Health in Difference – Doing Diversity
7th National LGBTI Health Conference
Mercure Hotel, Sydney, 29th April – 1st May 2010
LGBTI PEOPLE OF FAITH & RELIGION
An Emerging Group In Our Community
The Issues They Face & Specific Needs
© Anthony Venn-Brown
You can listen to the audio here.
Since 2004, when my autobiography ‘A Life of Unlearning’ was released, I have been privileged to be the first contact point for 1,000’s of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) people from faith and religious backgrounds; especially those experiencing faith/sexuality conflict within strongly biblically based contexts. My inbox became a microscope into a hidden world as many isolated and alienated people found someone they relate to; often for the first time. Common themes have emerged from the 1,000s of emails I’ve received, listening to individual stories and from the many stories posted on the Freedom 2 b[e] forum. Telling Our Stories
LGBTI people of faith and religion are an emerging group whose specific needs have not always been identified or catered for.
Why an emerging group?
LGBTI people of faith and religion have always existed. However changes in social attitudes, the high-profile dialogue/debate/polarisation about the issue of homosexuality in the church, and LGBTI people coming out about their faith as well as their sexuality, has produced an increase both in numbers and visibility.
If we look at the history of people coming out, we see that for the first half of the 20th century the closet was the safest place to be. The fear of complete rejection, loss of employment, horrific treatments by the mental health professions or imprisonment, kept gay and lesbian people hidden, silent, unacknowledged and in clandestine communities.
This slowly began changing in the 60’s. Gays and lesbians were experiencing internal changes, rejecting previously held beliefs about homosexuals and sexuality, which culminated in milestones such as the 1969 Stonewall riots. External changes were happening as well, with the 1973 resolution by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. This reinforced the changes in social attitudes and led to the decriminalisation of laws that had made sex in private between consenting adults of the same-sex illegal. Anti-discrimination laws were also introduced. Laws continue to be changed in the areas of age of consent, relationships rights, access to birth technologies, adoption and recognition of same-sex relationships. We still don’t have full equality though in all areas or all states.
Where was the Christian church during all this? Mostly they were horrified and either kept their distance or militantly opposing every change. They were not seeing things as the rest of society saw things. To the Christian church the issue was not one of innate sexual orientation but of morality and maintained the outdated belief that homosexuality is a choice, illness and perversion of God’s ‘natural order’; threatening to break down the very fabric of society. The concept of a gay Christian was impossible; the term an oxymoron.
Whilst mental health professionals were realising homosexuality could not and didn’t need to be changed, some in the Christian church took up a ‘healing’ ministry to homosexuals with promises of change for those who had faith and were committed to ridding themselves of this ‘sin’. In 1976 Exodus had it’s first conference and has become the umbrella organisation for 100’s of ‘ex-gay’ ministries. These groups have worked with 10,000’s of gay men and lesbians, tortured by the perceived conflict between their faith and their sexuality. For nearly four decades they have continued to play on the emotionally vulnerable; people with sexual abuse and addiction issues and those who believed they needed to conform to heterosexuality in order to be accepted by God, the church, Christian friends and family.
A relatively unknown event happened in 1968 (one year before Stonewall). Troy Perry, a defrocked Assemblies of God minister, gathered 12 people in his Los Angeles lounge room and had the first meeting of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Troy was the first person, it seems, that dared to believe that there was no conflict between his sexual orientation and Christian faith. Since that time the number of voices has grown to many, many 1,000s (Google ‘Gay Christian’ nearly 10 million entries). Not only is there a gay Christian denomination (MCC), there are a growing number of gay independent churches and the number of mainstream churches and denominations who welcome and affirm LGBT people increases every year. Once non-existent, the gay Christian movement is now strong, growing and vibrant.
Another example of this emerging group can be seen by a visit to your local gay bookstore. There was a time when it was impossible to find any books on being gay and a Christian. Nowadays you will find an entire section on religion including personal stories, such as mine, along with books on the history of the gay Christian movement and theology. Similar things have happened within the Jewish faith and recently books about being a gay Muslim have begun to appear on the shelves.
In many churches today we have people coming out in their teens and 20s and Christians in mid-life who are coming to terms with the fact that all attempts to be heterosexual were useless. There is also another group, who initially rejected their faith in order to accept their sexuality, which are coming back into faith or seeking new forms of spirituality. This selective, belated coming out, I call ‘the second coming – out’.
