(estimated reading time 9 minutes)
We have reached the anniversary of an important landmark on the road to equality for LGBTQ people. It has been fifty years this week since the Sexual Offences Act was passed, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. Despite some great leaps forward for LGBTQ people around the world, the last five decades have sadly not been an unimpeded march of progress: Only this week, Trump announced via Twitter that trans folk are no longer welcome in the US military. Meanwhile, Russia is denying the torture and murder of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. Despite all the progress made in some nations, the big and small injustices and indignities endured by one of the world’s most misunderstood and beleaguered minorities, continue apace.
So in light of all this, I’ve been thinking about how my own views on homosexuality have changed over the years, and I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for a while now. I’ve been remembering back to the homophobic attitudes I not only encountered when I was a Christian, but even held myself to some extent. People of all religious persuasions and none can be homophobic, of course, but most of my firsthand experience of homophobic remarks, attitudes, and actions occurred when I was a Christian spending time with other Christians.The kind of homophobia that I encountered most often as a Christian was what I think of as “compassionate” homophobia. And, as the form of homophobia I’m most acquainted with, that’s the kind I’m going to focus on in this post.
Compassionate Homophobia is the most insidious form of Christian homophobia that I’m familiar with. It’s no use telling Compassionate Homophobes that they are hateful or intolerant towards LGBTQ people like their full-throttle co-religionists at the Westboro Baptist Church; Compassionate Homophobes don’t hate, they just disagree. They are on “Side B” of the great gay debate, in that they believe LGBTQ people ought to choose celibacy over homosexual relationships. And they don’t hold this opinion for a reason as crude and judgemental as the desire to keep relationships they find disgusting or creepy out of the church; it’s simply that homosexual relationships are a sin, and (like all sins) are inherently unsatisfying compared to the satisfaction of knowing Jesus.
“The worst thing about being gay?” the straight, married church leader began, “…is the confusion”. I could almost hear the heartbreak in her words. Those poor, poor, lost souls. You see, whether or not the Compassionate Homophobe believes LGBTQ people can change sexual orientation, Compassionate Homophobia relies largely on the idea that LGBTQ people have homosexual desires because they have issues, or are damaged somehow; this is often termed “confusion”. The story goes like this: LGBTQ people (or “people suffering from Same-Sex Attraction”, as they’re sometimes known) experience a great deal of confusion and low self-esteem. This is supposedly a natural consequence of having the wrong kind of sexuality. It is absolutely not a consequence of being told repeatedly that God disapproves of a fundamental aspect of their being, and that they should expect a life devoid of intimate partnership or else suffer an eternity of hell. It is not a consequence of being treated differently by the church, or growing up in an overwhelmingly straight society and feeling out of place, or not being able to share their real thoughts and feeling with others without fear of rejection. Like so many beliefs that have their basis in religious convictions, this is a viewpoint that is unlikely to be swayed by evidence to the contrary; you could probably point to a million examples of LGBTQ people loving their lives and their selves only to be told in response that actually, those gay people do in fact feel really bad – it’s just they keep the sadness very deep, deep down.
In hindsight, I can see that pushing the narrative of Compassionate Homophobia is really pretty abusive; a sort of communal gaslighting of LGBT people. The cause of the pain is presented as the cure. And in case you can’t see it for yourself, here’s how it works:
First, keep telling someone “there’s something horribly, horribly wrong with you”;
Then, when the person tells you how hurt they are, say “That’s because you’re defective, not because people are mean to you. We’re not mean. Why, we LOVE you!”;
Finally, offer the cure: “All you need to do to stop hurting is stop having something horribly, horribly wrong with you!”
This gaslighting dynamic is brilliantly laid bare in “Cartman Sucks”, an episode of South Park. Butters, one of the schoolboy characters, is mistakenly thought to be “bi-curious” by his concerned parents. He finds himself packed off to a Christian facility where he is surrounded by adults who constantly impress upon him that he is confused, and that he must be cured of his confusion. Since Butters doesn’t even know what “bi-curious” means, this experience is, well, extremely confusing for him. Near the end of the episode, as his fellow resident and “accountabillibuddy”, Bradley, threatens to jump off a bridge, the camp director once more insists that Butters is “confused”. This is when the usually chipper Butters finally blows his top and gives this glorious little speech:
“All right. All right that does it! I am sick and tired of everyone telling me I’m confused! I wasn’t confused until other people started tellin’ me I was! You know what I think? I think maybe you are the ones who are confused!… I’m not gonna be confused anymore just because you say I should be! My name is Butters, I’m eight years old, I’m blood type O, and I’m bi-curious! And even that’s okay! Because if I’m bi-curious, and I’m somehow made from God, then I think your God must be a little bi-curious himself!”
Hearing Butter’s words convinces Bradley to step away from the bridge’s edge, prompting the camp director to jubilantly shout “We did it! Through the power of Christ we have saved this boy!”. Because Compassionate Homophobia is annoying like that. Compassionate Homophobes get praised for passing the sky-high bar of “not driving LGBT people quite to the point of suicide”. The Compassionate Homophobe feels that any warmth or positivity they show towards LGBT people ought to be lauded.
