I was at a comedy show in Soho recently, when my slightly too loud cackle attracted attention from the comedian. One thing led to another, and I ended up being teased affably about my love life as the audience laughed on.
Once my excitement about having spoken to one of my favourite comedians – Mae Martin, if you’re curious – had died down, I realised something pretty significant had happened. I had said, “I have a girlfriend” in front of a room full of people without even thinking about it.
Granted, that doesn’t really sound like a stop-the-press moment. Mae Martin is a queer performer, after all. And in theory, I’m a strong, independent lesbian who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. But any gay person who has experienced that niggle of anxiety before announcing their queerness will understand.
A lowlight was confiding in a pastor when I was 18. He politely informed me my feelings were from the devil
I came out almost five years ago, and the majority of people I interact with couldn’t care less about the gender of the person I’m dating. My family and friends adore my girlfriend, and I no longer have personal qualms about my sexual identity. Yet even when I’m 90% sure the person I’m addressing will be accepting, I still get that little jerky stomach-knot right before I say the words “gay” or “girlfriend” to someone new.
Growing up in the church has played quite a big part in these insecurities. The ultimate lowlight was confiding in a pastor about my sexuality when I was 18. He politely informed me that my feelings were from the devil, and went on to share our conversation – which I had believed to be confidential – with the church the following Sunday as part of his sermon on “sexual immorality”.
There was also the church member who arranged to meet me for coffee in order to say I needed to repent; and the friend who bought me a book on “conversion therapy” for Christmas. I could go on.
Most LGBT+ Christians I’ve come across have similar stories to tell, if not worse. So why do we bother going back to these places and people that have hurt us? The simple answer is that I still believe in a loving God, and I still have faith that views will change, and things will get better.
I don’t necessarily expect non-Christians to understand that. Plenty of queer people have been hurt by the church. “Go to hell” placards at Pride parades, “conversion therapy” and politicians such as Tim Farron haven’t exactly given Christians a good reputation among the queer community. During my undergraduate degree, I basically gave up going to church altogether because it felt like all the Christian students were hardened anti-gay evangelicals.
There’s a time and a place for what I call “activist church-going”: going to a church where you know you won’t be accepted just to remind them that queer Christians do exist. I can work up the stamina to do this from time to time, but it can be incredibly draining to constantly place yourself in an environment where you’re not really welcome.
Most of the time, however, the only way to navigate the world as a queer Christian is to find support. Becoming part of Facebook groups such as Diverse Church, Queer Christian Collective and No Fear in Love showed me there was a future for people like me. Meeting Christians who were happily in same-sex relationships – even married with children – showed me that the model of Christian marriage drummed into me throughout my childhood was not the only option. Now, my girlfriend and I go to an affirming church in London where I feel, for the first time in a long time, welcome.
Still, “feeling welcome” is a pretty low bar. It remains prohibited for same-sex couples to get married in Anglican places of worship, and a lot of churches won’t let openly queer people so much as serve the coffee.
I wish I could promise that queer people would be accepted if they went to a church. But many Christians have a long way to go before they can truly live out the full “Love thy neighbour as thyself” thing.
The acceptance and tolerance, though, needs to go both ways. A Stonewall report last year showed that one in 10 LGBT+ Christians experienced faith-based discrimination from within the queer community. This can be anything from creating an atmosphere in which it is shameful to admit that you are a person of faith, to outright aggression and insistent questioning about what you do or do not believe.
I get it – a lot of LGBT+ people have reason to dislike Christians. But we have to stop shutting people out because they don’t fit into a designated box. Queerness, for me, is a complete rejection of restrictions. We try to understand difference and yet stand together in solidarity.
The queer community does get it wrong sometimes, but when we get it right we represent a radical, unconditional, non-judgmental approach to love. And isn’t that exactly what the Church also claims to promote?
• Lucy Knight is a newspaper journalism student at City University