Post-Stonewall, More LGBTQ People Are Finding Solace in Religion
Consistently left out of historical discourse, religious LGBTQ people are now making sure their voices are heard.
By Moises Mendez II
GIF by Kara Jillian Brown.
When Emily Brinkman, 23, was questioning her sexuality, the first people she turned to were evangelical Christians.
She was raised in the church while growing up in Wisconsin and has been surrounded by other devout followers who were convinced that being in a same-gender relationship was sinful. There was a period in which she believed this was true.
So when she began developing feelings for her best friend at 18, she turned to her faith for answers. Brinkman remembers going to an evangelical conference called Urbana, where she sat with a secret group of LGBTQ students and found a moment of divine peace.
“I didn’t know any of these people, but I somehow intimately connected to their pain and hurt and longing for Jesus even after facing rejection by so many Christians,” Brinkman said. “As we sang and cried and prayed, I felt this deep and abiding sense of peace with God that I’d never experienced before.”
The LGBTQ community has been left out of religious discourse going as far back as Stonewall, the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. This June marks the 50th anniversary of the event, during which trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson led a resistance against police harassment that would spark days of protests and eventually decades of fights for equal rights.
While Stonewall remains an essential marker for the continuation of the fight for LGBTQ rights, it’s often not been thought of in the context of religion — even though LGBTQ people have long been religious. Among that group is Pete Buttigieg, a gay Christian, who announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In a recent USA Today article, Buttigieg said, “It’s high time our laws reflect the reality that religion and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive and indeed often both exist as core aspects of personal identity within the same individuals.”
A study done by the Pew Research Center found that 42% of LGBTQ people in the United States identify as Christian. While the conversation surrounding the acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Christianity is becoming more positive, evangelical Christians believe things have made a turn for the worse.
In “A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” authors Daniel Cox, Juhem Navarro-Rivera and Robert Jones found: “More than seven in 10 (71%) white evangelical Protestants believe that the current cultural landscape is worse than it was in the 1950s. About half of white mainline Protestants (49%) and white Catholics (50%) also believe things were better in the 1950s.”
Religions That Most Discourage Homosexuality
The religions that most disapprove of homosexuality are, according to the Pew Research Center, Mormonism, evangelical Protestantism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among Mormons, 36% polled thought homosexuality should be accepted, as did the same percentage of evangelical Protestants, while only 16% of Jehovah’s Witnesses held that view.
Religions That Are Most Accepting of Homosexuality
The top three most accepting religions of homosexuality, according to the Pew Research Center, are Buddhism (86%), the religiously unaffiliated (83%) and Judaism (83%).
According to Heather White, an assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound who specializes in American religious history and 20th-century sexuality and gender social movements, Homofiles Magazine began naming churches that were welcoming to the LGBTQ community. This happened around the same time that the Stonewall riots began, but is often lost to history.
“We think of the Stonewall riots as a nonreligious or secular event,” White said. “Along with the emergence of a formal gay rights set of organizations, there were also movements within churches and synagogues.”
Gay bars were heavily policed back in the 1960s, according to White. “One of the things that those [religious] groups started doing after Stonewall was creating alternative spaces where LGBTQ groups can gather socially,” White adds. “The Gay Liberation Front started hosting dances, and one of the places where many of those dances were held were in different churches.”
The Gay Liberation Front was a group of demonstrators in the late 1960s that picked up where the Stonewall riots left off, continuing the fight for LGBTQ rights beginning in New York before expanding to countries like the United Kingdom and Canada.
Although the public conversation around religion and sexuality is relatively new, there’s been a narrow scope of focusing primarily on the Catholic Church. Alyson Pappas-Kirk, 24, self-identified as agnostic for most of her adult life before becoming a Nichiren Buddhist around a year ago. While her father came from a Christian family, her mother grew up Muslim and Greek Orthodox and never forced religion on her, Pappas-Kirk said. Instead, she’s always been spiritually connected to her environment and has felt there was an energetic force in the universe that Buddhism allowed her to explore.
Growing up, her father and his side of the family used the Bible to justify their homophobia. This made her feel shame about being bisexual, and as a result, she’s hidden that part of herself from her family, she said. Ultimately, Pappas-Kirk doesn’t think her family will necessarily be unaccepting of her sexuality, but it will undoubtedly make them uncomfortable.
While Pappas-Kirk’s relationship to her sexuality and religion are complicated, for others, religion has always been a place of consistent comfort and love. Sontaia Briggs, 43, a queer faith activist and founder of YOUniversity – a youth ministry program, has never questioned God’s love for her because of an affirming memory from her youth, when she was about 13.
“There was a little boy that lived next door named James, he was about 6,” Briggs said. “I would often talk to him because he was a single child like myself and his dad was also not around.”
Briggs said one day the young boy visited her while she was sitting on her front porch. He asked Briggs if she “knew his father.” She admits she found the question strange, but Briggs responded that she didn’t. That’s when the conversation took a turn.
“He knows you and loves you,” the boy told Briggs before he explained who “he” was. “Jesus Christ … loves us all.”
Briggs saw the moment “as a miracle,” she said.
“Couple that with I was outside waiting for my dad to come to visit and he frequently made plans to visit but often never showed up,” she says. “I took this moment as God ensuring me that although my earthly father was never available, my eternal father was always there.”