I’ve thought a lot about the power that the straight majority holds in the conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality. I remember back in my Exodus days hearing a term like heterosexism and the attitude that it was a more insidious term of the gay agenda than even homophobia (which was assumed to be a manipulative term to make straight people feel guilty and to garner sympathy for LGBT folks). The assumption that the term was simply part of the grand plot to seduce society into teaching the moral equivalence of heterosexuality and homosexuality was part of every conversation I heard among evangelical Christians who discussed heterosexism. It was a word assumed to be politically coercive and of no merit worth considering outside of that realm.
However, even if your convictions are that same-sex attraction is a result of the fall into sin and that humans should refrain from any same-sex sexual behavior, it is actually a biblical call to consider the ramification of majority straight privilege on how we engage and relate to LGBT friends and neighbours. You see Jesus consistently questions and deconstructs social status and privilege. Not only that, he profoundly models what it means to willingly strip oneself of such privilege.
And with his example in mind, we are called to understand what it means to live as incarnational people. In Philippians 2 we encounter the well-known incarnational passage from which we base the theological concept of kenosis. Kenosis is in its essence, self-emptying, such that we are filled with the fullness of God, useful to God, able to relate to others as God would relate to them. Paul, speaks of Jesus as the perfect and complete model of kenosis. And he tells us that we should imitate Christ in our relationships with one another:
“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
In the NIV version, the text says that “he made himself nothing”. In the KJV, it says, “he made himself of no reputation”. In the Message, “he didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status”. And in the NLT, “he gave up his divine privileges”.
It seems to me that this text speaks poignantly to the reality of the heterosexual privilege that pervades many of the discussions in the church around homosexuality. This is something that most straight Christians never give much thought to. But when I speak to gay Christians, they are keenly aware of the ways that privilege and status color the conversations they seek to have within the church.
A common check-list for heterosexual privilege found on the internet goes something like this: On an ongoing basis as a straight person …..
• I can be pretty sure that the people I encounter will be comfortable with my sexual orientation
• If I pick up a magazine, watch TV, or play music, I can be certain my sexual orientation will be represented.
• When I talk about my heterosexuality, such as in a joke or talking about my relationship, I will not be accused of pushing my sexual orientation onto others.
• I do not have to fear that if my family or friends find out about my sexual orientation there will be economic, emotional, physical or psychological consequences.
• I did not grow up with games that attack my sexual orientation (eg. fag tag or smear the queer)
• I am not accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation.
• I can go home from most meetings, classes and conversations without feeling excluded, fearful, attacked, isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, stereotyped or feared because of my sexual orientation.
• I won’t be asked to speak for everyone who is heterosexual.
• People won’t ask why I made my choice of sexual orientation.
• People won’t ask why I made my choice to be public about my sexual orientation.
• I won’t have to fear revealing my sexual orientation to friends or family. It’s assumed.
• People won’t try to convince me to change my sexual orientation.
• I won’t have to defend my heterosexuality.
• I can easily find a faith community that will not exclude me for being a heterosexual in a relationship.
• I won’t need to worry that people will harass me because of my sexual orientation.
• I won’t need to qualify my straight identity.
• My masculinity or femininity won’t be challenged because of my sexual orientation.
• I won’t be primarily or solely identified by my sexual orientation.
• If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has sexual orientation overtones.
• I am guaranteed to find people of my sexual orientation represented in my workplace.
• I can walk in public with my significant other and not have people do a double-take or stare.
• I can remain oblivious of the language and culture of sexual minority persons without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
• I can go for months without being called straight.
• People do not assume I am experienced in sex (or that I even have it) merely because of my sexual orientation.
• Nobody calls me straight with maliciousness.
• People can use terms that describe my sexual orientation and mean positive things (eg. straight as an arrow, standing up straight, or straightened out) instead of demeaning terms (eg.ewww that’s gay, or stop being so queer)
• I am not asked to think about why I am straight.
