The LGBTQ Community and the Christian Church
In early March, one of the most curious cases since Benjamin Button hit the air waves, print and social media in Australia. A brewing company, Coopers Brewery, teamed up in a marketing stunt that ended up going very wrong, with, of all people, the Australian Bible Society. The hapless organisations co-opted two conservative Government MPs to discuss marriage equality. Now the Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, has done everything it possibly could over the years to slow, impede, block and ultimately stop marriage equality in Australia, despite there being over two-thirds support for the change in the wider electorate and a majority of MPs in the Parliament willing to pass the necessary legislation.
One of the MPs in the marketing video, is well-known as an implacable enemy of marriage equality and, dripping in privilege, is a handsome, white, intelligent, educated, well-to-do, married, straight Pentecostal man. Punning on the idea of ‘light beer’, the campaign took this torturous Australian debate and insensitively headlined it as ‘Keeping it Light’. The Bible Society had even made an agreement with the brewer that they would emblazon various Bible-verses on a limited edition 10,000 cases of premium light beer. Coopers claim that they thought they were helping the conversation, but by getting into bed with the Bible Society, they joined themselves to an organisation whose name, history and affiliation goes hand in hand with the oppression of gay people and more recently, the whole LGBTQ community, for two millennia. I speak of the Christian Church.
An almighty furore blew up with boycotts of the beer by the LGBTQ and wider communities, pubs pulling the beer from sale, and a huge brouhaha of a debate ensuing. The owners of Coopers taped a video apology cringe-worthy of Johnny and the former Mrs Depp, and ended the relationship with the Bible Society. Of course, the Right accused the LGBTQ and the Left of closing down free speech and of being intolerant, using our own language against us. Grenades were hurled from both sides and I am sure the Australian public probably just scratched their heads in puzzled bemusement and went on ignoring both.
So what happened here? Why did this ostensibly innocuous video conversation set off such an ideological conflagration?
Well, for a couple of reasons: the notion that marriage equality in Australia should be ‘kept light’ was completely insulting to the LGBTQ community who have had to endure the most torturous and painful route to equality of any Western country that has gone down this path — and we are still not there. Hurt is still being experienced and inequality remains.
But secondly, the involvement of the Church was a trigger that generated a primitive survival system in the LGBTQ community. Primitive survival? Yes, the LGBTQ community has been the victim of relentless oppression by the Church for centuries and is very sensitive about Christianity. It is this second reason that I want to focus on here.
From the beginning of the Christian Church in the 1st century, gays have been targeted. We have been the object of official ‘othering’ by the Church which has spoken against us and declared us unnatural and sinful. The texts of scripture have been used to declare that we are an “abomination”, that God gave up on us, and that we will “not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. We have been preached about and against, rejected from ministry, rejected from church membership, reviled, hated, vilified, tortured, and even put to death.
The much touted Judaeo-Christian value of ‘loving your neighbour’ has historically not been extended to LGBTQ people, and on the contrary, the Church’s theological view of us has been a bedrock of the heterosexism and homophobia that we still see in wider secular society today.
By the non-Catholic wing of the Church, gays have been condemned as sinful, profane, rejecters of God, selfish, idolaters, abominations, not able to enter the Kingdom of God, will burn in Hell, will burn in the lake of Fire, against nature, abandoned by God, a perversion of God’s intended plan, must repent, must give up their sexuality, their sexuality is a choice, must remain celibate for the whole of life, or married to an opposite sex partner, cannot participate in the life of the Church unless there is abandonment of their sexual identity. Many Pentecostals also believe and teach that being gay is actually a demonic oppression caused by Satan and put vulnerable people through their own commonly practised form of exorcism. These are not historic teachings that are no longer subscribed to. They still live and breathe and are taught in ‘Bible-based churches and Christian universities around the world.
The Catholic Church agrees with all of this but doesn’t push a focus on scripture, adding its own emphasis from its in-house teaching source, the Magisterium. It adds the philosophical notions that gay people are “intrinsically disordered”, “inclined to moral evil”and that sexual acts by gay persons are “gravely immoral”. A sin consciousness is indoctrinated into the gay individual whereby he or she would constantly have to repent after feeling desire, go to Confession and abandon their sexual orientation.
