Needing yet another wedge issue for election season, Republicans in many states are at work attempting to pass legislation that targets LGBTQ people, with a special emphasis on the T.
The year 2022 already has surpassed the record-breaking 2021 as the year with the most anti-LGBTQ bills, with 160 on the docket right now. These bills, however, ignore science, democratic ideals and sound theology, and they contribute to a climate that increases hate violence and LGBTQ youth suicide.
In Tennessee, legislators want to ban K-12 textbooks that address or normalize LGBTQ people and issues. In Florida and Georgia, Republicans seem to think that if teachers “Don’t Say Gay,” somehow LGBTQ kids will just disappear, and no one will be queer anymore. Republicans say the bill is about the “grooming” of young children by exposing them to content related to LGBTQ lives. Of course, the underlying assumptions here are that LGBTQ identity is only about sex and that LGBTQ people “recruit” children to be queer.
Interestingly enough, however, no one “recruited” most, if any, of us. Many of us queer folks grew up in a time when no one talked about queer sexuality except to condemn it from the pulpit or use it to shame and bully. We didn’t see queer representations on TV, homosexual acts were illegal, we didn’t know other people like us, and same-sex marriage wasn’t even a dream on the horizon. Yet we still turned out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and queer, even though we didn’t have much of a vocabulary to name ourselves back then.
In Texas, the governor claims providing transgender kids with medical assistance to transition is child abuse and wants social services to investigate parents who help their children access the health care they need to support their gender identities.
In 2021, 10 states passed legislation that prevents transgender athletes from participating in school sports that correspond with their gender identities. In these instances, Republican legislators even had the audacity to frame their arguments as support for girls and women — Georgia called its bill the “Save Girls Sports Act” — yet these are the same legislators who oppose public support for child care, access to abortion, stringent enforcement of Title IX, pay equity, tough laws against sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence and rape.
“Be assured, these legislators don’t care about protecting girls and women.”
Be assured, these legislators don’t care about protecting girls and women. They are simply making a cynical ploy to use transphobia to gain votes.
What does the science say?
Human sexuality is on a continuum. It’s not a binary — simply straight or simply queer. And sexual diversity is a result of a complex interaction of biology and social factors. A lot of genes influence sexual behavior, scientists have found. There’s no “gay gene,” they explain,” but, rather, diverse sexuality is “a natural part of our diversity as a species.” Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, then, is not a sinful choice.
In fact, homosexual behavior is common throughout the natural world. Scientists have identified homosexual behavior in more than 1,500 species and have not found any species without homosexual behaviors except those that don’t have sex. And it’s not just about sex. Many same-sex animal partners, like female Layson albatrosses and male penguins, can mate for life.
Similarly, gender also is on a continuum and is affected by both biology and social factors. Republican legislators argue that they are following the science, but what they offer is a reductionist model of biology based on what doctors and parents see at birth. The reality is that the science is much more complex, and gender is more than visible body parts. The American Medical Association argues that the scientific evidence shows that “trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression.”
In terms of sports, Republican lawmakers think testosterone gives trans girls and women such inherent physical advantage over women that they should be barred from competing as girls or women. The truth is that little research actually has been done on whether or not testosterone provides athletic advantage.
Instead, this presumption rests on a deeper tenet of patriarchy — that all men are bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than all women. The threat, then, isn’t really that trans girls and women might beat cisgender girls and women in athletic competitions. It’s that they might not. Because these legislators believe trans girls and women are still really biological boys and men, they cannot imagine that they won’t win because that would undermine a central pillar of patriarchy.
“Because these legislators believe trans girls and women are still really biological boys and men, they cannot imagine that they won’t win because that would undermine a central pillar of patriarchy.”
While we’ve seen some transgender girls and women succeed in competition, most trans girls and women are competing without dominating their sports. In fact, the research literature demonstrates that transgender athletes, on the whole, have no athletic advantage when competing in categories of sports that correspond with their gender identities. Rather, trans girls and women experience discrimination and mistreatment when they compete.
What are relevant democratic ideals?
A few ideals of democracy are most salient in thinking about anti-LGBTQ legislation. The first has to do with inclusion and equity. The second has to do with religious liberty and separation of church and state. The third has to do with accurate information and truth-telling.
Ideally, a truly democratic state is fully inclusive of all its residents, without systemic barriers to equal treatment, participation and opportunity. Anti-LGBTQ laws create a distinct class of people who face inequitable treatment, discrimination and structural violence.
Feminist theorist Iris Marion Young argues that the “normative legitimacy of a democratic decision depends on the degree to which those affected by it have been included in the decision-making processes and have had the opportunity to influence the outcomes.” She adds that inclusion requires an openness to plurality and attention to “social differences in order to achieve the wisest and most just political judgments for action” that lead to transformation of the social order toward justice.
Another key ideal of American democracy in particular is religious liberty and the separation of church and state. At its core, anti-LGBTQ legislation is about imposing certain conservative religious beliefs on the entire population.
