Rock your world this Thanksgiving

It was the weekend before Thanksgiving. I’d just transplanted myself from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area a few months earlier. Living by myself in a new place, I didn’t have specific plans for the holiday . And honestly, I felt kind of lonely – especially since I didn’t know many people in the Bay Area, and I was very much immersed in the scary process of coming out to others. I mentioned the fact that I had no Thanksgiving plans to my upstairs neighbor (secretly hoping that she would extend an invitation  to celebrate with her family). “You should go to Glide,” she said, referring to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. “It’s a rock-your-world experience.”

Not being a particularly religious person, going to church wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But the “rock-your-world” comment intrigued me. So I called a grad school friend who was also an East Coast-transplant, and together we went to the Thanksgiving Celebration at Glide Memorial Church. And it was like no other church service I’d ever attended. The soloist who sang with the Glide Ensemble had a voice that was powerfully spirited and smooth as silk. The head pastor, Rev. Cecil Williams (the visionary founder of Glide), gave the most radical, cutting-edge, and empowering sermon I’d ever heard, naming the oppression of the people indigenous to the Americas and urging the congregation to reconsider how we understand Thanksgiving. The congregation was filled with people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender expressions, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds – from the very wealthy to the homeless. It was, in fact, a rock-your-world experience.

Sadly, many people in the LGBTQ community aren’t likely to feel the love so strongly within a church or religious environment. Compared to their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ people are less likely to attend church services regularly – which isn’t surprising, given the fact that going to church can be a very chilly experience for sexual and gender minorities. But some do attend church – and this is the population I’d like to focus on.

A new study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry revealed some interesting findings about LGB people and religiosity. For one thing, although the LGB participants reported a lower-than-average church attendance, they reported higher rates of spirituality than participants in general population samples. Notably, there were racial and ethnic differences as well: while White LGBs were extremely unlikely to report regular church attendance, LGBs who were Latino or Black were significantly more likely to attend religious services regularly, engage in prayer, and claim a religious affiliation.

In some ways, that last finding isn’t terribly surprising. Let’s focus specifically on church attendance among African-Americans. Black churches, historically, have provided cohesion and refuge to the African-American community. Given the segregationist practices prohibiting African-Americans from worshipping in the same churches as Whites, it makes sense that safe spiritual spaces for Blacks began to emerge. Slaves created “underground” churches where they could freely mix Christianity with African traditions – and where they could plan rebellions and other political actions. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black churches served as centers of the communities – and as political outposts. Over time, some Black churches were outgrowths of existing Christian denominations, while others developed purely as African-American denominations. In many ways, the Black churches provided a refuge and a haven against the debilitating effects of racism – in a 2012 study published in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Jessica Graham and Lizabeth Roemer of the University of Massachusetts, Boston found that, for African-Americans, church attendance and church-based social support have significant effects in mitigating the stress of racist experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that African-Americans – including LGB African-Americans – are highly likely to attend church and have an active religious practice.

What’s also interesting – and disturbing – about the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry Study is that, in contrast to Graham and Roemer’s findings, LGB people of color who attend church regularly are very unlikely to experience it as a safe haven against oppression. Not only are LGB people of color more likely than their White counterparts to attend religious services, the churches they attend tend not to be LGBTQ-affirming – which, not surprisingly, is linked with higher levels of internalized homophobia among the attendees.

Of course, there are quite a few LGBTQ-affirming churches and spiritual centers that exist. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), for example, ministers and outreaches specifically to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Unity and other New Thought-based churches are typically LGBTQ-inclusive. Increasingly, more traditional Christian denominations are opening their doors to the LGBTQ community – for example, many United Methodist churches are becoming LGBTQ-inclusive “Reconciling Ministries.” If an LGBTQ person wants to find a spiritual community, there are more inclusive and welcoming spaces than ever before.

And yet, for whatever reason, the LGBTQ-inclusive churches haven’t quite gained the traction in the queer community that the Black churches have in the African-American community. However open and welcoming they may be, most LGBTQ people probably don’t consider “the church” to be the community’s safe haven or political organizing space. And, for queer people of color (African-Americans in particular, since we’re using this example), the choice of what church to attend may feel like an “either-or” decision: Do I attend a Black church, which helps buffer the effects of racism but might be quite homophobic, or do I go to an LGBTQ-inclusive church, which may be a haven from homophobia, but not necessarily from racism? Finding an open, accepting, inclusive space that’s fully and wholly accepting – not just accepting of one part of one’s identity – isn’t always so easy.

While Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday per se, the Thanksgiving I experienced two decades ago was a spiritual experience. People indigenous to the Americas suffered a violent genocide at the hands of the colonizers. African-Americans have been subjected to a long history of racism at the hands of landowning Whites (land, interestingly, that was taken from the indigenous tribes). Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterosexism continue to oppress LGBTQ people. And, as I reflect on the experiences of people whose basic human rights have been (and, in many cases, continue to be) stripped away, I’m reminded of how I felt when I first was introduced to the mission of Glide Memorial Church:

GLIDE’s mission is to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.

If that could be our human mission, in every church, in every spiritual space, in every secular space – imagine the possibilities. May I hold this possibility in my heart this Thanksgiving.




Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, coming out, covert homophobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, transgender, transphobia

6 responses to “Rock your world this Thanksgiving

  1. I wish for that possibility with all my heart, Gayle — thank you so much for reminding me about my own Glide experience, which I believe was much like yours.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me, too many mainstream Christian churches are more intent on adhering to an exclusive, out-of-context interpretation of a few passages in the Bible than being inclusive, just, and loving. Fortunately, on the other hand, more and more congregants are placing a higher priority on being inclusive than on being exclusive over time.

