Although the church where I work has a history of being progressive and embracing LGBTQ+ folks, the overall history of LGBTQ+ inclusion is much shorter than the terrible tradition of LGBTQ+ exclusion, and the work continues as we confront more and more inequities.
The conversation around sexuality in churches is often limited to “welcome” and “inclusion,” but having LGBTQ+ people in our buildings is not the same as not harming them -- or creating a world where they can thrive. We need to learn from the diverse sexuality in the world and the spectrum of gender identity and relationships.
Organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality have provided statistics over the years on how transgender people are more likely to experience harassment and physical violence from law enforcement, and how transgender women of color are more likely to experience sexual violence and death.
At the time of this article’s publication, Out magazine reports 29 known violent killings of transgender people so far this year. This sobering data reminds me that the impact of the church in our communities must not be judged by membership, pledges or statements but by the flourishing of those on the margins.
So then how is the church called, not only to bear witness to this precarious reality pressing in on the margins of our communities, but also to labor toward action -- within its own walls and outward?
In April, I had two conversations that compelled me as a queer clergyperson back in church leadership after so many years away to see new horizons and possibilities for the church’s work.
In the first, the Rev. Kerlin Richter, the rector of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon, explained how she was trying to make her church community into a safe space to talk honestly, theologically and hopefully about sex and sexuality.
She initiated a series of conversations titled “Crazy Sexy Advent,” in which they talked about kink and polyamory and listened to a sex worker. Richter asked those gathered what a sexual ethic looks like “when it is rooted in justice and not in purity, which is often more based on identity as opposed to what we can do,” she said.
Her pragmatic question is a powerful way to think critically about how our churches often talk about sex and sexuality. Churches often police the boundaries of identity rather than engage the complexity of people’s efforts to cultivate honest, authentic and healthy intimacies. There are many types of kinship and family, and the church needs to recognize that.
Our “welcome” often has limits, ultimately requiring people to assimilate to the standards of heteronormative ideals like monogamy and marriage.
Richter shared that the sex worker began her talk with this gem: “Jesus hung out with prostitutes because we’re so nice to people.”
Perhaps we’d rather assume a Jesus who traveled around the country innocently hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors and fishermen because of a program of outreach and helping poor, unfortunate souls. It’s a bit of a challenge to consider the possibility that Jesus was in community with those on the margins not to reform them but because their kinship was enjoyable.
Jesus shows us what it looks like when relationships and kinship are a means to love, healing and transformation. Even more, he shows us the necessity of a community rooted in delight and wholeness.
Buzzwords like “welcome” and “inclusion” have become the marks of the progressive church, but both Richter and the Rev. Dr. Ana Ester Pádua Freire, an ordained clergyperson in the Metropolitan Community Churches, wonder whether these words are losing some of their efficacy.
I spoke with Freire in my second horizon-broadening April conversation.
She and her community have crafted a more pragmatic framework to root themselves in what it means to actually be affirming, to actually be a community for LGBTQ+ folks, she said.
Inspired by the work of queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid, Freire said she has rethought what words like “welcoming,” “inclusive” and “affirming” might actually mean in the local church.
Some churches are welcoming of LGBTQ+ members, she said, but hide behind a bait-and-switch “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of ministry by limiting those members’ participation, for example, in terms of leadership.
Other churches are inclusive, which she defined as accepting of LGBTQ+ leadership, but only as long as they reflect heteronormative values like monogamous relationships and nuclear family structures.
Freire’s church has instead sought to be affirming, she said, by accepting all forms of sexual orientation and identity, as well as kinship arrangements within its members’ and leaders’ lives that aren’t heteronormative or necessarily monogamous.
This came out of her church’s exploration into members’ many spiritual heritages and genealogies, she said, which opened them up to the variety of sexualities, intimacies and expressions of families in their own histories.
In American Christianity, “purity” asserts itself through structures of homogeneity, normativity and assimilation. This purity isn’t just about control and maintenance of premarital sex but about control and maintenance of bodies and especially of relationships, of work, of family, of love. I believe this purity is about dominance and is not Christ’s.
The conversation on purity reminds me of the Atlanta spa shootings, which continue to weigh heavily on my mind, even after almost three months.
As an Asian American woman and a pastor, I wrestle constantly with the numerous intersecting realities we are called to confront and address as the church. It’s complicated work.
There are no quick fixes or easy programs, but what is clearly needed at the very least is a pastoral touch, holding these questions and conversations without judgment, graciously yet courageously and critically.
Whether or not the victims were sex workers, an attitude of anti-sex work reveals other layers of injustice, including ableism (not everybody has the mental, emotional or physical capacity to participate in a committed relationship), classism and of course racism.
Red Canary Song, an advocacy organization for Asian and migrant sex workers, released a statement after the shootings that said in part: “We know that as massage workers, the [victims] were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants.”
What tragedies like this can provoke us to consider, beyond the problem of purity culture in conservative churches, is how other kinds of churches, especially progressive ones, contribute to purity culture in their own way by making one singular kind of intimacy, one singular way of living, normative and universal.
The arc of the moral universe seems to stretch perpetually toward the horizon as we become more and more conscious of the many injustices everywhere -- within our neighborhoods, throughout the world and especially within our churches.
How can the church provide a brave, just space that is wide enough not only to welcome and include but also to affirm all love and all livelihoods? What would it look like to facilitate conversations focused less on identity and more on justice -- on the right to intimacy, defined broadly, not simply in sexual terms but toward the flourishing of life for every single person?