“At its core, anti-LGBTQ legislation is about imposing certain conservative religious beliefs on the entire population.”
The idea that God created only men and women and that this biological binary is the model for all people is a religious idea, not a democratic (or scientific) one. It therefore has no place in determining legislation that affects all residents of a democracy. Likewise, religious people absolutely have the right to believe diverse sexual expressions are sinful, but in a democracy, they do not have a right to impose that belief on everyone else.
Democracy also relies on an informed electorate and honest legislators. In recent years, however, we’ve seen a proliferation of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies told, accepted and furthered, particularly across the political and religious right.
Not surprisingly, this campaign of falsehoods and lies has been at the core of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Purveyors of this disinformation, including some true believers and well-meaning people, have claimed that gay men are pedophiles, that queer sexuality is a choice that people can change, that queer people recruit children into the “homosexual lifestyle,” that transwomen are really men, that transwomen using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity are a threat to cisgender women, that marriage equality and employment protections are “special rights,” that being queer is a mental disorder, that gay men are promiscuous, and that there’s a “gay agenda” to take over America.
Research shows that conservative people, including conservative Christians, are more likely to accept falsehoods because of their almost constant exposure to misinformation in conservative media. Yet Christians, of all people, have a responsibility to truth and should oppose and reject falsehoods, even when they serve their religious or political ends.
“Research shows that conservative people, including conservative Christians, are more likely to accept falsehoods because of their almost constant exposure to misinformation in conservative media.”
What is sound theology about LGBTQ people?
The conservative Christian beliefs that inform anti-LGBTQ legislation are rooted in deeply problematic readings of Scripture. These beliefs rest on a purported literal reading of the text, but in reality interpreting the biblical text is more complicated than simply reading the King James or NIV in English through 21st century American eyes.
Reading biblical passages in their historical context, with attention to the original languages, and in dialogue with the Bible’s overarching messages of love, redemption and justice, is key to responsible interpretation.
Only five passages (Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10) in the entire Bible deal with anything remotely related to what we understand as queer sexuality today. Only one of these five addresses acts between women. And Jesus himself never uttered a word about diverse sexualities.
In many ways, these passages have actually become “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, for LGBTQ people. They have been used to bludgeon LGBTQ people and, in the hands of literalist interpreters, have done great harm psychologically and spiritually.
That many people interpret the story of Sodom to be about homosexuality is ironic. The ancient Hebrew norm that is violated in the story is not sexuality but hospitality. Rather than welcoming strangers, the men of Sodom seek to rape (not have consensual sex with) them. In contemporary times, this passage about inhospitality is now used by many Christians to justify inhospitality toward LGBTQ people.
In the time of the early Israelites, people believed all of nascent life was in semen. Women merely served as incubators. Thus, non-procreative ejaculation meant the loss of life. This mattered greatly for a small, struggling band of Semitic peoples wandering through the desert trying to establish a homeland.
Also in ancient times, one of the ways conquering soldiers demonstrated dominance over other armies was through anal rape. So early Israelites perceived certain sexual behaviors between men as inherently unequal. Furthermore, the patriarchal culture of the time reinforced strict hierarchies between women and men. One of the greatest insults to masculinity was for a man to be used as a woman. In the thinking of early Israelites, each man represented the entire nation, and so for one man to be used as a woman was to bring shame on the entire nation.
These passages from Leviticus are part of the “holiness code.” This code sets the ancient Israelites apart from the Canaanites around them who worshiped idols and used sexuality as part of the rites of fertility worship. The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, were very concerned with ceremonial uncleanness, and ejaculation made men unclean.
As contemporary interpreters of the Bible, we should also take note of the many other passages from Leviticus that prohibit things we don’t think twice about today, like eating meat and milk together or wearing mixed-fiber clothes.
These religious and cultural attitudes also influenced Paul, as did the Greco-Roman culture around him. In the Roman world, men who were citizens were only supposed to have sex with people of a lower status — women and enslaved men and boys. These liaisons inherently involved unequal power relationships and exploitation. In particular, Paul saw wealthy Roman men use traffickers to procure young boys as their sex slaves. Paul knew nothing of diverse sexual identities as we now understand them. He saw powerful men using people with less power for their sexual pleasure.
Only once does the Bible address sexual behaviors between women. In Romans, Paul argues that same-sex behaviors are not natural. Paul often saw the natural world in terms of hierarchies and, for Paul, the woman was created for the man. Then again, in 1 Corinthians 1:14, Paul also argues that long hair on men is not natural. Paul did not know about genes and hormones and how they shape and are shaped across human development.
“Paul did not know about genes and hormones and how they shape and are shaped across human development.”
Finally, many contemporary interpretations of the two passages in the Epistles rest on translations of Greek words that originally made no reference to sexual identity. The King James version translates these words as “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” The Revised Standard Versions of 1946 and 1952 then made a problematic judgment call, combining these words and translating them as “homosexuals.”
