For the past five months, as Texas legislators have aggressively pushed anti-LGBTQIA legislation, the faith community in Texas has been adamant about standing against such discriminatory legislation. The strength of faith leaders in the conversation is undeniable. Very often, anti-LGBTQIA legislation is proposed in the name of religion, so it is vital that affirming people of faith raise up their voices, declaring that they support LGBTQIA equality because of their faith—not in spite of it.
One of those powerful voices is Rev. Dr. Dan De Leon, a pastor at Friends Congregational Church in College Station, Texas, and a frequent Believe Out Loud contributor. This week we spoke with Pastor De Leon about why he’s engaged in this work and what’s next for Texas.
BOL: So often, opponents of justice for LGBTQIA people frame the discussion in terms of “People of Faith versus LGBTQIA People and Allies,” as though the identities are separate—two circles in a Venn diagram that don’t overlap. You and other Texas faith leaders are an example of how that’s not true. How can we break down this falsehood?
Rev. De Leon: Theologically, what needs to happen is that we need to teach and emphasize that faith and sexuality are not oil and water This is not an either/or thing. One does not need to choose between living an authentic life (being “out of the closet” in terms of sexuality and gender identity) and a life of faith. They’re just not oil and water.
The conversation must also be broader. Yes, allies stand up for their LGBTQIA neighbor because Jesus teaches us to stand up for the rights of the oppressed – this is true. But there needs to be a much more unapologetic emphasis that one’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not sins. We need to be able to not only reconcile but embrace the full identity that we have as people of faith who are also of different sexualities or gender identities.
In terms of what we preach, teach, and practice theologically in our congregations, that’s what we need to do.
But in terms of the choice between LGBTQIA rights and religious freedom, there needs to be more of a consistent history lesson. Constitutionally, what trumps everything (in much the same way that Jesus’ greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself) is that no religion should be placed over and above another or shown preference. That sometimes gets swept under the rug when we talk about religious freedom being threatened. When we talk about religious freedom, we need to incorporate all traditions and all faiths.
BOL: Tell us a bit about how you have been engaged personally in the work to secure non-discrimination protections for LGBTQIA people.
The congregation that I serve is a UCC congregation and is Open and Affirming and has been since 1996. Especially in our context, that’s pretty mountainous. At the time, it was highly controversial, but I’m really thankful that that’s something that happened as long ago as it did where we are here in Texas. It’s forced us to embrace the healthy consequences of that and live into that standard and constantly have that bar to rise up to. It’s an emphasis, of course, on being welcoming and inclusive of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer, but it’s also a purposeful welcome to anyone and everyone. It’s about living into community, advocating for those who are marginalized in our community. The big buzz word is intersectionality—and it couldn’t be more true.
One example of the work we do as an Open & Affirming Congregation: I went to the Texas Freedom Network’s Texas Clergy Against Discrimination Day at the Capitol a few weeks ago. About 50 clergy, not only from Christianity but other denominations as well, we stood holding signs on the steps of the Capitol saying “My Faith Does Not Discriminate.” And we simply prayed. And as legislators and others were walking by, you could tell this was a pretty powerful witness. It was changing the narrative that people of faith in Texas would supposedly always be hostile to the LGBT community.
What we were doing there took place just a few days after SB4 had passed [a law that is especially hostile to undocumented immigrants]. The chair of the Mexican-American Caucus came up to our group and said, “Just as no human being is illegal, no human being is flawed. All of us are made in the image of God, and all of us need to be treated with equal respect under the law that reflects that unconditional love of God.”
You can’t talk about Mexican-Americans, undocumented immigrants, those who are being profiled in order to be deported without also talking about those who would suffer under legislation that would impact LGBTQIA people. You can’t talk about one without the other. We are each other’s neighbor, and that intersectionality is completely unavoidable, and it has to be embraced as we’re talking about equality. The less that we allow the oppressive powers that be to divide us, and the more we embrace coalition-building and relationship-building and reconciliation, the more powerful we will be as people of faith, as LGBTQIA people and allies, to get rid of legislation similar to what is being considered in Texas.
BOL: How does it feel to so often see anti-LGBTQIA lawmakers attempt to weaponize faith and religious liberty?
To be honest, I feel anger and I feel sadness.
I have to say that I am sorry for the complicity that Christianity has had toward the LGBTQIA community that led to homophobia, transphobia, biphobia that emboldens someone, for example, to pick up a gun and kill 49 people.
I’m tired of apologizing on behalf of Christianity, and I’m angry that I have to keep doing that, but I’m not going to stop doing it.
It also makes me sad because this affects people who are a part of my Church family and my circle of friends. I know that sounds selfish, but as the Apostle Paul preaches in 1 Corinthians 12, when one part of the body hurts, everything hurts.
There are people who would be directly affected by legislation currently being considered in Texas. One would be to deny marriage licenses on the basis of one’s religion. One denies adoption rights to parents who are gay. And one is a bathroom bill. I’m looking at this and it makes me sad because if an executive order were to come out that you can lean on your faith or your religion to deny people marriage licenses, for example, all it does is embolden those pieces of legislation in our state, and it’s going to lead even further to normalizing homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. And that breaks my heart.
Among couples with children under the age of 18, a significantly higher percentage of same-sex parents than different-sex parents have an adopted child. So this bigotry disguised as a defensive religious freedom is not just hurting directly those who identify as queer. It’s also hurting children. If we want to be true to our Christian faith, in which Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” we must reject this and name it as blatant hypocrisy.
BOL: It’s not uncommon to speak with people of faith who have not yet fully articulated their support for LGBTQIA equality or who are still unsure. Are there strategies specifically for people of faith on how to become better allies for LGBT people?
I think my advice is more toward those who are intolerant of those who are having a hard time reconciling their faith with being affirming. And that advice is that you can’t project the anger and sadness that I was just talking about. You can’t project those feelings onto those people who are struggling with this, assuming that they are the enemy. Even people who are openly hostile toward LGBTQIA people are not the enemy. We still have a call to love them.
We need to be more compassionate. We need to be able to have more dialogue about this. From that more compassionate standpoint, we can offer counseling to people who are truly struggling with reconciling their faith and affirmation.
For non-LGBTQIA people who are unsure, I’d say that it all comes down to relationships. I would urge people who are struggling with that to be in conversation with queer Christians, with queer people of faith. Because these are the ones who have no choice but to struggle with this constantly, to have an identity that is based on reconciliation. If the calling of our faith, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, is
If the calling of our faith, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, is about this ministry of reconciliation, then who better than the LGBTQIA Christian to be in dialogue with if one is struggling from a heteronormative perspective with reconciling their faith and being an affirming Christian?
Created in partnership with Freedom for All Americans; Photo by Dr. Griff Martin