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LGBT People of Faith: Why Are They Staying?

LGBT People of Faith: Why Are They Staying?

Religious man

On the eve of the pope's historic U.S. visit, a new study on LGBT people and religion shows surprising results.

A recent study appears to disprove a bit of common wisdom among gays, lesbians, and bisexuals -- the idea was that we are abandoning religion because religious denominations are abandoning us.

Not so, according to Pew Research and its report, America's Changing Religious Landscape.

The study, released in May, spurred national conversation about the role of religion in the United States because it pointed to an overall decline of religious affiliation. The number of "nones" (those who don't identify with any faith) grew as overall religious affiliation decreased, the study found.

But while religious affiliations decreased overall, in a surprising result, the same wasn't true for queer people.

Indeed, more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (The Advocate spoke with Pew Research Center, and it did not account for the transgender population in this particular survey.) The report found that 48 percent of LGB Americans identify as Christian, up from 42 percent in 2013. The statistic contrasts the study's finding of overall decline of Christianity, from 78.4 percent of Americans identifying as Christian to 70.6 percent.

The Pew Research Center cautionsagainst drawing comparisons between the two studies since the method for collecting the data differed. For the 2013 study, participants went online, whereas in the 2015 study individuals were contacted by phone. Still, at the very least, researchers are sure that a significant portion of LGB people are people of faith.

While Christianity is the dominant faith tradition found in the LGB population, a large portion adhere to other faith traditions. Eleven percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions -- which is also a higher percentage than the overall population. In total, 59 percent of the LGB respondents identify as people of faith.

The study's findings conflict with the LGB-versus-religion narrative that dominates media. In 2012, GLAAD released Missing Voices, a three-year study analyzing this media narrative, looking at how mainstream news covered the intersections of faith, sexuality, and gender. Overwhelmingly, the voices represented were from straight, cisgender individuals and they came from an anti-LGBT stance. The few pro-LGBT voices, which also came from straight cisgender individuals, were presented "without any religious affiliation, thus reinforcing the mainstream media framing of 'religion vs. gay,'" said the report.

The religion versus gay framing is reinforced by LGBT people as well. Many queer people have left spiritually abusive households and don't want anything to do with religion. Some of the loudest LGBT pundits are atheist and are critical of LGBT people who adhere to religions that, at least formally, condemn same-sex relationships.

"The change may be due to the fact that the rising tide of LGBT acceptance is allowing more people in conservative communities to come out who wouldn't have a generation ago," Matthew Vines, author of God and The Gay Christian, tells The Advocate.

"Especially for LGBT people who greatly value marriage, family, and community, the legalization of marriage equality makes a major difference in their ability to be able to envision a future for themselves that makes coming out worth the cost," Vines says. "Many of those more traditional-minded LGBT people are Christians. As they continue to come out in higher numbers in the years to come, they will likely cause the number of religiously affiliated LGBT Americans to rise, and they will also help to build a bridge for other LGBT people to re-engage with faith if they wish to do so."

Despite so many faith traditions condemning same-sex relationships in their teaching, LGBs are remaining loyal to their religious beliefs. Not only are they remaining affiliated with denominations that have anti-LGBT stances, but they are also creating communities with other queer religious people.

Take, for instance, Believe Out Loud, a vibrant online community focused on empowering Christians to work toward LGBT equality. On average, between its various social media platforms and website, Believe Out Loud reaches 3 million to 5 million individuals a month -- making it one of the largest LGBT faith-based sites in the country.

Believe Out Loud

"Some LGBT Christians don't even know they have other options for worship -- churches that actually honor their LGBT identity as a gift from God," says Believe Out Loud's director, James Rowe. He points out a map on Believe Out Loud's website that lists 5,000 LGBT welcoming and affirming Christian churches across the U.S., representing 17 different denominations.

Still, it's undeniable that these affirming church congregations are a minority in the their denominations. It's more likely to find faith communities that are not affirming of same-sex relationships than affirming of them.

Rowe, who is gay and a devout Catholic, says he remains hopeful the church will evolve.

"I've chosen to stay in the Catholic Church because of faith. Not just faith in God but faith in a religious tradition that I love," he tells The Advocate. "Faith that even the Catholic Church -- as unimaginable as it may be to some -- is capable of great change."

Rowe may not be too off base with his comments. Pope Francis has softened his language toward LGBT people, though his beliefs are still staunchly anti-LGBT, as is the Catholic Church. Yet Ireland, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, enacted marriage equality this year with a resounding yes vote in a popular referendum. Additionally, a newly released survey by Pew Researh Center shows that two thirds of American Catholics are pro-LGBT families.

"Our churches are so much more than just clergy who may choose to label us an abomination or more specifically, 'intrinsically disordered,'" says Rowe. "The reality is that at one time, not that long ago, there were practically no Christian churches in this country where LGBT people could walk into without any fear. Now there are more than 5,000 -- that couldn't have happened unless some stayed and claimed their rightful place in the church."

The Gay Christian Network has been a place of solace for LGBT Christians for over a decade. Its annual conference last year brought in more than 1,400 LGBT Christians from around the world for worship and community.

