An Open Letter to the Queer Community in the Wake of Fulton v. Philadelphia: “You Are Not a Sin”

“People may ask, ‘Why not go to another adoption agency? Why not use another bakery? Why not select a different wedding venue?’ Because we should not have to. Because there is nothing wrong with us.”

queer-gay-adoption-fulton-v-philadelphia-religious-discrimination
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in October 2019 during oral arguments in cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Ted Eytan)

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided last week in favor of a Catholic social services agency in Philadelphia that refuses to work on adoptions with same-sex couples, many of us in the queer community felt that familiar pang of rejection and dehumanization. While the court has recently moved queer rights forward with rulings on marriage equality and employment discrimination, its members made clear that, in their opinion, religious beliefs of some are more important than the dignity and humanity of queer people. Chief Justice John Roberts stated clearly that, in this case, concerns of LGBTQ worth and dignity cannot outweigh religious rights.

While the opinion is quite narrow and doesn’t set any precedent on religious liberty, its implicit message underlines the exclusion and debasement queer people experience at the hands of many religious people and institutions.

Across religious communities, queer people have been excommunicated, subjected to exorcism and conversion therapy, discarded by parents, condemned by religious leaders, tormented by peers, abused, tortured and murdered. Now, in the public sphere, many religious people want the right to deny services to queer people, and the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, may well be inclined to give it to them with a different case. While the Philadelphia decision was unanimous, it focused on a technicality—and Justices Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas seemed ready to extend the reach of the case.

Normally, I write about these things with my academic hat (or should I say mortarboard) on, as a scholar of religious studies and women, gender and sexuality studies. But I’m also an ordained Southern Baptist minister who now makes her church home in the United Church of Christ, and I want to write this wearing that hat, or stole, as the case may be. And I write primarily to my queer siblings who are everyday assaulted by the damaging messages and practices of religious institutions and people.

You are not a sin. You are not inherently disordered. You are not an abomination.

You are a beloved child of God, Allah, G-d, the Divine, Mystery, the Quantum Universe (take your pick).

I was fortunate in one way in my coming out. I had grown up a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, and I identified as straight when I went to seminary. As I learned how to do scholarly interpretation of biblical texts, I grappled with the five (yes, only five, and none from Jesus) passages in the Bible that address anything that approximates queer sexuality. I found that, within original languages and historical contexts, these passages do not speak to our modern experiences of sexuality but to issues of dominance and subordination, exploitation and idolatry. By the time I began to understand myself as queer, I had long believed the Bible did not condemn queer people.

That didn’t mean, however, I didn’t struggle with shame, guilt, sadness and fear of losing family, friends and employment. After all, I was still teaching in conservative Christian colleges. Even as I was in the closet, queer students and colleagues came to me suffering the desperation that comes from feeling forced to choose between faith and identity. I witnessed and experienced the agony and hopelessness that can emerge when religious institutions condemn and vilify queer people.

That’s the sin. That’s the abomination. When religious institutions and people, who claim to love God, refuse to love other human beings. I don’t buy the “love the sinner, hate the sin” cliché. Not for a minute. Sexual identity is not a behavior that can be separated from who we are. And to make sexual identity only about behavior is to diminish the fullness of queer humanity.

Frankly, refusing adoption services, wedding cakes, church membership, or simple humane treatment hardly seems like loving behavior to me. Rather, it is the assertion of dominance, the maintenance of oppression. It is the intersection of personal and political sin against queer people.

In liberation theology, we assert that God sides with the oppressed. God is on the side of the outcast, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the hated, the maligned, the queer.

To put religious beliefs above queer human worth and dignity is to sin against Mystery’s inclusive love that holds us all in Divine embrace.


“Frankly, refusing adoption services, wedding cakes, church membership, or simple humane treatment hardly seems like loving behavior to me. Rather, it is the assertion of dominance, the maintenance of oppression. It is the intersection of personal and political sin against queer people.”


While the Supreme Court’s decision may add to the weight of our pain, it does not define who we are as queer people, and we must resist the temptation to carry the burden of shame it suggests. Queer people are of inherent worth and dignity, and our queerness is a reflection of Divine creativity.

People may ask, “Why not go to another adoption agency? Why not use another bakery? Why not select a different wedding venue?”

Because we should not have to. Because there is nothing wrong with us. Because beliefs are not more important than people. Because the Universe accepts us just as we are.

Despite the Supreme Court setback, the refusal of the Senate to take up the Equality Act, and the groundswell of anti-trans legislation, we should not lose hope. Our resistance is an act of faith, a process of refusing our diminishment and embodying our full humanity, of rejecting our marginalization and dehumanization by a court, a legislative body, or a religious institution. In liberation theology, this is the path of Divine action in the world.

So, my queer siblings, receive this blessing from me: You’re okay. Just as you are. In fact, you’re fabulous and beloved.

Up next:


 If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.