    For that I am extremely thankful!

    • Agreed (regarding the exclusive, out-of-context interpretation of the Bible). Thankfully, more people are questioning those interpretations and looking to a higher-level guiding ethos.

      Thanks for your comments!

  2. I was raised Roman Catholic. During my upbringing, little was known, so little was said about homosexuality. I attended classes and services regularly throughout my teenage years and I found it to be a positive experience. I had no ill feelings at all for the Catholic church of my youth.

    Fast forward 20+ years to my coming out time which, as it happens, existed on a parallel path with a cataclysm in the Catholic Church over molestation, “gay” priests (though there’s a distinction that is lost that pedophilia and homosexuality are not the same thing), and homosexuality in general. At the same time, practicing as a Lutheran now, I was watching a schism happen within that denomination over the “issue” of homosexuality. I lost all faith in the church of my youth, strangely, at the same time that a woman that I was dating felt the urge to convert to Catholicism and I also lost interest in the Lutheran church. They made “favorable looking” looking decisions about gay and lesbian members that had no teeth behind them. Practicing and preaching were two entirely different things.

    Fast forward another half dozen years. Last September, I was looking for a part time job in the administrative field for supplemental income. I found a United Church of Christ (UCC) church that was advertising a position that was right up my alley…if it hadn’t been with a church. But wait! The church, in the Columbus, Ohio area (an LGBT friendly community) advertised itself as “open and affirming”. They were seeking a part time admin who was comfortable dealing with a “diverse” community. I was intrigued and I applied.

    The rest, as they say, is history. They called me and first phone screened me and then they interviewed me. I was hired. I was subsequently welcomed in to the most loving church family I have ever known. The congregation is small (80 members and various other regular attendees who are not members) and predominately but not entirely white. There’s a mix of young and old but it leans middle age to old – as most old mainline churches now do. We’re approximately 20-25% gay/lesbian and we have regular transgender visitors as well (though there’s a large UU church a mile away that draws heavily from the transgender community). I’ve never felt looked down upon or marginalized with any of these people. Oh sure, they’ve lost members in the past because of the decision to officially become chartered as “O & A” but those who have stayed and those who have joined since have embraced the diversity that is present and join in celebrating it.

    We had 16 members and friends walk in the Columbus pride parade this year. The age range went from 13 to 80+ (2 under 18 and 3 over 70). Of those 16 people, 6 of us identified at LGBT. It’s saying something about the commitment of this church to all of its members that 10 people who are not LGBT stepped forward and said, I support the LGBT community.

    If you identify with religion or if you crave the sense of community and family that comes with attending a small, supportive church regularly, don’t give up trying to find one that will welcome you. They’re out there and there’s more of them opening their doors and their arms every day.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Shelly! I think the tide is starting to turn towards inclusivity and acceptance in many religious and spiritual circles – that may be why we’re experiencing a resurgence of the strong evangelical religious right (a backlash response to progressive changes).

      I feel lucky that I live where I live, where there are many spiritual communities to plug into, and many varied expressions of love, faith, and spirituality. I long for the day where everyone can find the community that resonates for them.

  3. Gary Hollander

    Thanks for your timely and thoughtul post, Gayle. Thanks to those who have already commented as well.

    This week my staff is distributing five pottery bowls to three Lutheran, one Methodist, and one Baptist church in my community. These bowls will be displayed on December 2, the day after World AIDS Day, to commemorate the event and to introduce the notion that in many religious traditions clay is a symbol of our creation, perfect but incomplete. Some hold that we were made in God’s image, by his/her hands, and ready to return to clay/dust when we die.

    A breakfast meeting with participating clergy was a powerful experience for me. I am not a believer in organized religion though religion was a big factor in my life for many years. I shared with the pastors that anti-gay discrimination is a factor in HIV transmission, setting up hostile and excluding contexts where people become vulnerable and lilmit or lose resilience. A few wanted to know what my agency is doing to provide services for those with HIV. After I had answered many questions, one pastor asked what they could do to stand by us in eliminating anti-gay discrimination.

    I answered that I expected them as individuals to be in relationship with me for the rest of my life. While the pathway to eliminating HIV involves full acceptance of LGBT people, that acceptance cannot be achieved through generic impersonal means. They must accept me, a gift from an unexpected quarter who is calling them to goodness.

    I do not know what will happen in the next several days. But I do know that I am transformed, not as a religious adherent, but as a human with expectations of the humanity of others.

    One last note on Thanksgiving: I never say grace at meals, even on holidays. For me it would be pretense to thank a spirit that I don’t believe exists. However, since I DO believe in human goodness and the power of that quality, my partner and I have developed a more congruent practice. When I serve a meal to friends, Paul and I look at each peson there in a slow and intentional way. Then I say, thanks for joining us, just as you are.

    And thanks again to you, Gayle. You are a significant contributor to the richness of my life.

    • I love the symbolism of the clay! I hadn’t heard that before. It will help me appreciate pottery in a way I never have before.

      Whether or not we each believe individually in organized religion, I think that there’s a powerful opportunity in partnering with churches and other religious/spiritual organizations. I also think that, while many churches engage in serious homophobia (and other forms of oppression), the fact that the one pastor asked you what they could do to help eliminate anti-gay discrimination tells me that many religious leaders are stepping up (or want to step up) to this calling.

      Thanks to you, Gary, for participating in the ongoing discussion!

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