Dear Libby: How do I talk to a homophobic religious friend?

Dear Libby: How do I talk to a homophobic religious friend? February 22, 2012

Dear Libby,

I know a person in a club I’m part of who genuinely believes in anti-equality messages. So far he hasn’t dropped Leviticus on me, but he has offered up Genesis 2:24. There’s a whole lot of “I didn’t make the laws and I wasn’t consulted on them” as excuses for his homophobia. Is it even worth engaging with somebody like that?

I’m sorry to bother you, but you’re really the only person I can think of that has any experience with this level of intractability. The highly religious in my life tend to be liberal (including two ministers), so I’m not sure where else to ask. I sincerely hope you’re not offended by this email, and I know you’re busy, but if you have any ideas I’d appreciate them.


This is a hard question, because when someone believes something because they believe the Bible says it, and that God inspired the Bible, it really puts a stop to intellectual inquiry pretty quickly. Sometimes the case becomes hopeless.

I grew up believing that the Bible condemned homosexuality. In college, I heard this challenged, and I realized some of the problems with my belief. For example, the Leviticus passage can’t be used as an argument unless the other passages in Leviticus, such as those condemning the wearing of clothing made from two kinds of fibers as an “abomination,” also continue to be in effect. I also learned that the verses condemning homosexuality in the New Testament are problematic because we’re not sure we’re interpreting the Greek correctly.

I tell this story because even as I realized that the Biblical case based on verses like these was completely unsound, I continued to believe that the Bible condemned homosexuality because of precisely the passage you mention. 

Genesis 2: 18-24 – The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

In other words, God’s perfect plan for marriage was as a union between a man and a woman. The two complete each other and are meant for each other. Where does a union between two gay men or two lesbian women fit into this? It doesn’t.

What changed my mind? First, contact with gay individuals who made me realize that being gay wasn’t just something someone chose and that gay people are just as much people as anyone else. Second, a declining belief that the Bible was directly inspired and an increasing conviction that the Bible’s authorship was highly influenced by culture.

For me, I was homophobic both because of what I believed about the Bible and because I had never known anyone who was gay and had been taught lies about gay people. As I had more contact with gay people and as my understanding of the Bible changed, the causes of my homophobia disappeared. The two causes were both distinct and interrelated.

What I don’t know from your email is how religious your friend is. Does he go to church regularly? Is he an evangelical, or perhaps a fundamentalist? Are the majority of his friends and relations also highly religious? Does he read the Bible and spend time in prayer? Is he influenced by the teachings of groups like Focus on the Family?

If your friend is not very religious in general he may merely be using the Bible as a cover for his homophobia. In this case, increased interaction with and understanding of gay people as human beings would help normalize it, and possibly change his views. If the Bible is only a cover and he has already had positive interaction with gay people, then I’m afraid he may be too bigoted to help.

If, however, your friend is genuinely and devoutly religious, it’s likely to be more complicated. More exposure to gay people and an increased normalization of their lives would still be beneficial; it could create a tension between his personal feelings toward gay people and what he believes the Bible says that might cause him to reevaluate his beliefs and what he believes the Bible says. At the very least, it could make him look more favorably and understandingly on gay people even if he continues to oppose gay marriage for religious reasons.

However, if his homophobia is not based at all on ignorance about or fear of gay people, if he has already had plenty of positive interaction with gay people and his homophobia really does genuinely spring entirely from the Bible, you’re in a tougher spot. You have to target his conception of what the Bible says, and that’s not easy.

You could point him to some gay Christian websites that argue that the Bible is completely compatible with GLBT rights and gay marriage. These sorts of resources would at least point out to him that there is more than one way to interpret the Bible. He might be able to change his views and join the ranks of progressive Christians who accept gay rights and gay marriage as compatible with Christianity.

You could also point him to resources that talk about how the Bible was written, thus challenging the facade of infallibility he has built up around the Bible. Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible, or Silberman and Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed, or Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus would all be good. These could put him on the path to skepticism, or perhaps simply help him realize the complexity of the Bible’s origins and the problems with a more literal reading of it.

But even with all this, if your friend has surrounded himself with conservative Christian friends and relatives and is highly invested in his conservative religious beliefs and his conservative church, it may be impossible to fully change his mind on this issue. Changing his mind – accepting that the Bible is less than fallible or that the interpretation he has been taught is wrong – might mean losing his Christian friends and his religious community.

People often overlook the extent to which one’s surroundings influence what they do or do not believe. Someone whose life is encompassed by conservative Christianity will be less inclined to consider completely changing his or her views, especially on a hot button issue like this, because for many churches that would mean becoming a pariah. It would mean losing everything. It’s a sacrifice most are not prepared to make, and the need to conform in order to retain family and friends and community often trumps one’s ability to be willing to challenge what he or she believes.

I think one reason I was able to change my views on this issue, among others, was that I was at a transitional period in my life. I had not yet settled down, married, and formed a community of like-minded friends. Sure, changing my views on things like this might mean a breach with my family of origin and my childhood friends, but I was at a point in life when most young people strike out on their own anyway. This helped give me the space I needed to rethink my views and ask hard questions. Unfortunately, not everyone has that space.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I wish you the best in dealing with your friend!

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