LGBT people of faith and religion experience the usual issues of resolving their sexuality or gender identity, coming out, finding their place in the community and learning what it means to live authentically in a predominately straight world. They often however, experience these things with greater intensity and also have additional issues to deal with.
- Having a belief system that says your eternal destiny is determined by your acceptance/rejection of your same- sex-orientation or gender identity, creates a cognitive dissonance that is difficult to resolve without information and connection with others who have walked the same journey.
- Most have invested years attempting to conform to heterosexuality through personal secret attempts, opposite sex relationships and formal (‘ex-gay’) programs which has left them damaged and traumatised.
- Even after coming out, internalised homophobia from years of negative conditioning and self-hatred can continue to have an impact.
- For most people from faith backgrounds, accepting that you are gay or lesbian means you have to leave the church and your entire social network is lost. It was a strong network; often like family. Finding your place in the LGBT community (with a very different set of values) and like minded-people is often difficult.
- Coming from a church background also meant your life was filled with church activities and service. You lived with a strong sense of purpose and meaning. To walk away from faith means to no longer have any purpose in life or that you’ve crossed over to the ‘dark side’.
- Although beliefs systems are different, people from strong Christian, Islamic or Jewish backgrounds can face similar issues.
It would be good to emphasise again that LGBTI people from faith backgrounds experience all the things non-faith LGBTI people do, but they often experience them with greater intensity and have additional issues to deal with.
IMPACTS OF A RELIGIOUS BELIEF SYSTEM ON LGBTI PEOPLE:
Considering the above factors, my belief is that, LGBTI people from faith and religious backgrounds are possibly one of the highest risk groups in the LGBTI community of:
- Potential and real suicidality. The larger proportion of the emails I receive mention either thoughts of/or attempts to suicide. We will of course never be able count the precise cost of lives lost. Many never left notes or kept their dark secret to themselves. If parents or friends did know the person was struggling with their sexuality it is never spoken about afterwards as it would only multiply the existing shame of the suicide itself.
- Mental health issues. The dissonance cause by the perceived conflict of faith and sexuality causes stress and depression.
- Self destructive behaviours. When people are rejected from, or leave their religious backgrounds, they are left with strong feelings of failure and shame. Poor self-image leads to unhealthy behaviours. Some believe they will go to hell for accepting their homosexuality and this belief plays out in high risk activities – a slow form of suicide.
- Obsessive behaviours and addictions. It’s not uncommon for someone who has suppressed or denied their sexual orientation to develop unhealthy behaviours which get out of control.
- HIV & STI infection. Most people from church backgrounds don’t have access to safe-sex education and therefore, if sexually active, are at higher risk.
- LGBTI people of faith can often experience additional discrimination. It’s a double whammy, hostility can come not only from their religious community but also at times from within their own LGBT community. They can be attacked or rejected from both camps.
What are their needs?
- Safe spaces
- Connection with like-minded people
Pretty much the same things everyone else wants. But the information, equality, acceptance, non-judgment, safe spaces and connections may differ from and experienced in different ways than the average non-faith LGBTI person.
I have put together an awareness training workshop on these issues that is highly relevant to LGBT community workers, mental health professionals, school counsellors and LGBT liaison officers. If you would like more information please feel free to contact me..
The needs of our target groups at Freedom 2 b[e] are enormous and currently we are only scratching the surface. We face great challenges in reaching the people who need us the most.
Here are some recent stories from the Freedom 2 b[e] forum that highlight the needs mentioned above. There are now over 150 stories that have been submitted. Some of these stories have received over 100 replies.
Shan – 19 year old country guy trying to make sense of things…… March 23, 2010 – 10:30pm
First of all… Wow… What a powerful site… Let me start with my story…
I have been a Christian all my life from when I was about 5… I believe that God is my saviour but have severe trouble coming to grips with why He would love me.
I’m not “out” to anyone… Not sure how to go about it… Even if I should go about it…
I have known I was “different” to those around for many years… Just not attracted to girls… And living in a small country town (out Dubbo way) doesn’t help…My struggle really started 5-6 years ago when i was in grade 9… I came to the conclusion I must be gay… I have been raised by a Christian mother whose stance was basically “Gay is wrong… Grandmother didn’t help either… Remember watching some dancing competition on TV and being told “They are wonderful, Too bad they are gay. They’ll go to hell!”
