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  • Glenda Russell

The Complexity of Religion in the Lives of Queer People

In an earlier blog, I proposed that three structural legs support the stool of oppression affecting LGBTQ+ people; these legs are associated with legal, mental health, and religious concerns. All three legs have been used to characterize LGBTQ+ people in negative terms and limit their access to rights. Previous columns for this blog have addressed the first of those two legs, including how they have played out in Boulder history. This piece will address the third by offering some snapshots of how religion has been used both as a tool against and an expression of support for LGBTQ+ people in Boulder. Not only do different religions speak differently about sexuality and gender, some religions have changed their positions over time. Generally, the voices of conservative religious groups have been more obvious in the public square, often leaving an unfortunate silence when it comes to more supportive religious-oriented expressions about LGBTQ+ people. This inconsistency has characterized Boulder's relationship to religion as well.  

When 400 Boulderites gathered in the City Council chambers for a 1974 hearing on whether to include sexual orientation in the newly passed Human Rights Ordinance, many of the people who objected to the proposal were from religious congregations and made explicit use of the language of sin and immorality. Only three religious arguments were put forth in support of the proposal. One was from the Rev. Charlie Erehart, a minister from Denver's Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies, which has its base in the gay community. Erehart began his comments with the declaration, "God loves me and he knows I'm homosexual." 

The other two supportive religious comments were from faith communities in Boulder; they were exceptions to the silence or outright antipathy toward LGBTQ+ people among many religious groups at the time. The Friends (Quaker) Meeting offered a simple statement of support for inclusion. A member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boulder spoke for the church in support of the proposal, but took their endorsement one step further, asking listeners to join the Unitarians in working together to undo learned homophobia.

Some years later, the conflict about religious beliefs and queer people played out within single congregations. In one case that was covered in a feature story in The New Yorker, a youth minister at a Methodist church in Boulder announced that he was getting a divorce and he was gay. The church was split in its reaction, but, ultimately, the minister's job was terminated. For a while, some members met in "home church," coming together in people's houses for weekly worship. Eventually, the youth minister was hired with no pay by a progressive Methodist church in Denver, one of the first in the denomination to become a reconciling congregation, that is, parishioners seeking harmony between the church and LGBTQ+ people. The minister ultimately became the founding director of Colorado AIDS Project. In 1987, Boulder's First Congregational Church adopted a "Statement of Openness, Inclusion and Affirmation of Gay and Lesbian Persons," the first mainstream Christian church in the city to do so. A decade  later, that church began conducting commitment/union/covenant ceremonies for same-sex couples. 

In the mid-1990s, a group of Jewish gay and lesbian people formed a Havurah (or chavurah) — a community of friends — called Tribe 13. It was, in the words of one member, "a safe place to be who we were together and to celebrate our tradition in a slightly different way." Tribe 13 varied some of the language and traditions of Judaism to accommodate the group's queer and feminist sensibilities. Three decades later, they continue to meet for Jewish holidays. Over time, more and more faith communities increased their support for LGBTQ+ communities. When Boulderites gathered for a vigil to acknowledge the June 2016 killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, clergy from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities spoke. 

Of course, events that take place beyond Boulder influence what happens within religious communities here. Things get particularly complex when religion intersects with the broader legal system. For more than ten years, that intersection has played out especially strongly in the judicial realm, with particular attention given to claims of so-called religious exemptions. In such cases — think the Masterpiece Cakeshop and 303 Creative cases — people argue that their religious beliefs exempt them from having to follow non-discrimination laws when it comes to LGBTQ+ people. 

In a very recent judicial case that originated in Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a licensed counselor who objected to that state's ban on "conversion therapy" for minors. The discredited form of treatment, which seeks to change people's sexual orientation or gender identity, doesn't work and seeks to "fix" something that isn't broken. The approach also carries the danger of increasing depression, poor self-esteem, spiritual confusion, and suicidal feelings. Conversion therapy has been roundly rejected by every major mental health group in the country. 

In refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court let stand the Washington ban on conversion therapy as well as bans in 22 other states plus Washington, D.C. While the counselor had argued the state had no right to regulate his speech, the state asserted it had the right to regulate professionals engaged in conduct that has a probability of damaging young people. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case is clearly a gain for the queer/trans community, but it is not the end of the story. According to a just-released Trevor Project report, approximately 1,320 therapists in the U.S. continue to offer conversion therapy. 

We have not seen the end of changes in the relationship between religion, the law, and LGBTQ+ people — not in Boulder and not in the country at large. Particularly in light of the fact that around 50% of LGBTQ+ people refer to themselves as religious, we can expect to see more changes as time goes on.


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