This week I have the exciting privilege of featuring another guest blog by my friend, Alicia Johnston. Alicia was a pastor in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church before coming out as bisexual in 2017. Here are some tips from her about how to engage in the important dialogue of LGBT+ inclusion.
Enjoy and share around!
Because Love Makes All the Difference,
When I came out about a year ago, I did it in the most explosive way possible, with a video I shared on social media. I followed that up with my website, blogging about LGBT+ affirmation in Christian spaces. Before coming out, I was a pastor in a conservative denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Losing that career and becoming an advocate for change has meant a lot of conversations with people who do not affirm any but heterosexual relationships. I have made so many mistakes. If you’ve been following me, you will probably have seen some of them. And I have learned so much. I would like to share some of those things with you today.
In sharing these lessons learned, I make no apologies about one thing: I am trying to be persuasive. I want people to change their minds and be affirming. I think this is a holy pursuit.
1. Are You Okay to Have This Conversation?
This will always be the first step. You are under no obligation to engage in any conversation no matter what the circumstances. This is even more true is someone is pressuring you. Hold your ground.
It is very difficult for those of us who are LGBT+ to have conversations with people about the legitimacy of our lives. It’s emotionally taxing, and for many of us it brings up past wounds. How healed are you from those wounds? How are you feeling today? How do you feel about this person? Is this the right conversation for you?
You cannot count on your conversation partner to understand what it’s like for you, especially online. In my experience, most of the straight/cis people who understand are already allies.
Christians are told repeatedly that they can love people even if their theology is different on this matter. In real life, that translate into a sense that they can say what they believe without expecting it to hurt you, as long as they aren’t too harsh. Sometimes even if they are harsh. I’ve seen it again and again. In most cases, I really do think they don’t know what they are doing.
So you can’t rely on them to protect your feelings. You have to know if you’re ready. Keep in mind, if you are LGBT+, the best thing you can do to change the world is be a healthy, happy, and unashamed person. Live well. Live out. Be open about your faith. Guard your own health and happiness.
2. Is This Person Already Convinced?
You must know who you are talking to and why. Most people can are in one of three camps. They are either totally on board with LGBT+ inclusion, totally against it, or in the moveable middle.
Those who are totally certain will not change their viewpoint.
You can kill yourself trying to explain the same thing for the hundredth time and they will still somehow not understand it. They will say things that are stigmatizing or pejorative, and they will never come to acknowledge or change this. You could pour out a heartbreaking story and they would just say feelings don’t matter and we have to do what’s right. You could talk about suicide statistics and mental health and they would feel like you’re manipulating them. They compare your love to pornography and adultery and think it’s compassionate. They won’t read any books. They won’t question what they believe.
You will not convince these people. They will be convinced only when their friends who are in the moveable middle change their opinions, or if someone they love and respect comes out. Even then they often stick to their guns. You can’t do it, especially if you’re LGBT+. Just accept that and be okay with it.
Unfortunately, these people are most vocal online. The people who are open to change usually don’t comment much.
I propose two different strategies for the people who are totally against LGBT+ affirmation:
In person: Don’t give them your time and energy. Suggest they read an LGBT+ affirming book or two, but don’t let them suck you in unless for some reason you’re feeling like a vigorous and unproductive debate about your legitimacy as a person. They won’t read the book unless its to get you to read one of their books. If they were open to change, they would read the book.
Online: Don’t try to convince them of anything. You might want to engage, but only for the sake of those who are reading. Be reasonable. Be kind. Make good points in a way that is brief. Be confident about both your faith and sexuality or gender identity. Remind them of the existence of LGBT+ Christians.
3. Is This Person Open to Learning and Growth?
Thank God, there are people who are open to change. These people are worth talking to.
Most of the people in the moveable middle are kind of like undecided voters. They usually haven’t thought about it enough to form a strong opinion. Though some have thought about it and are conflicted. They will probably not be well informed, but they won’t be purposefully dismissive or pejorative like the other group, at least not on purpose. They will be more responsive to a well-spoken correction if they say something disrespectful.