I have always believed that decent Christians aren’t gay and if they are there are programs that can help.
In year 9 i couldn’t come to grips with myself and attempted suicide… Was caught by a teacher and rushed to hospital. Diagnosed with depression. I figured that if I put these feelings and my “religion” in a theoretical box and left it alone I would get over it…. I attempted suicide again in Year 10 and once again in Year 11.
Which brings me back to this week. I am currently in Sydney for work and was fed up with myself again.
I was planning on killing myself for good last night.
My work entails searching popular social media websites i.e. Blogger, Twitter etc for mentions of our product. I was finishing my work, Sending it to server and about to write a goodbye email before drowning myself.. Before I could finish my email a stray result came into my inbox. Had nothing to do with my work and didn’t match any of my criteria. There is not reason it should have been there. It was a link to Ben’s Blog.
I opened it and howled my eyes out… Reading about another person in my circumstances and finding out I am not the only one… Then found a link to this page and howled even harder… Finding a group of people who believe you can be a Gay Christian. Even better seeing the evidence against “Ex-Gay” therapies and classes made me feel so much better.
I’m so grateful to the Admin in this site… And Ben for that great blog… Without you guys I wouldn’t be alive… Literally.
Anyway… I’m not great at this sort of thing… I have actually never done anything like this before… Much different to a press release
I would love to network with other people through Facebook, Twitter or IM.
Thanks again everyone and God Bless! Your Brother in Christ… Shan…
AVB Note: After Shan came out to his mother a Christian adult friend of the family sent him an email saying ‘he could change as many others had’ and included links to the Exodus website. The impact of this email on Shan was devastating and made him suicidal again.
Living Two Lives April 30, 2010 – 4:28pm I am lesbian and 47. I can’t figure out how to bring my two lives together, well I can but I am a coward. I have two Facebook accounts, one for my family and straight friends, the other for my GLBT friends. I am getting sick of having two lives but I am so nervous about being totally truthful to my straight Christian friends and my kids. .a few times I have thought it would be easier to kill myself and have tried hard to do this, ending up in hospital more than once…there has to be a better way“ I don’t want to be rejected. I don’t want my Pentecostal friends to think I am deceived and going to Hell… any suggestions or opinions please?
Ben 20 – AOG Christian young man is coming out June 16, 2008
Hey guys and gals,
My names Ben, I just turned 20 and I am a Christian and I am Gay. (Wow… It’s still hard to say)
I am a member of Hillsong Church, been there since I became a Christian at 16. I only recently have started to accept myself and come to the realisation that i can be me and still be a Christian.
I’ve had a pretty rough background. Was sexually abused multiple times. I have been through ex-gay programs (Yes – sadly they still exist) which do not work. Have been going through multiple bouts of clinical depression. I have been through the Hillsong S.A.F.E course which however really did help me so much.
I have been gay for as long as I can remember but for some reason you think you’ll change. After praying for years and years for God to ‘cure’ me and crying constantly almost every night I realised that he made me ME for his purposes – even if I am Gay.
Funny enough that the Psychologist I’m seeing at the moment is from Hillsong Citycare (The church’s charity arm). He is such an awesome guy and I am so surprised that he is accepting me for who I am and so helpful in this whole journey. Sure there is that traditional mindset in Him (i think) but overall he is really supportive and is a positive indicator of how the church might be in the future. Hopefully more compassionate and loving. Without Him I might’ve stayed in the closet and continued the lie.
Anyway. I am about to come out for the first time to my parents and friends. I think I am ready. Any hints or tips. Should I tell my church mates or just leave it as is with my church mates and not mention it. Because I love my church. I don’t wanna have to leave just because of my sexuality.
Also any help for trying to explain being gay and being Christian to other AOG Christians.
Anyway. I love that this site exists. Thank you so much!! I am looking forward to getting to know you wonderful people better.
Hello…….I’m not really happy at the moment. What’s going wrong. Believe in God, not happy where I’m or don’t know how to build relationships anymore. Somewhere I hate myself. What shall I do? Don’t know how to deal with same sex attraction and the pain that causes that. Believe that only one men and one women can be one because God took the women out of the men. So tired of living. I know this sounds silly, I feel God but I don’t know why God did let me become gay. Is it a lie that kills me.
