While many Americans see religious communities as places of comfort and hope, many of those same communities have been openly hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer [LGBTQ]* people. Not only have they labeled LGBTQ people as “sinners,” but they’ve also opposed measures like same-sex marriage.
In recent years, some of these long-standing tensions have shifted. Over the past decade, Americans with a religious affiliation have increasingly supported same-sex marriage. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, support by religious Americans for legal protections for LGBTQ people has also grown. PublicSource recently explored faith communities that have openly welcomed LGBTQ members.
Yet a large majority of LGBTQ adults viewed mainline religions as “unfriendly" toward people who are LGBTQ, according to a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center.
Jennifer found the book on top of her mother’s dresser. Dumbfounded, she reread a passage highlighted in yellow:
It said that a daughter may become a lesbian if she doesn’t have a good relationship with her father.
I can’t let them think this bullcrap, Jennifer thought. This is heartbreaking ... They need to know this has nothing to do with them.
Jennifer closed the book, “Someone I Love Is Gay,” and knew it was time to come out to them.
She’d returned to Oil City for a weekend visit from Pittsburgh, where she lived with her girlfriend, Aly. At 22, she’d graduated recently from the University of Pittsburgh.
Jennifer had learned from an early age to hate herself for being attracted to girls. Her parents said gay people were “going to hell.” A Christian counselor gave Jennifer a pamphlet prescribing prayer and willpower as a means of overcoming homosexual urges. From the pulpit of her family’s United Methodist Church — where at this very moment her parents were attending Sunday service — Jennifer’s pastor urged members to sign a petition in support of the Defense of Marriage Act to outlaw same-sex marriage.
As early as fifth grade, Jennifer had absorbed these “anti-me” messages: I feel like I’m doing something wrong, just by existing.
But Jennifer also sensed she couldn’t change these desires. Throughout high school, she only dated girls — her “special friend” junior prom date likely tipping her parents off to her orientation, among other clues. She discovered differing views on faith and sexuality while studying religion in college.
So when her parents returned home that Sunday morning, Jennifer confronted them, book in hand. Sitting together on the living room couch, Jennifer shared her story and her parents, much to her relief, said they loved and accepted her.
Now 27, Jennifer is engaged to Aly. The couple has begun attending Bet Tikvah, a small “queer-centric” Jewish group in Pittsburgh, as Aly grew up Jewish. During Friday services, she wonders about the nature and existence of God as she meditates.
With this group, Jennifer feels accepted and part of a community — so much so that she is now in the process of converting to Judaism.
Each Wednesday night, 12-year-old Dani would chat and sing and craft with her friends at her church’s youth group. Other days, they’d play soccer.
Each Sunday, she — along with her five brothers, sister and parents — would attend two-hour services at this Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, and sometimes they’d double up with a Saturday service.
It wasn’t all bad — she liked seeing those friends — but most days Dani left church feeling afraid of God. The pastor and youth group leaders talked about love, but somehow Dani knew that avoiding sin was even more important and that temptation hid everywhere. She didn’t want to go to hell. So she prayed, a lot, just as she’d been taught.
Her family prayed together, and church members prayed for one another.
But one Sunday morning, as Dani was leaving the sanctuary, she was surprised by just how much family friends reached out to her with these prayers, stopping her with a touch on the arm or a hug:
“We heard you’re a bit sick, Dani. You’re in our thoughts and prayers.”
“Dani — sorry to hear you’re going through a tough time. I’m praying for you.”
Dani didn’t understand their sympathy, and she didn’t say much as she trailed her family through the crowd in the church lobby. Then she came upon the glass case displaying prayer requests and other announcements.
There, among other names in a column, she reads: “Dani Janae.” And next to her name the prayer concern: “Unnatural desires.”
She continued to walk, but the world around her spun.
Dani knew why: Mom.
At their home in Garfield a few weeks earlier, Dani had said it out loud: Mom, I’m bisexual.
Mom was the first in the family to know. Dani hoped that sharing this would make them closer and maybe even end the ache inside her.
She’d been talking it over with friends who identified as queer. They understood her. But she’d also heard the jokes on TV and in songs. She knew others viewed her attraction to girls as weird and nasty and unholy.
Her mom said as much: “Don’t you think you might grow out of this?”
“I think this is probably just a state, Dani. You know, a temporary thing.”
During services, Dani now heard the invitation to “accept God into your heart as lord and savior” differently. Everything told her: she wasn’t right with God, and she certainly wasn’t saved.
