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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

God Loves Gays: The Church and the Struggle for LGBT Equality in America

The last twenty-five years have seen a near-exponential rise in American acceptance of LGBT equality and in the codification of rights reflecting that equality. The AIDS crisis increased the visibility of gay men, and of gayness itself, in the 1980s and ‘90s. Democratic politicians slowly adopted more pro-gay stances, and Republican leadership used that fact to drive a wedge between their base and an emerging pro-gay majority. Even television shows have become more gay, as gay characters have shifted from being campy sidekicks (as on Will and Grace) to heroes for equality (Kurt in Glee) to just-another-couples struggling with marriage (Modern Family).

Millennial adults (people born roughly between 1980 and 1996) are more likely than other Americans to have a close friend or family member who identifies as LGBT, more likely to support gay rights, and (at least when Obama is running) more likely than previous cohorts at their age to vote, swinging the tide in favor of equality. As important as any of these factors, however, may be the increasing role of LGBT people in churches and the increasing role of churches in the movement for equality.

Although religiosity and church affiliation have declined in recent decades, the United States remains deeply Christian, with more than three-quarters of all adults identifying with some Christian tradition. For many, church is the primary place for being in community, for discussing values and politics, and for making friends. As a result, churches have substantial influence on Americans’ beliefs and relationships.

In many ways, this force has been destructive. Just as many ministers refused to perform interracial marriages in the 1910s and marriages between previously married and divorced people in the 1930s, most ministers were staunchly opposed to marriage equality and other rights for LGBT people as late as the 1990s. Many LGBT people and their allies experienced hateful vindictive from the pulpit and the pews in their childhood, and they never looked back. However, churches, especially mainline Protestant congregations, but also a smattering of evangelical, Catholic, and other groups, have taken part in the movement toward LGBT equality in religious life and in the political sphere.

Even more substantial than those formal entries into the movement, perhaps the most influential way churches have advanced LGBT equality is through informal relationships. People are most likely to encounter people of similar background and experience on the job, and people are most likely to form friendships with people like themselves, choosing less difference in their social circles amid an increasingly diverse society. While largely not racially diverse, church communities provide many people with the greatest experiences of diversity along dimensions of age, class, and gender.

Churchgoers encounter the LGBT daughters and sons of their friends, and they foster younger LGBT adults into leadership. They encounter otherwise foreign-seeming individuals in a setting where values are discussed and LGBT people are more rounded than the characters who appear on television or in the news media. Through these relationships formed in church, people have the opportunity to gain a more grounded and robust understanding of LGBT people. This relationship development allows people to understand LGBT people as more fully human and thus more deserving of equal rights and treatment.

This paper explores that relationship through vignettes that are very close to my experience. I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination of approximately a million people, through the decades when LGBT people went from being largely vilified to being largely accepted. The paper takes the shape of a kind of oral history examining the role of the church in promoting friendships between LGBT and straight people over three decades, and some thoughts as to the challenges to come.