Some things the social conservatives in my life really, really, really need to stop saying in the LGBTQ rights debate
Dear social conservative friend,
The following post is not designed to convince you to give up your religious or moral beliefs, or even necessarily your political ones. I’m aware that those are convictions and cannot easily be dropped. I’m also aware, after many arguments and discussions with loved ones, that sometimes agreement cannot be reached. Sometimes all you can do is find a way to get along together.
I also know of no way to say all this without the risk of sounding patronizing. I’m sorry. I’m not sure how to resolve this except to write as honestly and non-snarkily as possible.
What I hope this post communicates is that when the following comments are made, it doesn’t matter how much merit the speaker’s beliefs and arguments have. These words damage conservative credibility and make liberals feel quite justified in their frustration with and dismissal of conservative viewpoints. These words also directly hurt LGBTQ people — and I don’t just mean their feelings. These ideas do damage to their support systems and can affect people’s strength for survival, especially young people’s.
Much of what I’m about to say has been said countless times before, but it bears repeating. Also, since I am not actually queer or trans myself (I’m on the asexual spectrum, which is often included under extended versions of the LGBTQ acronym, but in my case at least makes for a rather different set of life experiences than being queer or trans), I am surrounding my claims with commentary from the people who live it. I’ve tried to limit my own comments to a brief synthesis of the key points I hear, combined with how I myself feel hearing these things spoken. If you’re inclined to bypass my words and just read theirs, I wholeheartedly recommend it. The links are there for the reading.
Here, then, if you’re interested, are some talking points that don’t help anyone in this debate.
“Here’s a nice ex-gay story. I think I’ll share it on Facebook.”
What you mean: “See, if you’re truly, sincerely Christian, Jesus can take this all away and give you a normal life.”
How it comes across: “We want you to walk back into that psychological torture chamber.”
As far as I can tell, the absolute best that can be said of ex-gay therapy (also known as conversion therapy or reparative therapy) is that it seems to help some people manage their longing for same-sex romantic relationships just enough that they either get by living solitary lives, or they find someone of the opposite sex and get married and sometimes succeed in holding onto that and making it work. I’ve heard enough testimonies from all perspectives to suggest that the reality is much more complex than the literature purports. I’ve yet to hear of a case where the clear testimony was that a profound homosexual orientation became a profound — or even a recognizable — heterosexual orientation.
The testimony I do hear over and over again is that ex-gay therapy is thoroughly unsuccessful at changing orientation; that for some people it is a painful waste of time, and for others it does lasting damage to their lives.
“I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change … I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”
— Alan Chambers, former leader of the defunct ex-gay ministry Exodus International
There were days of my “ex-gay” therapy when I locked myself in a bathroom once again, turned off the lights, shut my eyes tightly, and tried to picture the thing that must have turned me gay. I ran through the list of men I’d known — my father’s friends, church deacons, my father himself — but I couldn’t recall any moments of unwanted attention. I would open my mouth and scream silently in frustration, dig my nails into my arms in the hope of feeling something painful enough to bring the memory to the surface. But nothing would come. My moment of trauma had come only after I’d already known that I was gay. The “ex-gay” narrative Love in Action was selling didn’t fit my life. Some part of me must have known that I was already failing, that I would never be able to change who I was for my parents’ sake, that I would always be a pervert.
— Garrard Conley, “How It Feels to Conquer Your Shame”
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I was put on stage to give my “ex-gay testimony” for donors when I was 17 years old, and as I grew up on the stage of one of our culture’s most heated debates, life happened. I never knew how to tell the stories that happened backstage. I only knew the scripts. The backstage stories, like most stories, have some pleasant surprises and so much sorrow.
I minimized those offenses and thought of those who have it worse (because many do), but it kept me from acknowledging what went wrong, grieving it, and mending.
I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that all I ever wanted to be was a good Christian and a good daughter and a good minister of the Gospel, but I come from a community that said good Christians, daughters, and ministers aren’t lesbians, and I still want to be good.
