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LGBTQ religion activist: it's time to talk about America's faith-based homophobia problem

A homophobic demonstration at a New York pride event in 1986.
Barbara Alper via Getty Images

As with every mass shooting before it, politicians are responding to Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando by extending their "thoughts and prayers" to the families of the 49 victims who lost their lives.

But what does it mean for politicians to offer their thoughts and prayers to a marginalized community they’ve prayed against?

"I find it so ironic when the same Christian leaders who put in the most footwork in oppressing us in this space try to use this tragedy as a talking point for their Islamophobia," Faith in America executive director Eliel Cruz told me in an interview Monday.

The Pulse shooting was a direct attack on Orlando’s LGBTQ community, which is consistently targeted by some politicians of faith who claim religious freedom when writing, lobbying for, and passing anti-LGBTQ laws.

The shooter, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, has been identified as an Islamist extremist. And while politicians may pair his homophobia with his religious beliefs as a Muslim, faith-based homophobia is an all-too-familiar American tradition.

Cruz’s nonprofit organization for LGBTQ people of faith and allies aims to counter religion-based bigotry head on. Cruz weighed in on why the shooting in Orlando serves as a sobering reminder that people choosing to use religion to oppress people, regardless of one’s particular faith practice, can lead to deadly consequences.

Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Massie: One of the things that has come out about the shooter since Sunday is that he had expressed homophobic values after seeing two men kiss. [Editor’s note: Since this interview, it has been revealed that shooter Omar Mateen may have been questioning his own sexuality.]

But this sentiment isn't isolated, as many — including the religiously devout — express similar condemnation. Could you talk a bit about how people try to use religion to counter supporting the LGBT community?

Eliel Cruz: Beyond what happened on Saturday night, it's clear that religion is at the root of, if not all of, the legislation attempting to continue to oppress us LGBT individuals.

For us to ignore the religious motivations — and when I say religious motivations, I feel like, especially right now, with what the shooter's faith background might be — we're pinpointing it to radicalized Islamic beliefs. But we really have to understand that the majority of world religions — not just radicalized Islamic belief but Christianity as well, and Christianity that's maybe not even radicalized — preach anti-LGBT theology that is insidious in the way it manifests itself.

So Christians may not be throwing us off buildings. They may not be shooting us. But their theology is leading us to want to kill ourselves. Their theology encourages us to pray to a god to take our queerness away. It leads to deaths in many other ways.

So not only is religion at the root of the legislative attacks in wanting to deny us protections, deny us equal rights, deny us our humanity in using restrooms, it is also, when preached in our churches and from our pulpits, deadly.

VM: Based on what you just said, how do LGBT people of faith reconcile their faith when people use their faith against them?

EC: I was born and raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I have only gone to Seventh-Day Adventist schools my entire life. And I say this because I am deeply entrenched in Christianity. I am still a Christian. I work in these spaces because I believe it's what God is calling me to do, and I believe our church is promoting something to our community that is anti-Gospel, and that we need to repent and do better.

A lot of people, because of my queerness, want to dismiss my Christianity, but they have no say in doing that.

In terms of reconciling my faith and sexuality, I recognize that I can have a faith that is independent from even any organized religion. I was very upset in my teen years, for a very long time, with God, mainly because of what church individuals had done to me. But I recognized in my own faith and relationship with God that the things I was hearing from the pulpit and some of the things I was hearing from church members weren't how God saw me.

I saw that God gave me my sexuality. I saw that when I prayed for God to change me, it wasn't happening, and it wasn't happening because God said, "You don't need to be changed."

So all these things led me to recognize that I'm able to be a Christian. I'm able to have faith independent of what any preacher or evangelical leader may say. And I think that's how a lot of us reconcile our faith and sexuality.

We believe that despite being told by fellow believers that we're not allowed to believe, or that the Gospel is not ours, for me it's my birthright as a queer child of God. My faith is my birthright, and you're not able to take that away from me.

VM: And beyond the legal attack, how do people use religious texts to discriminate?

EC: It's ridiculous how individuals are using very limited text, like six verses, to justify the dehumanization of an entire group of individuals. There are many more verses that support slavery and really awful types of marriages. We're still trying to have a remedial understanding in our theology on what is really said in certain text about same-sex sex.

Now, in recent years, quite a few theologians and scholars have been published in mainstream spaces that have affirming theology. And quite a few evangelical leaders and authors, straight individuals, have announced that they are affirming of LGBT relationships in the church and reexamining the scriptures.

These individuals don't get the airtime because the evangelical right dismisses them as soon as they say they are affirming, but there's a growing number of individuals who are saying, "Actually, we looked at the text, and we believe God called us to interpret it this way."

And that'll continue to happen. And it'll happen in a much larger and systemic fashion. I believe that we are at a point where that is going to happen. But as of right now, we're using a very limited understanding to justify the way we treat LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ.

VM: As you pointed out, there is a shift going on among even evangelicals who affirm the LGBT community. What would you say are the issues around media portrayal between LGBT and non-LGBT people of faith?

EC: There's almost an intentional push to continue a media dichotomy between LGBT people and religion. There are so many individuals who are both LGBT and religious. And there are so many individuals who are religious and affirming of LGBT individuals. But there continues to be a push.

When we want to ask someone about religion, we go to the evangelical right. And when we want to ask someone about gay people, we go to the devout atheist gay activist. And that's just not an accurate portrayal of what we are as a community, which is one of reasons my organization, Faith in America, tries to uplift LGBT voices of faith and faith allies.

