As Christians, and as members of the Body of Christ which is open to all, we have an increasingly urgent need to apologise to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and otherwise sexuality and gender diverse (LGBTIQ+) fellow Australians and fellow Christians, for two major reasons: the harm done in the past by Christian teaching and behaviour, and harm continuing to be done in the present.
Christian teaching and behaviour has certainly contributed to past harm experienced by LGBTIQ+ communities and their families, reaching back to the beginnings of the Christian movement.
Sexual variation was considered an abomination
From Tertullian in the third century to Martin Luther in the 16th century, Christian theologians and thought leaders have consistently taught that any variation from Biblically established sexual and/or gender norms is inherently defective and/or sinful, and that those who depart from these norms, and especially those who, in our terms, are homosexual, are therefore worthy of contempt and the most severe censure.
According to Tertullian,
‘All other frenzies of lusts which exceed the laws of nature and are impious toward both bodies and the sexes we banish from all shelter of the Church, for they are not sins so much as monstrosities.’
According to Luther,
‘The vice of the Sodomites is an unparalleled enormity. It departs from the natural passion and desire, planted into nature by God, according to which the male has a passionate desire for the female. After a man has once turned aside from the fear of God, the devil puts such great pressure upon his nature that he extinguishes the fire of natural desire and stirs up another, which is contrary to nature.’
These views appeared well grounded in the Christian sacred texts, certainly if taken at face-value. Same-sex sexual relations were considered to represent some of the most obvious examples of human depravity; depraved because unnatural, depraved because wilfully chosen, depraved because they represent a direct and godless challenge to the creative purposes of God.
Same-sex relationships were criminalised
It followed that when the Church gained the power of state homosexuality was criminalised. Early Christian emperors declared the death penalty for any man who took the ‘passive role of a bride.’ In the years that followed, those found guilty of the offence of sodomy were castrated, tortured, burned, beheaded, stoned, choked, hanged and otherwise humiliated.
From the time of the French Revolution, and into the period of the Enlightenment, homosexuality was gradually decriminalised, but it was a slow process, with Roman Catholics and Protestants united in affirming the appropriateness of the death penalty for crimes considered heinous; heinous in themselves, but also indicative of godlessness and heresy. It was a common accusation against heretics that they were also sodomites.
Decriminalisation of homosexuality in Australia has only occurred in recent decades. It occurred first in the Australian Capital Territory in 1973, and was finally completed when Tasmania decriminalised in 1997. In 2016, the Victorian Parliament became the first jurisdiction in the world to offer an apology for the criminalisation of homosexuality:
To our knowledge, no jurisdiction in the world has ever offered a full and formal apology for laws like these.
So please, let these words rest forever in our records:
On behalf of the Parliament, the Government and the people of Victoria.
For the laws we passed.
And the lives we ruined.
And the standards we set.
We are so sorry. Humbly, deeply, sorry.
The legal framework which existed, and in some places still persists, was upheld with the support of Christian churches. In many jurisdictions around the world, homosexuality remains a criminal offence, with progress towards decriminalisation often blocked or strongly advocated against by major Christian denominations.
Being LGBTIQ+ was considered a mental illness or defect
Decriminalisation, which had strong support from some churches, did not signal the end of LGBTIQ+ suffering. In fact, it ushered in a new chapter of humiliation to those who are sexuality and gender diverse (SAGD). From the 19th century, people had begun to suggest that it was inappropriate to criminalise homosexuality which was beginning to be understood as constitutional defect or mental illness. The term homosexual was coined in 1869 when it was suggested that homosexuals should come under psychiatric care rather than suffer legal prosecution. A number of early psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, suggested that the best way to understand homosexual impulses and transgender identity was in terms of developmental arrest, or childhood trauma, or phobia, or as a consequence of pathological families, typically involving a detached or rejecting father and a domineering and overprotective mother. Thus, diverse genders and sexualities were pathologised, giving rise to the idea they could be cured.
These new theories, which were quickly taken up by progressive and conservative Christians alike, left lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the invidious position of either being viewed as ‘perverts’ worthy of condemnation or ‘inverts’ deserving of pity and the intervention of reparative therapy. What was left intact by the therapeutic model was the binary division of humankind into male and female. Homosexual feelings and behaviour, and transgender identification were not considered innate, but learned and therefore correctable. Similarly, intersex variations were explained in terms of post-fall brokenness.
Not only do we need to apologize for the sins of our past, we also need to apologize for their persistence into our present. As a first step to any such an apology, we must acknowledge that our current attitudes and beliefs have been profoundly and adversely affected by what David P. Gushee has described as a ‘teaching of contempt’ which we’ve inherited from our theological forebears.
New understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality
Thankfully, something of a revolution in thinking and practice is taking place, certainly within the wider community, but also within churches. We are beginning to learn and be challenged by new and emerging understandings of what it means to be LGBTIQ+. We are also developing sharpened understandings of what turns out to be a large variety of differences between us at the level of sex and gender.
Sex refers to a person’s biological sex characteristics when they are born. With respect to sex differences, many Christians have assumed that humans are either male or female, and have resisted the idea that sex is non-binary. This ignores long-standing historical and biblical acknowledgment of intersex variations (such as ambiguous genitalia), and more recent understandings of chromosomal or hormonal variations which differ from exclusively male or female sex markers.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that humans can either have a ‘male’ or ‘female’ body. In Christian contexts, the Genesis creation accounts are selectively used to support this view, while denying or ignoring the existence of people with intersex variations. As it turns out, there are hundreds of intersex variations, with this diversity now commonly and sensibly understood as built into the very fabric of human biology. Many individuals with an intersex variation may not identify with the ‘intersex’ terminology to describe their chromosomal, hormonal or physical sex differences, but recognising those individual preferences, we respectfully use the umbrella term ‘intersex’ to describe this significantly diverse population which does not fit into the male/female sex binary.