— Julie Rodgers, “Forgiveness”
“Why is this such a big deal? We’re only talking about a tiny percentage of people.”
What you mean: “In public matters, minority needs shouldn’t take priority over the greater good of the majority.”
How it comes across: “You’re statistically and personally insignificant, and we’re completely justified in dismissing your claims to justice.”
This one is so offensive to me personally that it’s hard for me to offer dialectic in addressing it. Statistics are interesting until they’re being used to dehumanize people. Reader, you are talking about real people that I know and love. Believe me, they come to mind when this talking point comes up. Family, friends, fellow churchgoers … One-to-five percent of the population is a lot more people than one might think.
I almost guarantee you know more LGBTQ people than you think you do. More than once I’ve had someone come out to me, to my total surprise, after years of friendship. A lot of people have been burned way too many times to risk openness when it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Regardless of what percentage of the population we’re talking about, my loved ones have the right to be treated well within society. And I care about seeing that happen.
“But one of the worst things was feeling that there was no one who was safe for me to talk to. The silence, and the animosity toward the whole gay subculture, was so oppressive that it made me feel that my orientation was not only bad, but so filthy as to be unspeakable. I decline to regard this as having the least imprint of Christian charity upon it. And I don’t think it’s a helpful mindset to get teenagers with same-sex feelings in, either; they, of all people, need to feel that the Church is a safe place. I don’t want anyone to have to feel as scared and helpless as I did. The Church should truly be a sanctuary.”
— Gabriel Blanchard, “Raw Tact, Part IV: Coming Out Christian”
(The entirety of Blanchard’s Raw Tact series is one of the very best resources I can recommend if you care to know how your words sound to LGBTQ people. I’d even call it required reading.)
“Morality shouldn’t be based on feelings.”
What you mean: “The rules are bigger than all of us, and they’re for everyone.”
How it comes across: “You falling in love with a person of your own gender, or feeling that your natural gender doesn’t match your body, is as meaningless as me preferring pepperoni to Canadian bacon on tonight’s pizza.”
There’s an immense difference between the feelings that guide your daily chocolate-or-vanilla choices, the feelings that guide your “Should I have another kid/change jobs/move across the country” choices, the feelings that guide your “Should I marry this person/change careers/change my religion” choices, and the internal system settings that drive your beliefs and understanding of reality, your physical and emotional reactions, and your personality. An LGBTQ identity comes from the latter category. Reducing LGBTQ identities to mere feelings is dismissive and demeaning.
When you talk about theology as it relates to gay people, you aren’t talking about abstract theological concepts, you aren’t talking about a book you recently read, and you aren’t talking about politics. You are talking about our lives.
You are talking about experiences, questions and traumas that have shaped us, tortured us, and terrified us. You are talking about the sometimes daily battle to overcome the deep feeling of inhumanity that has plagued some of us since we were young. You are talking about the tears, the numbing, the suicidal ideation and the prayers over countless nights, pleading with God that he would have mercy and make us normal. You are talking about the torture of the closet, the unbearable burden of keeping secrets from those we love the most, because of the conviction that if we stepped outside of the closet, we would be seen and rejected. You are talking about terrible questions that plague us: is it fundamentally evil for me to fall in love, to be committed to a single person, to raise a family? You are talking about relationships and bodies and marriages and families. You are talking about people.
— S. Bradford Long, “In Which I Have a Breakdown: An Open Letter to the Church”
The decision to transition does not happen in a vacuum. It occurs in the presence of systemic societal transphobia. Every transgender person is highly aware of how pervasive this double standard is (as we face it every day). And every transsexual who transitions does so in spite of systemic transphobia. This is a testament to how intense gender dysphoria can be, or (to put it in less pathologizing language) how deeply rooted our gender identities are: We’d rather live with the stigma of transphobia than be forced to live in our birth-assigned gender.
