By Susan Shaw
I want to tell you an indecent story. Growing up, I was one of those little kids who was at my fundamentalist Southern Baptist church every time the doors were open. I loved my Sunday school teachers and the flannelgraph board with little paper cut outs of characters from Bible stories. Every week, on my offering envelope, I proudly ticked the little boxes: Bible brought. Check. Lesson prepared. Check. Bible read. Check. Tithe. Check. Worship attendance. Check.
I memorized my weekly Bible verses too. Be ye kind one to another. What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee. For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten son so that whosever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Not really. I didn’t memorize that last one. But I heard it preached, right alongside all those verses about love and faith and hope and joy. So surely it had to be true too, right?
So true, in fact, that somehow it never occurred to me that my aversion to dresses and Barbies and my longing to play football might foreshadow something about me. And all those girls and women I adored, and it never occurred to me to use the word “crush” to think about them. I was way too steeped in homophobia and Leviticus to imagine such a thing.
Such were the messages of my childhood. We were all equal at the foot of the cross, but some were more equal than others.
Even as I changed my mind about sexuality in seminary, I had never thought that I might be one of the people I was theologizing about. As I had a series of relationships with women, I told myself I wasn’t gay, I was just in love with her. At last, in my early thirties, I had my first relationship with an out and proud lesbian. The gift she gave me was helping me come out to myself, though not yet to the rest of the world.
You see, I was teaching religion at a conservative Christian college and living in the closet whenever I went to work. I realized I couldn’t stay at the college for long, so I went back to school to complete a master’s degree in what was called women studies at the time. For two years, I was in the closet at work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and out and proud on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Oregon State University where I was taking classes. The ethical conflict was almost unbearable. I came to think of myself as a double agent, a fugitive living behind enemy lines. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I resigned. I walked out the door without a job, without any prospects, and without the Evil One, who left me at this moment for a mutual friend.
What I know now only in retrospect was that this death of career and relationship was actually a step toward resurrection.
This story is indecent because, as Argentinian feminist theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid pointed out, indecent stories problematize layers of oppression. They question the traditional order of decency. They require theological and sexual honesty, and they offer a challenge to dominant stances.
Little did I know in my sheltered life in Rome, Georgia that a movement was starting led by some fed-up drag queens and butch lesbians at a little bar in New York City called the Stonewall. This movement would bring LGBTQ people out of the shadows and into public view and would threaten the very foundations of white Christian patriarchy with its challenge to gender and sexual binaries, heteronormativity, and Victorian sexual mores. And it would scare the bejeezus out of the emerging political white Christian Right.
Queer folks had always made a convenient target and scapegoat for conservative Christians, from Catholics to evangelicals. So when a sexually transmitted virus first showed up among gay men in the US, it was easy for the church to say, “See, we told you so. An abomination.” Of course, we all know viruses don’t work that way, and, had we bothered to look to Africa, we would have seen the disease ravaging heterosexual women and men. Still, it was easier to lie about queer lives and take advantage of a pandemic than to tell truths about vulnerabilities to disease based on class, race, gender, and sexuality.
It seems the church had no problem telling lies if it worked to advance their political ambitions, and we see now the extent of Christian nationalist desire for a theocracy rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal values which have nothing to do with the gospel and everything to do with power.
So there’s an awful lot of lies about us being told at the foot of the cross. I don’t think those of us who believe in a God of love exemplified in the life of Jesus can just sit idly by and let these lies be told. If we don’t speak, we’re complicit.
Now this hasn’t been easy for a good Southern girl who was raised right to sit quietly, speak only when spoken to, and, above all, be nice to become an out lesbian, rabble-rousing feminist, ordained Baptist, woke, social justice activist. But, God as my witness, here I stand. I can do no other.
So let’s name these lies and tell some truths. Because, I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more dangerous to lies and liars than an old lesbian feminist with tenure who’s got nothing to lose.
Lie Number One: The Bible says . . .
