An Open Letter to Christian Leaders
LGBTQ people are suffering. Stop killing us.
Dear Christian Leader,
Did my title grab your attention?
If you’re a pastor, priest, bishop, minister, or lay leader, I hope so. Did you start to read because my subtitle made you angry? Or because you agree with me and you think I’m talking to somebody else?
Whichever the case, as a gay man who grew up as a devout Christian, I often feel that when I talk to Christian pastors, ministers or priests, they react like the man in my headline image. Oh, they don’t literally push me away, but I can feel them shut down and stop listening.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to ask you to suspend preconceived notions — just briefly — and read with focus and attention.
If you’re a Christian leader of just about any stripe — lay or religious — this letter is for you.
Lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and transgender people everywhere are suffering terribly, breathing in a fog of bitter exclusion and shame — a fog you and your fellow Christians pump into the air.
- Are you a progressive Evangelical pastor motivated by love and compassion for your flock, dedicated to spreading the Good News? I’m writing this for you.
- Are you an LDS bishop devoted to the families in your stake, a man who honors the loving ideals of your Church, who’s never said an unkind word to anyone? I’m writing this for you.
- Are you a selfless Catholic parish priest or bishop who takes your role as shepherd seriously, welcoming all and ministering with life-affirming dedication? I’m writing this for you.
- Are you an Anglican priest or United Methodist minister who welcomes everyone to God’s table but who supports your Church’s ban on same-sex marriage? I’m writing this for you.
You’re killing us LGBTQ people
Christian leaders are killing our bodies, our souls, our faith, and our spiritual health. Wait! Don’t stop reading now. I know what I’m talking about, because I grew up in your world.
I value your values.
Service? Compassion? Love of neighbor? Community? Selflessness? Check! I’m on the same page with you. As a child, I thrilled to the stories of the Samaritan, Mary Magdalene, the Centurion, and the feeding of the multitude.
I understood in my bones that Christianity means elevating the needs of others over self, that Jesus taught and demonstrated a radical message of love and the transcendence of the worst of human nature.
I vowed to follow his example, which shook me and shaped me when I was a small child devouring C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a profound Christian metaphor even a 10-year-old can appreciate.
I had to kill my faith to save my life
I tried to kill myself twice before I was 21 years old. Because people of God rejected me and injected me with shame. The burden of living in a world filled with Christ’s faithful felt more than I could bear.
A Gay Activist and a Christian Minister Confront Suicide
I had to kill my faith to save my life
By the time I was 12 years old, I understood that the Christian world I loved and valued didn’t love me back. By the time I was 12 years old, I figured out that my same-sex-attraction made me a cancer in the body of Christ.
Billy Graham, a nearly universally beloved man who fought against racism and preached a gospel of love and respect, made it clear that he rejected me with a loathing passion. “Let me say this loud and clear!” he wrote to a young woman in 1974 when she confessed her love for another woman. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.” He called homosexuality a “sinister form of perversion” that would lead to the decay of civilization itself.
I learned all that up close and personal when I was a little kid whose heroes were evangelists.
Every Christian leader I knew about echoed Graham’s message of shame-laden condemnation. I internalized shame very quickly, especially as I watched Christians demonize people like me, recoiling in shock and even disgust.
I didn’t make a conscious decision. My faith flickered out like a candle snuffed by a wet rag. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not my argument. I’m not saying, “Stop being mean to LGBTQ people so they don’t lose their faith.”
I don’t care about faith anymore.
If that bothers you, I’m OK with that. If it doesn’t bother you, I’m OK with that too. If you have a strong sense of faith, I’m more than comfortable with you. I’m not some militant atheist out to preach to people that God isn’t real. If you struggle with faith like many Christians do? Fine. I get it. Wherever you are, I think that’s perfectly ordinary and acceptable.
Condemning LGBTQ people sets me on fire with anger. It’s not acceptable. Here’s why.
Maybe we can forgive Billy Graham, an otherwise kind man who was a product of his time. Graham didn’t know what you know, or what you SHOULD know about members of gender and sexual minorities. Faith is and must be informed by human knowledge, something all but the most reactionary Christian fundamentalists understand. I’m not writing to them. I’m writing to you, and I’m angry because you’re hurting people when you should be letting important knowledge inform your faith.
Knowledge about orientation and identity
Sexual orientation and gender variation are biological, not psychological.
Small numbers of same-sex attracted and gender-variant people are born across all human populations at highly predictable rates. LGBTQ people are ordinary, minority variants of human beings. This is not controversial.
