The religious landscape for queer and trans people across America has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. Recognizing the great harm anti-LGBT theology has on the lives of queer and trans people, many faith communities prayerfully changed their theological positions to embrace same-sex marriage, ordination of openly queer and trans leaders, and celebrating gender transition. Networks of out LGBT individuals and allies exist in almost every world faith tradition and subgroup. More and more LGBT people are able to pursue spirituality in accepting communities, though the voices of churches that perpetuate religiously-based stigma still ring loudly in the public consciousness.
In a 2013 Pew Research Center nationally-representative survey of LGB people, almost 1 in 3 LGB people reported being made to feel unwelcome in a faith community. According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, 33% of transgender respondents had pre-emptively left a faith community before coming out for fear of being rejected because of their identity, while almost 20% of respondents were actually rejected by a faith community. Much larger percentages of LGB people disaffiliate from their childhood religion as compared to the general population (Fontenot, 2013).
Though they may leave their faith community of origin, many queer and trans people still hunger for a connection to the divine and access to the sacred. LGB people who are involved in affirming faith communities have higher measures of psychological health compared to those who are not part of affirming communities (Lease et. al., 2005). There is even evidence that the positive health benefits from simply attending religious services mitigate harm from anti-LGBT faith messages (Barnes and Meyer, 2012).
Faith communities have recently put quite an emphasis on extending an open welcome to LGBT people. National LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBTQ Task Force have created curricula, scripture studies, and discussion guides to help congregations learn about LGBT issues and terminology, grapple with their own stereotypes, and demonstrate their welcome publicly. Some faith leaders expect that merely going through one of these trainings will increase the amount of queer and trans members of their community. I call this a transactional model of inclusion. It looks something like this:
Church completes LGBT 101 training + gets stamp of approval from denomination or other network + changes their website + hangs a rainbow flag outside
= congregation is deemed an eternally “safe space.”
As many faith leaders and curious would-be new congregants often find out, this kind of straightforward inclusion process where LGBT people and their allies coexist in immediate harmoniously is rare. So many power dynamics, histories, cultural conflicts, and oppressions impact the relationship between LGBT people and religious/spiritual spaces. That is because trainings are just the first step in a larger journey of transformation.
Creating completely safe spaces is not a one-time action. It is a continual and joyous process of growth.
In order to truly support LGBT people in their exploration of and return to institutionalized faith communities, we have to get away from a transactional model of LGBT inclusion, in which communities exchange time and energy for immediate expected growth of the church. We need to shift to a transformational model, in which going through a training or joining an LGBT-affirming network is merely the first step in the journey of radical love and social justice.
I have seen churches and other congregations do much more than LGBT 101 work to support the queer and trans folks in their midst, from organizing contingencies at protests and pride marches, to offering LGBT-specific pastoral care and scripture study series, to volunteering at local LGBT organizations. Faith communities have an amazing capacity to witness people’s deepest sufferings and encourage their loftiest dreams. Queer and trans people need spiritual leaders who have been called to accompany people as they journey to who God made them to be without judgment or fear.
Discerning what inclusion looks like in your faith community is about communal self-discovery, unearthing all of the secret beliefs and biases contrary to solidarity and human growth. It’s about an acceptable risk. It’s about creating enough safety to allow people to share their deepest selves, with the intention of honoring the truth of their lives no matter how different from that of your congregation’s. It’s about creating accountability, and committing to the process of offering a wider welcome, whether new queer and trans folks come to your services or not. It’s about offering the hope of heartfelt fellowship.
If your faith community would like support in envisioning what a transformational inclusion process could be like, please contact me for an initial consultation on the contact page.
Barnes, David M., and Ilan H. Meyer. “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 82, no. 4 (2012): 505–15.
Fontenot, Edouard. “Unlikely Congregation: Gay and Lesbian Persons of Faith in Contemporary U.S. Culture.” In APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, edited by Pargament, Kenneth I., Vol. 1: Context, Theory, and Research. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013.
Lease, Suzanne H., Sharon G. Horne, and Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier. “Affirming Faith Experiences and Psychological Health for Caucasian Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Individuals.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 52, no. 3 (2005): 378– 88.
Pew Research Center. “A Survey of LGBT Americans Attitudes, Experiences and Values in Changing Times.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2013.