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OPINIONSocietyFebruary 16, 2022

For queer Christians, the conversion therapy ban is only the first step

Church pew with a rainbow flag superimposed
Image: Tina Tiller

The ban on conversion therapy has passed, but the struggle for justice for our rainbow whānau has not, writes Aaron Hendry.

Last night, the fight to have conversion therapy deemed illegal was finally won with the passing of the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. It is a thing to celebrate, and I am hopeful about the message it will send to young people, hopeful for what it says to those who have suffered due to conversion practices, and hopeful that it takes us one step further to the sort of just and inclusive society most of us want to achieve.

And yet people of faith, especially those of us within the Christian tradition, have a lot of work to do if we are going to ensure our communities are truly places where our rainbow rangatahi can be affirmed, included and Loved. Sadly, church communities are among the last remaining places where a person can be actively discriminated against due to their sexuality or their gender identity. Where being queer can mean that you are essentially a second-class citizen. Where your participation can be restricted, not as a result of your commitment, passion or faith, but simply because you do not fit within the heteronormative framework in which many church communities operate.

In many church communities, even those which are generally loving and accepting of queer people, rainbow Christians aren’t allowed to preach or teach up the front, are barred from teaching kids in Sunday school, or are informed that they cannot lead worship or in fact, hold any form of leadership or public role within the community.

Banning conversion practices won’t undo this culture, nor will it automatically ensure faith communities are safe places for rainbow rangatahi to be.

A open door in a church showing a cross in the background
The cost of homophobia within church communities reveals itself in depression, anxiety and an increased risk of suicide (Photo: Getty Images)

As Christians, we need to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that many of our environments are not safe for our young people. And the consequences of this are dire. It means that young people are learning to internalise homophobia, self-hatred and shame. They are believing that they are hated by God, that they are condemned, that they will spend eternity in hell tormented and punished because of something they cannot change. The cost of this is psychological harm, depression, anxiety and an increased risk of suicide.

I think of those who have been harmed by the faith tradition that I love. Harmed within contexts where people genuinely wanted to show love, and yet the theology that was taught did the exact opposite. I think of the young man who had been told over and over again that he was a sinner, who had internalised a message of self-hatred and self-loathing, who believed sincerely that when his pastor said that being gay is a sin, he was saying God hates you. I think of the countless young people who have been made homeless, because parents genuinely believe it’s better to kick a young person out, in the hope that they will repent of their sexuality or gender identity, than allow them to live as a queer person under their roof. And I think of those people of faith, the queer Christians, the ones who tenaciously hold onto their faith, despite being told constantly that they do not belong, that they are not welcome, that they are not full or unconditional members of the Christian community. I think of the ones who stay within church contexts that do not accept them, I think of the ones that walk away, choosing to leave the communities they love, because they are not truly loved in return.

I know that the vast majority of Christians aren’t comfortable with this. I know that it breaks our hearts that young people who belong to us, who are loved by us, are not safe, are not accepted and are being harmed as a result of the communities we have created.

This conversation can easily slide into unhelpful binaries: if you’re a progressive, you must be affirming and inclusive; if you hold a traditional theological perspective on sexuality and gender, you must be deeply homophobic. But things aren’t nearly as simple as all that.

There was a time when I held a fairly traditional view of the Christian scriptures. I remember the tension that I felt during that time. I didn’t hate queer people; my heart only ever wanted to express love and acceptance. And yet as I learned to listen to the stories of queer people – and hear of their pain and suffering as a result of their experience of my faith – I began to recognise how the theological framework I held was preventing me from sharing the love, welcome and acceptance I wanted to express.

My experience within various Christian faith communities is that most people who hold a traditional theological perspective on sexuality and gender identity are genuinely caring and loving people. They’re people who, when confronted with the real harm being caused to queer Christians, don’t want it to continue. They long for a way for rainbow people to feel welcomed and included in their midst. And yet, the theology and faith many of us have inherited is creating an environment where young people are suffering significant harm.

It doesn’t have to stay this way. There is a mood for change.

During the campaign to ban conversation therapy, large groups of Christian churches and organisations – both conservative and progressive – stood in support of the bill. Conversation within Christian circles was generally accepting and understanding of the need for a ban. And over the years, I’ve noticed something else. About four years ago I wrote my first article expressing the need for significant change within Christian communities regarding how queer young people are treated. Since than I’ve written countless others, and led workshops on how to engage this conversation within faith communities. In the course of this work,  people constantly confide in me that although they have never said it publicly, they believe something within Christian culture needs to change. That the way queer people are treated is not OK.

I often wonder what would happen if all the silent supporters of LGBTQ people raised their voices and in doing so became allies. What would happen if instead of sitting silently in the pews, with love and grace they informed their pastor or eldership that they were uncomfortable with the messages about sexuality and gender identity coming from the pulpit. That they were concerned about the manner in which those messages are received by our rainbow rangatahi. That they were worried about the harm it was causing and wanted to begin a conversation about how to truly ensure our communities live up to our core values of unconditional love and acceptance.

Some faith communities are already on this journey, and yet the work is far from over. I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a queer friend. He spoke to me about how many Christians say they are allies of the queer community, but really they are just supporters – they are silently supportive of LGBTQ Christians, but when push comes to shove they are not willing to raise their voices in support of the inclusion and acceptance of queer people. To be an ally means to stand with queer people. It means to raise your voice. It means to verbalise your support.

In the coming weeks there are going to be many conversations within Christian spaces about the passing of the Conversion Practices Bill. For the silent majority of supporters of queer people, it is time to come out the closet. It is time to share with your friends and family that you believe queer people are loved, accepted, that they matter, and that you believe that the church – of all places – should be a place where our rainbow whānau can be accepted unconditionally, and loved truly, for who they are.

We cannot say we support queer people and then fail to stand with our rainbow whānau when it matters.

The change we need within our faith communities cannot be legislated. Nor will it be driven by those in positions of leadership or authority.

It will arise from the people, as we elevate our voices to express the Good News that we know to be true.

That queer people are loved. That they are accepted. And that they matter, not despite who they are, but because of it.

Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker and housing advocate, and the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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