Melbourne Town Hall, 12-13 January 2018
Founder and CEO
Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International
The LGBTI community and the Christian Church – dispelling the myths and bridging the gap
As a preacher in Australia’s megachurches I always had captive audiences. People were highly motivated to be there. I was preaching to the converted.
My audiences were not always so enthusiastic. In fact, sometimes they were downright hostile and I had to earn the right to be listened to. I think of times I spoke at high schools and had the entire student body of up to 1,000 in front of me. Hostile, antagonistic audiences who really didn’t want to listen to some crazy Christian preacher tell them their lives would be better if they invited Jesus into their hearts.
More recently I was asked to work with the world YMCA in Europe. They had a problem. Some in the organisation wanted to make acceptance of LGBTI people an international policy. The leader of the YMCA globally looked at other Christian based organisations and seen them split over the ‘gay issue’. Not wanting to repeat history they invited me in to create a safe space to work through this and other controversial issues. They flew 12 people from around the world to Europe to work through the process; a microcosm of the global organisation. Four of these were from African countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence and one the death penalty. Working in a space where people culturally never talk about sex and homosexuality is a taboo subject was challenging. But begin the conversation we did and 18 months later a resolution was passed without conflict or dividing the organisation.
Sometimes I have challenging conversations with megachurch pastors. One on one. Alone. Confidentiality agreed so that they feel safe and our conversation doesn’t get highjacked by conservative trouble makers. From one of those meetings I was invited to speak to the church leadership of about fifty pastors and wives. Challenging? Yes as the ‘gay issue’ had never been spoken about openly at a leadership level before. It could be assumed that not one person in the audience was affirming. There was a humorous moment though. Well I thought it was humorous. I was quoting Kinsey’s figure that nearly 40% of men had a homosexual experience to the point of orgasm during their lives. At that point there was a lot of shuffling in the room. The body language pretty well confirmed Kinsey was right.
And here I am today speaking to my tribe. Is this challenging? Considering that we have just gone through several years of fighting people of faith for our right to marry the person we love and the intense hostility of the weeks of the postal vote…..maybe it is. Some would have an intense dislike for anything to do with faith or religion.
Many LGBTI people have never known the level of opposition and vilification experienced during the postal survey before. For those of us from faith backgrounds, I guess we can say welcome to our world. Many of us have lived with that level or opposition for decades and just because a law can be changed with a stroke of a pen, it’s not the same with beliefs and attitudes – they take longer and for us the battle is not over. I’ll show you about that in a minute.
Question: How many of you here at the conference are from a faith background?
For some of you that was challenging even to raise your hand. Some of you may have just outed yourselves.
It has not been the done thing to be on the side of religion or even acknowledge any past or present connection if your LGBTI. I remember in 2004 at the launch of the first edition of A Life of Unlearning. Nearly 250 people attended the launch upstairs at the Midnight Shift, a gay nightclub in Oxford Street. Having written the foreword to my autobiography, the Honourable Michael Kirby was there with his partner Johan. It was the first time they had actually been inside the venue. As exciting as the launch was, there was a noticeable absence. No one from the gay press or coverage. No LGBTI community leaders. A high profile Australian Pentecostal preacher telling his story of coming out finding resolution was relatively newsworthy, I would have thought. I was hoping that telling my story might advance our cause for equality. I discovered afterwards that it wasn’t just disinterest or apathy it was opposition from some and I’d been intentionally ignored. An opportunity was missed to capitalise on bestseller status of the first edition.
But of course I am not the only one to get that kind of treatment. Hostility towards Christians, even within our own tribe, has been a well established attitude going back to the first Mardi Gras in 1978. As author, Joseph Carmel Chetcuti, says in his recently released book, Sydney’s first gay Mardi Gras: what brought it on and how it changed us, ‘Members of gay and lesbian religious groups were also there. Not all activists welcomed the ‘pious’ activists, some socialists accusing them of being ‘in bed’ with our oppressors. As Ken Davis admits, ‘lots of people thought the Metropolitan Community Church and the Acceptance contingents were inappropriate. Like, why are we marching with this Christian stuff, because they are our oppressors’.
I totally understand why there’s been an anti-religion feeling in the LGBTI community. The opposition to our every push for equality has always come from religious leaders and organisations. In the end though, the church and the gay community were actually preaching the same message. You can’t be a Christian and gay. Where did that leave the LGBTI person of faith? Stuck between two worlds looking for acceptance in communities who were both hostile to their very existence.
