The intersection of evangelicalism and queer issues continues to take up a lot of real estate in my mind. Not only because it shapes the context of my life but also because it still has such an impact on the world around me and the work that I do. I spend a lot of my time fielding messages from people who are trying to make sense of their own identities in the light of the teachings of their families/church.
I’ve said before that I think evangelical theology is toxic from stem to stern. There is nothing in it that is redeemable and it kills the people it touches. Harsh? Yup. Because I have spent years seeing the damage inflicted.
But I think what’s so harmful is how that damage is cloaked in language of love.
The other night A and I were watching an episode of “Buffy.” It’s an episode called “Family” from season six (spoiler alert). This episode is the first that revolves around the character of Tara, Willow’s new girlfriend. Tara is about to turn 20 and she has a secret that she is trying to keep from her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s friends. Her family has told her for years that when the women in their family turn 20 there is a demon part of them that gets awakened (stay with me here, there’s metaphors afoot). So Tara, who seems to be one of the first in her family to move away and have her own life, is trying to figure out how to keep this part of her from burgeoning. Her family shows up and tries to take her home.
On this rewatch I was really struck by the father’s language. He says to Tara that no one will ever love her like her family. That these new friends of her won’t really love her when they see what she really is, but that her family will take her back in spite of it.
This is straight out of the evangelical playbook.
No one will love you like your family/church/God even though you are so filled with sin that we can’t stand looking at you. But, really, we love you. No one will love you like we will. No one will love you enough to tell you just how sick and sinful you are and how you need to get right with God. No one will be that truthful with you. So come on back to the fold. So repent. So be straight. So just stay in the church.
Turns out that Tara’s family had been lying for centuries to keep the women in line. (AHEM.) She’s not a demon after all.
But there is another powerful moment: As the father tries to take her, Willow’s friends stand in his way. They claim Tara as family. The reason this is so powerful is because one of the other threads of the episode is how they don’t really understand Tara or know what she likes. All they know is that she’s important to Willow.
And in the end they claim her as family and they defend her. They don’t need to understand her or get her, they just know that she belongs and that she has a right to be safe and protected. They also know that she has the right to chart her own life journey.
Evangelicalism says that you are accepted only if you don’t ask any questions. Only if you toe the line. Only if you look and talk and act and believe exactly as you have been taught to. Evangelicalism says that you are loved only if you do what you’re told. Love always has conditions on it in the evangelical church. There are always strings. You know how I know? Because when I asked questions, when I changed how I thought, when I came out and was unashamed the love was withdrawn. All that remained was the judgement. The admonitions.
This is also why this notion of family as something that you cannot choose and you cannot leave; the idea that even if you don’t agree you still need to love and respect your family is so damn toxic because it never allows for abuse or for the setting of boundaries. You have to love you family even when they tell you you are going to hell. You have to love your family even when they tell you that your love is disgusting and sinful and wrong. You have to love you family when they tell you that you’ve mutilated your body by transitioning.
No. No you don’t. You do not owe anyone your love. Family are the people who show up for you when no one else will and will have your back no matter what. Family are the people who make sure you’re not homeless and that you have enough to eat. Family are the people who love you even when they think you’re screwing up. Family are the people that allow you to be yourself even if it’s not the person they expected you to be. Family isn’t always the people who birthed you.
But more than anything: love doesn’t come with strings. It doesn’t demand you fit into boxes. It doesn’t tell you that you are sick and sinful because of how and who you love. And anything or anyone that does say that isn’t love it’s abuse.
Evangelicalism is abuse. It’s toxic, not just to queer people but to all people. There are healthy ways to read Scripture. There are healthy ways to understand God. But Evangelicalism isn’t it.
It’s clear in this episode of Buffy who the bullies are even when they show up with smiling faces. It can be less clear that you’re being bullied when your pastor says in a nice and kind tone with a caring look on his face that they are just “concerned about you and want what’s best for you” as you reveal your gender identity or your new love, but make no mistake; anyone who tells you that you can’t be around children, or lead in the church, or sing in the worship band because of who you love is bullying you. Anyone who wields theology to keep you from living an abundant life is bullying you. Anyone who extends love with strings isn’t loving.
And it’s time to stop accepting abuse and calling it love.