It was Gandhi who once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” If Gandhi’s words are true, then the vicious and vocal fighting over gay and lesbian people in both society and the church is actually very good news. The gay and lesbian community has long been ignored and ridiculed, and now our mere presence is causing fights among denominations, in courtrooms, and legislatures across the country. All this fighting, while it can become discouraging and dispiriting, should actually be cause for celebration, because the next step for the gay and lesbian community is victory.
The most virulent opposition to gay and lesbian people enjoying equal rights in every area of life from housing, to employment, to service in the military, to marriage rights, has come from religious quarters. Recent trends, however, show even religious opposition is softening.
The UK-based religious think-tank Ekklesia is claiming that a growing number of Christian groups are now identifying as supporting gays and lesbians than in previous years. In a press release, Symon Hill, associate director of Ekklesia, noted that a welcoming religious presence has grown in gay pride parades around the world:
The increasing Christian acceptance of same-sex relationships is highlighted by the image of liberal, evangelical, Catholic and other Christians marching together at Pride. In recent years, the small number of Christians who turn up to protest against Pride have been vastly outnumbered by the Christians participating in it.
Hill also noted religious support in the UK last April for a new law “to allow religious elements in civil partnerships, while last year the Quakers became the first major Christian denomination to resolve to carry out same-sex marriages.”
Even here in the United States, the trend toward full acceptance of gays and lesbians seems to be growing. A Gallup poll released in May showed an uptick in support for same-sex marriage, with 44 percent approving. That’s up from a 27 percent approval rating back in 1996—when the thought of same-sex marriage was either being ignored or openly ridiculed.
For those who said religion played a very important role in their lives, 70 percent still opposed marriage equality, while 60 percent of those with a more moderate view of their religion supported it. Despite the Pope’s strong opposition to all things gay, Catholics support gay marriage by 48 percent, compared to 33 percent of Protestants.
Overall, in a different Gallup survey, those saying gays and lesbians are “morally acceptable” stands at 52 percent. Barely 34 percent thought so back in 1982.
The trend among Christian churches in the United States has also been toward acceptance. The United Church of Christ, on July 4, 2005, became the only mainline denomination to affirm its support for marriage equality. Other denominations, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), have moved to remove bans on the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), remains on the verge of giving that right to its gay and lesbian clergy. The General Assembly removed restrictions during its 2008 meeting, but the measure did not receive enough support among the presbyteries to pass. Supporters remain hopeful as the denomination begins its General Assembly in Minneapolis next week.
Lisa Larges, head of That All May Freely Serve, said, “Faith traditions are moving toward a new understanding of God’s diverse creation. The time for policies based on our love of God and call to serve has come. Churches are learning to affirm gifts for ministry rather than reject ministers because of whom they chose as a life partner.”
Several pro-gay measures are on the agenda for the PCUSA including benefits for same-gender spouses and domestic partners of church employees, the right of clergy to perform legal weddings in the states that recognize them, the final removal of a ban on gay clergy, and a review of a creedal statement viewed as anti-gay.
On the secular side, progress is being made to lift Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that bans gays and lesbians from military service. There has also been movement, however slowly, on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), barring discrimination against gay, lesbian, and even transgender people in the workforce.
While progress for equality for gays and lesbians within society, and the church especially, may be slow in coming, the arc of history—despite the cranked up volume from the opposition—is definitely bending toward justice.