My mom asked me the other day what I thought about the recent legislation in North Carolina and Mississippi —the “bathroom bill” and “religious freedom” law that allow sweeping discrimination against LGBT individuals and couples in public spaces, the workplace, and even in family life. I’ve been following the news with interest in the past two weeks, although, to be honest, I’ve felt detached from the issues.
Living on the Left Coast, in Portland, one of the country’s most liberal cities, these laws seem distant and conceptual, like disease outbreaks in Africa or warfare in the Middle East. In more selfish moments, I might even say they were other people’s problems. But I know that’s ultimately not the case. If one member suffers, all suffer together. That axiom was written for the church body, but it’s also true for today's disenfranchised populations, such as minorities and the LGBT community.
What does that mean for us, then? In situations like this, where gay Christians fill a unique position at the intersection of faith and sexuality, are we called to be activists? Are we responsible for being the bridge between the two warring halves of our identities? And if so, what does that look like?
I don't see myself as a traditional activist. I’ve never been to any sort of rally or protest. I’ve never signed a Change.org petition (except for that one time my mom compelled me to sign a petition to reinstate Stephanie Edwards as co-host of the Rose Parade). I rarely post anything political on Facebook. I follow the news religiously but I avoid soapboxes.
Like spiritual gifts, I believe political activism is both a calling and a talent possessed only by some. But that doesn’t let those of us who lack an activist’s spirit off the hook. Activism is, at its core, a quest for justice, and those who follow Jesus have a responsibility to defend the powerless and profess the humanity inherent in all people, especially those most despised.
What, then, is the non-activist’s responsibility? I accept my role as an agent for change, not in the public sphere, but in private circles of life. Traditional activism is a wide-reaching effort to bring about social change, most often through the political process. It’s an effort to change minds on a grand scale. Relational activism is an effort targeted at the people in our lives. It’s an effort to change hearts on a small scale.
While there’s an undeniable need for both, I believe the struggle to turn the church toward greater inclusivity of LGBT Christians will thrive at the grassroots level through relational activism. Heterosexual Christians need to experience real gay and transgendered people, not from what they watch on TV shows or see on the news. And not from what they hear at the pulpit. They need to know gay Christians and other LGBT folks personally—as friends, neighbors, and relatives—instead of as vague issues. They need to actually do life with us, to witness the authenticity of our faith and feel the depth of our pain caused by the church and discriminatory faith-based laws. We may not be able to directly protect those who are discriminated against, but we can give them a face. In the activism world this is called “deep canvassing.” Instead of a faceless stranger, it’s your niece, Jenny, who can’t get a wedding cake. It’s your friend, Keisha, who must wear “gender-appropriate” clothing at work. It’s your son, Jiang, who is fired for being gay. People are so much harder to hate when we love others just like them.
Relational activism is possibly the most dangerous kind. It forces us to risk condemnation and rejection from the people most important to us. There’s a very real possibility that by trying to engage with our families and our churches we’ll face expulsion or actual harm. But these are the front lines of a battle that, recent news shows us, is still very much alive. As Fr. Richard Rohr puts it in a recent post about the disenfranchised, “Only by solidarity with other people’s suffering can comfortable people be converted.”
For those of us already living in LGBT-affirming social circles, we can do more than armchair activism. We may not be inclined toward protests and petitions, but we can support others living in hostile communities. That could look like visiting friends in Southern states who are feeling isolated and unsafe. It may be a “missions trip” to non-affirming churches to meet with pastors who are open to dialoging. Ultimately, we are all charged with turning people’s faces toward God’s compassion, forgiveness, and grace—not as activists of one particular issue or cause, but as activists of love.