I grew up in a tiny fundamentalist church where I was told every Sunday how evil “homosexuals” were. The pastor’s voice would shake with anger as he compared gay people to pedophiles. I knew I was gay, but any time I had thoughts about women, I instantly suppressed them ― though not before a wave a terror washed over me.
“I’ll be interested in boys once I start college,” I told myself. “I’ll be interested in boys when I graduate. I’ll feel normal soon.”
Despite how hard I tried, heterosexual desire never materialized and instead I felt isolated and alone. When I first started dating women, I had panic attacks and nausea so severe that I threw up a few times a week.
Since coming out, I understand the importance of sharing my story and I share it so often that now the words tumble out easily. I share my story because I want people to know how damaging the religion can be and I want people like myself to feel less alone. When I tell my story, though, there is one response I receive often.
“I’m sorry that happened to you, but that’s not what real Christianity is.”
While my story of religious abuse is my own, it is not unique. In fact, nearly all of my queer friends have heard some variation of this phrase too, and although I’ve heard this phrase many times by now, it hurts every time. To say this to someone who has just shared their story with you is to look the other way while those of your faith abuse an already marginalized community.
In fact, Christianity is dangerous to queer people. To pretend otherwise is ignorant at best. Reuters reports that LGBT youth who are raised in religious homes show a 52% increase in suicidal ideation. A study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed that 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Another study by the Albert Kennedy Trust shows that 45% of those homeless LGBT youth were homeless because of the rejection of religious family members.
I recently had a conversation with a queer-affirming Christian friend about this very topic. She expressed how horrified she is by the ways in which Christians hurt the LGBTQ community. She admitted that she has used the “I’m sorry that happened to you but...” phrase before, too. She explained that she just wants her queer friends to know she is a safe person.
While I appreciate the intent, the phrase has never once made me feel safer. In fact, the words have only ever made me feel worse. If the intent is pure then why exactly is the statement so hurtful?
Saying “I’m sorry that happened to you but that’s not what real Christianity is” is manipulative. Since “real” Christianity would never perpetuate such violence then how could that experience of religious trauma even be true? The phrase is almost a form of gaslighting: “A ‘real’ Christian would never do that to you. Are you sure that actually happened to you?”
This phrase is dismissive. When queer people share our stories of pain with Christians, it is understandable that they might become defensive. It is understandable that Christians feel guilty that their religion has hurt so many people. Refusing to take accountability, however, by using such a shallow excuse is not the solution.
Speaking over our voices by explaining that “real Christianity isn’t like that” silences the stories of queer people. This silencing only further empowers homophobic Christians who are literally silencing us through dangerous laws and policies. Instead of speaking over us, queer-affirming Christians should hear our stories and uplift our voices.
This phrase is condescending and accusatory. It implies that queer people should have stayed in the church for longer ― that we should have tried harder to find “real Christianity.”
For many of us who grew up in the church, we knew exactly what mainstream Christianity thought about queer people. For years we tried to “pray the gay away.” Many queer people were shipped off to conversion therapy. Many became homeless. To suggest that we didn’t try hard enough to find “true Christianity” is unconscionable. For many queer people, choosing to leave the church is a matter of life and death.
For those queer-affirming Christians who want to let their LGBTQ friends know that they are a safe person, there are different ways to express this without using this shallow cliché.
Firstly, affirming 100% of our identities is crucial. So many of us are used to the homophobic Christians who use the “love the sinner; hate the sin” trope. Hearing instead that every aspect of our person is loved and valid is imperative. As a queer person, I can’t feel safe with someone who believes that I’m going to hell because my partner just happens to be a woman.
Secondly, recognizing the pain that Christianity has inflicted on queer communities is important. Instead of expressing empty guilt and expecting queer people to assure you that you aren’t homophobic like other Christians, a real apology can go a long way.
Thirdly, it is also crucial for queer-affirming Christians to hold other Christians accountable. Hearing our cisgender, heterosexual allies promise to stand up for us and then actually seeing them follow through is what real allyship looks like.
Like many of my queer friends who grew up in toxic religious environments, I am now in therapy. I was told for decades that my body was dangerous, that my desires were evil, that my core self was sinful. Christianity harmed me in a way that I will likely spend the rest of my life reckoning with. Therapy has helped me to rewire my brain to believe instead that I am enough.
Despite it all, I still hold the belief that religion can be a beautiful thing. I hope, though, that Christians will stop telling me that they “aren’t like other Christians.” I am instead grateful for Christians who educate themselves and understand just how badly Christianity has harmed the LGBTQ community. I am grateful for Christians who believe us when we tell our stories and who help us amplify our voices. I am grateful for Christians who hold other Christians accountable. I am grateful for the Christians who provide me with safe and loyal friendships.
Although Christianity is something I no longer follow, queer-affirming Christians play a crucial role in this moment in history. This month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on cases about whether queer and transgender people should be protected in the workplace by federal civil rights law.
With a conservative and Christian stacked court, it is entirely possible that the court will rule that LGBTQ people can be discriminated against in the workplace.
In an evangelical Christian-dominated country that seeks to disenfranchise queer people every single day, the role of LGBTQ-affirming Christians has never been more important.