Gay Christian Network

"Churches have always been full of LGBT people, but historically, many of them have felt alone and powerless to change discriminatory church policies," Justin Lee, director of the Gay Christian Network, tells The Advocate. Lee says the Gay Christian Network conference has helped straight Christians meet LGBT Christians and change their views.

"LGBT Christians are standing up and inspiring their fellow Christians to push for change from within," he says. "The GCN conference reflects that movement; what used to be a gathering of LGBT Christians now includes a growing number of straight, cisgender Christians whose minds have been changed by the LGBT people in their churches and who are now pushing for full support and equality for all."

Born and raised Southern Baptist, Lee says he stays in the church because of the Jesus story.

"There's a huge difference between Jesus and the teachings of some modern American churches," Lee says. "Jesus taught love and mercy, cared for people's needs, and defied the social prejudices of his day. His closest friends were societal outcasts, while his harshest criticisms were for religious leaders. That's what draws me to Christianity as a gay man, despite the fact that many churches today seem to do the exact opposite of what he taught."

LGBT right groups recognize the importance of religion in the LGBT civil rights conversation. TheHuman Rights Campaign's Religion and Faith program Program, established in 2004, works in the intersections of faith and sexuality.

"For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, faith and spirituality are critical aspects of our lives. An essential part of our work is working with communities of faith in support of LGBT communities," says Rev. MacArthur H. Flournoy, director of faith partnerships and mobilization at HRC.

"Whether it's educating people about the implications of the pope's visit, or working in southern states, we realize the value engaging people of faith to improve the lived experiences of LGBT people and our families," Flournoy. HRC's Religion and Faith program also keeps an ongoing tally of LGBT faith resources and where every faith tradition stands on issues such as same-sex relationships.

Gay Christian

The National LGBTQ Task Force works to highlight the welcoming religious voices to contrast the sea of anti-LGBT ones.

"We at the National LGBTQ Task Force are working hard to raise voices of welcoming and affirming people of all faiths to defeat efforts to redefine religious exemptions in legislation that would actually weaken the important protections these laws contain," says Rev. Rodney McKenzie Jr., the group's faith work director. "We desire to reclaim faith as LGBTQ people. The faith narrative should not be owned by politicians -- LGBTQ people of faith and our allies must be heard."

"I think because the voices of welcoming people of faith are not being heard, and instead the opponents of equality get all the attention, that it's easy to see why some LGBTQ people might view faith as the enemy," McKenzie continues. "But when you actually get the chance to hear these affirming voices, it's equally easy to see why welcoming people of faith can be important and influential allies in the movement for change."

This October, the Task Force is hosting a Faith & Family LGBTQ Power Summit, a "four-day gathering that, through the lens of racial and gender justice, will provide inspiration, skills, capacity building and concrete strategies as we explore how our faith and the practice of radical welcome can build grassroots power," says the website.

Praise Hands

Faith traditions other than Christianity are booming with queer people too. The 11 percent of LGB respondents in the America's Changing Religious Landscape survey identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions are not an anomaly.

"Leaving the faith is absolutely the best option for some LGBT youth; however it is absolutely not an option for others," says Mordechai Levovitz, co-executive director of Jewish Queer Youth. "It is essential that support resources respect this and develop the cultural competence to validate both experiences."

Jewish Queer Youth provides support for LGBT young adults and their parents. It offers programming throughout the year, produces educational resources, and has launched various advocacy initiatives. The group is supportive of Jewish youth who leave their faith and those who wish to stay. The goal is cultivating a culture that affirms LGBT youth for who they are even if they are growing up in Orthodox homes.

Mordechai says his choice to remain faithful goes beyond just personal beliefs. Yes, he believes in his Jewish faith. But Mordechai stays for not just himself but also for LGBT youth in the faith.

"I personally remain Jewish because being Jewish is just as part and parcel to my identity as being gay is," Mordechai tells The Advocate. "It is just who I am, how I was raised, and through no choice of my own. I identify and engage predominantly with the Orthodox community because I cannot in good faith abandon the thousands of LGBT youth who are growing up in Orthodox and Hasidic families and have no other support, crisis, or educational resources that are built with them in mind."

Muslim for Progressive Values recognizes the importance of the LGBT portion of the Muslim population. The group has released a lecture series on being LGBT and Muslim with the stated goal "to dismantle the religious justification for homophobia in Muslim communities with medical, social and religious history." The organization holds to Koranic ideals while advocating for the full inclusion of LGBT Muslims. The Advocate contacted Muslim for Progressive Values for an interview but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Many LGBT people have found community in their faith traditions. Most have found theologically affirming views of their sexual and gender identities. There are dozens of organzations that work in various denominations advocating for change in doctrines for the full inclusion of LGBT people.

But for the most part, LGBT people of faith are sticking with their religions because of their faith, not in spite of it.

"The [Pew] report reflects what we see at Believe Out Loud every day," Rowe says. "In spite of how we may have been treated by our churches and even our families, the LGBT community's faith and belief in God is alive and well. And that is a beautiful thing."

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