What works really well for these people is talking about your similarities. LGBT+ people have families, work hard, have children, go to church, etc. I’m going to level with you and tell you that it really bothers me that this is true. We should be respected and cared for whether we are similar to someone else or not. Yet it’s undeniable that the best way to remind people about the humanity of queer people is to show them that we are similar to them. It works very well.
These are people who will care about your story, and you should tell it to them. Much like the undecided voter, what some of them need most is a reason to care. If they have questions about theology, answer them if you can, or give them a source to turn to such as a book, website, or organization.
Sometimes all these people need is to get a few questions answered and they are onboard. If that’s the case, say hallelujah! Many have put in work before you and you got to see the transformation.
4. Show Respect, Expect Respect
The first person to say “you obviously” loses. Seriously. When someone feels attacked they will get defensive. If you’re at the place where someone is attacking you and you feel yourself getting defensive, you probably want to extract yourself from that conversation.
When I first came out, which I did so publicly and jumped right into online advocacy for LGBT+ people, there were a lot of people who were deeply disrespectful. As time went on I got more and more comfortable with the reality that the block button was my friend.
My list of blocked people is probably a lot longer than a lot of people’s friend list.
I’m not exaggerating. My coming out video was spun into a crazy conspiracy theory by a fringe religious extremist group. Their video about me was seen tens of thousands of times. As a result, I had a lot of people looking me up to tell me I was leading people to hell. Some of them come right out and say it. Some of them try really hard to act reasonable to make me feel like I couldn’t block them.
They would say things like, “you don’t want discussion on this group or you wouldn’t delete comments.” Or “I bet you’ll just block me.” At first I let this manipulate me, not wanting to prove them right. Now I just block them.
People will also say things like, “you shouldn’t post things on facebook if you aren’t willing to have a conversation about it.” So I just kindly but firmly tell them that I don’t share things on facebook for debate; I share them to share them. I don’t believe that facebook is a good forum for genuine conversation, so that’s not how I run my page.
It’s totally okay to do this. Those people are trying to hijack your platform to say something to your friends and followers. At the risk of sounding disillusioned, I can tell you that case after case after case has taught me that they are not being genuine. So don’t hesitate to push block.
That’s level one respect, but to be truly impactful in a conversation you need a whole new level. You need to understand them. If you have found someone interested in real dialogue, do spend time trying to understand them. If you are writing persuasively, don’t use straw man arguments and don’t assume people have bad motives.
Most people are doing the best they can. Foster compassion in yourself. If you’re like me, you’ve been on the wrong side of this in the past. Try to be patient, especially with those who genuinely do love you, like family and close friends, while always balancing that patience with caring for yourself. Sometimes you will need more distance from people.
Remember, people are not an obstacle to over come, they have lives, feelings, fears, and hopes. They bring all those things to each conversation. You can’t persuade someone against their will. You can’t force anyone to see things differently. Sometimes being too strong will only cause them to fight back harder.
The hardest thing Jesus commanded was that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This doesn’t mean we can’t step away if we aren’t receiving respect, but it does mean we should foster a heart of grace and understanding.
5. Give Hope and Security
With the incredible efforts of LGBT+ people and allies, the lives of queer people have improved exponentially over the last several decades. Many churches have even gotten much, much better. There are many reasons for hope. So embrace hope.
When you’re talking to others, realize that if they were raised to fear what churches refer to as homosexuality, they are probably afraid for you, afraid for society, and afraid to affirm LGBT+ people for fear of cooperating with the forces of evil. That’s a lot to be afraid about. You can give hope.
Tell them about the great things queer people are doing and how they have wonderful lives, families, and faith communities. Cast a different vision than the vision of fear they have been given. And reassure them that God’s ability to save is not dependent on our ability to be right.
Perfect love casts out all fear, and fear has always been the greatest tool of those who are anti-LGBT+. That’s why it’s called homophobia. So remind them of God’s love for everyone. Remind them that God is not looking for us to mess up, but is leading us patiently and gracefully to greater love.
Alicia Johnston was a pastor in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church before coming out as bisexual in 2017. She is now an advocate for LGBT+ inclusion in the church. You can visit her website at aliciajohnston.com