Here we are together at the end of this long journey back in time, processing a set of teachings that has left a visible scar across the landscape of millennials and beyond. If you’ve been reading every week since this began, I hope you’ve found comfort and solidarity knowing you’re not alone. If you’ve just stumbled upon this blog and this series, you can go back and get caught up by reading Part I here.
I’m not going to lie. I put off this topic for the very last because I dreaded writing it. It might be the most painful topic for a lot of people. There are plenty of terrible, abusive things about purity culture. But the denial of one’s very identity, their actual existence, by calling it an abomination and a sin—that has got to be the most egregious.
The phrase I remember hearing the most, and repeating the most, in response to queerness was the following: “The bible tells us God hates homosexuality.” That was the basic summary of the clobber verses that leaders and pastors in my life had it narrowed down to. This mentality wove a web of deeply internalized homophobia that I carried into adulthood. That homophobia was born out fear and ignorance. Like most evangelicals, I thought being gay only had to do with sex—and of course as we’ve already learned in this series, most of us knew very little real information about hetero sex, let alone gay sex. But by my early 20’s, even before the Prop 8 battle here in California1, I was starting to see the issue from a human rights perspective. The tiny crack in the callous outer shell for me was not understanding why it was wrong for gay couples to be in committed relationships and receive all the same benefits that straight couples do from a legal marriage. To me it seemed cruel, to withhold a state sanctioned legal ceremony and document just because of one group’s religious beliefs. In my mind, this didn’t make sense when it came to upholding the separation of church and state. Which at the time I naïvely thought was something that the church at large wanted (I didn’t know the word “theocracy” back then or the term “Christian Nationalism”).
It never occurred to me that anyone of any gender could and should love who they choose, or that someone might feel like a stranger in their own body. Not back then. The (very false and toxic) idea that it was “unnatural” for two people of the same gender to feel attracted to one another was so deeply ingrained as an absolute truth that it was not possible. This is what white evangelicalism does though. It tells people, here are a set of absolute truths that cannot be changed in any way. Because to change them would be sinning against God. And everything in your known world and in your mind must be able to fit within or reconcile with these “known” absolute truths. This leaves no wiggle room for learning new information, for human evolution, or scientific discovery. It also leaves no room for personal growth and change. It assumes we are born to be one thing and one thing only and anything other than that thing is not allowed.
The purpose of this piece of writing is not to convince anyone that queer theology2 is good or necessary, nor is it to breakdown and disprove the clobber verses that evangelicals use to spread hate and cause the preventable deaths of gay and trans youth. Those things have all been done, and if someone reading this really wants to learn how the bible can be used to be queer affirming, there are plenty of books and podcasts and articles by queer Christians and clergy. Support their work, pay them for the work they’ve already done and are doing to educate and affirm queerness in religious spaces.3
What I did want to bring to this piece, is an understanding of the root of the trauma endured by those who did not fit into the predetermined (2) gender roles put forth by white evangelicalism. Trauma caused by a group of human beings so afraid of their own shadow that they’d rather find a way to be ok condemning their own child to hell before accepting them for who they are. Because maintaining comfort in their beliefs is more important than loving their children unconditionally. You can’t love someone, while also believing their “sin” will send them to hell. That’s not love. That’s cognitive dissonance. They think they are somehow doing the right thing by “hating sin” and “loving sinners,” but just by calling someone a sinner you’re telling them you believe they are inherently bad. How is that love? To say to someone, at your core, you are lost and need saving? That isn’t love at all. But if it’s the only “absolute” idea of love acceptable to evangelicals, I don’t want anything to do with it. And yes, I am very aware of what the bible says about sinners. That’s an entirely different trauma inducing topic.
I am aware this is quickly turning into why sin theology is toxic. And that’s a whole other blog post. But in order for those who believe everyone’s default identity is sinner, to understand why that belief harms more people than it helps is crucial. These days I’m sure most of my readers are already affirming or queer themselves, but I always write with the thought that perhaps someone who’s reading has not yet arrived at these conclusions on their own.
Purity culture took something so basic to the human condition—personal identity and companionship—and put it into a box so small that only the narrowest faction of humanity would be able to fit into it. Knowing full well that it would force people to be afraid and ashamed of everything outside that box. Evangelicals stoked those fears by convincing young people they would be physically harming themselves if they had premarital sex; and convinced them that queerness itself was a mental ailment to be cured. This falls in line with the common belief among evangelicals and some other Christians that mental illness is the evidence of unrepented sin one’s life. Another tragedy to be addressed another day.
For decades now churches have convinced parents their gay children can be “converted” to heterosexual tendencies, by “praying the gay away.” Sending them away to conversion “therapy,” to be forced to endure unspeakable forms of “treatment” for their same sex attraction.4 I’m using so many quotation marks because evangelicals are all using these words under false pretenses. They use these words, giving parents hope that they’re saving their children from eternity in hell. Again, placing the importance of their religious beliefs above that of the relationship with their own child. Again, how is that love?
As we’ve seen in recent years, the Christian Right has found legal ways to stir up fear and hate toward our transgender friends specifically—by causing panic over public restroom use5—and as recently as this year, passing state legislation to prevent trans kids from receiving life saving healthcare. They will stop at nothing to keep their insular bubble of white heteronormativity intact, while also enforcing that heteronormativity on everyone else. We saw this for many years as conservatives fought hard to keep gay marriage illegal, but of course their efforts failed on the federal level6, and in many states as well (quite a few states still have active statutes banning same-sex marriage).
I’m sure for many queer people who survived purity culture, cis hetero relationships felt like the only option in order to conform. Some spent so many years steeped in heteronormativity that they didn’t realize they were gay or trans until much later in life. Others always knew they weren’t straight and carried that pain for years before coming out. There are countless stories that have all began and ended up in different places. And they’re all valid. Coming out later in life because of religious trauma and/or purity culture does not make you any less gay then if you came out decades ago. There’s gatekeeping in every community, but I hope you know your journey is your own and no one can take that away from you.
My own personal journey in this area has taken a couple decades. But now that I finally know who I am, I find it hard to have patience for those who lag behind on becoming affirming. I guess because hearing someone say they want to “agree to disagree” on your right to exist as a human being makes it hard to tolerate their willful ignorance. I often say to Christians online: If your beliefs require you to believe someone’s very existence is a “sin,” then you need new beliefs. I suppose this is easier for me since I’ve tossed sin theology in the garbage (where it belongs, in my opinion). If you truly insist on believing you’re a sinner, my hope is that you can get to a place where you see those in the LGBTQIA+ community as humans who deserve love and equity as much as any other human, and their existence is not a sin. More importantly if you are a Christian parent of a gay or trans child, I hope you find the freedom that comes with knowing hell is not a real place, and your children will not go there for being gay or transgender. And if you’d rather believe that hell is a real place, than believe your child is enough and whole just as they are—I repeat, you need new beliefs.
Purity culture took so much from us as a generation. In a lot of ways its still taking away from us we navigate women’s equality, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the #MeToo movement all taking place outside of the church’s influence. My hope is that we can take back the parts of ourselves we put in those boxes on a shelf hoping Jesus would make them go away. Parts that make us whole, parts that will heal our broken hearts and tattered minds. Your whole body is your own, it belongs to you and no one else. Take it back from the toxic theology that held it captive for far too long. You owe yourself that, in the very least.
You are whole. You are enough. You are seen and heard in this space.
Happy Pride, everyone.