“I like Mayor Pete because the way he talks about being openly gay shows strength of character.”
I heard this comment not at a political rally or an informal gathering of the like-minded, but in church. At my church, to be precise, during coffee hour following the weekly service. When the congregants sitting around the table in our church basement heard this opinion about the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, they all nodded in agreement.
Mr. Buttigieg’s ability to articulate his sexual orientation through the lens of faith has captured public attention and drawn him into a theological spat with Vice President Mike Pence. The fact that the first openly gay major presidential candidate is also a Christian is indeed remarkable, a milestone in the visibility of L.G.B.T. people of faith. Yet it is also the result of a process that has been taking place in American religion for decades.
Pete Buttigieg is not the first openly gay Christian. Rather, he is the product of a slow-moving but steady trend among faith communities to acknowledge the inherent theological value of the spiritual experience of L.G.B.T. people. In the process, American religion is becoming less straight. Mr. Buttigieg’s popularity demonstrates the appetite for a mainstream narrative of religion beyond reflexive associations with social conservatism. But it also signals the budding of a queerer soul of this society.
The L.G.B.T. community increasingly is finding a home in houses of faith. The latest Pew Research Center study found that just over half of L.G.B.T. adults claim a religious affiliation. The growing portion of organized religion that affirms same-sex marriage and queer leadership sits within this landscape alongside lively pockets of welcome within traditions with officially homophobic policies.
The United Methodist Church’s rejection this year of L.G.B.T.-affirming measures, for instance, was less an act of exclusion than the result of the inability of that church’s internal polity to keep pace with its flourishing ministry among L.G.B.T. Americans. But opinion among even Roman Catholics and evangelicals is increasingly affirming, and with support even higher among younger adherents, it is reasonable to conclude that American religion will continue to expand its embrace of queerness.
Secular and nominally religious Americans can be forgiven for their surprise at this trend. Underneath the dominant narrative that equates religion with socially conservative causes, religious institutions have quietly been in productive — if contentious and sometimes violent — dialogue with queerness for decades. From pioneering figures like the civil rights leader and openly queer Episcopal priest Pauli Murray to the New York Fire Department chaplain and Sept. 11 hero Mychal Judge to Debbie Friedman’s indelible mark on Jewish sacred music, queerness has hovered around religion since the beginning of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s.
Though often hidden, these contributions to religious life at large helped shape the world of faith from the inside even as most religious institutions inflicted untold pain and suffering on their L.G.B.T. members. As heavy a price as many queer people continue to pay within their faith communities, prolonged struggle is a familiar trope in the history of lasting and meaningful religious reform.
Enter Pete Buttigieg. I’ll admit that his candidacy feels personal to me. Like him, I’m a gay Episcopalian from the Midwest. We’re roughly the same age, both have hard-to-pronounce names, and came out relatively late in life by today’s standards. I know well this cloth from which he is cut — the precocious young man driven to overachievement in order to beat back the unwanted but equally unavoidable truth of his sexuality.
When I was growing up in 1990s, there was no model of public leadership that included openly gay men, to say nothing of other forms of queerness that benefit from far less privilege. So I understand what Mr. Buttigieg means when he admitted that years ago he “would have done anything not to be gay.”
What is often overlooked in society’s widening affirmation of L.G.B.T. people is the immense spiritual burden this exclusion has historically placed on the young. As queer youth seek to make their place in the world, most have had no choice but to abandon homophobic structures, perhaps most significantly the religious institutions in which they were raised. The only other option was to remain closeted.
This is implicitly the choice Mr. Pence presents to Mr. Buttigieg and the rest of us who are like him — either deny who you are or be excluded from the community of faith.
So it is difficult to understate the symbolic and spiritual power of the kickoff of Mr. Buttigieg’s presidential campaign on Sunday. There was no question that this candidate was a gay man. At the conclusion of his speech, he embraced his husband, Chasten, to whom he was married in a service at South Bend’s Episcopal cathedral last year.
Chasten Buttigieg is significant to the gay community in much the same way Michelle Obama is to African-Americans — an affable and charismatic political spouse who affirms his husband’s commitment to his minority identity. So here, standing before a cheering crowd and the national media, were two queer people whose manner of life and intrinsic being enjoyed the blessing of their faith. Our political system is not designed to be an instrument of salvation, encouraging as it do the self-interests of the figures who inhabit it. But they do reveal the spirit of our society, which is why this moment felt particularly spiritually poignant.
When I felt the calling to be ordained as a teenager, I resolved to push my sexuality as deep down from view as I could for fear that it would hinder me from entering the vocation I dreamed of. Yet it was my church that ultimately coaxed me out into the fullness of the person God created me to be.
This was not an act of accommodation on the part of the church, but a fulfillment of its ancient mission of liberating souls from spiritual bondage. As Christians and Jews enter the holy season of Easter and Passover, the holiday will be the queerest — and most spiritually liberated — we have ever experienced. But only until next year.
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