My issues with queer-positive Christianity


In the recent discussion of antitheism, Alex Gabriel brought up his personal experience as a queer atheist:

I keep hearing from believers who take great pains to convince me they don’t hate gay people. Jesus never said anything about it, they tell me, and scripture has been misinterpreted, and the real sinners are homophobes, so for heaven’s sake let that be the end of it. I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue—just to tell Christians what they want to hear.

As a queer atheist, this is an experience I share. And this is worth ranting about.

A Catholic story

In high school, one of my best friends was gay. I didn’t have the slightest clue about it. I didn’t find out until several years later. He knew it himself, but he didn’t tell people, because my high school was Catholic. Instead, he only told his Catholic parents, and apparently they did not take it well.

It is very easy to imagine how things could have gone better were we not Catholic. And not just for him–that’s obvious–but for me too. I didn’t even consider that I might be queer until several years later (after I left Catholicism). And so I had to deal with years of anxiety not knowing who I was, followed by a late discovery and a scramble to build a new support network for myself. I was lucky in my parents never had issues with me being queer. But this could never be enough when I was still dragged down by my Catholic background and the Catholicism of my peers.

You might be wondering why I include this story in a rant about queer-positive Christianity. Catholics are hardly queer-positive–in fact they are quite the opposite. Catholic attitudes towards queer people are right up there with the Mormons, and queer Californians my age still remember when Catholics and Mormons worked side by side to ban marriage equality in 2008.

However, when I myself was Catholic, I didn’t think of them as having negative attitudes towards queer people. Mostly, I didn’t think about it. But I thought in the back of my mind that Catholics believed in being compassionate towards gay people. That’s in the catechism (the compendium of Catholic beliefs). It’s right alongside assertions that “homosexual tendencies” are objectively disordered, and that homosexuals are called to chastity–but we bury those parts of the catechism and don’t talk about them.

So my experience growing up was within a religion that thought of itself as queer-friendly, but most certainly wasn’t. That makes me very very suspicious.

The funny thing is, Catholics are correct to think that they are queer-friendly, at least compared to how Catholics used to be several decades ago. But it’s an issue of standards, isn’t it? There is a broad spectrum of attitudes towards queer people, and every religion is more queer-positive than something else. Catholics can claim they are more queer-friendly than they used to be, but they’re still on the very unfriendly end of the spectrum. Likewise, other Christian churches can claim to be very queer-positive, but they’re still in a context where the standard is set by Christianity. And damn if that isn’t a low standard.

Rainbow flags on churches

Since I live in the SF bay area, rainbow flags are a common sight. In the streets near my apartment, they are most commonly seen on the walls churches. Trans flags too, sometimes. I’ve never been inside one of these churches, except for that time that Richard Dawkins used one of them as a speaking venue, ha ha. So I really have no idea what the flags mean. Is it just cheap signaling, or does it mean that they have some dedicated effort to be inclusive?

Cheap signalling, that isn’t nothing. Those flags probably chase away people who are looking for a more homophobic church. And I gotta say, cheap signalling is still more than most atheist groups ever do. (I have another rant in me about queer-positive atheism, but I’ll save that one for later.)

But here’s what I’d really like to know: How many out queer people does the church have? Are they in the leadership, or only the congregation? Do they set aside spaces specifically for queer people? Do they ever talk about queer issues with the general congregation, and how often? Do they only talk about how being queer is alright, or do they ever move on to deeper topics? Do they talk about broader queer culture, and if so, what do they say? What, specifically, are their beliefs about queer people? If they’re part of a larger institution, what is the institution’s stance on the matter? How do they respond to bisexuality, transgender, non-binary, and ace people? Do they ever take political action in support of queer people?

It is likely that some of these questions have positive answers, at least for some of the churches. But I don’t really know that. All I see are rainbow flags. And when I’ve interacted with supposedly queer-friendly Christians (who may or may not come from the same kind of churches), they never choose to share such information. I suspect because they haven’t even thought about it, much less tried to improve the situation. Instead, I hear junk about what “true” Christianity is.

Not sure if you all knew this, but I explicitly believe that all versions of Christianity are false. That’s what “atheism” means! There’s no platonic ideal of Christianity, there is only Christianity as it exists in the real world, and unfortunately for a lot of people that means Catholicism or worse. It’s nice and all to have these queer-friendly churches available to join once I’m old enough to decide for myself. But unfortunately the church that has most impact on our development as queer people is not the one we choose for ourselves after we realize we are queer, but rather the church we were in before that.

If you’re part of some queer-positive church that does all the right things, good for you. I mean that sincerely, even though I am an atheist activist and generally oppose your church. Really, I’m happy for you.

That tedious work of fiction, the Bible

One staple of the conversation about queer-positive Christianity is discussing specific parts of the Bible. I don’t care about the substance of these arguments in the slightest. Quite frankly, I care more about the queer content of Harry Potter.

So, seriously, let’s talk about Harry Potter. Famously, J. K. Rowling stated that Albus Dumbledore is gay. While many fans were happy to find queer representation in a well-known and beloved character, it also deservedly gets much criticism. Why couldn’t Rowling put it into the series itself? As it is, hardly anyone would guess that Dumbledore was gay unless they heard about Rowling’s comments. And since his orientation isn’t even mentioned, it could only ever constitute the barest of representation, the kind with no further exploration whatsoever.

