Some background information to this rather rambling post might be necessary. Yesterday I participated in the Bad Christian podcast, following a bit of a Twitter altercation around LGBTQ people participating on platforms that also elevate the voices of non-affirming speakers. The whole mess originated when one of the Bad Christian hosts, Matt, invited the women who started #churchtoo to speak at the Bad Christian conference, and they declined, one of the reasons being that sharing that space with non-affirming voices would make it an unsafe space. Then a whole lot of us jumped in and had a battle royal over whether that was a legitimate reason to decline. Eventually, Matt invited me to come onto the podcast, I agreed that would be a better use of my energy and a better way to express my point of view than continuing to shout into the Twitter void, and we had a productive talk about the whole thing. Having now listened to the whole podcast, including the voices of some who disagreed with me, I want to say some things about how I understand the idea of safety in this context. Related, I have some further comments about what it means to be LGBTQ affirming.
There seemed to be quite a bit of defensiveness around the idea that the conference or any Bad Christian (BC) space might be unsafe. I realized that they were defining safety as immediate, personal, and physical. I want to be clear that I define safety as long-term, collective, and wholistic. So no, I don’t fear being physically attacked if I were to attend the BC conference. I actually don’t worry much about my own physical safety at all in any setting; it’s just not how I’m wired. But I am concerned about safety in a broader sense.
But first, let’s not discount anyone else’s fear that they might be personally, physically attacked in such a setting. Have all the recent allegations taught us nothing? Even in a setting where the vast majority of participants are Real Good Guys™, women (and children, and other men, and people of other genders) are being abused on the regular. If you’re trying to assure me that it could never happen at your event, that just reads to me as unwillingness to confront the truth that it possibly already has. Progressive Christian circles full of self-described male feminists are not immune to misogyny and abuse. Every time a group of men says that abuse couldn’t possibly happen in their setting, I think of a woman sitting somewhere and remembering how she was raped by someone in that group.
Safety isn’t just about what happens to me physically in a particular moment.
Safety is about the long-term. It’s about measuring whether accepting a particular speaking engagement will lead to being badgered on social media for months to come, or to having my voicemail at church filled with death threats, or to having someone show up and stalk me in person. I can take a considerable amount of badgering, and although I don’t much care for it, I’ve dealt with plenty of threats and some stalking. I am never sure when someone is going to dox me, which is a real danger these days, and yet I keep saying things online. But I have to decide whether the likelihood of all these annoying and potentially dangerous things happening is worth the benefit of a given speaking opportunity. Sure, I might affect some change in a group that includes non-affirming voices and treats them as equally valid. Then again, I might really piss off someone who believes I’m a false teacher and decides to treat it as his calling to off me. If I don’t know the group well and have relationships there, or good reason to believe that there will be a lot more benefit than detriment in the long haul, I may choose not to invest my energy there.
Safety is collective. I’ve shared a lot of spaces with a lot of people who disagreed with me. I don’t feel fear for myself in those moments. I am, however, conscious of the effect on others. If I am willing to appear as though we are simply debating equally valid intellectual ideas, people who are very vulnerable may see it as me giving tacit approval or at least legitimacy to the very ideas that are being used to oppress them. Oppressors may continue to believe that they hold an equally faithful interpretation of scripture, and I’ve given permission to that. I have to balance all that against the possibility that someone in the room needs to hear my message of inclusion. Sometimes that’s absolutely worth the risk, and sometimes it’s not. But I’m not just thinking about my own safety when I make decisions about where and when to speak.
Safety is wholistic. Many of the assumptions in this conversation had to do with the nature of violence, and the relationship between oppressive language and violent action; those on the “other side” of the argument mostly believed violence is physical and that language is not violence. I strongly disagree, and would argue that words in themselves can be violence. Verbal abuse is violence. It causes trauma just as damaging as physical abuse. My mental health is as valuable to me as my physical health, and there are some environments that are actively damaging to my mental health – such as those in which I have to repeatedly defend my identity as though it’s “just an idea.” Ideas and actions are not separate. Thousands of years of ideas about women’s inferiority led to – shocker! – actual laws enforcing women’s subjugation, as well as domestic violence and rape. Similarly, religiously and institutionally reinforced teachings about race and the superiority of whiteness has led to vast violence against people of color. This is not abstract.
And it’s not abstract when we’re dealing with the LGBTQ community, either, although this is where everything seems to fall apart in Christian circles. We would never knowingly entertain a white supremacist speaker at a conference and argue that it’s fine because he says that black people are inferior lovingly. Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone inviting me to share a stage with someone who believes women should function as property of their fathers or husbands, even though that is considered a legit view in parts of Christianity. Everyone would know that’s not going to go over. But when it’s about LGBTQ people, we’re all supposed to put our identities and emotions aside and act like all things are equal. No. This might be a thing some of us feel called to do from time to time. Lord knows I have been there. I fully expect that I will be there again many times. But expecting it of us is unreasonable. Referring to people who refuse to constantly put themselves in those situations as “sissies” or the like doesn’t really suggest that you wanted to have a genuine, equal conversation in the first place. Telling you that they feel unsafe is a moment of vulnerability in itself. Telling them that’s not the correct feeling isn’t going to help; it’s going to prove that you don’t take their concerns seriously.
Which brings me to this whole idea about being LGBTQ affirming. For those of you who are cis and straight and use this phrase, I invite you to consider more deeply what you mean by it. It gets thrown around a lot in a way that seems to mean, “I want to be open-minded toward all people including you, and therefore I will allow you in my space.” I guess that’s nice, and it’s certainly a big improvement over, “You’re a giant sinner on a short path to eternal fire,” but…it still rings a little like you’ll tolerate the presence of LGBTQ people, but we shouldn’t count on you to change anything about how you listen to marginalized people’s experiences, or how attentive you are to power dynamics, or whether you’re willing to take any risks or make any sacrifices to help us be more than guests in a straight world. When I think of affirming, I think of people who really want to make life-giving changes, not people who just don’t hate having me around. I know how this goes, because I’m learning the same lessons when it comes to dismantling white supremacy, that it’s not enough to include people of color. It is hard, because we are conditioned to lean on our own status quo to understand the world. But we put in the work to reorient our ears and our priorities to those who are further down the societal ladder than we are, and to amplify their voices, because that’s the example of the Christ we follow.