The non-Catholic wing of the Church subscribed to so-called ex-gay ministry which is designed ‘to pray the gay away’, all grounded in outdated erroneous Freudian psychoanalytic theory of absent fathers and over-bearing mothers. Ex-gay ministries have never worked and never will. This is because human sexuality is something more elemental than a choice or preference. Our sexual identities are wired into our brains and are stable across the lifespan. Doing opposite sex behaviours if you’re gay won’t make you straight. And this is precisely the kind of behaviour that ex-gay ministries indoctrinate into vulnerable and confused people, often kids. A life of abject negation. Which is then sacralised. You want to talk abomination? I’ll show you abomination.
It is cruel. It is harmful. It is unnecessary. And it is is immoral.
Thus the Church not only sees gay sexuality as sinful, but that our lives and relationships are inferior to those of straight people. We are a deviation from the norm, a perversion of God’s plan for humanity. Our relationships are seen as altogether inferior to straight ones and in fact, it is not uncommon for some churches to teach that our relationships are based in lust not love. This is why the traditional Christian Church continues to resist and fight against marriage for gay people. Their claim: if our relationships are not a legitimate expression of human sexuality, and are in fact, a perversion of God’s plan for sexual expression, then marriage is out of the question for such as those.
Over the centuries, these Christian teachings have seeped into Western culture so that traditionally, it has been so unseemly for two men to show affection in public that it will rarely happen. Same-sex relationships have been frowned upon and in various countries around the world, gay and lesbian people have been fired from their jobs, or not hired in the first place, have had leases broken on accommodation, as well as the more strident homophobic actions of overt bigotry, nastiness, cruelty, criminalisation, imprisonment and even aggression and violence. However, these behaviours did not grow in a vacuum.
They were generated in the West when the Church had more say and was a greater presence, when its teachings on human sexuality permeated the whole of society. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s canon law around the sin of ‘sodomy’ eventually became the civil law. Gay sexuality was denounced by the Church as one of its gravest sins and ultimately, gay people incurred the death penalty if they were not lucky enough to be put in stocks and publicly shamed.
The LGBTQ community has lived through these decades. Sex between consenting adult men was only decriminalised in my own state of NSW as late as 1984, and only this year 2017, has my northern neighbour Queensland, removed the so-called ‘gay panic defence’ from the law, forever forbidding a man to legally defend killing a gay man because of ‘unwanted sexual advances’, which action was deemed so reprehensible that it would justify murder.
The on-the-ground result of direct Christian Church teaching on gay sexuality is that most LGBTQ people have voted with their feet and walked away. There has been too much water under the bridge between the Church and the Gays for too long. Too much hurt, too much pain, too much personal attack, too much nastiness, too much bigotry. Kids in the Bible-belt of the US being kicked out of their home and family because they are gay. It still happens. Unimaginable pain. When you are attributed these hugely derogatory epithets by an authoritative institution like the Church, it should come as little surprise that the LGBTQ community views this type of language as hate speech.
In 1989 Fred Nile led a “cleansing march” up Oxford St in Sydney.
Older Australian LGBTQ people will remember the Festival of Light group that came out of Adelaide, a Christian organisation modelled off the British version and dedicated to moral standards. They brought morals crusader Mary Whitehouse to Australia and of course, they targeted the gays as well. The NSW chapter of the Festival of Light was headed up by Rev Fred Nile who oversaw the movement grow into a noisy essentially evangelically based anti-gay political movement. Fred Nile ultimately went into the NSW Parliament, first under the banner of the Call to Australia Party which subsequently morphed into the present day Christian Democrats. Fred Nile has been a vehement opponent of all things gay, would subscribe to the theology of gay sexuality I listed above, and has publicly attacked the Sydney Mardi Gras every year since its inception.
Fred Nile still at it.