I feel that I don’t have friends, but that isn’t people love me and like me but I don’t feel the love… I don’t know what to do. And the devil lies all the time that I’m nothing and that people will not love me.
I don’t know what I am really………don’t call me lesbian or bisexual just yet, I’m not comfortable with it. I’m on my own. I just want to be a person who can love another person, irrespective of their gender. My Christian journey began about 30 years ago. As a new Christian my idealism knew no bounds – I was married at 18, a mother by 19. My own family aren’t Christians but are very supportive and loving. They allowed me to make my own choices even though they had serious reservations about both the marriage and my new-found ‘religion’. I thought my marriage was safe and ‘wholesome’ (does anybody remember the magazine’ Above Rubies? Sorry for dredging that memory up!). We were the perfect family on the outside.
As time progressed and the rose-coloured glasses about church life began to fade, I began to openly challenge and question gender stereotypes and traditional Pentecostal views. Often the arguments were with myself – my own narrow views that I had constructed as a new Christian. Eventually my marriage disintegrated. I left my husband and we divorced about 10 years ago.
Such freedom, but such a high price!! My kids hated me, my church didn’t understand me and I knew I had committed the unpardonable sin -you know, DIVORCE. I can’t say how many years it took to get over that guilt.
About 2 years ago a beautiful lesbian woman came into my life. You probably all know what happened next – I prayed, I cried and cried, I had counselling, and I finally learned to tell myself the truth, that this was love and it was too strong to ignore. I quietly began a relationship with her and once again upset my kids and my church. I have a few people around me that support me but none of them share my faith. And I found out that there IS something worse than divorce in the eyes of the church…..
My girlfriend had a whole lot of reasons to hate Christianity, and after some beautiful times and some tragic, we broke up. I have lost a lot but found out 2 things. I have loved a woman more than I ever loved any man. And I still believe Jesus loves me!! So I’m in no-mans land at the moment. No church, no girlfriend and no interest in a relationship with men. But I have found out that at the darkest times I have one who cares and never gets sick of hearing me pray. I’m amazed to find that God still loves me. But even though I’m no longer in an ‘offensive’ relationship I won’t go back to church. I want to be free to be with who I want. Now if I could only find where I belong………
16, gay male, Pentecostal/Charismatic background October 12, 2008
Hey everyone. My name is Bryan, I’m 16 years old, and a gay Christian with a Pentecostal/Charismatic background. However, if you asked me if I personally was Pentecostal/Charismatic I would say I’m figuring that all out still. I’m going to give a very condensed version of my story. My parents are missionaries and we had a wonderful home life. It was great. My story is yet another counter-example to those who say homosexuality is the result of bad parenting. I had great parents and I was raised to be a good Christian boy in a good Christian school (which I still attend).
I’ll speed through this part, since I know how short people’s attention spans are nowadays. Started feeling I was gay in middle school. Went through the whole self-hatred and shame thing. Learned about how God loves gay people and began to re-evaluate my own beliefs. Started to come out to others. That’s pretty much where I am now. I’m not out to everyone or openly gay, but I feel like I’m becoming more comfortable with being gay. Life is a journey… which is why I chose the username gettingthere because I thought it was a good reminder to me of how life is a journey and my successes and failures are both parts of that journey.
So that’s it. I don’t really know what will happen from here on out, but I’m trusting it will be good.
AVB Note: Since he first posted in 2008 ‘gettingthere’ has been through many ups and downs and faced huge challenges. As he is living with his missionary parents in an Asian country the forum has been his lifeline. There are over 120 replies on his original post.
I had been married for 20 years when my wife told me to leave. She’d found out that I had been visiting gay websites. That was it. We hadn’t had the greatest of relationships; I tried to please but it never seemed to work- and now it was over. It took 8 months after this for my wife to understand that I was gay; and since then I have had no contact with my three teenage children.
I left one year ago. I was an almost 50 year old man. No friends. Nowhere to go. I’d never really admitted that I was gay- I’d only got as far as thinking that if something ever happened to my relationship, I would never get married again. I’d had casual sex with men over the previous 10 years, but being an evangelical, charismatic Christian meant that couldn’t ever talk to anyone about it, even when I was in my times of deepest need and despair. I couldn’t even admit it to myself.