Take this real-world example from Istoria Ministries, the ministry blog of Wade Burleson. Burleson is pastor of Emmanuel Enid Church in Oklahoma, has held several prominent posts with American Christian organisations, and seems to be in many ways a very nice man. As a Christian I used to read his posts from time to time, and never saw anything amiss with what he wrote about homosexuality; I was one of those who thought he was came across as exceedingly patient and, yes, compassionate. In this extract from a post entitled “Militant Homosexuals: Loving Them to Christ Without Lambasting Them at Church”, the pastor describes meeting with a representative of SoulForce, an LGBTQ organisation that pushes for churches to affirm LGBTQ relationships:
“I believe that the leaders of SoulForce, unless changed by God’s grace, will die in a state of reprobation. They actively and aggressively approve of that which God disapproves…
As soon as I was elected BGCO President SoulForce asked me to meet with them. SoulForce’s previous requests for a meeting with the BGCO President had been denied. To the surprise of SoulForce, I agreed. I told them they could pick the time and the place and I would travel to meet with them…
[One of the SoulForce activists] told me about reading “Batman and Robin” when he was just a boy, and knowing that he would one day be Robin to his own personal Batman. When he was in college he met his personal Batman. His male lover became his spouse. The SoulForce leader explained to me that he now loved this man more than life itself. This relationship that had brought him so much happiness, so much comfort, and so much security was the very thing that Southern Baptist pastors were saying would send him to hell. Amazingly, this man began to weep as he spoke to me. I sat silently as the man attempted to regain his composure. He then went on to explain that his lover was very ill, possibly dying. He hated Southern Baptists because we condemned people like him and his lover to hell.”
Wade is “amazed” that a gay man would openly weep while talking about how much he loved his partner. But don’t mistake him for someone who’s insensitive to the humanity of gay people; oh no. Because he goes on:
“For a while, nobody said anything. Then the President of SoulForce said, “Wade, we wanted to meet with you today because we know your views on homosexuality. It is our intention, if we cannot change your mind about homosexuality, to inform you that we will picket your church every Sunday as long as you are President of the BGCO.”… I said, “Look, I have already spent an hour visiting with you, and not only do I like you as people, I love you enough to pray for you the way I pray for my own church family. If you are coming to picket Emmanuel [Burleson’s church], we will welcome you with open arms. You are my friends. Do what you feel led to do. I can’t speak for my entire congregation, but I’ve been pastor at Emmanuel long enough to know that most of them, and I would hope all of them, would respond the way I am. You are welcome to picket our church. Know that not only are we not afraid of you, we love you.”
Astonishment filled the room.”
Yes, those present were astonished that Burleson was quite nice and hospitable towards people he was excluding and condemning at other times and in other ways. To many Christians, this is what “love the sinner” looks like. To me, though, it’s about as moving as a murderer sending a wreath to his victim’s widow. And I’m sorry but “I love you enough to pray for you the way I pray for my own church family”? Praying for someone is literally the least you can do for them. To drive home that point, I’m going to pray for everyone in the entire world right now, without even leaving this chair. Just give me a second…
OK, done. You’re welcome, humanity!
Burleson seems to have come away from this interaction feeling good enough about his compassion to point to it as a shining example of love in action; meanwhile, even the SoulForce activists were actually moved by his paltry gestures of hospitality, presumably because they had prior experience of being greeted with so much less of it.
Burleson’s post was from 2011, and you’d hope we’d be a little more savvy by now. Yet consider the extravagant praise heaped on a Roman Catholic priest in just the last couple of weeks, for a message that he posted on his church’s Facebook page. Although the post was several paragraphs long, its overall message can be summed up by the lines “all gay Catholics… are welcome and are the blessed children of God”. It also mentions and condemns the “negative stance” that the Catholic Church has taken towards gay people in the past. And that’s it. As “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta puts it in a post titled “Don’t Get Fooled by this Catholic Church that Supposedly has a Pro-Gay Message” :
“It almost sounds like they’re going against the Catholic Church until you realize this is fully in line with Church teaching.
Notice what wasn’t said in there. It’s much louder than these platitudes.
If you’re in a gay relationship, the Church condemns it.”
And yet the priest has been praised in several newspapers, and his post has gone viral.
Compared to other forms of homophobia, the “compassionate” kind is the least openly threatening. Compassionate Homophobes often don’t want to take away the rights of LGBTQ people, or ostracise them, or make their lives more difficult. They simply want to hold to the opinion that LGBTQ relationships ought not be celebrated or endorsed by Christianity. This is why Compassionate Homophobes sometimes feel discriminated against: I don’t want to hurt LGBTQ people. I have gay friends. I love my gay cousin. So why can’t you tolerate my viewpoint? It’s just a difference of opinion, after all.
And of course people are entitled to think whatever they like. But saying you’re entitled to think something isn’t the same as saying your viewpoint is harmless, like a favourite food or a least-enjoyed movie genre. If you think that LGBTQ Christians shouldn’t get married and should stay celibate because God expects celibacy from them, what you’re really saying is that homosexual relationships are inferior in some way to straight ones. You’re saying that LGBTQ people are fundamentally broken or damaged somehow. So you shouldn’t be surprised that in many people’s minds, that puts your viewpoint on a spectrum of homophobia, with your “nice” brand at one end, and systemic violence and murder at the other, that LGBTQ people have had to deal with to some degree for all of their lives. Even in the “tolerant” west, LGBTQ people still have to contend with being denied goods and services; having to hide their relationships from loved ones or employers; having to test the waters in each new religious community to see if they’ll be accepted; knowing that there are countries where their orientation or sexual expression is punishable by death. I mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church earlier and contrasted them with Compassionate Homophobes; funnily enough though, I remember watching a Louis Theroux documentary about the notoriously homophobic religious group, in which they insist that they don’t personally hate LGBTQ people, and that they say “God Hates Fags” as a loving act of warning. This ought to drive home the point that it doesn’t matter how compassionate straight people might claim to feel towards LGBTQ people; what matters is how our actions towards them and beliefs about them impact their lives and their health. Given these facts, it seems completely understandable to me that many LGBTQ people perceive this compassionate stance as a fig leaf for something that’s actually not very compassionate at all.