Listening and learning

"As the articles in this issue reflect, our LGBTQIA+ siblings are not so 'other.' They are our family members, church members, co-workers and friends who are loved by the God who created them."

I keep a small archive of old Outlook issues in my office. The April 2019 issue on “Faith & Gender” is one I have kept close to hand. The issue followed the actions of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) that affirmed and celebrated the full dignity and humanity of people of all gender identities and the gifts of people of diverse sexual orientations. This exceptional and courageous Outlook magazine, full of resources and insights, called on the church to be a more inclusive and welcoming place for people who identify as LGBTQIA+. Today, we acknowledge the progress made on gender and sexuality, while highlighting how tumultuous and scary recent years have been for our LGBTQIA+ siblings.

Pew Research polls show Americans’ opinions on same-sex marriage have dramatically shifted: in 2004, 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 31 percent were in favor. By 2019, those numbers reversed — 61 percent supported same-sex marriage while 31 percent opposed it. Most surprisingly, support for same-sex marriage increased among nearly all demographic groups — across generations, political parties and religious faiths.

But Americans’ opinions on gender identity and sexuality are more complicated. Further research from Pew reveals Americans remain opposed to discrimination against LGBTQIA+ persons but are uneasy about the pace of social change. As some barriers were broken, new conversations and issues emerged. We began to debate the accessibility of public bathrooms built for those who don’t fit neatly within the gender binary, transgender athletes’ participation in sports, and what should be taught in sex education classes in public schools. Today’s reality includes a polarized American society where inflammatory rhetoric and stubborn certainty further divide.

Many in the queer community mourn that just as progress was being made, their rights are once again in jeopardy. Data from the ACLU reveals 2022 as a record-breaking year in the number of states seeking to limit LGBTQIA+ individuals’ rights. Legislative moves across the country target LGBTQIA+ persons for discrimination, such as criminalizing healthcare for transgender youth, barring access to the use of appropriate facilities like restrooms, restricting transgender students’ ability to fully participate in school and sports, and allowing religiously-motivated discrimination against trans people or making it more difficult for trans people to get identification documents with their legal name and gender.

Throughout history, LGBTQIA+ individuals have been among us. Now, more research shows that gender and sexual identity cannot be defined into strict binaries. Other cultures have long acknowledged this, such as the five genders Native Americans have recognized and the hijras of India. Yet, change is hard. Especially change in long-held beliefs deeply embedded in our values.

I have been reading to learn more about the evolution of our thinking on gender and sexuality. In his book, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion, David McRaney clarifies how influential group identity and confirmation bias are. He lays out the ways minds can be changed through non-judgmental listening and story-sharing with people whose lives and experiences are different. Through this process, “others” are humanized and demystified, leaving room for empathy and understanding to grow.

As a cisgender, heterosexual woman, I did not understand people who identified as LGBTQIA+ until I listened for the Spirit’s guidance through Scripture and the stories of those who identify differently than me. I did not understand the importance of pronouns until I met, listened to and developed relationships with college students who were transitioning. As more and more of our queer siblings come out, and as we listen to their stories, our group loyalties and biases will continue to shift. As the articles in this issue reflect, our LGBTQIA+ siblings are not so “other.” They are our family members, church members, co-workers and friends who are loved by the God who created them.

One of the aspects I value most about our Presbyterian faith is that our tradition is not “closed.” Our faith is not static and unchanging. Our Book of Confessions maps our theological history and how our beliefs have evolved as God calls us to grow in our thinking and in our relationships with each other. Like it did for me, I pray the articles and stories shared in this issue of the Outlook get you listening and thinking.