Probably the number one talking point of anti-LGBTQ Christians is that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. It doesn’t. The Bible is a collection of writings, often preceded by decades and centuries of oral tradition, written by people anywhere from 2000-3000 years ago, in different cultures, in different languages, and to people who were very different from ourselves. Also, most of us read the Bible in translation, and translation is a difficult task even for the experts. We cannot read the five biblical texts that make up the “clobber passages” that many Christians use to clobber LGBTQ folks as if they were written in standard American English to a 21st century audience. If we read these passages within their historical context, understanding who wrote them and to whom, we find very different interpretive possibilities. Nothing in the Bible addresses what we now understand as queer sexualities. The Bible does, however, have a lot to say about bearing false witness and mistreating your neighbors.
Lie Number Two: Love the sinner. Hate the sin.
This is the lie that’s used to cover the homophobia and transphobia underlying anti-queer bias. This statement suggests that somehow sexuality is a behavior that is separate from identity. It’s something queer folks do, not who we are. This statement pretends people can parse out “homosexual behavior” and hate it without somehow hating the people enacting the behavior. Our sexuality, however, isn’t just behavior; it is a core piece of identity. I don’t do queer. I am queer. Queerness isn’t like a fabulous jacket I can take off and put in the clothes closet bin because I don’t want to wear it anymore. I can no more not be queer than I cannot be white or 62 years old or without a musical bone in my body. And that’s not to say I’m advocating for a “born this way” approach to sexuality. It’s much more complicated than that. After all, how often does anyone ask straight people, “Were you born straight? Or did something happen to you? When did you know you were straight? Maybe you just haven’t had the right queer experience yet.”
Lie Number Three: God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
This lie rests on this misconception that the Bible is history, that it’s stories literally happened, and that those stories provide templates for how we are to live our lives. First of all, biblical writers were not historians; they would have had no concept of writing history as we understand it. They were trying to convey a theological message to their communities through the means, traditions, devices, and context of their times. The story of Adam and Eve isn’t prescriptive for human sexuality. It’s a story that tries to explain the origins of a lot of things, like why snakes slither on the ground, but it doesn’t mandate how all humans are supposed to be. Besides that, God created an awful lot of Adams and Steves and Eves and Sarahs in the animal world where same sex behaviors are quite common, more than 1500 species, as a matter of fact, from primates to starfish.
Lie Number Four: It’s a choice.
People do not wake up one morning and go, “Oh, I think I’m going to become queer today.” Sexuality is complicated, but the science shows that one thing is clear—it’s not a simple choice. We don’t say that straight people have chosen heterosexuality. Certainly, all people make choices about their sexual behavior, and ethical sexual behavior is a choice. But sexual identity is a complicated process of genetics, culture, environment, and experiences. And it is fluid—for all people—and can change across a lifetime.
Lie Number Five: We have to protect the children.
Again, let’s listen to the science: gay men are not more likely to molest children. In fact, most men who abuse children are heterosexual. A child is at much greater risk of being molested by a straight priest or pastor than a drag queen. Also, children are not in danger of becoming queer if they read books about co-parenting male penguins or Heather’s two mommies. They are in danger of becoming more open-minded and accepting, and I think that’s the real fear of many anti-queer activists—their children might not be as bigoted as they are.
And let’s talk about drag for a moment since drag queens are a particular target right now. Drag is a performance, part entertainment and part social commentary about gender. Sure, we could have a high-level theoretical conversation about performativity, signaling, homonormativity, and gender fluidity, and I have my own critiques of drag, but that’s not the point here.
The point is a lot of Christians are freaked out because they think drag queens are grooming children simply by being drag queens in a public space with children present.
Drag Queen Story Hour started in San Francisco in 2015 when Michelle Tea took her baby to library story hours but found them fairly heteronormative—focused on and assuming heterosexual families. So she decided to create something more inclusive, especially for LGBTQ families. And Drag Queen Story Hour was born. The concept soon spread to libraries all over the country where it was well received by children and families who participated.
