Re-Occupy "Tradition": The History Of Faith And LGBT Rights

Watching the latest Republican tap-dance to court "values voters," it's clear, once again, that "religion" and "tradition" are unsubtle code words for anti-LGBT politics. Faith-based political organizations like Iowa's The Family Leader have so thoroughly occupied the language of faith and values, that even critics of their politics assume that traditional Christianity goes hand in hand with conservative sexual and gender politics. According to the way many people understand the politics of religion and sexuality, the more "traditional" a person's faith, the more directly that faith demands opposition to LGBT rights.

So why is anti-homosexuality such an important litmus test for today's values voters? That tradition owes more to relatively recent spokespersons like Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell than it does to a millennium of anti-homosexual Christian teaching. The mid-1970s marked an important shift in the political face of Christianity, as Anita Bryant, Southern Baptist actress and beauty queen, stepped in as spokesperson for a Florida-based campaign to roll back gay rights. Thanks in part to Bryant and the "Save Our Children Campaign," gay and lesbian residents of Florida still face laws and policies that consign them to second-class citizenship. Save Our Children also went on to target gay rights measures in localities across the United States, and it kickstarted the anti-gay rhetoric of a galvanizing New Right.

The Christian right deftly claimed the language of tradition as support for anti-gay policies, but a closer look at conservative Christian publications before the 1970s shows a much more complicated story about evangelical Christians and homosexuality. Take Christianity Today as exhibit A in this exploration into history. Billy Graham founded the journal in the 1950s as a middle road between the more liberal Christian Century and more conservative fundamentalist publications, and it continues to be an inter-denominational forum for conservative Protestant opinion. Though Christianity Today authors during the '60s and '70s were unambivalent about the sinfulness of homosexuality, they had varying opinions about gay rights. B.L. Smith, writing in 1969, argued that homosexuality, though sinful, ought not to be the concern of criminal law, an argument supporting sodomy law repeal. Three decades later, when the Lawrence v. Texas finally struck down sodomy laws, Christian right spokespersons went into conniption fits. With the rise of the Christian right and its demand that Christians vote according to their values, another tradition has withered: one that encourages believers to separate religious convictions and civil law.

Today's Christian right spokespersons hide their own complex past, and they also obscure diverse Christian perspectives outside evangelicalism, which present a decidedly different history around the politics of homosexuality and gender variance. Newspaper headlines alone are evidence that Christian leaders had a very different political face during the decades preceding the rise of the right. One of the most striking examples comes from the San Francisco Chronicle, where a front-page article in 1965 featured a photo of seven stern-looking clergy and the headline, "Incident at a Homosexual Benefit -- Angry Ministers Rip Police." The article reported on a press conference called by these clergy to protest police harassment and arrests during a dance organized by local gay and lesbian organizations. The night before, these same clergy were at the dance working to physically shield the attendees when police photographers harassed them by taking pictures. These clergy were allies in a struggle to reform discriminatory laws against LGBT people several years before the more well-known Stonewall Riots.

This account is only one of countless stories that could be told about the supportive roles played by people of faith -- some of them straight, and some of them gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender -- who have actively worked for LGBT equality. Their claims to faith and to tradition, and their willingness to put their lives and bodies on the line for queer family values, has been usurped by anti-LGBT politicians and religious leaders who seem to see "religion" as their exclusive property.

I, for one, would like pro-LGBT advocates to reclaim "tradition." It might seem initially like a dangerous site to occupy, because it is so often deployed in the interest of those who want to resurrect an oppressive past. As I've shown here, however, "tradition" is always a partial and selective map of the past. If the Christian right can ground their politics in "tradition," those of us who support LGBT rights have at least as much historical prerogative to say with equal, if not more, conviction: "my tradition supports LGBT justice and equality."