I was in walking to my Sunday School class after church the morning of June 12, 2016. Still out in the hallway, my friend Jill tapped my shoulder and asked if I’d seen the news. “There was a shooting at a gay club in Orlando. Over a dozen have been killed.” During the next hour I watched outlet after outlet publish updates. Eventually that initial dozen became the forty-nine. We would learn that most of the victims were Latinx. We would learn most of them were young. We would learn their names; we would learn about their families of origin and their families of choice. And, for many LGBTQ Christians, we would learn that our pastors, thought-leaders, and fellow believers struggled to understand how their theology was linked to the massacre.
I attended four different vigils in Atlanta the week following the tragedy. Three of these were at churches. The largest of them somehow made it through the entire hour and a half service without once mentioning the homophobia, prejudice, and implicit biases that would lead to an act of targeted violence. The liturgy instead addressed gun violence and domestic terrorism. The bishop who preached the service made sure to mention how he had spent plenty of nights out in D.C. with gay friends at gay clubs because “even a straight guy like him can appreciate good music when he hears it” and went on to declare how their upstanding, “ancient and progressive” tradition has proudly supported and affirmed LGBTQ persons since 2004 to which end I couldn’t help but think, “then why are we still dying?”
What the bishop didn’t say was that what happened at Pulse was a most explicit and violent display of anti-LGBTQ ideology, and it was far from the only time or the only way our bodies have been harmed. What he didn’t say was that there is a clear link between non-affirming religious belief and emotionally and spiritually devastating practice. What he didn’t say was that one of the reasons LGBTQ people, both Christian and not, find themselves routinely at clubs for sanctuary is because of all the ways we’ve been marginalized and or held at an arms-length by conservative and neo-liberal faith communities alike.
Almost a year after Pulse, the LGBTQ Christian organization I work for partnered with a large, moderate to conservative Evangelical church in Orlando for a community dialogue event. The goals were to humanize various theological views on sexuality and gender, to model civil discourse, and to legitimize Christian disagreement on that matter, which is the first and farthest step many conservatives often take in positively shifting their beliefs. During the event, we screened Love the Sinner, directed by Jessica Devaney and Geeta Gandbhir. It is a film that uses a first-person approach to exploring the relationship between non-affirming beliefs and the violence the LGBTQ community faces in general.
I sat in the dark sanctuary preparing to moderate the conversation among three pastors and I wept silently. I wept for the 49 and their families. I wept for the tens of thousands of LGBTQ people still riding out the residual effects of being connected to a targeted hate crime. I wept for the compounding ways in which our ethnicities and genders regularly intensify our proximity to danger. I wept for all the queer friends and family I have who have endured and or still live in spiritually traumatizing spaces. I wept for all the Tyler’s, the Daniel’s, and the Dee’s who spent their lives among Christian communities that saw no harm in teaching their congregations to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” I wept for myself. I wept for all the years that I believed how I give and receive love to be irredeemably broken. I wept for the chasm between the intention of non-affirming belief and its systematically devastating impact. Love the Sinner, with precision and clarity, grounded for me the idea that the personal is political, is theological. What we believe God believes about anyone has tremendous bearing on their bodies and souls and if we, as people of faith, are not actively interrogating our belief systems, we are complicit. “Progressive” or not, despite what that bishop at the vigil I attended seemed to think, I do believe that the blood is on our hands and we must do something about it.
Whether you’re in a classroom teaching or learning, a Church leader or other community member, we have to recognize the connection between religious teaching (or silence) and the violence the LGBTQ community experiences. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, being able to point students of religious background toward affirming teachings within those traditions can save lives and create a safer, more inclusive society at large.
I’ve used these three points to ground me in talking to students:
all faith traditions are rooted in love
everyone deserves love and respect
as a community, regardless of spirituality, we have a responsibility to care for each other
For free streaming of the 15-minute documentary, Love the Sinner, and its educational resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Myles Markham is the Programs & Organizing Coordinator for The Reformation Project, a seminary student, and is based in Atlanta, Georgia.