I started studying US Protestant churches back in 1996 because I was curious about homophobia; I wanted to understand why anyone would care so much whether someone else were queer or not, and churches seemed to be the places where people were having the conversations, spelling out their reasoning, trying to convince each other. And much like today, conservative Protestants set the terms of policy debates for the whole country, so understanding where they come from would have an impact far beyond churches themselves. To reflect on what has changed in the 23 years since the Social Science Research Council’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP)—funded by the Ford Foundation—launched, I’ll talk about what has changed and what hasn’t in US conservative Protestants’ thinking about sexuality and gender. Then I’ll reflect on one of the gifts of the SRFP.
Then: Debates over homosexuality“Back then, in a nutshell, the ‘liberal’ Protestants tended to argue that people were born gay, made that way by God, so the church should not condemn them.”
The SRFP helped fund my ethnographic dissertation research on two United Methodist congregations (the same denomination that recently demonstrated it remains split on questions about LGBTQ people).1Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004More Info → Back then, in a nutshell, the “liberal” Protestants tended to argue that people were born gay, made that way by God, so the church should not condemn them. “Conservative” Protestants argued that the Bible clearly forbade same-sex sex, so like people born with a propensity to alcoholism, “homosexuals” needed support and possibly therapy to heal from their “affliction” and avoid doing things God said not to. Liberal arguments about understanding the Bible in relation to the contexts in which it was written didn’t hold water with conservatives, who positioned themselves as biblical “literalists.” When prolesbian/gay church members asked about passages that Christians haven’t taken as literal mandates for centuries, if ever (“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”), their detractors heard them dismissing inconvenient parts of God’s word so they could just worship what felt good. At the core of the argument, the sides actually had two very different images of God—either a loving but strict father or the spirit that inspires people to be their best self—but to keep from having to deal with that reality, they constantly shifted the terms of debate and spoke past each other.
The debate then was largely about “lesbians and gay men”—trans people weren’t being talked about in the churches I studied, and bisexuality was a point of some confusion, seeming to conflict with the liberal arguments that gays were “born gay” and “couldn’t help it.” Because the participants in the debate weren’t really engaging with each other in the same terms, it was hard to find the answer to my original question: why some people’s sexual orientation mattered so much to others.
Now: LGBTQI evangelicals fighting sacramental shame
I came back to these questions in 2014 when I began to study the LGBTQ+ movement now developing among conservative Protestants (mostly evangelical and fundamentalist) through interviews and participant-observation. Not content either to leave their churches or seek a cure for being who they are, and often having picked up the pieces in solitude after those attempts failed, LGBTQ+ conservative Protestants are avowing their identities as both LGBTQ+ and evangelical or fundamentalist. As they do so, they engage with other conservative Protestants in their shared religious terms, challenging them to discern whether binary gender is a socially constructed category rather than a godly mandate. Participants in my study refute assertions that LGBTQ+ identities result from damage or sin and need to be fixed. They engage with the people closest to them, and through those relationships, loved ones are often transformed and become allies.2Theresa W. Tobin and Dawne Moon, “The Politics of Shame in the Motivation to Virtue: Lessons from the Shame, Pride, and Humility Experiences of LGBT Conservative Christians and their Allies,” Journal of Moral Education 48, no. 1 (2019): 109–125. Together, these actors work to convince pastors and churches to, at the very least, stop treating LGBTQ+ people as a special class of sinners. They show others who are struggling with their sexual and gender identities that they really can both love Jesus and be LGBTQ+.“Working with philosopher Theresa Tobin, I have begun to pull together these stories to detail the unique harm done when people must exhibit chronic shame—the perpetual fear of being unworthy of relationship.”
Hearing their stories, it became clear to me that in conservative churches, shame was being treated almost as a special sacrament—a tangible sign of the presence of God in their lives, necessary for salvation—but just for LGBTQ+ people.3Dawne Moon and Theresa W. Tobin, “Sunsets and Solidarity: Overcoming Sacramental Shame in Conservative Christian Churches to Forge a Queer Vision of Love and Justice,” in “Gender and the Politics of Shame,” ed. Clara Fischer, special issue, Hypatia 33, no. 3 (2018): 451–468. Working with philosopher Theresa Tobin, I have begun to pull together these stories to detail the unique harm done when people must exhibit chronic shame—the perpetual fear of being unworthy of relationship. For conservative Christians, the chronic shame that many oppressed people are susceptible to is elevated to something like a sacrament, a tangible sign of the presence of God in their lives, which then became a requirement for belonging in the church, worthy to love and serve God, and other people. The unrelenting toxicity of this paradox can push people to suicide attempts, alcohol/drug abuse and other forms of self-harm, but also to somatic ailments, including uncontrollable asthma attacks, heart failure (in a healthy 19-year-old), and a former Christian music superstar’s rare autoimmune disorder. LGBTQ+ evangelicals and fundamentalists have lived the harm that comes from misguided theology. So, some of them are working to change it.
