Have you ever thought of Sunday morning sermons that demonize the gay community as bullying? I had not until the other night.

When I think of bullies, the image of kids at school often comes to mind: the oversized middle schooler, whose veteran Dad was once a little too excited to be on the battlefield, with a headlock on some underweight shy kid. I was taught not to start a fight, but to be sure and finish it if someone picked on me. But bullying doesn’t just take place at recess, it shows its ugly face in many places we may not be aware of — and at any age.

I was recently part of a panel discussion at 7 Stages Theatre for its Bullying Prevention Project. Alongside me sat another lesbian, a gay man and a transgender man. We shared experiences of bullying and our subsequent activism before opening up the discussion to the audience. The topics primarily focused on how parents and teachers can help victims of bullying, and also the bullies themselves.

Then a man in his 70s raised his hand and said, “I’d like to address the elephant in the room.” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about until he continued, “Churches are one of the biggest offenders of bullying in the gay community.”

Religion had not yet been brought up, and honestly hadn’t crossed my mind so far that evening, but once he spoke those words I realized he was right.

A bully is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a blustering browbeating person; one habitually cruel to others who are weaker.” The words “blustering” and “habitually cruel” are key in describing some of the sermons I have heard in my life. But I also think what is missing from that definition is how the victim of bullying is made to feel bad. Eventually you have to rise above the abuse and separate yourself from it. That has been my relationship with church.

I grew up a devout Christian, looking for- ward to the Sunday morning routine of church as far back as I can remember. I was baptized, served as a leader in my youth group and even stood before the congregation to pray for my sick father, all within the comfortable walls of my hometown church. But once I realized I was a lesbian those walls seemed to close in on me, as if to squeeze me out.

The moment I decided to walk away from that routine came while at the University of Tennessee. We students had arrived in Knoxville for a new school year, and the preacher took that opportunity to warn the congregation of the evils college life had to offer, including homosexuality. He spent five minutes passionately damning the gay community, as I tried to find a way to slide quietly out the door. I had given my life to the church, and had a good relationship with God, but this fool lost any opportunity to benefit from my support. The gentleman who brought up the topic at 7 Stages told me afterward that he contemplated suicide at the University of Florida following a similar church experience.

I know there are churches that are supportive of our community. More and more of them participate in Atlanta Pride and have LGBT groups within their organizations. But most major Christian bodies still find us unworthy of their pews, and plenty of LGBT children are considering suicide because of something referenced in the Bible. Like a relentless bully who then tries to apologize to his scar-riddled victim, I confess I’m skeptical of church and may not be ready to accept the apology if they ever had one to offer.


4 Responses

  1. Jeffrey McIntyre

    Melissa, I really must challenge you on these broad, sweeping generalizations. Your statement of ” most major Christian bodies still find us unworthy of their pews” is simply not true.

    While they are most certainly not as far along as either of us would like for them to be, the Methodists and Presbyterians are generally welcoming to the LGBT community. The United Church of Christ congregations are quite welcoming. And the Episcopal church leads the way on inclusion.

    If you are looking for a spiritual home, there are many many doors open.

    • Rev. Lisa Heilig

      No doubt, there are many, many churches and religious leaders that are virulently homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic. I know this all too well as one of the spiritual leaders whose call it is to help people and our society to heal from spiritual abuse and, yes, bullying. However, despite the fact that the bullies seem to get the press and they cause the damage, there are many, many other faith communities and spiritual leaders who have never supported any such thing, and others who have come, and are coming, to see the errors of such ways. There are those of us who have called out and will continue to try to hold accountable those whose hate speech and bullying is causing harm, not in spite of being a part of a faith traditon, but because the essence of the great faith traditions of the world is compassion and love. I would urge that not all mainstream churches and spiritual leaders be lumped together. And, perhaps we can even find a way, if we come together, so that it the voice of the spiritual bully is drowned out by the voices of love.

    • Rick

      Nonetheless, they are the absolute worst of the bullies, and that term isn’t even strong enough. They not only ostracize and judge and condemn us, but the unforgivable sin is that they tell us that God hates us, and destroy any relationship with Our Creator many would have had otherwise. I’m sorry, the worst of hypocrites. They are modern day Pharisees, a brood of vipers as Jesus called them. Absolutely disgusting.

  2. Rick

    Thank you for a wonderful article, but IMHO, you’re being too kind. Opinions regarding sin, especially other people’s, should be kept to yourself. Read Romans chapter 14.


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