We don’t know exactly how and why sexual orientation and gender traits form in humans, but all credible experts will tell you that we know “beyond a shadow of doubt” that our sexual preferences are hard-wired into our bodies — they are not purely psychological and are not a “lifestyle choice” — a deeply misguided meme for which Sigmund Freud has much to answer
If you don’t know this already, you should. Do some digging if you need to, starting with the link I provided above. But don’t listen to conspiracy theorists and lone wolf “experts” who tell you they know better than the entire human scientific establishment. They don’t.
Sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be voluntarily changed.
Again, this is not controversial. Conversion (or “reparative”) therapy flat-out doesn’t work. Freud actually got that right, though his daughter Anna began to promote sexual orientation change therapy by the mid 20th century.
The decades of clinical experience that followed convinced mental health professionals that same-sex attraction is involuntary — again, beyond a shadow of a doubt. By the 1970s, the experiment ended. Mental health professionals stopped trying to change people, because they always failed.
Christian organizations like the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Exodus International tried therapy again starting in the 1990s. Combining prayer and other spiritual practices with psychological therapy techniques, they also failed to produce any effective results. Leaders have admitted that “changing sexual orientation is not possible,” and most Christian “reparative” therapy organizations have shut down of their own accord.
Repressing sexuality and gender causes intense and pervasive harm.
Christian priests, nuns, monks, and other contemplatives who vow celibacy are rare people. Most train for years before taking vows, and sizable percentages end up changing their minds before they make a final commitment. Christians recognize that celibacy is a “gift” reserved for the very few, and that even those few often struggle.
LGBTQ people are not specially “gifted.” We’re ordinary humans who suffer when deprived of romantic connection and sexual intimacy, which are powerful human drives and often sources of great joy and fulfillment. Men who fall in love with men and women who fall in love with women are seen to suffer negative mental health consequences when love is made impossible for them. Severe depression and unrelenting pain often lead to suicide.
Men and women born with a gender identity that doesn’t match their biological sex also suffer when forced to suppress their identities. Again, suicide rates are high.
None of this is controversial. It’s simple, observable, predictable, reproducible scientific fact. It’s human knowledge not available to us until about the end of the 20th century.
You have an obligation to inform your faith
As a Christian leader, you know that Jesus charges you to succor the suffering and protect the persecuted. You know love and justice walk hand in hand, inextricably intertwined. You know that love is the greatest commandment.
You know that Jesus did not indulge in moral condemnation or anger except in the case of the money changers in the Temple. He never preached about sexual sin; disgust and shame were never part of his example to us.
Many of you have probably at least briefly studied the New Testament via the historical critical method, as I have done, so you know Jesus lived in a Hellenized Mediterranean world full of people who found same-sex attraction to be ordinary and expected. That he never saw fit to mention it and that his followers don’t appear to have found that odd is surely significant.
Given Jesus’s apparent apathy on the subject, and given the knowledge about suffering that I just brought to your attention, how will you inform your faith?
I’m going to avoid complex theological arguments right now, because HOW you inform your faith is up to you. But I know many compelling arguments, and I know most of you probably do too.
You have to do decide what to do about suffering. If you don’t welcome LGBTQ people with open arms, you have to live with the moral consequences.
As Christian leaders, Jesus charges you to love your flocks and care for them. I know you know in your innermost hearts that doctrines that shame people and cause suffering are suspect at best.
I know some of you question official teachings, but go along with them because you’re afraid of the consequences.
I know others of you are apathetic. You don’t welcome LGBTQ people in your congregations because that’s just easier for you. Struggling with inner conflict makes you dissonant and maybe even depressed.
I know others still haven’t yet done the work necessary to think deeply and to understand. You aren’t dissonant because you don’t even listen.
Understand that we LGBTQ people are angry with all of you, for whatever reason you aren’t fully accepting and affirming. We’re angry because we’re in pain and because we’re waiting for you to take your blinders off and face knowledge.
Whatever you decide, the consequences weigh heavy.
We LGBTQ people are suffering today because people like you allow shaming and stigmatization to flourish in society. Homophobic violence is rife — because of you and your teachings.
A faith tradition founded on love and compassion stands as the last strong bastion of hatred toward gender and sexual minorities.
Yes, hate. Yes, even if you’re a progressive Christian leader who almost-but-not-quite accepts LGBTQ folks as fully worthy and equal. But that’s a subject for later— if I haven’t lost your attention or spiritual compassion yet. I challenge you to think hard and open your mind.
Just to preview a futureletter, rejection by loving friends must be more toxic and more corrosive than rejection by enemies. Stay tuned!
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.