Because cisgender people cannot relate to gender dysphoria (having not experienced it personally), and often refuse to take trans people’s gendered experiences seriously (because they view us as illegitimate and suspect as a result of transphobia), they will sometimes invent ulterior motives or condescending theories to explain our desire to transition — e.g., that we transition to try to “fit in” (as straight, as gender-normative), or to obtain male privilege, or because we’re sexual deviants, or because we are confused/clueless/gullible and thus easily swayed by nefarious ideologies (e.g., patriarchy, medical institutions, transgender agendas). I’ve heard many other concocted reasons (and I debunk many of them in Whipping Girl), but what they all share in common is that they 1) dismiss the legitimacy of our gender identities and experiences with dysphoria, and 2) discount the severity of the transphobia we face (which allows them to depict us as making frivolous/reckless/thoughtless life choices rather than serious well-considered ones).
“The gays control _____ (America, Hollywood, society, the justice system, etc.) now.”
What you mean: “You won’t let us live out our consciences, but gayness is everywhere applauded.”
How it comes across: “You making us make cakes for weddings we don’t approve of is unspeakable persecution, and yet somehow we are completely clueless about how we’ve rejected you from our family life, made you feel unwelcome in countless social situations, gotten you fired from jobs, made it legally difficult or impossible for you to care for your partners and children, and fought you every step of the way as you worked for basic LGBTQ rights and visibility so other LGBTQ kids wouldn’t have to suffer like you did.”
Readers, I get both sides of this brought to my attention, and I read both sides in the news. Yes, it has become unpopular to draw a hard line against serving LGBTQ couples, or to speak out publicly in secular contexts, especially from privileged positions, against marriage equality. (Most social conservatives dismiss the civil rights comparison in the service issue, but for most liberals it holds.)
The necessary balance between competing freedoms and rights is a discussion for another day. For now, these stories sound really serious until you get out among the LGBTQ community and start to hear what life is often like for them, and then you realize there’s no comparison.
“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.
“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.”
But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.”
— Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life
Quite often I find straight people are even more surprised than I was to hear about the frequency and sordid creativity of anti-gay acts. I hope I’m remembering this right, but at a retreat I was at, the leader asked how many of the non-straight participants had either experienced violence as a result of sexual orientation ourselves, or had close friends who had experienced this violence. And I think all of us had. (Close friends, in my case.) And the straight people were shocked. When I tell this story now, people’s eyes widen–I mean, straight people’s eyes widen.
There are all kinds of little facts like this: Most of my celibate gay Christian friends have had therapists blame their parents for their orientation (regardless of what the kid said) and insist that they must be uncomfortable in their gender. Many of them have lost or been denied jobs in Christian institutions explicitly because they’re gay/same-sex attracted, even though they upheld that institution’s sexual ethic and sought to live by it. My friends who work with homeless youth have said that kids who have been thrown out of their homes will say, “Well, my parents are Christians,” as if that’s an obvious explanation for parental rejection. We have a sharply bifurcated culture, where like Glee is on tv and Tim Cook is a gazillionaire, and yet countless kids are being harassed, berated, and thrown out of their homes for being gay.
— Eve Tushnet, “Three Very Small Thoughts about (the Debate Over) Indiana’s RFRA”
Unfortunately, however, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation does exist within the Christian world. I have several friends who have lost positions of leadership or employment within Christian organizations because they were open about being attracted to the same sex. More than one has been a fellow contributor to Spiritual Friendship.
In the cases I’m referring to, my friends were in full agreement with the doctrinal positions of the respective organizations. They were also in compliance with the codes of conduct of those organizations. In several of these cases, the relevant decision makers only found out about my friends’ sexualities as a result of their public defenses of the traditional understanding of sexual ethics.
I used to keep count of how many times I’ve heard about this sort of thing happening. I lost count around eight or ten. This type of discrimination is a common problem in both Catholic and Protestant circles.
— Jeremy Erickson, “Sexual Orientation Discrimination on Campus?”
In 2015, advocates tracked at least 21 deaths of transgender people due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded. These victims were killed by acquaintances, partners and strangers, some of whom have been arrested and charged, while others have yet to be identified. Although some of these cases involve anti-transgender bias, some are not bias-related and still others don’t have apparent motives.