It is possible to defend J. K. Rowling here. Dumbledore’s orientation, though never mentioned, certainly affects his motivations, and can be explored by the careful reader. But even granting this defense, it’s not great. And I’m glad that most Harry Potter fans will admit that sometimes the explanation is that J. K. Rowling is not perfect.

On the other hand, most Christians cannot admit that God is not perfect. So it’s defend, defend, defend, until the end. And I’m not saying that each and every defense is wrong, I’m just annoyed by the transparently motivated reasoning. I note that even in the most wildly ambitious Biblical interpretations, it is not nearly as queer-positive as, say, Harry Potter. But even if I were to point that out, I think most Christians would say you can’t expect that much out of an ancient text.

And there it is! Lowered standards writ large! Because the Bible is an ancient text we lower our expectations about how queer-positive it needs to be.

I certainly agree, it is unimaginable that an ancient text could ever be nearly as progressive as Harry Potter. It wouldn’t have been accessible to ancient peoples, and it wouldn’t have ever made it to modern times. God, being imaginary, is incapable of achieving the unimaginable. And so that’s why I would sooner trust the moral content of Harry Potter than the Bible.

And yes, I know that queer-positive Christians have to argue from the Bible in order to persuade queer-negative Christians. Yes, that is quite the pickle. Christian fundamentalists are forcing Christians everywhere to use lower standards. But Christians are clever, I’m sure they could find a workaround! In absence of any other proposals, I will put forward my preferred solution: leave Christianity immediately.

The TL;DR version

There is a broad spectrum from queer-negative to queer-positive. If you start with low standards, such as those set by Christianity, it is very easy to believe that your religion is queer-positive, when it really isn’t. Arguments that the Bible is queer-positive are particularly egregious because they explicitly start from a low standard, the Bible.

Despite this, I’m sure there are a few churches that are passably queer-positive, and good for them. Problem is that those are not the churches most people grow up in.

Comments

  1. anat says

    Dumbledore’s orientation is problematic in several ways, the worst of which is that Rowling decided to make him gay because she had no other explanation for why he was drawn to Grindelwald’s plans, or IOW gayness made him evil. And then he repents (after a fashion) and lives a celibate life for a century. Not good representation.

    As for the Bible, at least we get David and Jonathan (likely inspired by Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and Naomi and Ruth.

  2. says

    Since religions evolve in order to survive, the ones that survive will weathervane with the prevailing social mores. It just shows that they don’t really believe anything except: power, authority, wealth – but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked at religions more than casually.

    With regard Harry Potter books: as novelist, it’s even easier for Rowling to weathervane than it is for a church. But if she believed strongly one way or another, that would have been the story all along. Same with religions. Where are the christians that believed so strongly that they went to the lions? There were never very many of them, and they got weeded out pretty quickly anyway, leaving behind people whose beliefs are more flexible.

    I like how the mormons dealt with the whole racism in mormonism thing. Oh, presto, new revelation. Yup. OK. Carry on.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I’m pretty sure that, with gay marriage, the churches will follow the same path that they took with interracial marriage in the 1960s, or slavery in the 1800s. Aside from a few liberal outliers, most of them will defend the status quo vigorously as mainstream society gradual drifts in a liberal direction. They will continue to remain one of the last bastions of the old way of doing things. And then, as soon as the conservative viewpoints is done away with for good from mainstream society, they will suddenly retroactively have been on the progressive side all along, to the point where members will be astonished when they’re told that their institutions once supported these then-repugnant views.

  4. says

    @Brucegee1962,

    By the time most churches support same-sex marriage, we will already have moved on to the next issue. This is not a prediction, it has already happened, in the US. We have same-sex marriage, and we have moved on to the next issue. Merely being in support of same-sex marriage is no longer enough; the bar has been raised. And many churches can’t even clear the bar that was set before.

  5. says

    @anat,
    I largely agree with the “queerbaiting” critique of Harry Potter, and it is that critique that I presented (briefly) in the OP. Basically, the problem is there’s just enough queer representation to “sell” the books to queer readers, but the queer representation stops short of doing anything interesting, since it doesn’t want to risk losing any of its straight readership. You can read more about queerbaiting in Harry Potter here (and it seems that people are criticizing The Cursed Child for the same thing, but I don’t know anything about that.)

    On the other hand, your criticism of Harry Potter–that gayness made Dumbledore evil–could be framed as a defense of Harry Potter. It suggests that underneath, perhaps the Harry Potter series did something interesting with queer representation after all. Now, that queer representation is somewhat negative, but having negative themes is much better than being devoid of any themes. And it is indisputably true that love can do bad things to people or persuade people to do bad things, so I don’t think the representation is negative in an unrealistic or unfair way. There’s also something to be said about how the forbidden nature of a relationship can make it more prone to abuse. Abusive relationships are a queer theme. Trouble is Harry Potter didn’t say anything about that theme, it was just there in the background.

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