Attacking drag queens reading to children today serves as a convenient strategy to let the religio-political right avoid looking at their own house. The right is using fears about gender and sexuality to enlist new followers and to distract from their own current scandals, including clergy abuse and insurrection. It seems it’s much easier to play on old stereotypes about predatory gay men than to address the beams in their own eyes.
Certainly, sexuality is a component of drag. Many drag performers are gay men. Not all. Drag does suggest that queer sexuality is not deviant. That’s not grooming. And, in fact, hearing that message early on may mean the children in the audience who grow up to be queer are better able to accept themselves and less likely to kill themselves.
Now, that’s not to say drag isn’t a threat. Drag is an incredible threat—to gender norms that subordinate women and vilify LGBTQ people—and that’s what the right is really afraid of, that drag might cause people to rethink gender and sexuality, that they might further lose their grip on power over straight women and gender and sexual minorities.
You may be wondering what the Bible has to say about all of this. Well, incarnation is a kind of drag, isn’t it? At the center of our faith is a story of God taking on, performing, humanity and thereby redeeming humanity. Incarnation isn’t “God in a bod.” Incarnation is God’s stamp of approval on our humanity, a statement of God’s radical inclusiveness of our humanity. It’s a reminder, as our Quaker siblings would put it, that there is that of God in every person.
Feminist theorists remind us that gender itself is a performance. Within our cultures we learn to act like the gender we’re assigned at birth. After all, there’s no immutable biological reason women should wear dresses, paint their nails, carry purses, and wear pantyhose. Nor is there any inborn requirement that men get to have all the pockets, have pant sizes that take waist measurement and height into account, or don’t have to shave their legs.
So desperate are we to reinforce this illusion of gender that we distinguish fashion by which side of the shirt buttons are on, we charge women and men different prices for dry-cleaning said shirts, and we have gender-segregated bowling.
Drag queens upset all of that. So does the Gospel, really.
Lie Number Six: We can cure it or cast it out.
Conversion therapy has done untold damage to queer kids, and it doesn’t work. In fact, people who have gone to conversation therapy or had a pastor or therapist try to help them change their sexual identity are three to five times more likely to attempt suicide. People who have undergone conversion therapy also show higher levels of stress, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.
It’s also impossible to pray the gay away. There is no demon of homosexuality to cast out, and all the anointing, shouting, and praying over someone in the world won’t change their sexuality. It may make them more vulnerable to depression and suicide, but it won’t make them straight or cis-gender.
Lie Number Seven: Homosexuals have an agenda.
The conspiratorial-sounding “gay agenda” is rightwing propaganda that claims the queers are coming for your children to teach them that queerness is acceptable and to do so they are promoting gay pride, demanding special rights, and limiting the rights of Christians to speak out against their evil plan.
If queers have anything approaching an agenda, it’s for us to be allowed to live in peace. In a heterosexist society, we have had to organize to advocate for our basic human rights—including simply the right to live at all, the right to work at our chosen professions, the right to love whom we love and marry that person if we want, the right to use the bathroom that makes sense to us, the right to bodily autonomy and integrity.
If queers have an agenda for children, it’s that they be safe from people who would shame them, prevent them from being who they are, and drive them to depression and suicide. Yes, that takes visibility, like children’s books and drag queen story hours and Pride parades, and it takes organization against efforts to limit children’s access to gender-affirming care. We know that without gender-affirming care, risk for suicide increases among young people. Would we really rather have our children dead than trans?
Lie Number Eight: Gays recruit.
I grew up in Northwest Georgia in the 1960s and 70s in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church. I had two heterosexual parents. The only thing I knew about being queer was that it was an abomination. I never read a book or watched a movie with a queer character. I never knew a queer person. I didn’t know about Stonewall or Pride or lesbian softball or drag. But look at how I turned out! No one had to recruit me. I found queerness all on my own within myself.