Christians’ contributions to LGBTI rights
What a lot of people are not aware of is the contribution Christians have made to the LGBTI community over the years. Not everyone has been against us. Here are just a few examples.
- 1955 Derrick Sherwin Bailey wrote ‘Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition’ which debunked the belief that the Sodom story was about homosexuality along with the other 5 passages presumed to be about homosexuality. His robust research, delving into the meanings of original language, historical and cultural contexts, became a framework for the Wolfenden Report which eventually led to the decriminalising of homosexuality in the UK.
- A very much untold story is the contribution Christian ministers made to the early gay rights movement. This is beautifully explored in Heather Whites book, Reforming Sodom : Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights . Many Protestant ministers were supportive of gay rights and provided meeting places and finance at times for the fledgling homophile movement in the 1950’s and 60’s.
- In 1964 the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was founded in San Francisco for the purpose of joining homosexual activists and religious leaders. In 1965, The Council put on a New Year’s Eve fundraising ‘Mardi Gras Ball’, which was raided by police and arrests made. The next day the ministers held a press conference were they decried police harassment and hostility.
- In 1968 the Rev Troy Perry, met with a handful of gay men in his loungeroom and the Metropolitan Community Church was birthed. This year MCC celebrates 50 years of ministry to the LGBTI community providing a places of safety, healing and reconciliation to LGBTI people, their families, friends and allies. The churches contribution through advocacy and activism has been consistently tireless.
- In 1972, the first gay kiss on Australian TV was Peter Bonsall Boone kissing his partner Peter De Waal on the ABC Checkerboard program. Peter Bonsall Boone was a church secretary at the time and very involved in Australia’s early gay rights movement.
- In conversations I’ve had with many leaders within the LGBTI community, I’ve discovered that a substantial number come from faith backgrounds. Originally having a sense of calling and mission on their lives, which they expected to be expressed within the Christian community but after being rejected by the church, the sense of mission and making a difference never left them. Today they live lives of service within the LGBTI community. Our communities gain, the churches loss.
There was a time when you’d walk into a gay bookshop and you’d only find one or two books on being gay and a Christian. Now it is an entire genre. It’s encouraging to see books on being gay and Muslim have made an appearance and are now growing.
What we had to learn
Considering that the major opposition to our equality has come from religion I’ve never understood why we didn’t make that a priority. When I attended the first ex-gay survivors conference in 2007 in Los Angeles, afterwards I flew to Washington to check out the HQ of the Human Rights Campaign. I was blown away to walk out of my hotel in the morning and see a seven story building opposite me. At that time I didn’t know of one LGBTI rights leader in Australia who was actually salaried; everyone volunteered and gave hours to the cause beyond their full time jobs. I was even more blown away to be taken around the faith and religion department and met the director, staff and interns. The next year the Human Rights Campaign flew me over to speak at The Evangelical Network‘s conference in Phoenix where I met Ross Murray’s predecessor, Ann Craig, who’d founded a similar department in GLAAD.
Gay people being employed/paid to focus solely on faith/religion and LGBTI issues. It was like a dream come true. “Will we ever get to understand the significance of this in Australia” I thought.
So kudos to Rodney Croome who realised that it was important to involve Christian ministers in the push for marriage equality in the late 2000s.
Kudos to Australian Marriage Equality for creating the first full time position in an LGBTI Australian organisation, focusing solely on the area of faith and religion.
The number of Christians that have come out in favour of marriage equality helped others see that not all Christians were anti-gay….but were actually gay affirming. So kudos to all the Christians who helped us get this over the line and helped Australians see that the Australian Christian Lobby was never given a mandate to speak on behalf of this countries Christians.
And of course kudos to The Equality Project for this Better Together Conference and making faith one of the streams/themes of the conference. I think we are all acutely aware of what it is like to move from the sidelines to actually be involved in the game. I’ve been waiting for 17 years for an opportunity to move from a workshop or breakout session to actually get to speak with my tribe.
Creating a space for change
After seeing the lack of progress and the way people interacted I knew there was a better way, so I developed a model around 2007 that I have used successfully ever since. There are straight religious allies presenting at this conference who are here because of this model. It all began with a conversation. (You can see an expanded version of this PP presentation HERE)
I think we are all very familiar with these two worlds being very separate. Different beliefs and cultures etc.