While the details of these cases differ, it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.
— Human Rights Campaign, “Violence against the Transgender Community in 2016”
“Homosexuality is a choice!”
What you mean: basically what you said, but it’s factually incorrect
How it comes across: “I have made zero effort to listen to the stories of LGBTQ people. Anyway, they can’t possibly be sincere.”
If there’s one thing that I hear gay and lesbian people say over and over and over, it’s “We didn’t choose this.”
The terms need to be defined, and I’m going to skip the clinical and go for the main point: homosexuality, and all of the words in the LGBTQ acronym, are about how you feel and experience things, not about what you’ve done. For the love of all that is holy, please stop assuming that because someone calls themselves gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, they’ve been out fucking more people than you can imagine.
Social conservatives regularly go badly awry by reducing the whole debate to sex. Experiences of self, of falling in love, of human relationships, of how you fit into your own community and how you fit into the history of the world — all of this is thoroughly affected by sexuality and gender identity, regardless of whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual, transgender or cisgender. Cishet people just don’t have to think about it as much. I find that cishet people tend to not want to think about it — okay, but remember that you don’t have to, and your queer and trans neighbors do.
People who are strongly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have not made the choice to become what those terms mean. They’ve accepted that those terms inherently apply to them.
I remember sitting in my seat at this big conference, with about 4,000 people. Someone had preached about how God could set you free from anything, and I was desperate, I thought, ‘I have to deal with this, it’s breaking me.’ They invited us to the front. …
The walk felt like 10 years. The music was very loud. At the altar one of the prayer team said, ‘What would you like us to pray for you about?’ I said, ‘It’s really hard for me to say this but I am attracted to people of the same sex and I’ve been told God hates that and I’m so ashamed and I need Him to take it away because I can’t keep living like this. I’m so sad and depressed, I can’t carry on.’ …
I remember lots of people placing their hands on my shoulders and back and front, praying in tongues really loudly and then shouting things: ‘We command Satan to let you go! Cast these devils out of you! We speak to you demon of homosexuality: let her go!’ People around me were wailing and screaming. It was really frightening. I was already feeling so vulnerable, it was horrible to think, ‘Am I controlled by demons?’”
— Vicky Beeching, interview with Patrick Strudwick, The Independent, 13 August 2014
I sat up late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, trying to come to grips with what this word meant for my life. In my softest whisper, paranoid about being overheard by anyone, I tried to muster up enough courage to say to myself those two words: “I’m gay.”
“I’m …” A pause. A deep breath.
But the “g” word would never come. It was dark and frightening. I knew it was true, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it, not even in a barely audible whisper alone in my room at night.
— Justin Lee, Torn
Because this is the internet, and LGBTQ people may read this: I’ve focused on the painful stories to make a point. With perhaps one exception, everyone I’ve quoted above has found peace and wholeness, sometimes in their conservative religion and sense of calling there, sometimes by leaving or avoiding religion, but more often by finding that their identities, their loves, and their beliefs were not, in the end, irreconcilable.
I have a lot of LGBTQ people in my life. Most of them have fully accepted who they are and have found a great deal of joy and meaning in life. If you’re struggling with finding joy and meaning, you’re not alone, but there is hope. Finding freedom from shame can be a long, tortuous process — I’ve experienced that myself — but it is the most amazing feeling when you finally break through. There is healing, there is good to be found in this life, there are people who will love and accept you. If you doubt that and you can’t find someone you know and trust to turn to, email me: riverimerr at gmail dot com.
For my conservative friends: Having issued one challenge on the use of damaging talking points, I’m going to issue another, harder one. Many social conservatives in my acquaintance are wisely doing this without being asked. It’s this: Maybe consider taking a break from talking about the subject, and read and listen instead. Don’t fight. Don’t engage, if you can’t do it without arguing. Just listen, and give people the benefit — the dignity — of believing them to be sincere.