What You Can Do:
10 Steps Towards Ending Homophobia in Your Congregation
This guide is intended to give you concrete ideas as to how to begin addressing the institutionalized nature of homophobia and heterosexism in faith communities. It is neither exhaustive nor applicable to all. Rather, it is a starting point to begin a process of self-examination which all churches need to undertake as they seek to become truly inclusive.
This page is based on work by
Kevin Jennings of the Gay and Lesbian School Teachers Network
Distributed by the Religious Outreach Committee of the
Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Speakers Bureau
P.O. Box 2232
Boston, MA 02107
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Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in religious communities, both clergy and laity, need to know that they will be free from discrimination before any level of comfort can be achieved. Even in churches which are “open to everyone,” many lesbians, gays, and bisexuals wonder what the real reaction will be if they are open about their sexual orientation. In order to send an unequivocal message about its commitment to equality, a church should add “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination clause. Many denominations have a program whereby a congregation declares itself welcoming, open, affirming, reconciling (etc.) to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Our congregation has an intentional Welcoming Congregation program registered with the UUA Welcoming Congregation program.
One cannot worship effectively in a environment where one is subject to harassment. You and your congregation must make it clear that in your community harassing language or actions towards an individual based on his/her sexual orientation in unacceptable. Intervene when others use slurs or threats towards lesbians and gays. Respond with language that indicates that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, such as “Our church will not deny anyone’s right to be here. Nor do we tolerate slurs that put others down about race, sex, or sexual orientation.” Be sure to talk with those targeted. Ask the what they need in order to feel safe again in the church. Keep in mind that they may need time to be alone. Be empathetic, warm and genuine when talking with someone who has been rejected, harassed, or attacked.
There is no substitute for knowing an openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual person when seeking to combat homophobia. Studies have shown that people are much more likely to show tolerance and acceptance towards gays as a group if they themselves have had some sort of personal relationships with individual gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. The best role models are those whom the church already knows. Your church should make clear that it will extend support to any member who wishes to “come out” by sharing his or her sexual identity — it will not just support members who share their heterosexual identity via wedding rings, pictures of family, and the like. If there are not individuals within the church who are willing to take such a step, you may wish to bring in guest speakers from a group such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Speakers Bureau.
Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and especially lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, need support and resources. Becoming familiar with local gay and lesbian support services (social and political organizations, health care agencies, counseling services, youth groups, etc.) will enable your church to assist with referrals.
Your church might also become familiar with nearby churches that are especially gay-friendly or have a large number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual members. You can also contact the nearest parish of the Metropolitan Community Church — a church that specifically ministers to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, or the nearest congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Such pro-gay churches can provide good educational resources for anti-homophobia training and can be an important part of a support network for your church as a whole.
Despite the best efforts on the part of some congregations, many gays and lesbians feel particularly abused and condemned by the religious communities. Spending years carrying these hateful messages around inside can be spiritually compromising for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Therefore, sensitive, gay-affirmig pastoral counseling needs to be made available to those dealing with these issues.
All leaders in the church must be equipped with the skills necessary to work effectively with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people while they are on the job. Churches are encouraged, preferably on an ongoing basis, to bring in experts familiar with the subtle interactions between lesbian/gay/bisexual issues and religion to provide this training.
There are many opportunities in worship services and in religious education programs to invoke by way of example lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and the various oppressions and liberations they experience. Attention should be paid to the creative ways these issues can be worked into the education and preaching of the church. Liturgies can be expanded to recognize the lives of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals — including their marriages, separations, sicknesses, and deaths. Bible studies should address the overwhelming biblical message of liberation and love as opposed to the three or four passages which may or may not refer to modern gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships.
Almost every lesbian, gay, or bisexual person has a story to tell about looking under “Homosexuality” in the card catalog with fear and trembling long before talking to someone about his or her sexual orientation. It is vital that a diverse range of resources be available in the church library or literature table for those seeking information about themselves, family members, or friends.
There are many ways your church can get more involved with the gay community. Work on a joint ministry project with the nearest UU, MCC, or other organizations committed to social justice for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Consider assisting the local gay youth group, or a gay/lesbian/bisexual victim recovery program, or hotline. Your church could also sponsor outings to the local gay/lesbian/bisexual chorus, theater productions, sports event, art exhibit, or the like.
You can make difference in your church by simply being supportive and sensitive to lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. Do you assume someone’s heterosexuality, and check yourself for the unconscious bias of heterosexism in daily language and assumptions? Treat lesbian, gay, and bisexual relationships with care and understanding. Talk with lesbian, gay, and bisexual congregants about their partners. Ask about events and issues in the gay community. Ask questions in a non-judgmental way, with warmth and respect.