In Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman draws from over three decades of experience studying, preaching, and teaching from the western canon of Christian Scripture to attest the inherent queerness of authentic Christianity. Journalist Deborah Jian Lee reports from the front lines of the battle younger and more diverse Evangelicals are waging to reclaim Christian ideals and harness them to promote social change in Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. While Edman and Lee have written for different target audiences, they both address a growing movement within Christianity to embrace and accept the LGBTQ community. We caught up with them to ask about this shift in the landscape of progressive religion in this two-part conversation. Here we present the second part.
What is the history of opposition to the LGBTQ community from the Religious Right?
Deborah Jian Lee: The Religious Right has routinely said, “Instead of us needing our LGBT members to be whole, we need to cut them off from the community or they need to cut off parts of their identity from themselves. They must conform to our heteronormative standards in order to be accepted.” And we see this history not just from messages from the pulpit, which are powerful and devastating, but also in the way the Religious Right has incorporated this belief into our political system and into the social structures of the church.
We saw this when Focus on the Family pushed for Amendment 2 in Colorado, which opposed legal protections for LGBTQ people. We saw this in the way marriage amendment proposals appeared on ballots in the 2004 election. We see this in the way that Evangelical institutions, from colleges to churches to non-profit organizations, discriminate against sexual minorities in their employment and admission practices. It’s just so devastating because the statistics point to a huge spike in mental health risk for sexual minorities who live in non-affirming communities. Even though suicide rates are astronomical, even though youth LGBT homeless rates are so much higher (and oftentimes a direct result of non-affirming religious beliefs held by parents)—despite the volumes of evidence that non-affirming theology causes direct psychological and physical harm, certain parts of the Evangelical community are totally unmoved. Instead, they are committed to holding this hardline stance against the queer community.
But what gives me hope is the fact that so much of that is changing. In the past, there wasn’t a voice that called these values and practices into question. And now there is. It’s a growing population of queer Evangelicals are mobilizing and really changing the church for the better.
Rev. Elizabeth Edman: You were talking earlier about the people who are fleeing the church in droves, and of course that takes place in progressive Christianity as well—the sheer drop in numbers has a lot of people panicked about the fate of Christianity, particularly in the Western world. But thinking about the decline of Christianity as a numbers problem is just so off base, because what the church is supposed to be about is bringing us to an authentic understanding of who God created us to be.
I can’t tell you how many queer people I’ve talked to who have had the experience of finding home in an Evangelical community and then being thrown out of it. And it drives people out of the church altogether. It just does immense damage. It’s a profoundly abusive act to pull somebody in and shove them out like that, especially when you’re reaching into people’s deepest sense of self.
I recently had this amazing conversation with a young man who said to me, “You know, when you talk about Christianity this way, it just makes sense! I’m queer and I’m Christian, and I’ve always had this sense that these parts of me have been in dialogue with each other, but I’ve always been told that they’re not. I’ve always been told that there’s this wall between them. And as you talk about the relationship between these two parts, it’s like I can feel them organically beginning to speak to each other. And it just feels so right and so good.”
What’s amazing about the story of the queer undergraduates at Biola is that when that false barrier is ruptured, when those different parts of a person are able to speak to each other, and then to connect to other people with the same thing taking place, real church emerges, you know? Authentic church can emerge. It’s alive.
Lee: And it’s life-giving.
Rev. Edman: Yes, and that’s evangelism. That’s what the good news is.
Lee: Yes, that’s exactly it. We need people of color, queer Christians, and women with total agency and independence to be their whole selves. We need them to bring their experiences of the world and their unique cultural perspectives to the body of Christ because we can learn from that. We need that.
Rev. Edman: Absolutely!
This year’s Pride theme was “Solidary Through Pride.” How do your books speak to this year’s Pride theme?
Rev Edman: Queer Virtue posits that there’s this path of discerning an identity, getting honest about it in the face of risk, reaching out to others who share a comparable identity marker, building community around that, and then looking to the margins to see who’s not included. There are two parts in the book. In the first part, I explore that path step by step, theologically, by looking at both how I see that playing out in queer communities, what it means in queer communities, and then making the case that this path is resonant with Christianity and in many ways identical to the Christian path. The second part of the book is asking: where does the rubber hit the road? How do we live this out as an ethic, both in queer experience and in Christianity? This becomes an ethical lesson for the church. The first step of this path is discernment of identity. And the chapter in the second half of the book that correlates to that is called “Pride.”
Knowing who you are is crucial to living an ethical life at all; and knowing who you are is crucial to navigating healthy dynamics of Self and Other. You can know who you are and be proud of who you are without disparaging other people. So pride, the healthy kind of pride, is the ethical correlation to a healthy sense of identity. You see this operating within LGBTQ communities where people are increasingly naming, with growing finesse, a sense of who we are as sexual beings. And when the LGBTQ community is healthy, you see people being able to claim their own identity and recognize other people’s identity with respect and love. And it’s just awesome to see. My hope would be that Christians could develop a kind of Pride that is fundamentally about solidarity, where you’re able to name your own identity—Love it! Love it in yourself!—and then allow other people to name themselves and find places where you can share spaces that are respectful and affirming.
