Stop gaslighting LGBT+ people about religion

Happy Pride to all my LGBT+ readers and allies. The disproportionate contribution of LGBT+ people to atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups is something we should all be extremely grateful for. At times, this disproportionate contribution has literally paid my wages and has greatly enriched the groups that have provided a home for me. Round the world and throughout history LGBT+ people have so often been on the frontline in the fight against theocracy and dogmatism.

When I was a younger, brasher atheist I used to wonder how any LGBT+ person could be religious. From a more mature position, I realise that faith identities and beliefs mean different things to different people, and many people are perfectly capable of reconciling these with LGBT+ identities or allyship.

In modern Western history virtually every organised campaign against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people has been religious in nature. That is absolutely not to suggest that atheists, humanists, or secularist groups are completely free of homophobia. Though Western transphobia is also largely funded by religious groups, it has found far too warm a reception in some parts of our community. Though religiosity and homophobia are highly correlated, it would be an absurdly broad and unfair brush to paint all religion or religious people as homophobic. I was giving a talk a few years ago and during the Q&A a teenager shared her upset with her peers assuming Christians like her were homophobic. I’m sure she was entirely sincere, a good friend and ally. But the root of her discomfort was that she didn’t like people pointing out her group’s role in systemic oppression.

If people want to practice their faith or manifest their religious identity in more inclusive, humanistic ways then great. But LGBT+ people and their allies should not be policed or prevented from pointing out the systemic role of religion in their oppression. The fight for LGBT+ rights has almost always been a fight against heteronormative religious privilege.

The whole discourse on corporations co-opting Pride for pink washed marketing is important. Even if they are doing it for purely cynical reasons, is this still a sign of progress? Is performative allyship inherently good, bad, or neutral? Various accounts do a lot to expose this. At the moment, I’m following one which tweets about corporations’ rainbow rebrands along with details of their donations to anti-LGBT+ political causes in the US.

We should be just as critical of attempted pink washing by religious organisations. Any time a Church has a pride flag up, it’s great to see that they are trying to be inclusive. But I can absolutely guarantee with a tiny bit of research you could find they are affiliated or connected to an actively anti-LGBT+ group. Far too few will be open and honest about their religion’s role in homophobia. I’ve met many good and decent LGBT+ people of faith and sat in with religious LGBT+ groups. They do a lot of good work, but they also spend a lot of time and effort pretending that anti-LGBT+ bigotry has ‘nothing to do with religion’.

I get the strategic and practical reasons why ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups want to follow this same line. Ten, fifteen years ago, many ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups were pretending they didn’t support marriage equality, because they saw focusing on achieving civil unions as a pragmatic short term aim. This may have made strategic sense, but they were rightly called out on it, and it was a strategy which required more radical LGBT+ groups to push the envelope further.

LGBT+ groups have often sought acceptance by conforming themselves more closely to the values and expectations of ‘mainstream’ society. We live in a society where religion is extremely privileged, where taboos against criticism are valued and polite society is expected to pretend religion is never the cause of bigotry. LGBT+ people can choose to conform to these societal expectations, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be expected to. There is clearly a lot of value in LGBT+ groups seeking and celebrating religious allies. But allyship based on the marginalised group protecting the feelings of their oppressors should not be immune from criticism. LGBT+ people have made a disproportionate contribution to atheist, humanist and secularist groups and vice versa, yet they constantly find themselves tone policed and marginalised to accommodate religious privilege.

The long history of anti-religious and anti-religious privilege messages at Pride should surprise no one, but these have increasingly been targeted, alongside anti-capitalist messages as part the depoliticisation and commercialisation of marches. Ex-Muslim groups and others have been targeted for protesting against religious homophobia.

Efforts to make Pride more inclusive for all groups including people of faith are great. But this can verge into silencing and marginalising LGBT+ people’s ability to talk honestly about their oppression. I love that as a straight ally, my LGBT+ friends make Pride inclusive for me. But I would hate for my comfort to be prioritised over their liberation.

With straight privilege, people are more likely to accept I have honest intellectual reasons for my atheism. I’m less likely to be told that my desire to live a nonreligious life is based on sexual ‘sin’. I’m less likely to have experienced religious based trauma and far less likely to be gaslit by well meaning ‘allies’ telling me that the religious homophobia I’ve encountered is not ‘real’ religion. Straight privilege makes leaving religion easier and a lot less burdened with internalised shame.

Perhaps it is this, along with a healthy dose of religious privilege, which drives the desperate need of the mainstream and many LGBT+ media to find, create or amplify any positive story of LGBT+ inclusive religion. Again, I’m all for celebrating moves towards equality in all quarters. But the disproportionate amplification of these stories often feels like gaslighting LGBT+ people and can be used by well meaning allies to delegitimise their experiences of religious based oppression. They remind my of Hollywood’s constant churning out of civil rights movies with white protagonists.

The worst historical example of this which helped motivate me to become an activist, was The Advocate making Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year. It set the model for a decade of gaslighting. Francis was photoshopped with “NOH8” face paint the rallying cry for marriage equality which came out of the Californian campaign against proposition eight. A disgusting misrepresentation of Francis’s dedication to fighting marriage equality and any other advancement of LGBT+ rights. The pull-quote “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” was presented as the sole evidence of his support for LGBT+ rights, when any honest reading shows this to be evidence of his self-righteous bigotry. He was saying they gay people should seek forgiveness for the sin of being gay, and the largest LGBT+ publication in the world debased themselves by carrying it on their front cover.

There are practical reasons to celebrate allies where you find them, but if we lower our expectations so far for religious people, then nothing meaningful is done to challenge the biggest structural cause of homophobia. The mainstream media don’t write fawning puff pieces when atheist, humanist or secularist leaders say something nice about LGBT+ people. Religious privilege shouldn’t allow people to play allyship on easy mode.

As atheist, humanist and secularist values spread, LGBT+ acceptance will only continue to grow, and eventually the average religious person will be as accepting as the average nonreligious person is today. Religious groups will rewrite history and highlight odd examples to pretend they were on the right side all along (after all, in every struggle there will be people from the oppressing group with the moral wisdom and courage to stand with the oppressed), but we shouldn’t make this easy or comfortable for them.

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: Person With Body Painting, Sharon McCutcheon

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