• I can be open about my sexual orientation and not worry about my job, access to housing, treatment at a bed & breakfast, or response in health crises.
While this list may seem long and repetitive, I’ve actually pared down the original list. Some people when reading it may feel twinges of defensiveness rise up. Perhaps many straight people have never really thought too much about the status, privilege and reputation that they enjoy simply because of being in the sexual majority. However, when we consider the call to imitate Jesus in our relationships with other people, we find the model of someone who intentionally stripped himself of status, reputation and privilege. That means, those in the majority choose to step outside of the benefits afforded by that majority status.
Jenell Williams Paris, in her book, “The End of Sexual Identity” says, “In each class I teach related to sexuality, I “come out” as no longer heterosexual. On the one hand, this is inane. I’m happily married to a man, and I’m a mother, an evangelical and Christian college professor, all of which mark me as a heterosexual. I reap the social benefits of being perceived as heterosexual in society and in Christian settings. But, as I tell students in class, I don’t want to be heterosexual. I don’t want to get life, secure my moral standing or gird my marriage with a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings. Heterosexuality is a concept riddled with problems. I’d even call it an abomination.” Paris taps into something extremely important if straight Christians hope to live as incarnational friends with their LGBT neighbors – both in and out of the church. We need to be willing to lay down benefits that we did nothing to receive in order to “move into their neighborhood” so-to-speak, and identify with the reality that gay friends experience on a daily basis. It means choosing to relinquish majority status, choosing to be willing to be misunderstood, choosing to identify with those who seem ‘other’. It means choosing to not take offense when your actions are misunderstood by others or when the demand is made to stop rocking the boat. Clearly, all of this comes at a cost. None of this is easy to do consistently. And when the push-back comes or the hurt comes or the betrayal comes, as it inevitably will, we need to be willing to seek God’s grace and strength to persevere in living in the way of Jesus. Even Jesus, himself, wept in the garden and asked that the cup would be taken away from him. But he concluded that he would choose God’s way over his own way.
Living as incarnational people among our neighbors, including those who are very different than we are and those on the margins, embodies a sense of mutuality. Incarnational people don’t “help” others – they identify with them. Incarnational people don’t consider what others deserve – they extend dignity and respect to them simply on the basis of our shared image-bearing of God. Incarnational people remember the words of Desmond Tutu, “If I diminish you …. I diminish myself.” And so they live in a manner that is relationally present and open to all they come in contact with.
Miroslav Volf, in his book, “Exclusion and Embrace: a theological exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation” asks, “Why should I embrace the other?” and his answer is “the others are part of my own true identity. I cannot live authentically without welcoming the others – the other gender, other person or other cultures – into the very structure of my being. For I am created to reflect the personality of the triune God. The one divine person is not that person only, but includes the other divine persons in itself; it is what it is only through the indwelling of the other. The Son is the Son because the Father and the Spirit indwell him; without this interiority of the Father and the Spirit there would be no son. Every divine person is the other persons, but he is the other person in his own particular way. Analogously, the same is true of human persons created in the image of God. Their identity as persons is conditioned by the identity of other persons in their social relations.” Here we see that when we fail to live incarnationally, to strip ourselves of majority privilege, it will diminish our own sense of identity, our own humanity. This deep awareness of our interconnectedness is the truth that can set us free from social constructions of orientation that elevate some and marginalize others.