Queer folks do not go out looking for unsuspecting straight people to lure into the queer life. Wo do not recruit because we cannot reproduce. Most queer people are like me—born to straight parents and raised in straight culture. We’re queer because we’re queer, not because we were recruited.
Now, kids are growing up knowing more about queerness, and, yes, that seems to mean that more young people are willing to express queerness in a wide variety of ways. It’s not because Pride and Orange Is the New Black are recruiting tools but because a shift in the culture has allowed what was stifled in earlier times to be expressed. Some of the shame, silence, and invisibility that kept many older people in the closet is lessened, and so younger people are simply freer to be who they are—and who we older folks always were but could not express.
Lie Number Nine: Queer people are unhappy.
If you believe the rhetoric of the Right, you’d think queer people are all miserable, pitiable creatures as a result of their sinful behavior. Yes, some of us are depressed and suicidal, but that’s because of the shame, stigma, and rejection of society, not because we’re queer. A lot of us are really happy, and, out of necessity, queers have created cultures that are vibrant, celebratory, joyful, colorful, inclusive, and absolutely fabulous. In fact, I connected with my spouse Catherine at an LGBTQ country western dance.
I think people on the Right need to tell lies about queer unhappiness because to recognize the possibility of queer happiness would undermine their claims about sin, abomination, and God’s judgment.
Queer people also celebrate sexuality in ways that undermine purity culture. Purity culture is all about control of women through control of their sexuality. Queer sexuality disrupts these patriarchal beliefs about gender and sexuality and celebrates sexuality as a gift to be enjoyed, a liberating possibility of equal enjoyment, and a transgression of patriarchal norms.
Again, of course, I believe sexuality also brings with it responsibility for ethical practice. Truly liberating sexuality must be mutual, consensual, unharmful, and honest. It must recognize the full humanity of the other person and not treat anyone as an object for sexual fulfillment. But that’s true whether sex is queer or straight.
Lie Number Ten: If we need to jail them, beat them, torture them, or kill them, well, that’s just the price of God’s kingdom.
A lot of people who call themselves Christians think the US should criminalize queer sexuality again, even to the extent of executing people for queer sexual behavior.
Tim LaHaye wrote, “Capital punishment for homosexuals] may seem “cruel and inhuman treatment” by today’s standards, but our leniency has caused today’s widespread problems. This is not to suggest that Christians advocate the death penalty for today’s homosexuals, but I do have a question that needs consideration. Who is really being cruel and inhuman – those whose leniency allows homosexuality to spread to millions of victims who would not otherwise have been enticed into this sad and lonely life style, or those who practiced Old Testament capital punishment?”
Uganda, influenced by American anti-LGBTQ forces, recently passed harsh a harsh law imposing, among other penalties, up to life in prison for gay sex and the death penalty for serial offenders. Its also proscribes the death penalty for people with HIV who engage in gay sex. It denies people with disabilities and people over 75 the right even to consent to gay sex, and it criminalizes promoting LGBTQ education and causes.
Think that can’t happen here. Just up the road near Fort Worth, Pastor Dillon Awes of Stedfast Baptist Church in Watauga in 2022 said gay people should be “lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head.” That same year, pastor Joe Jones of Shield of Faith Baptist Church in Boise, Idaho claimed, “God told the nation that he ruled: Put them to death. Put all queers to death.” Tom Ascol, Ron DeSantis’ pastor, responded to the Ugandan law in a dust-up with Ted Cruz, of all people, who called the law “horrific and wrong,” by citing Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” He asked, “Was this law God gave to His old covenant people ‘horrific and wrong’?” Ascol clarified that he doesn’t want to see the death penalty for homosexuality in the US, but he does think homosexuality should be criminalized.
And what are we seeing in state legislatures in conservative states like Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, and Texas? Laws that ban books that mention LGBTQ people, laws that deny life-saving gender-affirming care to minors. As of now, 650 bills targeting LGBTQ people have been proposed across the country this year alone. There’s a target on our backs, and so-called Christians are leading the way.