I knew I was attracted to other guys since I was about 11 and became a Christian soon after. Before I became a Christian, I had tried to please God so much- and discovered that I couldn’t except through trusting in Jesus. But I felt so different, and scared and bad. I was so lonely and felt like a failure. I kept trying hard. In my conservative, bible believing Christian circles, I never met anyone whom I knew to be gay; that didn’t happen until I was 39 !!
I’ve realised- God does accept me JUST AS I AM. I come to Him- just me, myself, and the gay bits, and all the baggage- and I trust Him. And He accepts me!! Just as I am. I always felt like I’d failed- especially in the area of sexuality, trying to be straight and in relationships. And now I didn’t have to feel like a failure- because God accepts me just as I am. That’s freedom!! It was so good!!
Last weekend I read Anthony Venn-Brown’s book. So many parallels between his experience and mine. I am so glad you wrote it, Anthony. I just wish that I had this book, MCC, Freedom 2 b[e] and some wise counsel that would have allowed me to manage the situation with my wife and children better. But we can only move forward.
I’m still working through a lot of things: finding a place in the world, in the church, and in relationships. Wishing my relationship with my kids could be restored; knowing that it will resolve one day- but wishing it were now.
Scott- 18 and openly gay Christian June 5, 2010 – 10:08pm
My name is Scott, I am 18. I attended a Freedom to b[e] meeting for the first time last night. Anthony suggested that I post a bit of my story here. So here goes….
I was born and raised in a family that came from the high-church Anglican tradition. My family had a falling out with the Anglican church when I was little, which made my Dad leave the Church altogether, whilst my Mum swapped across to the Uniting Church. Although I attended Church, we never talked about God, and I had no interest in Sunday School- I was the clown that always got kicked out hehe.
During my later primary school years, one of the people in charge of me… abused their position. When I hit high school, I made friends with all of the Christian kids. Of my group of friends, I became very close with one boy. We started a physical ‘relationship’, which lasted close to 5 years on and off. I broke off our agreement halfway through year 12, he had several girlfriends in that time and it became obvious I was never going to be anything more than a good time (excuse my lewdness).
At any rate, as a 13 year old I was not mentally prepared for that kind of relationship. I developed severe depression in mid- 2005 and had strong body image problems. I began self-harming, and began also to binge eat, only to stick my fingers down my throat a short while later to bring all of it up again. It was at this point on Remembrance Day in 2005 that my friends took me along to Hillsong Church, which was more relevant and allowed me to connect to God like never before. It was in that first service, that I put up my hand to receive Christ into my life.
As 2005 came to an end, I was slipping further and further into a deep, and at this point undiagnosed, depression. I became suicidal and these thoughts ruled much of what I did. I decided to talk to someone about it, one of my friends in school. It is a extremely lucky that he decided to tell my bible study leader, as the day he confronted me about it was the day I had planned to be my last. I was then given help. I was also given the opportunity to talk through some of my issues with a therapist over the next few months. I never mentioned the harmful relationship as I didn’t see a connection at the time.
Up until this point, I had never thought about sexual orientation or attraction. I had enough on my plate as it was. However as 2006 went on, I began to realise that I was gay, and made the decision to tell my bible study leader. He was the first person I told, because of how he had handled everything else with my depression and everything, it wasn’t until later that I learnt he had had several friends of his kicked out of the Church because of their sexual orientation. As a result of seeing their pain, he treated it extremely tenderly, but suggested I talk to a pastor about it in mid-2007. I told him about the primary school experiences and about the relationship (he was utterly disgusted with me).
It was amazing timing, because the youth dept of my Church had employed a counselor to whom I was referred (the “Wildlife Mum”- if you are reading this I still have a CD you leant me and I had/still have every intention of giving it back, sorry!). She was AMAZING, telling me that homosexuality was normal. If it had been any other counselor, I would probably gone through the ex-gay programs and whatever else… God only knows where I would be now except for her. From reading other people’s stories, I cannot imagine it could have been a very healthy place.
Fast forward to now, and I have just come out to my parents, and come out more fully in the Church. I love God, and I love who I am.
And my journey continues…
AVB Note: Scott later revealed that he had been visiting our forum and reading stories and discussion for 3 years before he actually contacted anyone or came to a meeting.
For further information please contact Anthony Venn-Brown