Religion Shouldn't Conflict With Being LGBTQ, Faith Leaders Say

If their faith is not accepting of their identity, religious LGBTQ people can face a conflict. They worry "'do I have to give up the church to come out at all?' And there's this deep self loathing and hatred that happens," says "Queer Calling" podcast host Keshia Pendigrast.

For members of the LGBTQ community, it can feel like there’s no place for them in the world of faith and religion, especially within Christianity.

When you’re a queer person of faith and your faith seems to be sharply weaponized against who you are, that is one of the “greatest crimes that you can perpetrate against a person,” says Rev. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary.

And the current legislative landscape is not helping that feeling.

In the U.S., a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2021—many of them supported by religious groups, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Of the more than 250 bills, 35 prohibit transgender youth from getting gender-affirming care, 66 bills prohibit transgender athletes in sports, 43 bills allow religious exemption when providing services and 15 bills restrict access to bathrooms for transgender people.

However on a federal level, the LGBTQ community secured a win this year when the Supreme Court “declined to take up the issue of whether the nation's schools must allow students to use the bathroom that match their gender identities,” leaving intact a victory that granted Gavin Grimm, who was born female but identified as male after his freshman year in high school, the right to use the men’s bathroom at school, reports NBC News.

Rev. Jones, who has a doctorate in theology, is part of a new generation of faith leaders working to highlight the importance of queer faith.

Despite the pain some experience when trying to live a life of faith, in 2020, the UCLA law school's Williams Institute found nearly half of LGBTQ adults surveyed identify as religious and that can lead to a tumultuous relationship.

“Black queers have always been an integral part of the community, (but the community) has abandoned us… We have been vital and critical to the flourishing and the creative impulse of the Black church,” said Hassan Henderson-Lott, a graduate student studying for a doctorate in religion at Rice University.

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has harmful effects on the entire community and can lead to self-harm and suicide. 

“To take the things that God, the love, the fellowship, the community that they value most, and turn around and say, ‘This God, this community hates you and rejects you at the core of your being,’ that is devastating,” Jones said. 

But she has one simple response to the notion that God and the religious community “hates” queer people: “It is simply not true.”

Episcopal Church Rev. Mary Barber who holds both a medical degree in psychiatry and a masters in divinity, says her journey with her sexuality is central to her journey as a faith leader.

“If I can also provide an example to young people that there's not only one narrative of religion and faith, that not all religion is hateful towards queer people...that's an added bonus,” Barber told NBCLX.

Barber, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, believes it’s important to show that queer people of faith exist despite the anti-gay bills and rhetoric often heard from religious leaders. 

“The face that we get in the media is antigay and anti-trans people. And that's what's most closely associated with religion,” Barber said. She wants people to understand that these anti-LGBTQ factions are “only a small part of the story of people of faith." 

“We're a whole spectrum. For all of the unfriendly places, there are friendly places that queer people can find who have a spiritual life and want to nurture their spiritual life.”

Some might assume that queer youth who grew up in religious homes would confront the hurtful reality of how the grow up to reject their beliefs. But Keshia Pendigrast, host of the "Queer Calling" podcast, would disagree. 

“There are queer youth that grow up in religious homes that also genuinely love God, and whose parents genuinely loves God,” Pendigrast said.

While that may be true, that doesn’t mean issues are nonexistent. 

“I think there's this tension then in those homes of, ‘Am I going to go to hell? Do I have to give up God? Do I have to give up the church to come out at all?’ And there's this deep self loathing and hatred that happens,” Pendigrast said.

And that’s why religious leaders like Barber and Jones play such a vital role, according to the podcast host.

She says “it's important that these parents and these children...know that a trans and queer person went through the same ordination processes that their pastor went through, and they're out. And they're doing theology and Christianity and religion differently.”

It might be more important than ever for queer people who have felt excluded from religion to unite with the faith community. 

“After a year in isolation...people are really looking for a connection. And that requires going back and getting those who were left out...within...the LGBTQ+ community,” says Karmen Smith, host of the digital ministry Poor Culture.

As activists work to bridge the gap between the queer community and religion, Smith wants queer people of faith to continue to shine their light no matter how others may respond. 

“It's not that you're trying to be disruptive,” Smith said. “It's not that you being who you are is wrong or bad or anything. It's just that who you are with your bright light is disruptive.”