What is the spiritual significance of pride?
June is Pride Month for millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people across the country. During this time each year, we commemorate the weekend of June 27-29, 1969, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village, fed up with police brutality and harassment towards the LGBT community, resolved to fight back. This turning point represented the birth of the modern LGBT-rights movement.
Many LGBT-affirming churches and other religious communities hold special events during the month of June, including LGBT-themed prayer services and liturgical celebrations. In fact, many of these congregations send contingents to walk in the various pride marches that occur across the country in June. Pride Month is a time for spiritual communities to give thanks for a loving God who has created LGBT people in God's image and likeness and for the intrinsic goodness of our bodies and sexualities.
Pride Month is also a time to honor our LGBT saints and ancestors, including the drag queens at the Stonewall Inn who courageously liberated us by starting the Stonewall riots, as well as all those known and unknown people before us who died of HIV/AIDS or were felled by anti-LGBT violence. Indeed, Pride Month is a sacred time for many of my fellow lay and ordained ministers in the Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination that was founded by and for LGBT people but that is open to all.
Unfortunately, many anti-LGBT Christians have condemned Pride Month as a sinful celebration of debauchery and perversion. They have pointed to the scantily-clad and outrageously-dressed individuals in pride marches as evidence of our nation's moral decay. Fundamentalist Christian protesters have lined the streets holding signs with biblical warnings of how LGBT people will burn in hell for all eternity.
Even those mainline Christians who are not overtly hostile to LGBT people often fail to understand the spiritual significance of Pride Month. "Why do they need to wear their sexualities on their sleeves?" many of them ask. Many churches that line the routes of pride marches keep their doors conspicuously shut and their parishioners far away, as if somehow all the joyous celebration outside would contaminate the holy spaces inside.
This resistance to Pride Month is not surprising from a theological perspective. Traditionally, pride has been understood by Christians as the first, and thus most serious, of the seven deadly sins. Indeed, pride -- defined as the inordinate love of oneself -- was the sin that brought down Satan and the other rebellious angels. Pride was also responsible for the fall of humanity, which resulted from Adam and Eve's wanting to be like God and thus eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.
Given the long-standing historical condemnation of pride as the root of all sin in the Christian tradition, how can we understand LGBT pride to be a blessing and not a sin? As an openly-gay theologian, teacher of theology, and ordained minister, I believe that sin is not just limited to pride or inordinate self-love. Rather, sin -- defined as the way in which, despite our best intentions, we inevitably turn our backs on who God has created us to be -- can also take the opposite form of inordinate self-hate or shame, something that many LGBT people experience from a very early age.
In other words, sin is not just a matter of lifting oneself up too high (as in the case of Satan, the rebellious angels, or Adam and Eve), but it is also a matter of failing to lift oneself up high enough. Many LGBT people have been taught to hide in the shadows as a result of being taunted and tormented by our peers from an early age. We are constantly told that what we do is unnatural and that God hates us. Is it any wonder, then, that so many LGBT people suffer from a toxic degree of self-hate and shame?
Even those of us who have been out for decades and who deal with LGBT issues on a daily basis in our jobs ("professional gays," as one of my friends put it) are not immune to shame. For example,even though my partner and I have been together for nearly 19 years we still feel self-conscious when we hold hands or kiss each other in certain public situations. We have been programmed (wrongly) to believe that these acts are somehow less meaningful in the eyes of God than the exact same acts performed by an opposite-sex couple.
Indeed, feminist Christian theologians going back to Valerie Saiving in the early 1960s have characterized self-hate and shame -- as opposed to pride -- as the kind of sin that is most often experienced by women and LGBT people. According to such theologians, elevated self-hate and shame is sinful because we fail to recognize how God has lifted up all of humanity through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we therefore fail to live our lives in accordance with this good news.
Thus, it is not surprising that pride is an important positive spiritual value for LGBT people. Because of the ways in which many LGBT people have been taught to hate ourselves from an early age, pride is an important act of spiritual healing and witness that allows us to develop a healthy sense of ourselves, our communities, and those who we love. The problem is often not that we are too proud, but rather that we are not proud enough.
This is not to say, however, that the notion of pride as sin has no place in the spiritual lives of LGBT people. One of the things that I find particularly compelling about the doctrine of original sin is its radical equality. That is, no human being -- not even the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Ecumenical Patriarch -- is intrinsically less sinful than anyone else. Thus, the LGBT community, like all other communities, must always be vigilant against hurting others through the abuse of power or through various structural sins such as racism, ageism, sexism, transphobia, classism, and ableism.
Quite frankly, Pride Month celebrations can often seem like advertisements for alcohol, porn, dance parties, and exotic travel destinations. There is often a great premium placed on external beauty and material wealth -- particularly in the white gay male community -- that results in many people of color feeling left out and inferior. Also, people in the LGBT community often fail to treat others, particularly in sexual situations, with the compassion and respect that we would have others do unto us. These are all reminders that no community, including an oppressed one, is free from the human condition of sin.
In the end, however, I believe that LGBT Pride Month is more than just a celebration of secular values of equality, justice, human rights, and freedom. Pride Month is also a profoundly spiritual celebration of seeing ourselves as beloved children of God. Sometimes we may fall short of the mark, but who doesn't? In the end, we are made in the image and likeness of a God who loves us for who we are. Period. And that is truly a cause for celebration!
Follow Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/patrickscheng