A while back, we talked about privilege together. I know this is an uncomfortable topic, and sometimes we find ourselves getting our defenses up when we talk about privilege. I don’t like to admit I have privilege. I like to feel like I have earned everything I have in life. While privilege doesn’t mean I haven’t earned what I have, it does mean my path to getting there didn’t have any arbitrary obstacles in my way. Because I didn’t see them, it was easy for me to assume that the obstacles must not be there for anyone! Well, there’s one kind of privilege I never even needed to think about while I was growing up. It wasn’t something that was on my radar at all. In fact, I didn’t realize that there were people who were different from me in this particular way. Until I finally had the opportunity to meet and interact with people of the LGBTQ+ community, I was not one of their allies.
I attended a school and church when I was a child that talked openly about the “sin” of homosexuality. Now, keep in mind, that I italicized that word because it is not considered an appropriate word to use. It was, however, the word I was taught in my (very inadequate) human sexuality classes in elementary school. I was taught that in God’s eyes, it was sinful to engage in any kind of sexual relationship outside the context of a marriage between one man and one woman. End of story. They taught us there were no other types of God-sanctioned relationships. If someone doesn’t feel called to live as a married man or a woman, they could become a priest or a nun. It seemed to make sense, at least to a 12-year-old. By the way, the appropriate verbiage to use depends on the individual. Many in the LGBTQ+ community prefer to say they are “in a same-sex relationship” or “in an opposite-sex relationship.”
Even in high school, I remember a whole lot of homophobia or discrimination aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. I played on the football team, remember. And there’s probably no bigger stereotypical example of toxic masculinity than a high school boys’ locker room in the late 20th century. Sadly, sexual slurs were tossed around like they were available on a clearance sale. A three-letter word used to describe a cigarette in British English was used to insult peers all the time. The word “gay” was thrown around to refer to anything “uncool.” It was a synonym for “bad” in a high school boy’s vocabulary. “That test was gay!” we might say after a difficult test. And perhaps even more sadly, the students who did identify as LGBTQ+ were bullied harshly and relentlessly. I remember a girl I wanted to take for a date. Someone cautioned me from asking her out because she was “a lesbian.” Turns out, someone had started a rumor about her so that she would be bullied for something that not only isn’t something she shouldn’t have been bullied for, but for something that was not even true. Our high school made national headlines because some students organized a club called the FLAG club, the Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The El Centro City Council held hearings about whether the FLAG club could operate as a school-sanctioned club.
After high school, I met a woman with whom I worked. She and I became friends and I asked her on a few dates. She continued to reject me, which didn’t make sense to me. We had spent a lot of time together and did a lot of things as friends. Finally, she “came out” to me. She told me she had struggled with her sexual orientation, but she knew she could not be in a relationship with a man. A few years later, I met a couple of female “roommates” whom I befriended. We had a lot of fun together, but I always wondered why they were so inseparable. Oh well, I thought. We have fun together. After a year, they finally trusted me enough to tell me the truth. And that I had been blind (and probably pretty foolish) for not recognizing it sooner. They were in a same-sex relationship. In fact, it was my friendship with this couple that prompted me to leave the church of my youth. Everything I had been taught about human sexuality from a very young age was not making sense. These were good people. They were kind people. They were in a loving, monogamous relationship. Someone in church leadership had missed the mark, I decided. I know a lot of opposite sex couples who did not have as good a relationship as these women did, and the church seemed ok with it. What was wrong with their relationship simply because they were both females? This was nearly 20 years ago, and my friendship with these women continues to this day (although we have not seen each other in a long time).
I have since become an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. This is true even though I don’t know everything about LGBTQ+ people. In fact, I didn’t even really understand the initialism “LGBTQ+” until only a few years ago. I had the privilege of living in the Bay Area, where a large number of LGBTQ+ people live. I had the chance to spend time with them, live with them, and learn from them. But I still don’t fully understand what it means. For instance, I don’t really understand what it means to feel like I was raised with the wrong gender. I don’t know what it feels like to be romantically interested in someone who is not a female. I don’t know what it feels like to have to keep my romantic relationships from friends and family for fear they will shun me or even disown me. I don’t know what it feels like to feel like my body isn’t the right fit for who I am. I mean, there are plenty of things I wish I could change about my body, but my gender is not one of them. But I do know that I’m called to be a loving presence to God’s people. That’s true whether I fully understand what they are going through or not.