About two years after seeing her name on that prayer board, she gradually stopped attending, and so did the rest of her family. Dani became an atheist. While attending Allderdice High School, she hung out with a group of queer girls and also felt accepted at some of her extracurricular activities — a pre-engineering program and the school’s creative writing magazine. And she liked being online where people don’t question who she is so much.
Throughout this time, Dani had queer friends who remained Christian, and she resented their faith: How can they believe that stuff, she thought, when they know what the faith says about them? About me?
In 2014, Dani completed a creative writing degree at Allegheny College, going on to work at education nonprofits in Pittsburgh and then starting her own business as a writer and editor.
Now 26, Dani goes by DJ and identifies as lesbian. Her resentment has subsided. She accepts that faith works for some people, and she doesn’t have a right to tell her friends otherwise. She doesn’t talk to her parents much though.
At times, DJ thinks life would be easier if she could just “pray on” decisions and doubts as she did as a kid, when she felt God’s guidance. But most days she doesn’t miss the faith that left her asking:
How can you tell me God loves and accepts me, but considers me sick just for being who I am?
That’s not love.
On the phone with a United Methodist Church official last June, Jeff felt shock. He’d just been asked to serve for a few months as acting pastor at First United Methodist in Bloomfield.
Jeff had entered the ministry in 1972, when he and his college sweetheart began co-pastoring three churches in rural Ohio. Over the next 30 years, they’d have two children and pastor eight churches total.
But a sense of disquiet never left Jeff, and the marriage was tumultuous. After decades of throwing themselves into church work and parenting, and Jeff’s countless prayers to Just make everything in my soul better God, please, Jeff and his wife acknowledged that neither of them felt fulfilled.
Jeff started seeing a therapist who helped him understand his desires. He read books. He started on an antidepressant. He went on a six-week quest at a Catholic Retreat Center run by the Sisters of Mercy. He attended a weekend retreat with more than 100 gay Christian men who assured him: God does love you. You are wonderfully made. You can be a whole person as a gay Christian.
In 2002, Jeff came out. As expected, the consequences were immediate: His marriage ended, and he lost his United Methodist Church ordination credentials.
Jeff moved to Pittsburgh, where he would work the next 10 years as a therapist for mentally ill youth. He joined First Church, knowing they’d long been inclusive of the LGBTQ community. In fact, in 2011, First Church became the first official Reconciling Ministries Network United Methodist church in Pittsburgh. Jeff dearly missed pastoral ministry, but at least he was able to preach on occasion as a lay speaker. First Church was a safe place for he and David, his eventual husband, to find community.
When First Church's head pastor had gone on a leave from the 150-member congregation, congregational officials asked Jeff to take over administrative duties on a week-by-week basis through January 2018. Then came this phone call last June.
Jeff hung up the phone having given his answer: Of course he’d serve as “acting” pastor — a temporary title he interpreted as tacit approval of his work, while avoiding an outright break with denominational rules.
So Jeff shepherded the congregation until last October, before helping a newly appointed pastor transition into the role. He’s since remained active as a member of the congregation, currently helping to develop a building security and preparedness plan.
In February, the denomination’s General Conference voted to maintain its policy of not ordaining openly gay people as clergy.
Still, Jeff has continued in ministry, and if the denomination were to ever change its stance on appointing members of the LGBTQ community to full pastorship, he’d gladly accept that role.
Jeff first felt a sense of calling into Christian ministry when he was just 12 years old. He’s not about to give up now.
Samantha’s mother made no bones about it: “You have the devil in you.”
This wasn’t really a surprise to Samantha, but after feeling bad for so many years, after finally opening up and speaking the word aloud — transgender — her mother’s words still hurt.
Samantha had grown up as a boy in central West Virginia. The family attended a Catholic church led by a priest who condemned homosexuality from the pulpit.
The priest had also attempted to “exorcise” (the word he and other adults used) evil out of the boy at the age of 10. While kneeling before the altar, the boy’s mother and the priest prayed using a lot of Latin words. The priest anointed his forehead with oil.
As a child, the purpose of the exorcism was unclear, though they had also prayed over his older brother who’d been dealing with depression. To his young mind, the message was clear:
Follow the rules. Be a good Catholic.
Don’t end up like your brother. He’s just rebelling.
And die before committing a mortal sin.