VM: And what has been your work in terms of interfaith allyship for LGBT folks of faith?

EC: We're an interfaith organization. In our media campaigns, we highlight LGBT voices of all faith traditions. We end up doing a lot of work in Christianity specifically because it's Christian politicians and it's Christian leaders that are doing the majority of attacks on LGBT individuals in this country. Which is why I find it so ironic when the same Christian leaders who put in the most footwork into oppressing us in this space try to use this tragedy as a talking point for their Islamophobia.

VM: Could you say a bit about that, because my jaw dropped. For instance, when Marco Rubio spoke at a press conference about how this touched all Americans "irrespective of their sexual orientation." Now, his image of America is suddenly inclusive of the LGBT community, which he normally keeps at arm's length, as he also uses Islamophobic rhetoric.

EC: I think it's a little more than that. What I've seen from politicians like Marco Rubio who have suddenly put out statements on this, as well as religious leaders, is that what they're saying when they say "all of us" are affected by it, what they're doing is that they are erasing LGBT individuals. They're erasing the fact that this was a targeted attack. That while it is a terrorist attack, it is also a hate crime directed to the LGBT community.

And the reason they're doing this is because we all have the receipts to show they are promoting legislation and rhetoric. Ted Cruz and some other individuals were hanging out with a pastor who said that LGBT people should be killed last summer at this ultra-right Christian conference. A lot of these Republican candidates are a degree away from very radical Christian pastors who are saying the most disgusting things about LGBT individuals.

So they're saying all Americans are affected by this, but they're doing it so that they don't have to address their own homophobia.

I saw a tweet that really hit the nail on the head. People are trying to erase us, because when you say it's homophobic, you start to see yourself in the shooter. And that's scary. But people need to do that, because you may not be pointing a gun but you're causing damage that is just as deadly.

VM: What do you think about the conversation of homegrown homophobia? And I say that because one of things that has come up around the shooter is trying to make him appear "foreign" even though he was born and raised in the United States. His parents are Afghan immigrants, but he has always been an American.

EC: They are trying to say, "We're not like that. ... We're more civilized than these barbaric individuals. And he may have been born in America, but he is from this space, and that place is just awful, and we would never do these things," as a way to justify these barbaric acts and push them away from American-instilled values. It's disgusting.

It's a way to push that those values are coming from abroad. They're not American. Americans believe in the Bible. We don't believe in killing LGBT people.

We also have to examine how specifically Christian evangelicals, the right, have exported their homophobia. I mean, let's really look at Christian evangelicals who have influenced legislation abroad in many countries in Africa, and in Russia, that have led to LGBT people being killed.

There are specific ties to these individuals. The same messages that are being preached in the pulpit are the same messages that are being preached abroad, and it's being translated to understand that they believe this legislation is okay because these white missionaries told us it was. And that, because of what scripture says, it's okay to kill these individuals as well. Whether or not that is your intent, that is the impact.

So there are quite a few individuals in this country who have massive platforms with direct involvement with influencing legislation abroad, [which has led to the deaths of] LGBT individuals or suspected LGBT individuals.

It's so easy to say that it's those individuals, it's those brown people, it's those radicalized crazies, and not be really introspective, as well as for Americans to be really critical of those we look to for spiritual thought and see what they are doing to either the betterment of LGBT individuals or to the demise of us.

It gets me really upset.

VM: It terms of the conversation so far, what other things do you find are missing in terms of faith leaders of various denominations within Christianity but also other religions reaching out to be supportive for LGBT folks in this moment?

EC: I want to give it up to the progressive Christian spaces that have always been welcoming of LGBT individuals. They're doing a lot of great work of opening up their sanctuaries and allowing LGBT people of faith and those who may just be LGBT and need a place to grieve. That's been fantastic. Others — a lot of politicians — have called us to pray.

VM: That's something that happens after each gun violence tragedy. Politicians will say, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims." But what do those thoughts and prayers mean to the Orlando shooting victims when they are coming from people who, for the most part, often pray against them?

EC: I'm a Christian, but when I hear individuals who have used their religious beliefs against us ask our community to pray, I've just gotten so angry. These are the same individuals who shun us from their places of worship, who ask us to pray to the same God to pray away our queerness, who themselves pray against LGBT individuals. Not only is there just such hypocrisy there, it's also really frustrating when that's all they'll do.

And prayer is super important. It's pivotal to my faith. But I also recognize that we need reform, that we need to close loopholes that allow people [like Mateen] who are being watched by the FBI to buy assault weapons because they're contracted as a security guard. We need more than this. We're losing so many lives for absolutely no good reason. And although prayer is powerful and important, we need action as well.

VM: What are other final takeaway points you hope people get from what happened and the way we talk about the ties between the LGBT community, faith, religion, and religious community?

EC: There is a conversation that we need to have beyond this tragedy. It's not religion that is inherently oppressing us. It is bad interpretations to theology that are hurting us. We lost 50 queer individuals last weekend due to radicalized beliefs, and yet we lose thousands of LGBT youth on a yearly basis because they hear the messages from the pulpit that they are less than.

There are thousands of LGBT individuals who are kicked out of their homes by Christian parents because that's what they believe is okay to do. This is an ongoing issue, and lives are being affected by anti-LGBT theology everyday.

You cannot preach this and wash your hands of the deadly effects.