Pride flag flying between downtown office buildings.

Photo by RLTheis

Beyond rainbow flags: what it means to make church safe for LGBTQ people

July 19, 2023
Back in March, I preached at a church with a rainbow flag outside it. My sermon, on the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-29), focused on the inclusivity of Jesus’ ministry, and his lack of judgment towards someone judged heavily by her community. At the end of my sermon, I spent about thirty seconds connecting this theme to the rights of people who are transgender, gender nonconforming, or drag queens.

I knew this was a risk. I had never visited this church before, let alone preached there. But, I reasoned, they had a rainbow flag outside. Surely, this will not be controversial here.

That night, I received an angry, transphobic email from a church member, taking me to task for daring to speak about the trans community. He wrote that while he doesn’t care about “queers” and people who are trans (not the word he used, I do not wish to repeat what he actually said), he does care about children and wishes to keep them safe, presumably from trans people and anyone who affirms them. I read his message, shaking with anger, and reflecting on how the word queer, while it is the word I use to describe myself, can still be a slur, when spoken or written with disdain.

I originally conceived of this post as a public response to that email, taking it apart line by line, saying all the things I wanted this man to hear, but knew he would not receive. I wanted to tell him that one of the tasks of preachers is to speak out in defense of the marginalized, especially when that message is unpopular and unwanted. I wanted him to know that I also care deeply about children—including the trans and gender nonconforming children who need to know they are safe, whole, and loved by God and their community. I wanted to say that it’s actually hilarious that he thinks me talking about trans people for thirty seconds is radical and transgressive, when I could have easily spent the entire sermon arguing that God is trans, or connecting queer sex and spirituality, or making a scriptural case for polyamory. Sir, you haven’t seen me being radical; you saw me passing for moderate.

But, as much fun as I would have writing that post, I think its main purpose would be to make me feel better, and I can do that on my own time.

What I want to talk about instead is that rainbow flag. Because Pride month may be over, but that does not mean questions of allyship are answered. I want to talk about that flag, and what it means for queer and trans people to be safe in church.

I live in the northeast, where liberal enclaves are not hard to find, and many churches proclaim that they welcome everyone, or fly a rainbow flag. Even so, the wounds of religious trauma are deep, and LGBTQ people who wish to attend a church often do some vetting, to figure out if this community is safe. Safety does not just mean being allowed to enter a space. Safety means feeling able to be yourself—and knowing that others will defend you if someone has a problem with your authentic self. One single person can make a space unsafe. On the other hand, one really active ally can bring some safety to an unsafe setting.

That is what I wish a rainbow flag on a church meant: safety, accountability, growth mindset, active allyship. I want churches that commit to being different from the torrential rains of homophobia and transphobia that threaten to drown us. Not just a little different, but actively working against the forces that threaten us.
When I and other queer people see a rainbow flag outside a church, it’s a positive sign in the vetting, and it leads us to hope. We think, “Maybe here. Maybe I can be out here and not be told I’m going to hell. Maybe they’ll love me for who I am, not in spite of it. Maybe they won’t call my partner my friend. Maybe they’ll use my pronouns correctly. Maybe they’ll go to protests with me, celebrate Pride, observe Transgender Day of Remembrance, commit to learning when they don’t know something—but wait, maybe that’s too much to ask.”

It’s not too much to ask, but it is above and beyond what we usually get. As a cisgender queer woman, I can tell you that most of the churches I attend that would describe themselves as affirming can really only be counted on to not tell you you’re going to hell. Everything else on that list? Maybe, maybe not.

And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of churches who learned how to affirm lesbians and gay men, but aren’t interested in wrapping their brains around bisexuality, transness, non-binary genders, and the beautiful array of identities under the LGBTQ umbrella. I’m tired of churches saying, “All are welcome!” but then judging people for how they dress at church, complete with gendered expectations. I’m tired of feeling like I’m welcome if and only if I don’t talk too much about my queerness, or ask people to use they/them pronouns for my nonbinary friends.

When a church puts out a rainbow flag, they are attempting to signal that they are allies to the LGBTQ community. But ally is a verb, friends. It’s not a passive piece of your identity; it’s something you must choose to live into, every day. I feel sometimes that churches are more interested in seeming affirming than in actually being so, in being able to say, “We’re the church with the rainbow flag!” than in becoming the church where queer and trans people feel safe. To be an ally is to show people that their safety matters to you.

So, to churches with rainbow flags who seek to live into allyship: here’s what I want from you.

I want you to commit to listening and learning. You don’t have to know everything, and in fact you can’t. The LGBTQ community is evolving every day, and none of us knows all there is to know. But listen to people when they correct you, and take it as a moment of learning, not a moment of shame.

I want you to defend people when they have been hurt. If someone in your community is saying homophobic or transphobic things, tell them you disagree, and why. Find your queer and trans community members, and ask what they need. At this critical time, when 558 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023 alone, speaking out is particularly important. Talk to your neighbors, talk to reporters, and especially, talk to your lawmakers. Defend the marginalized, in private and in public.

I want you to engage with people’s identities, not shove them under the rug. Yes, there are inappropriate questions that should not be asked (for instance, anything about anyone’s genitals), but make it clear that you are open to people sharing about themselves, and that you embrace us even when our stories challenge your expectations. My queer relationships don’t fit neatly into a typical straight understanding of a romantic relationship. Many of my friends’ gender presentations defy what it means to be male or female. If you are open to the conversation, we can tell you more. If you aren’t, we aren’t sure if we can talk about ourselves at all.

And yeah, I want people to stop and think when they feel challenged by a sermon, and not go home and send transphobic emails.

In the Bible, God puts a rainbow in the sky for Noah as a promise of safety, and an apology for lack of safety in the past. Flood waters have covered the Earth, suffocating life and tossing the ark on waves of uncertainty. But when Noah and his family see God’s rainbow in the sky, they know that things will be different now. No more destroying rain. Instead, safety—for all living things, not just a lucky few (Genesis 9:8-17).

That is what I wish a rainbow flag on a church meant: safety, accountability, growth mindset, active allyship. I want churches that commit to being different from the torrential rains of homophobia and transphobia that threaten to drown us. Not just a little different, but actively working against the forces that threaten us.

May it be so, beyond Pride month. May we live into the hope and promise of rainbows. When my queer and trans siblings pause outside a church, eyeing its rainbow flag and thinking, “Maybe here”: may they be right. And may we all be safe.

Bekah Maren Anderson is director of Pastoral Care, The Julian Way, and cochair, UCC Disabilities Ministries.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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