Today, the Christian anti-gay banner has been taken up by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), led from 2000–2013 by retired SAS brigadier Jim Wallace, who, one time, declared that a ‘homosexual lifestyle was more hazardous to health than smoking’. The then Sydney Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, publicly endorsed the comments.
Since 2013, the ACL has been led by Lyle Shelton. This is a right-wing political lobby group that is predominantly evangelical in its membership and has, according to Shelton, about 50,000 people on its mailing list. It is therefore not a peak body nor does it speak for Christian Australia, yet it is one of the most influential lobby groups in the country (see my article Church and State: Marriage Equality in Australia). The ACL would see gay sexuality as a perversion of God’s plan for human beings and would also subscribe to the gay sexuality theology I listed above. Its supporters might even rationalise it by saying that gay sexuality exists because of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden, which according to traditional Christian teaching brought both sin and death into the world.
The ACL is relentlessly anti-gay and, along with some conservative politicians supportive of its views, it is the dominant opponent in the marriage equality debate in Australia. In this debate, the ACL persistently targets children, gay parenting, an anti-gay bullying program in schools, and an already debunked slippery slope argument (yet they persist). Focusing on these fear-mongering strategies, it no longer debates the substantive points around marriage equality. Rather, it uses predicted catastrophic outcomes of marriage equality to try to scare the Australian people into being unsupportive of the change to the Marriage Act. While the strategy is patently transparent, it is unwelcome in the broader rational debate.
In 2016, Shelton, who, despite representing so few, seems to be given an inordinate amount of air time by the media and is the go-to voice if they want a Christian response to anything, equated marriage equality in Australia with Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler. He wrote in his blog: “Changing the definition of marriage to entrench motherless and fatherlessness in public policy and teaching our kids their gender is fluid should be opposed. The cowardice and weakness of Australia’s ‘gatekeepers’ is causing unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s.” What this has made evident to the LGBTQ community is the fact that fundamentalist Christianity will do and say anything to win the day and to enforce its narrow theological view on the rest of Australia. Some call it attempted theocracy, some call it Christo-fascism. Where there is blatant fear-mongering and a callous will to block the over two thirds support of the Australian community, then I can endorse the epithet.
The latest tactic for the ACL and other like-minded organisations, like Australian Marriage Alliance headed up by Sophie York, apart from their inexorable fear-mongering, is the claiming of victim status. These poor wittle bunnies who only just want to do good are crying unfair against the LGBTQ community stating they are being shut down, attacked, their free speech is being eroded (and watch out you’re next), and that the gay community is being intolerant and that we are therefore hypocrites. It’s an old ploy and one that is well known. Blame the victim and then claim the victim status for yourself.
The Christian Church, whether it be huge denominations like the Catholics or Anglicans, or pathetic groups, like the ACL and Marriage Alliance, have plenty of power yet to have their voice heard. That they are being silenced is both farcical and arrant nonsense.
Tasmanian archbishops can still distribute pamphlets to all their parishioners telling them that gay marriage is wrong. Sydney archbishops can still write opinion pieces and lament that the advent of marriage equality in Australia will be a destructive force. All rubbish of course, but they can still say it. And say it they do. We see them on our televisions, hear them on our radios, read them in our newspapers and other print media and they are all over social media. So no, Church, you are not the victim nor have you been silenced. The LGBTQ community standing up against you is not intolerance. It is called survival.
More recently the Church and conservative media don’t like the business community endorsing marriage equality and have told them they must not enter the conversation, that they have no place in it. Of course, the Church itself is not bound by such rules. The Catholic Church pressured Australia’s largest telco, Telstra, to remove public support for marriage equality after it signed up to Australian Marriage Equality’s page along with other businesses. “But the telco’s decision to pull out of the public debate followed concerted pressure from the Catholic church’s powerful Sydney archdiocese, including a written warning and a meeting between former Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone and Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher” (Michael Koziol, Apr 14, 2016, SMH). The Church is supremely uncomfortable knowing that its voice is no longer the sole voice when it comes to national social debates.
