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The Religious Roots of Pride

Troy Perry in 1977

This weekend I will join the four million people flooding New York City’s streets to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The centerpiece is Sunday’s Pride parade. What most Americans do not know when they gaze on the parade’s nearly-naked dancers, “dykes on bikes,” and transgender teenagers is that Pride parades exist because of a devout Pentecostal minister.

For far too long, our country’s conversations about religion and LGBTQ people have focused on antigay religious leaders and politicians like Vice President Mike Pence. But Pence should not be the poster boy for religion. As a scholar of religion and LGBTQ politics, I am convinced that if we draw attention to how religion has served as a source of strength for many LGBTQ people, we will take power away from the Religious Right and expand our nation’s ideas about what religion looks like in America. 

In 1970 the Reverend Troy Perry, a Baptist minister turned Pentecostal preacher, organized the first Pride parade. Perry had come out as gay in the 1960s and started a church in his Los Angeles home for gay and lesbian Christians. Soon, hundreds filled Perry’s services, many breaking down into tears when they received communion for the first time as openly gay believers.

Throughout the 1970s, gay and lesbian churches, synagogues, and religious organizations appeared throughout the country. Many still exist today. Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in New York City founded in 1973, has rented a special venue this week because their regular sanctuary cannot accommodate the vast number of people they expect to attend their Pride Shabbat service. Other LGBTQ religious communities that flourished decades ago have closed within recent years as institutions like the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches now welcome LGBTQ people as equals.

The idea that religion thrives within LGBTQ communities has garnered some attention this year as the first openly gay presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, has made the media circuit describing his Christian faith and how his marriage brought him closer to God. And gay religious characters have started to appear in popular culture. On Netflix’s newest hit show, Dead to Me, the most pious Christian character is a gay man. 

To be sure, many religious communities still reject LGBTQ people. Countless LGBTQ Americans suffer through years of trauma as they sit in pews listening to hatred from the pulpit. And without question, the Religious Right’s influence in the Trump administration and state legislatures has enabled an assault against transgender people in all areas of society, from bathrooms to the military, which we must remedy soon. But this is not the entire picture of religion and LGBTQ people, and allies have appeared in surprising places. Just last week my own alma mater, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis stood by one of its teachers when the Archdiocese insisted the school terminate a faculty member who is in a same-sex marriage. The Jesuit high school refused to fire the gay teacher even as the Archdiocese decreed the school could never again call itself Catholic. I have seen several LGBTQ Catholic alumni express gratitude and words of prayer on social media.

When we fail to recognize how religion has shaped LGBTQ communities, our activism, and the aspirational dreams of so many LGBTQ people, we let antigay religious leaders and politicians speak on behalf of all religious people. Someone like Jerry Falwell, Jr. does not represent all Christians. We need to stop indulging the illusion that he, or Mike Huckabee, or Mike Pence, or any other antigay religious figure is a more legitimate Christian than someone like the Reverend Troy Perry who proudly declared, “The Lord is my shepherd and He knows I’m Gay.” We give the Religious Right too much power by perpetually focusing on them. Certainly, we should monitor and protest their political influence. But the Religious Right should not get to represent religion. On this 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the time has come to shift our attention away from the Religious Right and onto the experiences of LGBTQ people everywhere. Then we will have a far better understanding of how religion shapes our country the people who live in it with pride.   

Brett Krutzsch is the author of Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics from Oxford University Press and Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Haverford College.

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