Melissa Carter: Mainstream churches are big bullies

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.