Resisting my oppressor is not gay bigotry on my part but a sensible mature response to incontestable historic rejection that is no longer acceptable to us or the wider community. You tell me I’m an unnatural perversion of God’s plan for humanity and that my life will see me punished for eternity and you can expect me to parry the blows and resist you with all my strength. You will just have to get used to us standing up for ourselves and pushing back.
As for the Church hurling moral objections to LGBTQ people, our lives, our relationships and our desire to marry our partners, it cannot be left unsaid that the obscenity of the sexual abuse of children by clergy places them in no position to moralise over the rest of us. That Catholic and Anglican archbishops get out there publicly and declare the evil of allowing gay people to marry in secular ceremonies is beyond the pail to most clear-thinking Australians with their own foul behaviour now apparent and under the spotlights.
To the LGBTQ community it represents the zenith of breath-taking hypocrisy and is not to be borne. The figures for the Catholic Church alone are staggering: 7% of priests working between 1959 and 2009 accused of sexual abuse and 4,444 incidents of alleged sexual abuse identified in the Royal Commission survey alone. The LGBTQ community will not be lectured to by clerical reprobates and their masters who covered this up. The evil visited upon children has not been done by the gay community. It has been perpetrated by the Church. Read that again and let it sink in.
In the twenty-first century, some LGBTQ folk will often manifest great anger or hatred at the Church if they hear it repudiate their lives and repeat the same old hate-speech that has gone on for centuries. Some may speak unwisely or impulsively. There is often a hair-trigger for gays regarding the Church, such is the historic animosity between the groups. I can understand this easily as I have been the victim of such language myself, especially since the publication of my book Being Gay Being Christian (Exisle, 2012). The historic and present-day pain inflicted upon LGBTQ individuals and our world-wide community by the Christian Church is incalculable.
Now I should say that not all Christian people are like this and I would not like to paint every Christian person with the ACL or fundamentalist brush. In fact, the Church in many quarters has been wrestling with the interface of the gay issue and traditional teachings on human sexuality and many are accepting the science (always a good thing I would have thought) and opening up to be welcoming and inclusive. One survey shows support of marriage equality among Christians in Australia at 59%; a majority. And there are even groups here like Equal Voices, who are garnering support from the Christian Church nation-wide to acknowledge and apologise to the LGBTQ community for the hurt and pain caused by the Church.
Further, there are plenty of gay Christians too. These people follow their faith and are true to their sexual identities. The one does not preclude the other. They either go to affirming churches or LGBTQ churches.
But overwhelmingly, the historic message of the Christian Church has been one of denunciation and repudiation of gays and the LGBTQ community. It will be a hard reputation to shift. But shift it should, as I argued in my book. It is unacceptable in the twenty first century. That gay people steer clear of the Church is no surprise. Australians generally have been steering clear of religious zealotry since the days of the flogging parson Samuel Marsden in early colonial NSW. It has been a blessing to the country and has stopped us from going down the same path as the United States which has more religious problems than any country should have.
Now finally, in the long journey of gay rights in the West, we here in Australia are finding our voice and our confidence. We do not accept the normative past. New generations of young people are coming through now who have grown up with LGBTQ people and don’t know the bigotry and cruelty of the past. Their gay mates are just their mates. It’s no big deal. Neither do they know the traditional teachings of the Church around human sexuality. So of course Marriage Equality will arrive in Australia. It’s only a matter of of time. Young ones know this and will live and vote accordingly.
LGBTQ people are not out to destroy Christianity or denigrate people’s faith. People are free to choose how they engage spirituality in this country, which is as it should be. But neither will we stand idly by and allow our historic oppressor, the Church, be it large denomination or lobby group or individual, to beat up on us without our strongly resisting and calling them out. Those days are over.
Dr Stuart Edser
Dr Stuart Edser: Psychologist. Author – Being Gay Being Christian. Pianist. Amateur philosopher. LGBTI issues. Aus politics. Theology. Sci Fi. Classical music.
Originally published here https://medium.com/@DrStuartEdser/we-have-history-5bad6244f610 and republished by permisssion of the author.