Note also that people with intersex variations have diverse experiences of sexuality and gender, and may or may not have cross-cutting experiences which intersect with the harm and discrimination experienced by LGBT communities. It is important to acknowledge and address the unique challenges and harm endured by people who are intersex.
Gender is the complex interrelationship between a person’s physical traits and their internal sense of self of being male, female, both, neither, or some combination thereof, as well as how one presents and behaves in the light of that perception. In the case of someone who is transgender, their gender does not match their assigned sex. For someone who is cisgender their gender and their sex are aligned.
Sexuality refers to an individual’s sexual orientation. Gay people are oriented or attracted to people of their own gender, bisexual people are attracted to people of two or more genders. Others may use different terminology to describe their sexuality, such as straight, pansexual, queer and many others. Some identify as asexual, to signify that they are not sexually attracted to anyone. Somewhere between 1% and 5% of the Australian population identify as LGB+.
New questions being asked
These new understandings are facilitating a radical re-think of historic Christian understandings of LGBTIQ+ people. Theologians and exegetes are going back to the key Biblical texts to see if they can be read and understood in different and new ways. Not just ‘liberal’ Christians, but Christians of all persuasions, including evangelicals and Roman Catholics, are coming to significantly different points of view. This has been helped by having a somewhat safer environment in which some LGBTIQ+ people can ‘come out’ and speak about their experiences and faith.
Damage still being done
What these new questions also suggest are a number of ways in which we continue to do great harm to LGBTIQ+ members of our church communities, those we have turned away, and those we have publicly shunned.
Our church-history-long mistreatment reaches into the present in disturbing ways. We continue to do great harm by:
- insisting, against the accumulation of adequate evidence, that there are just two sexes and genders, thus affectively saying to those who are intersex and gender diverse that they don’t exist.
- perpetuating some harmful stereotypes, including the depiction of gay or transgender people as paedophiles, around whom children (and even adults) are not safe.
- not surrounding our LGBTIQ+ children with love, understanding and support.
- endlessly talking about ‘same-sex attraction,’ (a term coined by ‘conversion therapists’) understood as a defect, affliction or temptation, while simultaneously avoiding the favoured self-identification of sexuality diverse people as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. We accept that heterosexuality is an important aspect of our identities as straight Christians, but disallow our LGBTIQ+ fellow Australians from identifying themselves in terms of their sexuality or gender.
- insisting, against the accumulation of adequate evidence, that LGBTIQ+ people can be successfully treated or healed.
- remaining silent, unsupportive, or perpetuating further harm, in the face of staggering rates of depression, isolation, anxiety, self-harm and suicide among LGBTIQ+ youth and adults.
How we can’t be neutral
Some Christians can rightly say, ‘I myself haven’t done anything directly or actively to cause pain and suffering to LGBTIQ+ people.’ However, by not saying or doing anything to stop the abuse, we contribute to it and are complicit in it. Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel made this point powerfully in his acceptance speech when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. In noting that the world knew about the holocaust, but remained silent, he vowed to never remain silent in the face of human suffering and humiliation:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
In the wake of the Orlando massacre, which helped to put the spotlight on violence still being perpetrated against LGBTIQ+ people, Matthew Vines, author of God land the Gay Christian, wrote:
While most Christians would never kill someone because of their sexual orientation, most churches have still caused deep, lasting pain in LGBT people’s lives. It is legitimate to be angry not just at the shooter, but also at all those who have caused you to feel afraid and ashamed of who you are. Unless you’ve long been a vocal advocate for LGBT people, you’ve likely contributed to that suffering—intentionally or not.
Our first step is to apologise, to atone for the hurt and suffering to which we have contributed. This is what the Equal Voices movement encourages all Australian Christians to do. But we must do more than apologize. Our immediate second step needs to be a journey of support and advocacy, which we would urge you to join.
Others have already taken that first step of offering an apology. On 15 January 2016, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, apologized for the ‘hurt and pain’ the worldwide Anglican Church has inflicted on LGBTIQ+ people. In his words:
It’s a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality. I want to take this opportunity personally to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain, in the past and present, that the church has caused and the love that we at times completely failed to show, and still do, in many parts of the world including in this country.
On 26 June 2016, Pope Francis apologized to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church. In his words, as reported:
The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times – when I say the Church, I mean Christians. The Church is holy, we are sinners. I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended, but must also apologize to the poor, to the exploited women, to children exploited for labour. It must ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.
The last sentence is telling. The church has indeed ‘blessed many weapons.’ We’ve believed that our take on the Scriptures represents nothing less than the mind of God. We have applied our understandings in ways that have damaged and hurt people. We have thereby denied the spirit and loving heart of our Christian faith. And for this need to say sorry. More than that, we need, in Biblical terms, to repent by determining that with the help of God we will do all in our power to correct at least some of the damage we have been responsible for, thereby fulfilling the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Footnote: While applauding the above-mentioned apologies, it also needs to be acknowledged, as a footnote to this paper, that people with intersex variations, and people of diverse genders were noticeably omitted from what Pope Francis has said by way of apology. In more recent statements, he has referred to transgender people as the ‘annihilation of man,’ clearly showing that, despite some welcome progress, we still have some way to go to cultivate a Christ-like and open-armed church.