The interaction with the church and the LGBTI community has been traditionally an abusive relationship. The LGBTI community has been viewed as the enemy, we’ve been judged and stereotyped outrageously, accused of creating natural disasters, misinformation about our lives and relationships is rampant, sensationalism has been used to demonize us, conspiracy theories abound (the gay agenda) and the communication has been one way. The result has always been conflict.
If we were really honest we could say that the exact same thing has also happened the other way as well over the decades.
It’s like a boxing match. The bell rings and they both come out fighting. No one listens. In this adversarial model opponents must be defeated. This is the only paradigm many in the LGBTI community and the church have known. Name calling is easy but it’s playground behaviour. You may also have been embarrassed at times about the way some in our community have communicated with those who have a different opinion or belief to them. Their responses only entrench existing beliefs about us as well as having a negative impact on the moveable middle. Just because some Christian conservatives are nasty, obnoxious, aggressive, arrogant, rude pricks, doesn’t mean you have to be as well. Or maybe it’s just some people’s way of being in the world and they’d be that way no matter what their orientation or gender identity. Returning hatred with hatred achieves nothing.
What I have been creating for over a decade now is a new space. Not everyone from the Christian or the LGBTI worlds will want to come into this space and new paradigm. It’s an invitation. No one is forced or pressured to respond. Some would rather remain in the adversarial model and thrive on the conflict.
For those who want to come into this space, we agree to engage with a new set of principles. We must be willing to dialogue, treat each other respectfully, always act with integrity, understand that we will actually learn from each other and instead of conflict we find levels of resolution.
When we embrace the new principles they become paramount and the old way of being is abandoned. The new space creates possibilities, believe me.
And it is in this New Space that people can begin a journey. No one moves from being anti-gay to gay-accepting overnight. It is a process and sometimes a painfully slow process. Individuals, churches and organisations all go on a similar journey.
Some people do hate LGBTI people. I usually don’t work with those people. To me they are No.7s. As they say ‘haters going to hate’. I do think though we are often too quick to label some people ‘haters’ as they are more likely to fit into the next couple of catagories. That is why they constantly protest ‘I don’t hate gay people’.
Some people don’t hate gay people, they just dislike them. There is a difference.
Some people move from disliking to just not feeling completely at ease with gay people and/or homosexuality or transgenderism. But they have shifted.
People can move from discomfort to tolerance. Tolerance is quite a shift from hatred. It’s important that our society is tolerant of differences. I’d rather be tolerated than hated, but tolerance is not acceptance.
It’s wonderful to see people get to a place of acceptance but the journey is not over.
Being affirmed is so much better than being accepted. You can see the differences HERE in my article on Welcoming, accepting, and affirming churches.
…and some people, become advocates. Advocacy can take many forms. You don’t have to march down a street with a megaphone to be an advocate. You can be one at work, amongst your friends who are further back along the continuum and in your church.
In 2013 I was one of ony two gay people invited to attend the final Exodus conference to hear the president, Alan Chambers, apologize to the LGBTI community and close the organisation down. For me this was the end of a two year journey with Alan and thirteen years opposing ‘ex-gay’ proponents and organisations. During the conference Alan had been interviewed by every print and TV outlet imaginable. In the final hours of the conference I was the last person to interview him. One of the questions I asked was, ‘Alan, people will be intrigued, why Anthony Venn-Brown, who has led the charge to see ex-gay organisations closed down in Australia, is here with you at this historic moment?’
I wasn’t really prepared for his answer.
It had been an horrendous time for Alan leading up to this moment and particularly the last three days at the conference. Christian conservatives attacked him for the apology and stating that people didn’t change their orientation. He was now labelled a traitor and heretic. At the same time some in the LGBTI community joined in the attack, told him to go to hell and called him Hitler, hypocrite, hater, evil and every unprintable name imaginable.
‘You were kind to me’ Alan responded to my question.
And I immediately thought ‘Can it be that simple? A little kindness? Possibly the power of kindness has been underrated.’
I wonder what would happen if LGBTI individuals showed some kindness in their online communications with those who might think differently to themselves and if we showed more kindness to each other instead of lateral hostility. Maybe this journey that some Christians are going on, some of us may also have to take with communities within our tribe. I’m sure the strongholds of inequality, discrimination and injustice are weakened by us standing together in solidarity against them. And we are weakened as a community when egos, personal agendas and self-interest blind us from seeing our common journeys and common goals.