In the 23 years since I began my dissertation, most evangelicals stopped calling themselves “literalists”; they often study the Bible and church history to understand how the context in which each passage was written gives it meaning. LGBTQ+ evangelicals such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines have sifted through decades of pro-LGBTQ+ scriptural arguments, sharing what passes muster with evangelicals’ more recently embraced methods of interpretation.
Studying today’s conservative Protestant movement to affirm LGBTQ+ identities, same-sex marriage, and gender transitions, I finally have an answer to the question that prompted my dissertation. The “traditionalist” side believes God created male and female as two incomplete halves to be made complete in a marriage of “opposites.” In effect, they treat that belief as a commandment, preceding the Ten Commandments in time and importance, the foundation of all existence.4R. Albert Mohler Jr., ed., God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines (SBTS Press, 2014). From this perspective, “same-sex attractions” are a form of gender deviance in need of repair. LGBTQ+ conservative Christians and their allies directly challenge this narrative, arguing that the Bible doesn’t actually say that, and the teachings of Jesus and the trajectory of Scripture should take precedence over social constructions of gender and include those who are LGB, nonbinary, and transgender.5Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013More Info → After all, they point out, Genesis may show God creating male and female, but it also shows God creating day and night, and any believer can see God’s hand in the beauty of a sunset.“Because participants have experienced or witnessed harm when loved ones used Christian messages to discount LGBTQ+ people, many see ever more clearly that following in the footsteps of Jesus…requires them to fight all forms of oppression.”
In the nineties, antigay forces used Christian language to portray lesbians and gay men as inhuman monsters and saw gender variance as evidence of this monstrousness. To challenge these perceptions, the homonormative imagery that emerged in that era showed lesbians and gay men who conformed to white, middle-class ideals of masculinity and femininity. Shows like Will and Grace, watched surreptitiously while parents slept, showed a generation of young people being homeschooled by fundamentalists that gay people could be human—in a world that equated humanity with normalcy. Because participants have experienced or witnessed harm when loved ones used Christian messages to discount LGBTQ+ people, many see ever more clearly that following in the footsteps of Jesus—showing love for those who are socially marginalized—requires them to fight all forms of oppression. Groups that were founded by and largely for white people may struggle to discern what it means to truly include people of color and decenter whiteness, but some have tried to center the voices of LGBTQ+ people of color and make the movement truly intersectional.
There are other conflicts and struggles within this movement. Some of the deepest resonances with queer theory can be found among LGB evangelicals who avow marriage as reserved for a man and a woman and advocate celibacy for lesbians and gay men. They are still attacked in some churches for even claiming an LGBTQ+ identity, and they are renounced by many LGBTQ+ Christians for seeming to perpetuate their oppression. But celibate LGB Protestants challenge the widespread fixation on marriage, advocating for social support and recognition for nonmarital forms of kinship in ways that sometimes echo Gay Liberation and queer critiques of the 1990s.
It’s an uphill battle to transform evangelicals’ and fundamentalists’ understandings of gender and sexuality as they relate to ability, race, class, and other social hierarchies. But this movement is changing minds, drawing some prominent conservative pastors and theologians in to join them. Broader historical forces are clearly at work in all of this as well, but these actors are taking the moment history has given them and using it to transform Christianity.
Legitimating sexuality studies
Having grown up working-class and queer in the 1970s and 1980s, shame was my constant companion. It took a particularly intractable form in graduate school and into my first assistant professor job. I constantly felt pulled between mandates to both stand my academic ground and internalize the dominant, authorized ways of thinking and seeing the world. I felt perpetual shame for not understanding assumptions everyone seemed to treat as obvious and unquestionable, and for failing to convince the powerful to disrupt the system that privileged them. However, the SRFP introduced me to an interdisciplinary network of generous scholars whose work has sharpened my thinking and whose camaraderie sustained me through these rough academic waters.“The SRFP’s gift—beyond the funding, mentoring, and networking—was that of legitimacy.”
Taking seriously the perspectives of those who have overcome sacramental shame has given me a new perspective on scholarly shame as a mechanism of social control in the struggle to define what counts as knowledge. The SRFP’s founders and funders saw that reality, and the need to analyze it in order to make life more livable. The SRFP’s gift—beyond the funding, mentoring, and networking—was that of legitimacy. It authorized me and generations of scholars to take seriously the perspectives of people whose lives are made unlivable through the powerful narratives that work through sexuality to define hierarchies of gender, race, nation, morality, and intimacy as natural. An SRFP for the new century would help to continue the work of creating a less vicious world, a world where more people can thrive.