As a teenager, though, he began to feel detached from himself, from his name and gender. He felt like he was somehow somebody else. But he also feared such sinful feelings, so he often said his own prayers: God, please help me make this right. Turn me into a girl. Or kill me. (And the boy meant it.)
He’d been homeschooled through high school. At his parents’ request, he attended a small Catholic university in Virginia when he was 18. When, during class, students joked about Caitlyn Jenner and sneered at any mention of gays, he wasn’t sure what to make of his own discomfort. But when he discovered an online transgender community, something clicked.
One year later, Samantha transferred to another Catholic university that seemed, to her mind, “less conservative.” The jokes followed, and Samantha’s dormmates weren’t shy about calling her derogatory names.
When a psychology researcher gave a schoolwide lecture on transgenderism, Samantha attended, along with a few hundred other people in an auditorium. The talk compared transgenderism with species dysphoria — a condition in which people see their bodies as members of another species.
Some come to believe they’re wolves, the researcher said. Then she showed a slide of a drag queen — equally “deviant behavior,” she said.
At the time, Samantha was three months into a hormone-induced transition. She felt attacked by that slide and that lecturer. And by her peers’ silence.
As a kid, she’d served as an altar boy, carrying the incense thurible before a praying priest. But in college, Samantha began leaving the faith. She stopped receiving communion. Then confession. Then she skipped Mass altogether, even as she completed a degree from a Catholic university.
She moved to Pittsburgh, where now, at 23, she identifies as transgender and lesbian. After two years of hormone therapy, she’s living “full time” as Samantha. She changed her legal name and gender. She doesn’t see her family much.
Samantha has many non-binary friends, and some have stuck with the faith. Even when they have supportive families, she doesn’t understand how. Faith has hurt her so much. It’s hurt a lot of people.
Religion doesn’t do much good, she thinks. Though it has revealed to her one basic truth: The world is a dangerous and messed up place.
In the mid-1980s, many said AIDS was God’s judgment against the abomination of homosexuality.
Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell declared: “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
So Gary Glasser, a gay man who grew up in New York City, felt fortunate that his Episcopal church in the San Francisco Bay area ministered at “ground zero” (as he saw it) in the AIDS crisis. The church opened a food pantry for low-income gay men. It hosted a healing service in which people who were living with HIV/AIDS, or affected by it, could receive prayer and be anointed with oil.
But Gary also knew that, even in the Bay area, there were parents and family members who would barely acknowledge the existence of their gay sons and brothers and cousins, much less help them through an HIV diagnosis. He saw on a number of occasions that when gay men died of AIDS, some of those same church-going family members would swoop in and claim the house, property and savings left behind.
He knew some funeral homes refused to take the bodies of people who’d died of AIDS — that even in death, these people weren’t offered pastoral care.
He knew of those who’d stand outside of funerals holding hateful signs, telling people their deceased loved one was destined for hell.
And these were people who called themselves Christians.
Gary watched so many of his friends die. He missed them and felt survivor’s guilt, as well as sorrow when hearing from so, so many people living with HIV/AIDS who’d been shunned by their faith communities.
He was fortunate to get in on an early trial using AZT (azidothymidine), a drug that inhibits the HIV virus’ ability to replicate and, as a result, prolongs the life of people living with HIV. Gary would eventually move out of the Bay Area and pursue a decades-long career in human resources.
Now 65, Gary doesn’t understand why God enabled him to thrive through this “double-whammy” of being a gay man with AIDS. All told, AIDS has taken nearly 700,000 American lives, and 35 million worldwide. But he’s chosen to live gratefully.
Gary’s doctor recently asked him why he seems so happy all the time. “I have a lot of men your age who are HIV positive and gay who sure don’t act this way,” Gary recalled the doctor saying.
Gary told the doctor that God kept him going, and that he has this deep feeling that God spared him so that he could help others. He recalled feeling that God was calling him to service as he had been given the gift of a long and healthy life and needed to do something in return.
In 2014, Gary and his partner moved to Pittsburgh so that Gary could enroll in classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he’s pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. He’s developing a curriculum to counsel members of the LGBTQ community who’ve been driven from the church by words of condemnation. His intention is to emphasize the good things done by churches ministering to all, including LGBTQ long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS.
Life is tough, Gary knows, even with the support of his partner and his faith. He can’t imagine what it’s like for men and women who have neither. Or for those kids he knows who hook on the street to get by – a disproportionate number of them transgender. Or for LGBTQ folks battling addiction: Sure, AA meetings are spiritual, but they’re still not the church.