In the Episcopal Church these days, it is pretty universally accepted that the LGBTQ+ community is loved, fully accepted, and entitled to all the sacraments of the Church. It’s not required that Episcopalians believe this, of course. But I strongly encourage people who struggle with it to ask themselves why. If someone is having a difficult time accepting the LGBTQ+ community, is it because they were taught the same things I was taught as a child? I imagine that is likely the case. Sadly, homophobia and transphobia (discrimination directed at the transgender community) are still rampant in our world. In the United States, we still have a very long way to go for LGBTQ+ rights to be where they should be. And in some parts of the world, it is still a crime (sometimes punishable by death) for someone to be openly LGBTQ+. Clearly, the discrimination needs to end, and I believe Christians are called to work to undo the harm the Church has caused to people who identify as LGBTQ+.
One thing people ask is “Why so many letters?” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people jokingly say, “LGBTQ-HIGKLMNOP or whatever!” This kind of joking is hurtful to people in the LGBTQ+ community. People who are already wrestling with ways to fit in do not need more jokes at their expense. The reason there are so many letters in the initialism (not an acronym, because an acronym is an initialism you can pronounce as a word) is because each letter represents a different orientation in some form or another. L stands for lesbian: women who identify as women who are romantically attracted to other women. G stands for gay: men who identify as men who are attracted to men. B is for bisexual: people who are attracted to someone for who they are, and not necessarily because of the other person’s gender expression. T is for transgender: people who do not identify as having the gender identity they were assigned at birth. Q sometimes stands for “queer” and sometimes for “questioning.” Queer is a word that was once used as a slur, but some in the community have “taken it back” so as to reclaim the power of the word. Questioning means that someone is unsure of how they exactly identify, but they’re working on it. The plus sign means that there are many, many more expressions of sexuality and gender. Sometimes you see an I added. This stands for intersex, which can mean a person who was assigned a gender at birth different than the sex organs they have. If you see an A at the end, this usually stands for asexual. This means the person is not interested in sexual attraction of any kind. Sometimes to save time and ink, the initialism is simply shortened to LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA+. This means that there are many (potentially hundreds!) expressions of gender and sexuality.
Gender identity and sexuality are not the same thing. Biologists have long known that males and females both have testosterone and estrogen hormones in their bodies. Sometimes someone who is a woman has more testosterone than someone who is a man. This doesn’t automatically mean she wouldn’t be attracted to or romantically involved with a man. It simply means her body chemistry is unique to her. Each of us has body chemistry unique to us. For example, I am a male and I identify as a male. However, I have lower testosterone than many males my age. This manifests in a few ways, most visibly in my inability to grow facial hair. It isn’t a “flaw”, it simply is how my body works. I also did not choose to be attracted to women. I simply am attracted to women. And despite my lower testosterone levels, I do not feel like I identify differently than how I present. But just because that’s true for me, it doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone. Sexuality and gender are complex, just like all expressions of humanity are complex. Why do some people sing for instance, while others don’t? Why are some good at math while others are not? Why can some people run marathons while others struggle to walk around the block? With years and years of training for a half-marathon, I was nowhere near a top finisher. My body simply was not made for that activity.
The truth of the matter is that we don’t have to understand everything about gender and sexuality. I know I certainly don’t. But we talked yesterday about our baptismal covenant, and our baptismal covenant says we will strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human person. I don’t have to understand you to love you. And you don’t have to understand me to love me. God does not have a gender. We often refer to God as “he” or as “Father”, but that doesn’t mean God is a man. We’re simply using our limited human language to make an effort to communicate about someone so loving, so powerful, so all-knowing that we cannot articulate appropriately. God calls us to love. It feels nice when we understand, but our love is not limited by our ability to understand. I commit to speak up for the LGBTQ+ community and encourage people to know they are beloved in God’s eyes. In Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:12), he reminds us that in God’s eyes there is no difference between Jew or Greek. I believe this means people who are of different races, genders, classes, sexual orientations, and more. The same Lord is the Lord who is generous to all who call on him.