Now You See Me: Visibility and Queerness in the Christian Church

Coggin Galbreath

Two years ago, on a Sunday morning in June, I had an unsettling experience at my Baptist church in south Texas. The sermon was about how wealthy, white, American Christians don’t realize the church is under attack because they live in an echo-chamber of platitudes and passive-aggressive prayers. Maybe, in our small Texas town, we thought we were safe. “But we aren’t,” said the pastor. “Just yesterday, an event took place on Main Street that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.” A murmur went through the congregation—they knew exactly what he was talking about. So did I. I was there. The Event-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named was my town’s first ever Pride March. What I felt that morning was something I can’t get used to no matter how many times I feel it: the feeling of being spoken to and about at the same time. It happens when someone looks right at you and talks about you like you aren’t in the room. It’s disorienting. Isolating. It feels like eavesdropping. It feels like being invisible.

The more I think about queer people in the Christian church, the more I come back to this: invisibility. For the most part, church leaders understand that they can’t keep ignoring this issue. The problem is that many approach it as a negotiation between their churches and the outside world, rather than as a conversation within the churches themselves. For example, last week. That same Baptist church held a symposium on sexuality aimed at middle schoolers and their parents. The speaker (a straight, cis man) was bending over backwards to talk about LGBT+ people with compassion rather than condemnation, which I appreciated. But then, his closing statement: “We all need to repent of the way we’ve treated those people.” And that made me ache, because I know exactly how certain eleven-to-fifteen-year-olds felt when they heard that. They heard that they didn’t belong in that room, because they weren’t a part of that meeting. They were part of the problem that meeting was supposed to solve. They were completely invisible, and they will stay that way as long as that church’s thinking is predicated on “us” and “those people.”

Visits back to Texas remind me that my visibility is my greatest asset in the church. Hence, last year, when the church I was attending at the time asked me to stop reading scripture at the front on Sunday mornings, I was unsettled. I could still make coffee, they took pains to tell me—still bring biscuits, receive communion, and volunteer in childcare. The only role they were revoking was the one which put me at the front of the congregation. It felt like a threat to my visibility; like I was being swept under the rug. Nudged gently toward the closet. It wasn’t malicious. In fact, I think most people, and therefore most churches, have good intentions. But that isn’t enough.

Diversity in church leadership helps, probably more than anything else. Like one pastor I knew who routinely talked to the entire conjuration about “our wives,” we all have a tendency to assume other people are like us—in his case, straight, white, married, middle-aged men. When I really pay attention, it astonishes me how much of the church teaching I come across is addressed so specifically to that demographic. Churches with little or no diversity of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc. in leadership are likely to inadvertently ignore whole sections of the congregation. When that happens, change has to come from ground up. People who can have to make themselves visible. I say people who can because this is a position of privilege; for many, this isn’t safe or even possible. For me, though, the only thing at risk is my comfort, and that’s a risk we all have to be willing to take. Rejection by your community is painful, but it’s less painful in the long run than living with the fear that you’re only partially accepted. Besides, I’m optimistic. I think most people are willing to see you if you give them the opportunity. If a community won’t accept you and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change, you will have to move on. But maybe wait a little while. Make people a little uncomfortable before you go. Show the other invisible people there—because they are there—that it is possible to be seen, even if that means being seen somewhere else. 

Last year some friends and I started a group for LGBT+ people of faith. We wanted people to have a place for questions, discussions, and support, but most of all we wanted people to have a place to exist comfortably in the overlap between two communities which often feel divided by a chasm which is no less uncrossable for being imaginary. I think of Horton Hears a Who: “We are here!” I believe that if all the Whos down in Whoville insist on that point, we can start to fix this disconnect. It baffles me that my pastor and I could have such bizarrely discordant impressions of the same event: his of unthinkable Bacchic revels, mine of kids with dogs, face paint, and moms handing out popsicles. We don’t all need to agree; empathy, as they say, is not endorsement. We do need to be willing to say, “I hear you. I see you. Let’s talk.” 

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