Yesterday, Fr. Dwight Longenecker published a post called “Welcoming Gays: How Do I Do That?” We appreciate how he used a question mark in his title, and we hope he won’t mind us giving some honest feedback about welcoming LGBT people in Christian communities. Our goal in writing this post is to make some concrete suggestions about things pastors can actually do. Yesterday’s post had a reasonable litany of things best avoided.
When we welcome people, we usually want to know their names. We want to know them personally. It’s hard to feel welcome when people aren’t willing to come up to you, shake your hand, tell you their names, and ask you yours. On a similar note, welcoming a group of people means respecting how they see themselves as a group. We’ve known many a confirmation class from the United Methodist Church that has visited parishes within our Christian tradition as a part of their faith formation. We are always incredibly excited and supportive when our clergy decide to host a forum for these visitors after services to help them make sense of what they’ve seen in the Liturgy. In doing this, we’re treating them as candidates for confirmation in the United Methodist Church. There would be some differences in the ways our parishes would welcome an inquirer who is considering converting, a parishioner’s parents who are visiting from out of town, or visitors who are part of our tradition but come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
If you want to welcome gays, it’s important to know and respect what the word gay means within the LGBT community. Specifically, the word gay is “a word describing a man or a woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to members of the same sex.” We deliberately took this definition from the Human Rights Campaign’s Glossary of Terms because we wanted to use a definition from clearly within the LGBT community. If we look at the American Psychological Association’s website, we’d see sexual orientation defined as, “an often enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions of men to women or women to men (heterosexual), of women to women or men to men (homosexual), or by men or women to both sexes (bisexual).” It’s important to note that within the LGBT community, LGBT modifies people and homosexual modifies sexual orientation. Swapping the modifiers to get homosexual person is indicative that the person doing the labeling is using a clinical definition of homosexuality.
Fr. Longenecker, people who are gay cannot be described accurately as: “those who are sexually active and committed not only to sexual relations with a person of the same sex, but also to what might be called ‘gay activism’. In other words, their ‘gayness’ is more than sexual activity. It also involves political activism and an ideological stance.” Equating being gay with engaging in specific forms of political activism makes it easy for conservative Christians to assume that every LGBT person is a menace to congregations and must be opposed at all costs. When parishes perceive LGBT people as a carriers of a social plague, they’re just as likely to welcome an LGBT person at church as they are to let an Ebola patient hang out with them at home. And we know that Catholics are taking in the families of Ebola patients: Catholics help people because Catholics are Catholic, not because these families are necessarily Catholic.
If you want to welcome gays, it’s best to use language that is not deliberately inflammatory. Talk to LGBT people about the Gospel; about Christ; about His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Talk to us about love and sacrifice, grace and truth, mercy and justice. Teach us how to pray, to fast, to feast, to serve, to worship. Guide us as we seek to follow Christ and to grow in our understanding of him. Hear our confessions. Sin is not a dirty word, but please do not assume that you know our sins before we tell you. Resist the urge to say, “The gay lifestyle is repugnant to any right thinking Catholic. The gay ideology is anti-Catholic and the gay manifesto is manifestly un Christian.” As LGBT people, we’re really confused about what you mean by “the gay ideology” and “the gay manifesto.” And honestly, publicly describing the lifestyle of any and all gay people as repugnant isn’t exactly going to offer us any assurance that we will be greeted with a handshake if we have the guts to walk through the door of your parish. Please know that we’re not crying “Persecution!” We’re concerned that people in your parish will take it upon themselves to speculate and query about how we’re abominations before God.
If you want to welcome gays, affirm where you see goodness within us. So many LGBT people have been called “repugnant” by Christians that it can be hard for us to see ourselves as “first and foremost brothers and sisters, fellow human beings created in the image of God and therefore good and precious eternal souls.” Many Christians treat us like we’re part of “certain pressure groups” out to get the Church to “change her basic stance on homosexuality.” We’d love the opportunity to be people who are assumed to enter the door in good faith. It’s really fantastic when pastors take time to say something positive they see in our spiritual lives.
If you want to welcome gays, be willing to listen to our stories of how we have been hurt by pastors and other Christians. We honestly wish it were true that in most churches “the homosexual person is welcomed without prejudice if he or she truly wants to be part of the family of faith.” Surveys indicate that while over 70 percent of gay adults identify some connection to Christianity, 42 percent don’t attend church. We find this incredibly sad. Many LGBT people have grown up hearing that it’s impossible to be a gay Christian. Lindsey was 29 years old before a pastor had ever said to Lindsey, “You are welcome in this parish.” It remains a singular experience but Lindsey makes a habit of replaying that memory when feeling discouraged. It’s important for priests to know how to respond if one of their brother priests denies a celibate gay person absolution because of the gay person’s sexual orientation. Yes, this does happen even if it’s not supposed to happen. Too often, straight Christians behave like ostriches when LGBT people tell stories about experiencing discrimination in church. One can dismiss these stories easily by saying, “Well, that priest was wrong to deny you communion if you weren’t sinning. That’s not what the Church teaches. Surely the priest had other reasons to deny you communion.” This kind of response accuses LGBT Christians of lying and gives straight Christians an excuse to keep their heads in the sand.
To answer your question, Fr. Longenecker, “Do [gay people] want to be assured that simply because they experience same sex attraction they will not be vilified, ostracized and excluded?” The answer is Yes. We would also like it if straight Christians could stop ignoring how LGBT Christians have been mistreated by clergy and laity alike. It would be awesome if an LGBT person could tell a story of hurt and be greeted with empathy, reassurance, and perhaps an apology if one is warranted. Speaking for ourselves as a celibate LGBT couple, we’d love it if clergy in our Christian tradition could help us sort legal matters to ensure that we’re able to care for one another. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the question of gay marriage where many Christian traditions have concluded that it’s inappropriate for a couple like us to enact a civil marriage. However, we’re still wondering about how best to sort issues of health care, financial interdependence, and other practical matters. Not always, but often in the past when we’ve raised these issues with priests and others we trust at church, we’ve been accused of being over-dramatic and looking for an excuse to call our relationship a “marriage.” We’re grateful to have a priest now who sees us as people rather than as problems. Nonetheless, it would be nice to have some assurance that we would be treated as people if we went to a different parish within our Christian tradition. It would also be fantastic if we had a sense that our fellow parishioners felt like they could give us an authentic welcome.
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