These are some, though not all, of the most prevalent lies some Christians are telling about LGBTQ folks. What are some truths? How can we as Christians, and specifically as Baptists, think about LGBTQ lives in ways more consonant with the Gospel?
Truth Number 1: We’re here. We’re queer. And we’re made in God’s image.
Often time, anti-LGBTQ readers of the Bible turn to Genesis to claim that God created male and female, and that binary defines human lives. Let me offer another reading. The Bible does say that God created humans male and female in the image of God. What that means, then, is that God is male and female. In other words, the Bible affirms God’s own gender diversity. God encompasses all genders within God’s being; God crosses genders. God is all genders, and all genders reside in the Being of God. God is non-binary. God is transgender. To be made in God’s image is to express the full continuum of genders, not a binary.
What does the science say? Human sexuality is on a continuum. It’s not a binary—simply straight or simply queer. And sexual diversity is a result of a complex interaction of biology and social factors. A lot of genes influence sexual behavior, scientists have found. There’s no “gay gene,” they explain,” but, rather, diverse sexuality is “a natural part of our diversity as a species.” Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, then, is not a sinful choice.
In fact, homosexual behavior is common throughout the natural world. Scientists have identified homosexual behavior in more than 1500 species and have not found any species without homosexual behaviors except those that don’t have sex. And it’s not just about sex. Many same sex animal partners, like female Layson albatrosses and male penguins, can mate for life.
Similarly, gender is also on a continuum and is affected by both biology and social factors. Republican legislators argue that they are following the science, but what they offer is a reductionist model of biology based on what doctors and parents see at birth. The reality is that the science is much more complex, and gender is more than visible body parts. The American Medical Association argues that the scientific evidence shows that “trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression.”
Truth Number 2: In the resurrection, God affirmed Jesus’ “coming out.”
Let me tell you another indecent story. This one comes from Luke’s gospel: (Luke 24)
1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Why is this an indecent story? Why is the resurrection indecent? The resurrection is a coming out story. It is a story that uncovers and undresses injustice. Jesus died because he challenged the dominant religious, ethnic, cultural, class, and, yes, sexual, norms of his day. He was a threat to empire because his loyalty to God outweighed his loyalty to Caesar, and he was a threat to religion because his embodied faith refused to be constrained by laws that were inhumane in their application. Jesus died because he was queer—he refused normalcy, he rejected the gender and sexual economies of his day, he disrupted essential categories of identity, and he was killed for it.
But the resurrection was his coming out. In coming out of the tomb/closet, God vindicated the queerness of Jesus’ love for everyone, a love without boundaries of nation, religion, ethnicity, or gender.
Queer stories uncover/undress injustice, bring parts of our selves back to life (because the closet is death), and give life to those around us who need to hear (just as we need to tell)—our stories are resurrection stories.
Our stories are indecent because we are not supposed to tell them. They expose the lies/constraints of heteronormativity. We are supposed to be invisible, silent, dead. Our stories are resurrection stories because we are not meant to survive.
On the cross, Jesus sided with the marginalized, oppressed, and despised. The resurrection was God’s affirmation of that choice, and, in his “coming out” of the tomb, Jesus offered hope, possibility, love, and welcome.
Jesus didn’t die because God demanded a blood sacrifice. Jesus died because he identified with the poor and oppressed, the weak, the refugee, the downtrodden, the queer. Jesus rejected patriarchal structuring of relationships; he spoke with women and welcomed them among his disciples; he ate with tax collectors and sinners; he challenged powerful institutions of his day, including the Roman Empire, and, for that, the Empire crushed him. Or so they thought. God had other plans. When Jesus came out of the tomb, he announced God’s embrace of all of us queer folks, those of us excluded, mistreated, beaten down, and rejected by family, friends, governments, and religions.
