Forming Faith Blog

Pride, Identity, and Belonging

This Pride Month, let’s honor each LGBT+ person’s unique identity and move beyond a welcome statement to building relationships and offering a sense of belonging in Christ’s church.

Insiders, Outsiders, and Pride Month

June is the beginning of “Pride Month,” a time designated for people who have been marginalized and oppressed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is also the month I have decided to focus on the theme of insiders and outsiders related to the church (though that combination was not what originally sparked this theme). My Pride post from last year discussed several ideas related to Pride, so you can see that if you’d like. 

Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity

Pride Month is designed to celebrate people who identify within the common acronym LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, sometimes with the addition of queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual) and its sometimes-synonym: the umbrella term “queer” (though usage of this term is controversial within the community). This community has been grouped together for a long time, but it is important to understand that all of this encompasses two different categories: sexual orientation and gender identity. These are not the same, though they certainly overlap. Gender identity is the internal sense of whether one is male, female, neither, or both. Sexual orientation is about the sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction to others based on one’s own and the other’s gender identity (or sex, which are different). National Public Radio has a helpful glossary on such terms.

Language: Labeling vs. Identity

As we start to look at the issue of LGBT+ people and the church, it’s important to talk first about language and how we use it. Words like gay, bisexual, and transgender are today used as adjectives (not nouns as they have been used in the past; e.g., “gay people” not “the gays”). Adjectives can act as labels or identifiers. An adjective (or noun) is a label if it is given to a person or group of people by someone other than that individual (or outside that group). A label might be accepted or rejected by those labeled, but the point is that it is imposed by an external force.

Identifiers (as I’m using the term)—on the other hand—are about identity. Identity is always about an internal sense, in the case of Pride Month, one’s internal sense of gender and/or sexual orientation. One can act externally on this identity, but that is an expression of that identity, not the identity itself. In the language I am using, an identifier is a descriptor that is claimed and expressed by an individual (or group) themselves.

In terms of practical usage here, use the language a person self-identifies with, not a label that you or others place on that person. This includes the important discussion on pronouns, which I don’t have space to discuss here.

Rights vs. Injustice

One more point before I actually get to the church part of the post. The first aspect of Pride Month is a time to allow LGBT+ people to embrace and celebrate their identities. The second aspect is about activism, the work to bring equal rights to those of LGBT+ identities. Rights are not about special treatment; they are about equal treatment. We shouldn’t have to talk about rights. I’ve never once thought about my “right” to drink coffee. That’s because no one tells me I cannot. Rights are about fighting injustice.

We should not have to talk about equal rights. We should not have to talk about how people should be “allowed” to marry the person they love, adopt children, be hired, not be fired, obtain housing, play sports, or use the bathroom because of some aspect of their identity. But such injustice exists, so we do need to talk about equal rights, and not just talk about them, but to advocate for them as well.

Welcome vs. Belonging

It goes without saying for most people that people of non-straight, non-cisgender identities have not been welcome in many churches in the past and present. Some congregations and denominations have been working to change that and become welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Such churches often approve a welcome statement that explicitly welcomes LGBT+ people and perhaps even putting up a rainbow flag. This is great! However, it’s not nearly enough. Such a welcome statement merely communicates that LGBT+ people are allowed to enter your space or your community (without hiding or denying who they are). Cynically speaking, it’s about permission by the people in power.

Faith communities need to move beyond welcome statements (written, verbal, and flag-waving). Permitting a person to occupy space is only the first of many steps. The goal is not only about welcome, or even inclusion, but ultimately belonging. Belonging is the experience and understanding that one is incorporated into a community. Within a Christian context, it’s about concretely experiencing what it is like to be a part of the Body of Christ in a local expression (congregation). And this is not because of a person’s identity nor in spite of that identity. It involves a celebration of a person’s unique identity (see more about intersectionality), including—but not limited to—a person’s identity as a beloved child of God made in the image of God.

How Do We Create a Community of Belonging?

How do we move from welcoming to belonging? Perfection is not required (nor possible). And this is a process, not a destination. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Welcoming: The first step is to make a congregational decision to create that welcome statement. This shouldn’t be a 51% vote though. If 49% of your congregation is opposed to the welcome statement, then that statement is a lie.
  2. Learning: For the “uninitiated,” there is a lot to learn about the LGBT+ communities and individuals. Help everyone learn the vocabulary (and unlearn outdated vocabulary). Learn about the historical exclusion and injustice against LGBT+ persons and how the Bible has been used as a weapon of oppression.
  3. Including: When you have LGBT+ persons in your congregation, include them in the decision-making bodies. Give them a voice and listen to them.
  4. Belonging: The movement toward belonging is basically the same for all identities (including age): building relationships throughout the congregation. That’s what a community is: a web of interconnected relationships.

Remember, for yourself and everyone you meet: God loves you in your unique identity. Period!

Happy Pride!

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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