Lee: Rescuing Jesus begins by showing how an inability to enact true solidarity and intersectional justice led to the collapse of the progressive Evangelical movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, in order for any progressive movement within Evangelicalism to make even small incremental progress, that movement would need to prove their conservative cred on every other issue. Conservative white Evangelical culture consistently pits minority groups against each other, which ultimately undermines any kind of intersectional justice movement.
We saw this with the evangelical feminist movement, which blossomed at the end of the 1970s, led by The Evangelical Women’s Caucus. This group had chapters around the country and would gather in big conferences that focused on upending patriarchy within Evangelicalism. But in the 1980s, as lesbians and allies in the group worked to pass a resolution that supported gay civil rights, the group split. Many of the women feared this resolution would undermine their credibility within the Evangelical world and cost them their jobs at churches and Evangelical institutions. These women left the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and formed Christians for Biblical Equality, which has done a lot of great work to advance women’s equality in the church while purposefully avoiding issues of sexual orientation. As a result, there are these two Christian feminism groups. The one that supported gays and lesbians lost power and lost membership over time, almost had to shut their doors. The one that stood in opposition to gays and lesbians flourished and became the most influential egalitarian Evangelical group that is still thriving today. The lesson, which minority groups within Evangelicalism have internalized for years: “If I want to make progress in these issues that matter to me, I need to deny equal rights, representation, and fairness for all other minority groups.”
What’s interesting and hopeful about this new generation is that people embody intersectionality. It’s much harder for this new generation to segment themselves. This generation of Evangelicals rejects the pattern of their predecessors that pitted minority groups against each other. Instead, they’re working towards authentic intersectional justice that includes everybody.
For example, I interviewed Darren Calhoun, a leader within the Evangelical movement who’s black, gay, and Christian. He talks about how for a long time, the LGBT movement was all about marriage equality. And he talked about how he values marriage equality, but, as a person of color, he wants the movement to address the urgent issues that affect queer people of color, such as higher rates of homelessness, police brutality, mass incarceration, abuse within the prison system, employment and housing discrimination, etc. It’s so encouraging to see that people like Darren, people who embody multiple minority identities, are gaining prominence as faith leaders who are reshaping evangelical activism in revolutionary and downright inspiring ways.
Finally, it’s impossible not to be aware of Orlando as we talk. How are you thinking about this in light of your work?
Lee: The response by LGBTQ people to the tragedy in Orlando is just another testament to what this community has to teach the rest of us. This mass shooting retraumatized a community that is still fighting for safe spaces in the country, that is still fighting against policies and ideologies that degrade them, and yet amid this adversity they’ve persisted in articulating an enduring message of love. I’m so grateful for the way the queer community has expressed their grief, their anger, their hope, their love, and their stories in the wake of Orlando. I’ve learned so much about the sacred spaces they’ve created for each other. Especially among the younger generation, I’ve seen an intentional focus on the intersectional identities of the victims of the shooting at Pulse and some amazing, swift moves to organize so that our society can better protect the most marginalized of the marginalized.
Here’s one of many examples. A few queer faith activists organized to form Will Listen With Love, which is a Facebook group of pastors, spiritual leaders, mental health providers, and peer counselors who have made themselves available to support LGBTQI people who are in pain following the massacre in Orlando. In just a few days, hundreds signed up to be available to counsel those hurting.
On top of that, LGBTQ Christians continue to engage with and educate their faith communities. I’m just so floored by the love they show to the communities that reject them and the patience and generosity they demonstrate in these relationships. I hope straight cis-people in the church recognize just how much of a gift they are receiving.
Rev. Edman: I have been floored by the level of grief I hear LGBTQ people expressing, and I have to say I am feeling it myself. One purpose I had in writing Queer Virtue was to bind up the wounds of queer people. The week after Orlando, I heard this pop song that talks about waiting ages for a beloved to show up, seeing that person standing alone and knowing that this is the person you’ve been waiting for; this is someone you already love. It reminded me instantly of the experience of growing up queer, waiting and waiting to find our community. And I heard it from the perspective of someone inside the community waiting with open arms for young people to find us. I pictured the faces of those young Latinx queers at Pulse and I just sat down on the floor and sobbed.
Religious leaders play a vital role in reminding all people that they are loved and lovable. The need for religious affirmation of queer lives is acute. It’s not enough to communicate that God loves LGBTQ people in sort of a generic “God loves everybody” way. We have to communicate that queer people are valued for specific reasons. That’s what Queer Virtue tries to do.
So, for instance, queer people place ourselves at risk in order to live openly in the world. One refrain I heard over and over again right after Orlando was, “It could have been me.” It takes very little for queer people to become conscious of the risk we take every day. But we come out anyway. We go to the bars. We march in Pride. We put our bodies on the line for the truth of love. Queer people model a kind of courage that is very similar to what Christians are supposed to model. Christians could learn a lot about who we Christians are supposed to be simply by paying attention to queer lives and queer experience, and this is a prime moment for Christians to listen hard to what LGBTQ people are made of.
Read part one of this conversation.
About the Authors
The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest and a political strategist who has been expanding people’s understanding of faith and sexuality for over twenty-five years. She has worked on the most pressing contemporary issues in the intersection of religion and sexuality, serving as an inner-city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995 and helping to craft political and communications strategies for marriage-equality efforts. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.
Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer, and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, Slate, GOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.