is About Fear. See the introduction here. Related posts are Fundamentalist Aesthetics and the Religious Fundamentalism and Sexuality Project, which is still accepting participants (until June 23).
In Part One, I described the way fundamentalist Christians construct an image of what LGBTQ people look like and how they taught their children to be afraid of that image. I imagine that an LGBTQ child growing up would find this kind of socialization very confusing, considering sexual orientation is not equal to a glitter-and-chains fetish. If you’re a boy with a crush on another boy, how do you interpret your feelings in the light of all this? As a straight woman, I can only speculate that it must be alienating, threatening, and confusing. In Part Two, I pointed out that subtle rhetorical tactics and body language were more powerful than the “logic” of anti-gay sermons in communicating to children that LGBTQ identities were not legitimate. Now, I’m going to talk about the realization that kept me from becoming another “hate the sin, love the sinner” fundamentalist.
Most straight people who come out of fundamentalist religion and become supporters of LGBTQ rights, at least according to the stories I’ve read, began to rethink their homophobic training by getting to know a gay or lesbian person, often accidentally. Although I did have the stereotypical accidental crush on a gay guy in college, I actually began tossing out some old beliefs earlier than that. (Dear gay guy from college: I’m sorry for unwittingly creeping you out, and thank you for introducing me to David Sedaris.)
When I was 17, it began to dawn on me that LGBTQ people weren’t the only victims of hate the sin, love the sinner preaching. I had begun to go to community college at night and work during the day. Although my social world was mostly made up of other fundamentalists, I did make friends at work and establish a good rapport with my professors. The more I found myself swept up in the rhythm of work and school and genuinely enjoying the company of my non-fundamentalist peers, the less persuasive were the sermons I heard every Sunday about the “darkness” in the world and the torment of the “lost.” My “lost” literature professor seemed to have a great life: running marathons, extolling the eloquence of Walt Whitman, raving about his wife and worshiping Madonna’s biceps. As I came to know “worldly” people of all stripes, I learned to empathize with their struggles and return the support they showed me. At night, my peers teased me for being “the smart girl” and my professor scribbled enthusiastically over my papers. Everyone at work cheered and clapped when I got into a four-year college. I felt surrounded by love.
Then I went back to church on weekends and listened to the litany of condemnations: prostitutes, drug dealers, working mothers, abortionists, democrats, murderers, sex addicts, gay people, pompous academics, child molesters, SINNERS. And I started paying more attention to that list than ever before.
If the wonderful, affirming people I knew at school and work – people who had no particular reason to build me up and encourage me, people who took time out of their own lives to insist that I pursue my dreams – if these people were the wretched “lost,” and if the suspicious, paranoid, fearful and controlling eyes that bored holes into my heart were the blessed “saved,” somewhere the wires must have been crossed. Why was all the unconditional love outside our walls?
I started to really listen to the litany of sinners and own the ones that applied to me:
- I wanted to be a working woman.
- I didn’t especially want children, and I certainly didn’t want to stay home with them or homeschool.
- I was tokophobic, and I knew that if I became pregnant I would choose abortion. The only other choice was suicide, and I wanted to live.
- I wanted an egalitarian relationship.
- I wanted a college degree.
- I wanted to wear pants and cut bangs into my hair.
- I didn’t want to submit or obey, so much so that I was willing to avoid marriage for life.
- I liked the idea of voting.
Gay people? I started to listen to the way my peers talked about LGBTQ issues. By and large, everyone my age asked, “What’s the big deal if two people who love each other want to get married? It doesn’t affect me and it makes them happy. It’s a no brainer.” I was uncomfortable, but I kept my mouth shut and listened. I also started to read articles on the internet written by LGBTQ people: op-eds, personal essays, stories from survivors (and victims) of ex-gay therapy, the horrible tension of trying to hide or change who they were to suit the ideals of their parents and friends. Trying to crush their souls into the too-tight strictures of the heterosexual standard, like the desperate step-sisters of Cinderella, sawing off their own toes. Mutilating themselves to be accepted.
A bell rang in my head. I know this struggle.
I listened to the church rhetoric again. “Unnatural. Abomination. Perverted. Selfish.” None of those words were applied exclusively to gay people. They were also turned on women like me. I knew that I wasn’t a threat to society. I knew that my motives were to live, love and do something to improve the world I found. What if gay people were more like me than I had ever even tried to imagine?
The church’s explanations no longer worked. I didn’t crave freedom because I was defiant or rebellious. I felt desperate and sad, and I was scared to death of being pinned with the label of “rebellion.” Finally, I began to nurture the small voice that had always told me, whenever patriarchy was invoked, “This isn’t fair.” Insistence that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” and that “God is just, we are unjust” always failed to defeat that small voice. “God made us in his image,” the voice answered firmly, “and he made us with a sense of justice and a desire for love. How, then, can his justice be the opposite of ours? Why would the God who gave us free will make half of us into slaves?”
I am a working woman, I thought. This is my nature. My nature is not the passive, meek, submissive, shamefaced spirit they call feminine. My desire to be free is part of my actual soul. I do not fit in Cinderella’s shoe, and I will not destroy myself trying.
What if gay people, too, weren’t gay because they were “rebellious,” but because that’s just who they were?
This was my turning point. Basic empathy. I began to fight the fears that were encoded in my head. I admitted that I liked men with long hair. I admitted to myself that I really wanted to wear pants (although I didn’t dare yet). I ceased to believe that “worldly” people were more selfish than believers. I began to believe that the LGBTQ people on the internet were telling me the truth when they wrote, We want what you want out of life: love, liberty and respect. I put away the conspiracy theories about the “gay agenda,” as I couldn’t find a single gay person trying to “recruit” Christian children. Instead, I found Christian parents killing their own children with their judgment. The refrain I found everywhere was: I just want to be accepted for who I am. And I wanted to shout that alongside them.
I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but I had just “come out” as a feminist. Soon after, I began to think about issues of race and class more clearly, too. I gained the courage to articulate why the Randian politics of my privileged male friends would never work. I began to think about a future in which I didn’t have to listen to the screeching of pastors about submission and headship and authority. I entertained the idea that a female president was a good thing. It took longer, but I came to support female ordination, too.
I have one final thing to offer to the “hate the sin, love the sinner” crowd from the other side of the fence they built to keep us illegal Christians out:
Unconditional love does not mean loving someone while disapproving of their actions. It means forsaking the right to disapprove. You cannot love who I am and hate what I do. What I do shows you who I am. If you choose to love a figment of your imagination, some idea of who I might become, then you love only your own mind, and what you hate is me.
You can’t have unconditional love and be homophobic. Perfect love casts out fear.