As a queer, indecent, hopeful story, the resurrection is disruptive to the status quo. The resurrection shattered social, political, and religious norms. Jesus suffered at the hands of the power systems of his day, but, in his resurrection, God came out on the side of the oppressed and marginalized. God stood alongside those who suffer. God announced the end of the decent, moral order of the day that crushed anyone who was different, who refused to bow down before unjust power.
Queers understand resurrection. As ones who have suffered unjustly under interlocking systems of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, we understand what it means to refuse our invisibility, to suffer for claiming our full humanity, and to be resurrected in living honestly and bravely in love.
Our stories make visible our suffering—discrimination, violence, AIDS, exile. They remind us we need a resurrection of justice for queer people.
Jesus’ resurrection was a loud and clear declaration of who would make up God’s community, and it is not the politically, economically, or religiously powerful. It is those who choose to live in love, to side with justice, and to do God’s liberating work in the world.
Truth Number 3: There is a Baptist case to be made for LGBTQ inclusion.
In queer theory, we talk about queer as what is at odds with the norm. In that way, Baptists are a queer people, a people at odds with the norms of a Christianity that creates itself as hierarchical, authoritarian, intertwined with the state, proscriptive, and exclusive. Obviously, I’m not talking about the Southern Baptist Convention here. I’m talking about those Baptist distinctives of the priesthood of the believer, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. If as Baptists we truly believe that God speaks to each of us individually, we have to make room for a diversity of voices, experiences, beliefs, and lives. We each have our own small piece of the puzzle that’s limited by our social location—our place in the world, our intersectional identity, our specific experiences. But that piece of the puzzle is also essential because no one else lives in that social location, and so we each have something to bring to the table, and we all need to hear and understand everyone else’s piece of the puzzle. And let’s not make the puzzle flat. Let’s imagine it as three-dimensional, complicated, appearing differently depending on the angle from which we look at it.
Where we run into problems is when someone thinks they have all the pieces of the puzzle, see it from the only possible angle, and therefore have all the right answers for all of us. That’s not Baptist. In fact, I’d say that’s heretical. We need all the perspectives. And, of course, being Baptists, we can disagree with one another till the cows come home, if it’s done in love and with more listening than talking and more respect than judgment and with no need to toss someone out because we disagree.
Baptists are a messy people, and so is God’s community. And that is very queer.
So why would we not, as Baptists, welcome queer people as people who bring other perspectives, other experiences with God, other angles of vision to the table to teach us and learn from us?
I tell people I’m now a Baptist in exile in the UCC. The UCC’s motto is “God is still speaking.” I think that’s pretty Baptist too. It means we are open to hearing God’s voice in each and every one of us, and we embrace the fact that those voices sometimes may be competing and contradictory, but that’s ok because there’s no way any one of us is ever going to understand all of God, but those voices we’re afraid to hear, those voices who bring something different to the table, those voices who tell indecent stories very well likely have something of God to tell us.
So, it’s time for the church to stop telling lies about LGBTQ people. It’s truth, the Bible tells us, that will set us free. In your churches, tell truths. It may cost you something–members, offerings, protests. But don’t settle for the cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about that asks nothing of us. Authentic discipleship is costly.
Proclaim loudly your welcome of LGBTQ people. We won’t think we’re welcome in a Baptist church, especially, if you don’t put it on your website and hang a banner on the church because we’re not welcome just as we are in most Baptist churches.
And in your personal lives, if you’re straight, be an ally. Don’t proclaim yourself one. That’s not your job. Just do the work of an ally—show up, confront homophobia, educate friends and family, vote—and we’ll call you one.
Across Christendom we are not yet all equal at the foot of the cross. There’s work to be done. I am grateful that the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists has engaged in that work.
We need more Baptists like you. After all, we’re here. We’re queer. And God loves us too—just as we are. That’s the truth.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. She is also an ordained Baptist minister and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This address was first presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists hosted by Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas on September 11, 2023. The author provided this edited and revised version specially for Christian Ethics Today.