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Brynn Tannehill Headshot

Religion: Benefit, Hazard or Both When It Comes to LGBT People?

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Sometimes quotations from movies stick with you. One such quotation comes from Blade Runner, and it sums up how I tend to evaluate things from a moral standpoint: "They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem." While the character of Deckard applies this to machines, I have found that it applies to how I feel about religion. I am not religious, but I see religious faiths as being both hazardous and beneficial. However, in times like these, when headlines tell us that yet another gay teen was bullied to death and religiously motivated individuals proclaim that what these kids suffer is both just and for their own good, I have a harder time seeing the benefit of religion.

When it comes to the LGBT people, religious communities are deeply divided. A vocal minority of religious organizations and individuals with extremely conservative views are actively opposing marriage equality, employment protections, medical care for transgender people, equal access to housing and equal access to public accommodations. The vitriol often goes too far, leading to gross stereotyping, demonization and outright calls for genocide. The evangelical community in particular tends to have an eschatological view of "us vs. the gays." Ironically, according to one study, LGBT people are just about as likely as other Americans to see themselves as Christians.

The same study also shows that anti-LGBT views are a minority opinion among non-evangelical Christians. Groups like the Metropolitan Community Church, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church actively try to create a safe space for LGBT people.

LGBT people often find comfort and strength in their faith. Other times, religion allows straight people to find compassion for LGBT people. Such was the case with my mother-in-law. With guidance from her pastor, she came to believe that there is a purpose for everyone. In my transition she saw a potential for teaching lessons in love and tolerance and a chance to help others in a similar situation.

Even within conservative religious organizations there is disagreement between members regarding how LGBT people should be treated. Kathy Baldock, a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian, has made it her mission to be like Nixon going to China by trying to convince other evangelicals around the country to embrace the LGBT community. At the OutServe-SLDN Leadership Conference in October of last year, I was surprised to meet a Pentecostal chaplain who was trying to reach out.

Nevertheless, conservative religious organizations continue to alienate even their own straight members with their treatment of LGBT people. At a recent PFLAG meeting I attended, I was told a harrowing story by the parents of a 14-year-old girl. Their daughter had come out as lesbian, and the church had given the family two options: put her in a reparative therapy program or be stripped of all their positions in the church. They chose to leave the church that they'd grown up in.

Almost all the data show that the conservative religious propaganda against LGBT people is less and less effective. A small majority of Americans supports marriage equality, and a vast majority supports employment equality; meanwhile, an ever-diminishing minority believes homosexuality is a sin. Even more surprising is the fact that 44 percent of self-identified evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage equality. This makes sense, given that 77 percent of Americans now know someone who is lesbian or gay, and knowing an LGBT person has a strong positive correlation with tolerance.

This begs the question of why conservative religious organizations and individuals continue to preach a doctrine of intolerance. One obvious reason is that it is very lucrative. Anti-LGBT religious groups are frighteningly well-funded. Apocalyptic scare tactics cater to an aging population fearful of societal changes that they aren't comfortable with. These resources have facilitated their success in drowning out more numerous moderate religious voices in our cultural conversation.

One result of this expensive campaign is that it is driving younger people away from religion altogether. Almost a third of people between 18 and 29 have no specific religion, according to a recent study by Pew. Most still have religious beliefs, and the vast majority of them hold tolerant views of LGBT people and their issues, but when it comes to fighting back against the intolerance of the religious right, many are content to simply sit back and let Father Time take care of things.

This is a tragedy for LGBT youth. They don't need things to get better in 20 years. They need it now. Forty percent of today's homeless teens are LGBT. LGB teens are five times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide. The rate is even higher for transgender youth.

LGBT teens need help and a more tolerant society. Affirming religious organizations provide a framework to promote both. These LGBT-friendly groups need new people, though, and not enough are available. Religious conservatives have poisoned the well from which they both drink.

Most LGBT youth are left to grapple with their sexual orientation or gender identity in isolation because of conservative religious dogma. When I struggled with my gender identity as a teen, I rejected all religion in an act of self-preservation. I also went into deep denial. As a result, 20 years later, a stunned wife and three children were left with the mess that intolerant religious beliefs helped create.

After I transitioned, I met a deeply religious LGBT leader who has an extensive theological education. I asked her how she reconciled being who she is with her Christian beliefs. She had concluded that we LGBT people were never broken; we are exactly as we were meant to be and don't need fixing. Unfortunately, most LGBT youth don't have the theological resources of an adult in a graduate-level theology program.

My friend's observation highlighted that every day we as a society simply wait for the problem to go away, we break children who weren't broken before.

There are a lot of people working hard and spending a lot of money to make religion a hazard to LGBT people. Many other people of faith may deeply disagree with that treatment. However, when people of faith stand idly by, faith will continue to be a more of a hazard than a benefit.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17, NKV)