Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don't:
Juggling Sexual-identity, Sexual-Orientation, Race, Class, and Gender in Lesbian- and Gay-Affirming Congregations
By: Larry Mihm
Feeling frustrated as leaders or members of progressive congregations as they try to be lesbian- and gay-affirming probably should not be surprising. Some sources of frustration are documented in a journal article by Krista McQueeney of Salem College titled "We are God's Children, Y'All:" Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Lesbian and Gay-Affirming Congregations (2009). It points out that when race, class and gender are considered many efforts to be inclusive of sexual-identities and sexual-orientations actually may amplify other conflicts and reinforce other inequalities.
McQueeney was a participant observer at a Metropolitan Community Church whose members were mostly black, working-class, gay/lesbian couples and at a United Church of Christ congregation whose members were mostly upper-middle class, straight-but-gay-affirming whites. She also conducted 25 semi-structured, open-ended interviews of members and pastors and analyzed various forms of church communications.
As McQueeney participated and conducted interviews at these two churches she found that members and leaders were able to reconcile their sexual-orientation, or their straight-but-affirming status with their self-image of "good Christian" through one of three strategies. Minimizing involves treating homosexuality or being affirming of homosexuality as secondary to their Christian identity. Normalizing involved enacting monogamy (as opposed to promiscuity) or the roles of manhood (Christian male leadership) or motherhood. Moralizing contrasted the members and leaders efforts to be inclusive and nonjudgmental with those they perceive as "condemning" Christians from other churches who exclude homosexuals.
This last strategy is employed by members when they use it to claim a moral identity based on their stigmatized sexuality. They use their sexuality as basis for a role of redemption broker for other GLBT people and society. The straight-but-gay-affirming are able to also claim a moral identity based on their efforts to include the excluded.
This moralizing strategy is where GLBT people are able to join ranks with others who give out of poverty. Though it may appear to some that GLBT people have nothing to contribute as moral agents for the children of God, others will, none the less, be blessed through their moral identity as they challenge homophobia and heterosexism in the church and in society.
Though much can be contributed by the GLBT community toward alleviating homophobia, heterosexism and beyond to other forms of inequality and exclusion, there are difficult challenges inherent. McQeeney's research reveals that, while trying to be inclusive, contradictions emerge with other core values. For example, if inclusiveness means welcoming known "players" when the community values monogamy, a situation of perceived hypocrisy is eminent. This is one area where frustration will be felt.
Finally, let's examine another situation that may contribute to frustration. Christian teaching says there is no privileged group ("There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galations 3:38). However, in the culture of the United States, there is a privileged group that gains points for inclusive action. One of the congregations where McQueeney did research is mostly white heterosexual-but-affirming and the other congregation is now mostly black lesbian. Bonus points for the act of inclusion go to the privileged group, the whites. The black congregation gets no points for including the excluded. Privileged members need to learn that the social position in which they find themselves, where points are gained for including the excluded, is a product of privilege.
This research is valuable because it illustrates, especially related to the strategy of moralizing, that individuals and congregations have something to offer in-spite of their marginalized position in society. A kind of redemption is found in countering homophobia and heterosexism and progress is made for inclusiveness. Even as the contradictions that arise are wrestled with, GLBT people may claim a moral identity and the satisfaction of knowing there is something valuable to contribute even from a marginalized position.
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McQueeney, Krista. 2009. "'We are God's Children, Y'All:' Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Lesbian- and Gay-Affirming Congregations," Social Problems 56, 1: 151-173.
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