Atheists debate: Can Christians support LGBTQ rights? Part 2

With marriage equality efforts in Oklahoma, Utah, and elsewhere making headlines this month, the intersection of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights and religion has been a hot topic of discussion among atheists. Two atheists debate whether Christians can be LGBTQ allies. (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post, American Atheists Public Relations Director Dave Muscato defended his position that Christians cannot truly support LGBTQ rights—a perspective that has been debated among a number of atheist activists recently. (For additional context for this post, see part 1.) Now, Dean Roth, a queer Humanist, offers a contrasting perspective.

Part 2: Yes, you can be a Christian and support LGBTQ rights, by Dean Roth

Dean Roth

Image courtesy Dean Roth.

On January 10, American Atheists tweeted a photo of marriage equality supporters filling the Utah State Capital and added the caption “#ReligionIsPoison.” While opponents of marriage equality often cite religious motivations, the photo itself has nothing to do with religion, so the attempted connection immediately struck me as far-fetched, appropriative, and bizarre. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my confusion.

Nontheist activist Walker Bristol was quick to point out on Twitter that “…many LGBT activists are inspired to action by their religious conviction. Your hashtag is generalizing such that their experience is erased.” From there, the conversation turned away from the Utah news towards whether Christians are theologically “allowed” to be LGBTQ allies and/or activists, with the American Atheists Twitter account posting, “If you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong,” as well as “LGBTQ equality isn’t a biblical [value]. It’s anti-biblical…it doesn’t make sense to say that religion inspired them to advocate for LGBTQ equality.”

These statements give the impression that one of American Atheists’s goals is to elevate atheists as the only group able to “honestly” promote human rights. It’s hard to reconcile these tweets with American Atheists’s stated mission to “encourage the development and public acceptance of a humane ethical system stressing the mutual sympathy, understanding, and interdependence of all people and the corresponding responsibility of each individual in relation to society.”

I also find it frustrating that through these tweets American Atheists is speaking for Christians when they argue that it doesn’t make sense for Christians to be inspired by religion to advocate for LGBTQ equality. It’s up to those individuals to find their inspiration, not an atheist organization to dictate it to them.

From a PR standpoint, an organization’s tweets are often read as official statements—regardless of who is actually writing them—that represent the organization and its mission. Someone who had never been exposed to American Atheists might be put off by the insistence that LGBTQ and Christian allies are somehow doing either Christianity, queerness, or solidarity wrong.

Drawing a line between the LGBTQ activism of atheists and the LGBTQ activism of Christians doesn’t help advance LGBTQ rights. To be an ally to the queer community, you need to be an ally to the whole community, including the many LGBTQ and ally Christians who have been invaluable in helping us achieve progress. This has never been a cause supported only by the nonreligious, and to treat it as “ours” does a hurtful disservice to the diverse efforts of previous generations, as well as the many religious lawmakers and activists on our side today. Appropriating queer issues and using our struggle for equality to promote atheist superiority (in a photo unrelated to religion, no less) is disrespectful and offensive to the queer people you claim to be supporting.

Dismissing the existence of LGBTQ and ally Christians is a distraction from the actual issue at hand: that LGBTQ people still do not have basic human rights. Commandeering the conversation about LGBTQ rights to promote a sectarian agenda misses the point entirely, because people fighting for marriage equality is a really great thing no matter who they are. This is about the lives and rights of the queer community, not a battleground to air your grievances against religion.

It makes me nervous that American Atheists’s remarks are so reminiscent of the terrifying messages I have heard from Christian fundamentalists arguing against LGBTQ rights, who also say that you cannot be a Christian who is also supportive of LGBTQ people. American Atheists tweeted “…the bible isn’t exactly ambiguous about it. It commands death for gay people.” By employing that narrative, American Atheists is giving it power, rather than empowering people who are working for LGBTQ rights. Of course, it is worth noting that even Christian theologians do not agree on the Bible’s stance on marriage equality or even homosexuality. Scholars have long disagreed about whether, in its historical context, the Bible says anything—against or in favor of—these things. That American Atheists is only lifting up one interpretation of Christian doctrine strikes me as counterproductive in the fight for human rights.

I hope that is not their intention, but I’m a firm believer that perception overwhelms intention. As a queer Humanist and former evangelical Christian, I felt more isolated and discarded by American Atheists’s statement than I’ve ever been by any Christians. For American Atheists to condemn my Christian family and friends as not only bad Christians but also bad allies—simply for the purpose of suggesting that atheists are the only true supporters of LGBTQ people—reads as both bad PR and a callous attempt at appropriation. Atheists are not, and never have been, alone at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement—and it’s inaccurate, hurtful, and unfair to insinuate that they ought to be.

Being a good ally means empowering the community you support, while allowing them the space and power to speak for themselves. You can’t do that by appropriating or redefining their fight to make it about you and your goals. If queer and ally Christians tell you they exist and they’re fighting for a shared cause, believe them. Don’t make them feel like pawns in your game against religion.

Dean Roth is a Brand and Culture Analyst by day and a queer and Humanist activist by night, and co-facilitates a support group for young ex-Christians via Center for Inquiry—NYC. Dean tweets at @deanmroth.