Paul, well aware of the cost of living as incarnational people, makes special mention of some intrinsically motivating realities to spur us on in persevering and being resilient in our commitments to step outside of majority privilege. He begins the kenosis passage by saying, “if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” He reminds us that we are united with Christ in this endeavor. Every resource that is his is at our disposal in our commitment to live as he did. Not only that, but we have comfort from his love. Nothing can separate us from his love. No matter how many times our best intentions fall by the wayside or we slide back into old patterns, his love is our secure resting place. And not only that, but we share in the mighty working of the Spirit within us. We cannot do this in our own strength and desire. We fail to live out our ideals. We fear the loss of our own status and reputation. We dread the hurt and pain of being cast to the side. But the Spirit is with us, helping us, restoring us, reminding us that we are the Beloved of God. And in these firm foundational promises, we reconnect to our own hearts. We reconnect to our own compassion and tenderness. In our heart, we find that longing for our fellow human beings to find equal space to flourish as children of God. And finally, Paul says, remember to not try to do this as a lone ranger. Do it together. Live this way of erasing false levels of privilege together. Female, male, poor, rich, black, white, gay, straight, transgender, cisgender. Be like-minded, with love for all, united in mind and heart to live this subversive way in a status-driven world.
But these words about the false power of straight privilege are not only directed at the heterosexual majority. There is an important word here for our Christian LGBT friends. It is my conviction, after ten years of observation, that in the evangelical church same-sex attracted folks have granted way too much power to the straight majority in the church. This deference, generally speaking, seems to arise from deposits of shame and fear that were planted so deep as they grew up in these contexts. In some cases this might be considered to be internalized homophobia. In other cases it is simply a passive capitulation to the assumptions of the majority. But, we all need to remember that straight people have no idea what it is like to be gay. As much as they might be kind-hearted and seeking to identify with – at the end of the day, they can never crawl inside the skin of a gay person and have intimate knowledge of the multi-faceted experience of being gay. For the last ten years, I have tried to listen to every sermon, book, song, speech etc. and ask myself how my gay friends might hear this. This diligent assignment has taught me a lot – but I still don’t intimately know what it is like to be gay. So it is important that same-sex attracted people, in a spirit of humility and love (not arrogance or stubbornness) stand their ground and not allow straight people to define their experience for them. Straight people can work at their theology and come to a very clear set of convictions. But they will never know the inside of a gay person’s heart –and they can never have perfect judgment on where that person is with God. Gay people who are created in the image of God ought to not allow themselves to be treated like second-class citizens in the church. God doesn’t have step-children – he only has children.
In the ex-gay paradigm, it was not uncommon to find a strong capitulation to stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that were more cultural than truly biblical. This is part of allowing the straight majority to set expectations that had more to do with people’s comfort levels and internal anxiety than with truly calling people into a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ. In a recent post, John Smid, former leader of the oldest ex-gay ministry Love in Action said, “I had not considered the rules and structure of the program that held people to gender stereotypes. Women were led to purses and dresses in their specialized counseling agendas, men were taught masculine experiences like sports and held to short hair cuts and no facial hair as part of their programs…. I believe we were unable to see the harm when it occurred because underneath there was a cultural stereotype that we hoped would be achieved. It was an underlying goal to neutralize and to move towards a subjection to conservative living in the eyes of the Christian culture.”
For straight people in the church to address the unbiblical and unhelpful aspects of majority privilege, they will need the help of sexual minorities to do so. That means that those who do not fit the heterosexual mainstream will need to honestly and humble speak up about their experiences. I realize this is not always easy – and in some situations down-right unsafe. But where possible, sexual minorities need to share their experiences as human being who experience sexuality differently than the majority – and in so doing normalize the reality that in the human experience of sexuality there is a majority and minority experience – and the minority is no less in God’s eyes than the majority. Having this courage – not in a demanding or prideful way – but in a quiet, peaceful confidence, will help the majority to realize that the privilege they unconsciously exploit is simply inconsistent with God’s call to unity in our diversity, to love one another, and to travel as mutual pilgrims in the pursuit of faith.
The truth is we will all benefit when false power through socialized privilege is rooted out of our experience in being community together. We will smell more like Jesus. We will be better postured to reach out to those who are different than we are. We will grow in mutuality and serving in a spirit of reciprocity. And we will be more effective in representing the true Kingdom of God where the most unlikely partners (lions and lambs, wolves and goats) find reconciliation and equity.