This article appeared earlier today on the STV website.
As I stand outside St Mary’s Cathedral every Sunday in Glasgow I often witness a curious thing. As people walk down Great Western Road towards me, I notice that some of the gay couples who belong to the congregation reach out to one another as they get closer to the church and come in hand in hand.
I’m proud to be working in a religious institution where that is something that generally passes without any comment at all. However, whenever I see it, I reflect on the fact that there’s all too many institutions, religious and otherwise where a simple display of affection from a gay or lesbian couple will result in disapproval, abuse or even violence.
As I bless my congregation at the end of each service and send them out into the world, I know that the gay couples amongst them have less than a couple of miles of the streets of Scotland in which they might feel safe to show their affection for one another, and even then only at certain times and in certain company.
Religions often have a problem with gay people. But gay people have a problem every day with homophobia which infuses and poisons the world in which we live.
I simply don’t know any gay person who has never felt afraid to be themselves somewhere and I know all too many who are afraid to be themselves anywhere, even now and even after the passage of the hate-crimes and equal marriage legislation.
The attack in the Pulse Club in Orlando has rightly shocked the world. But condemnation of the violence comes more easily than identifying what it is that motivates such deadly hatred.
The question now is how do we prevent such a thing ever happening again?
To begin to find an answer to this question, we have first to acknowledge the everyday commonplace homophobia that exists in every society, even including Scotland, widely acknowledged as one of the best places to be gay in the world.
Religious institutions in particular have struggled to know how to respond to Orlando. The Church of England swiftly issued a “Prayer for Orlando” (recycled from the Paris and Lahore attacks) which mentioned neither Orlando nor LGBT people. The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted his concern for all involved but especially “police and pastoral carers” and somehow managed to say nothing about those who were the target of the attack.
Gay people will not be safe on the streets until homophobia has been defeated in religious contexts.
This is something that even LGBT-positive institutions in society seem reluctant to tackle. The largest LGBT supportive organisations in Scotland sometimes seem to expend more energy on defending the right of religious people to hold anti-gay views than they do to tackling faith-based homophobia. Religion is not a special category. Faith based homophobia shouldn’t be off limits to those fighting for a more equal world. If anti-gay views can be tackled in healthcare, the police and even the armed forces, who have made tremendous progress, then it must be tackled in pew, pulpit and mosque as well.
Religious people wanting to pray today, comment today and make things better on this day when America’s worst multiple shooting has explicitly targeted those who are gay then they need to face up to some uncomfortable truths about where anti-gay views are most nourished. Those trying to represent the love of God in the world need to remember that in order to be in any way helpful today they need to be explicit about welcoming gay people and working for gay rights. It isn’t enough to weep with those who suffered violence in Orlando this weekend without a commitment to tackle the roots of that violence tomorrow.
Every gay person I know has been frightened to kiss in public. For the last few years I’ve been working to make it possible for them to kiss at their weddings in church. Recognising gay love at the altar is one of the most significant symbolic ways to tackle the underlying, prevailing homophobia of the everyday that every gay person knows instinctively.
We’re getting there, but painfully slowly.
The Orlando attack is a challenge to all who believe in the love of God. The idea that most religious people have is that God’s love is unconditional and open to everyone. The experience of countless people who are lesbian or gay is that the love of God that religious institutions have communicated is partial and very much conditional – not on offer for them unless they deny being the very person that God made.
And yet, even saying that, I have to bear witness to being a gay man who works right at the heart of the church who has found it a place of encouragement, welcome and healing. Gay friendly congregations exist and they are frequently being sought out by straight people who want their children to grow up in a religious environment where they might never ever hear anti-gay words spoken. Many religious institutions are struggling these days, but my hunch is that the future is bright for congregations which can somehow rise to the challenge of tackling anti-gay views and do so whilst specifically speaking out against all forms of identity oppression. After all, homophobia has some ugly sisters – racism, sexism and sectarianism who are not unknown in religious communities.
Preachers face a challenge this week. I know so many clergy who believe in gay equality who are frightened to speak about it publicly because they fear that their congregation just isn’t ready to hear it.
This week, it isn’t just their congregation that needs to hear it from the pulpit, it is the whole world.
Next Saturday night, “I will survive” will play in every gay club in the world as people shimmy their way into the great global dance for justice that even yet is proved a matter of life and death.
Next Sunday morning, gay people need more than just a few awkward prayers from religious leaders. We need commitments from religious people to turn faith institutions around and bring about change. That’s what repentance means and that’s what religion is at least partly about.
God’s beloved gay and lesbian children deserve nothing less.