So, while not claiming that faith is for everyone, he wants to help hurting people return to the fold. The curriculum he’s developing shares his own testimony of being accepted and invites gay men to forgive those Christians who’ve condemned them and then open themselves up to the “bounty” of being in a relationship with Jesus Christ who came to “liberate the oppressed.”
Gary points out that Jesus spent time with people rejected by others and believes Christians should do no less.
After beginning his studies at a small Christian liberal arts college, Jason Dauer, sat in an administrator’s office discussing school policies related to the LGBTQ community. He knew students at other institutions who’d been compelled to leave because of their identities. He wanted to respect his school’s boundaries, but he didn’t know where they lay.
“So, if I had a boyfriend, would I get in trouble?”
No, certainly not, the administrator responded.
“And, if I kissed him and someone saw it, would I get in trouble?”
No, we’re not policing your relationships, he assured Jason.
Jason, who began attending the school in 2013, left the meeting somewhat satisfied. But he thought less about what was said than what was left unsaid.
Officially, in the student handbook, the school restricted students — both heterosexual and homosexual couples — from having premarital sex on campus. In class, Jason heard professors state forthrightly that homosexuality is wrong, that if you’re attracted to someone of your gender, you’re ethically required to remain celibate.
Not all faculty fell in lockstep with these views. One hosted Jason and a few other LGBTQ students at her house so they could support one another. Mostly they talked about their fear of rejection and coming out to parents.
In September 2015, a few students decided to form a support group on campus and called it The Table (“because everyone is welcome at Christ’s table,” they agreed). They asked administrators if they could reserve classroom space for meetings. No, they were told, as an unofficial student group, they could not, unless their meeting was listed as a “Bible study.” So the group did just that, and then also applied to become an official group. But no, the chapel dean said, the college already had too many student ministries. And, no, The Table couldn’t receive student group funding.
Jason had grown up just north of Pittsburgh attending an American Baptist church established by his ancestors (he was the seventh generation in his family to attend). There, too, gender identity and sexual orientation were never discussed.
So silence had taught him to assume the worst. For most of his life, he’d stayed quiet about who he was because he feared others’ responses.
But by the time he attended college and understood himself more, Jason changed his mind.
Table members began distributing rainbow stickers to faculty, suggesting they use the stickers to indicate a willingness to discuss sexual orientation with students. Stickers began appearing on faculty office doors.
Jason was told that some faculty had expressed concern that these stickers might be interpreted as an endorsement of gay lifestyles and the LGBTQ movement. The college president formed a nine-person committee to discuss the stickers and formulate a response.
After meeting for one year, the committee suggested the creation of an alternative sticker, which the administration would encourage faculty and staff to use as a replacement, though the president wrote in a memo that nobody should feel compelled to use the sticker. In the memo, he stated that many of the basic tenets of the LGBTQ movement, including support for same-sex marriage, conflict with the historic biblical ethics of Christianity.
The new sticker was comprised of two speech balloons — designed, the president said, to encourage open dialogue.
The president ended the letter noting that faculty not in alignment with the college’s values might reconsider whether this is a place where they can serve “in good conscience.”
The rainbow stickers slowly began to disappear, though several remained in place.
The Table continued meeting, though Jason would graduate in 2017 with degrees in biblical and religious studies and communications. He then worked at a Lutheran church as the director of family ministries for a year, before deciding to return to school to become a pastor.
In a sense, he felt grateful for the silence of his childhood as it shielded him from being hurt as badly as he might have been. And yet, this silence fostered fear of abandonment.
It’s obvious, he’d later conclude, when an institution does not speak up on important issues, one way or the other, people get hurt.
He saw the results: one gay friend received a death threat in her campus mailbox. The police were notified. She was told an investigation was underway, but they never even interviewed her. Instead, she received a hug from the school president. The school stayed silent on the matter otherwise.
As a future pastor, Jason hopes to work with those who’ve felt hurt by the church’s response to their gender or orientation. He wants to help pastors learn to foster a culture of dialogue, rather than fear and silence.
Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
Sexual Orientation The scientifically accurate term for an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (straight) orientations.
Gender Identity A person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same.
LGBTQ Acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer. In some cases, individuals or organizations utilize other acronyms, such as LGBTQIA, which includes intersex and asexual. When sources explicitly use a collective term other than LGBTQ, PublicSource defers to that use.
(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide)