The days following the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando will be filled with vigils. All across the globe, LGBTQI people and our allies are gathering to remember the dead, support the wounded, and express our outrage and despair at this latest attack on our community.
It is particularly important, at this time of mourning, that those who organize these vigils ensure that they are welcoming to everybody, regardless of their religious background - including atheists and Humanists. I understand the desire of religious people and religious leaders to respond to this atrocity in the language of their faith, and it is the right of every person to draw upon their religious beliefs and culture to give them strength in dark times. Yet many queer people have been harmed and continue to be harmed by religion, and it can be unbearable if we are forced to enter a religious space or endure religious messages so that we can grieve alongside our community.
I still remember the principal of my private Christian high school telling a school assembly that "Homosexuals deserve our pity and our prayers." I remember the uncomfortable conversations about "those people" in sex ed classes. The culture of Christian disapproval of homosexuality my school created affected me deeply, even though I was never a Christian myself - and my experience was mild compared to that of many others. I have friends - far too many friends - who, when they were discovered to be queer, were abandoned by their churches and mosques; stripped of leadership positions in their congregations; assaulted with violent scriptural texts and demeaning religious teachings; kicked out of religious schools and colleges; prevented from following their calling as clergy; forced into conversion therapy camps to "pray away the gay"; and driven to self-harm and suicide attempts by hatred sanctioned by their faith and fostered in their faith communities.
This structural violence leaves psychological scars. Many of us feel unsafe around clergy, and are unwilling to enter faith spaces which remind us of those which cut us so deeply. If a Christian Church had ruined your life, claiming you are disordered and sinful for being who you are, would you want to enter one when you are at your most vulnerable, and wish to remember lost loved ones? Likely you would not. This same critique extends to mosques and to Muslim faith leaders: there are powerful strands of homophobia within Islam, and queer Muslims and queer Ex-Muslims may have suffered at the hands of Imams and their communities of faith. Forcing them to hear paeans to a faith which has demeaned and dehumanized them at a vigil for other slain and wounded queer people - with no opportunity for their story to be told - is callous.
These hard truths impose a responsibility on all those who would provide a devastated community with a place for hope and comfort in the aftermath of the Pulse shootings: you must make sure atheists and apostates are fully welcomed, and that your vigils are not overwhelmed with religious messages many of us abhor. Decency and respect requires this. Here's how you can keep your vigils atheist-affirming:
- Try to avoid gathering in a place of worship. Such places are often associated with painful memories for queer people, and some may choose not to attend a vigil simply because it is happening in a church, synagogue, or mosque.
If you can do these things, you stand a chance of creating a powerful experience of mourning and solidarity where both religious and nonreligious people can come together collective grief. In these darkest of times, that is a great gift. Make your vigils atheist-affirming.