Most likely, the words referred to male prostitutes. One scholar suggests 1 Timothy 1:10 could be rendered “male prostitutes, men who lie with them, and slave dealers who procure them.” Regardless, these terms have nothing to do with contemporary expressions of same-sex attraction but are expressions of exploitative sexual behavior.
Understanding the creation story
Similarly, some interpreters have tried to claim that the story of the creation of the man and the woman reflects God’s design of two fixed genders rooted in biological sexual characteristics and therefore negates the possibilities of transgender identities. These stories, however, are descriptive, not prescriptive, and their theological purpose was to show God as creator and God as relational with God’s creation.
These same passages underline God’s own gender diversity, affirming that God is male and female. In contemporary theological terms, we can draw from this passage to understand God’s own transgender nature — God encompasses all genders within God’s being, God crosses genders.
Eunuchs also provide us with a biblical example of people who do not fit within the gender binary.
“Eunuch” usually refers to a castrated man, but the term also can mean an official. Jesus recognized three categories of eunuch: “For there are some eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men; and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matthew 19:12).
The first category includes people born with atypical genitalia. The second are people castrated in youth or adulthood. Those castrated before puberty typically develop broad hips, narrow shoulders and larger breasts; they also usually lack a beard and a lower voice. The third group are those who by choice become eunuchs for the glory of God’s community. These eunuchs may or may not have undergone physical castration.
The point is these people challenge binary notions of gender, and yet they play significant roles in the Bible, including an Ethiopian eunuch who is baptized by Philip. Theologically, eunuchs signify a place for gender diversity within the community of God.
“The overriding theme of Scripture that is significant theologically is that of God’s inclusive love for all of God’s diverse creation.”
Who’s in and who’s out?
Using the Bible to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people in law misuses the biblical text and rests on a simplistic and misguided reading of the text. The overriding theme of Scripture that is significant theologically is that of God’s inclusive love for all God’s diverse creation.
In the book of Acts, we see early Christians throwing up all kinds of barriers to the gospel, laws that need to be kept and questions of who’s in and who’s out. Again and again across Acts, however, we see these barriers fall before the gospel as the Spirit welcomes diverse people into God’s community.
How will this legislation get people killed?
At the end of the day, most importantly, this legislation is not only bad science, bad politics and bad theology, it’s also dangerous. Of course, it’s psychologically harmful to LGBTQ people who are told they are somehow disordered, less valuable, predatory and unwelcomed. That’s a message we’ve heard all our lives. And we know that message has consequences.
LGBTQ youth seriously consider and attempt suicide at rates significantly greater than other youth. They are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth, and almost 2 million LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide each year. Every 45 seconds, at least one LGBTQ youth attempts suicide.
In the past year, more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide. LGBTQ youth of color attempt suicide at even greater rates than white LGBTQ youth. Transgender youth who are denied gender-affirming hormones are at greater risk of depression and suicide attempts, and the science tells us that trans youth who receive treatment experience a significant drop in depression and suicidal thoughts.
Research also identifies a number of other factors that contribute to the high rates of suicide consideration and attempts among LGBTQ youth: minority stress, discrimination, conversion therapy, rejection, and a lack of social support and affirming spaces.
The risk for death by suicide is greater among transgender adults than in the general population, as is the risk for lesbian, gay and bisexual adults compared with heterosexual adults. Transgender people who experience family rejection or discrimination or are victims of violence are more likely to consider and attempt suicide, while trans people with access to gender-affirming medical care experience fewer suicidal thought and attempts.
“When cultures create atmospheres of intolerance and hate, violent people feel justified in assaulting and killing LGBTQ people.”
When cultures create atmospheres of intolerance and hate, violent people feel justified in assaulting and killing LGBTQ people. When hateful rhetoric appears in political campaigns, legislative debates, commentary or social media, hate crimes against LGBTQ people rise.
Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes increased significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, as did the number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups. Hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people rank third in number behind those targeting people on the basis of race and religion, with one in five hate crimes related to anti LGBTQ bias. Again, 2021 shattered the record for the number of transgender people murdered — most of them Black and Latinx transwomen.
The callousness of the right toward LGBTQ people is evident in a recent statement made by Montana Republican State Sen. Theresa Manzella. She said of LGBTQ people, “Now, they like to play the protected-class card and they’re the minority and they’re discriminated against and they’re scared to walk down the street hand in hand. … I’ve got to tell you, I think those are normal consequences associated with the choices they made.”
For her, fear, discrimination, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence are simply the expected and acceptable consequences of LGBTQ people’s “choice” to be who they are. In short, the senator has offered blanket justification for violence against LGBTQ people: They have only themselves to blame.
All of this anti-LGBTQ legislation won’t protect or help anyone. In fact, it will do the opposite, making life harder for a lot of people and putting a lot more people, including kids, at risk for violence and death.
Maybe it’s time for more Christian folks to pull back the curtain on Republican legislators who are targeting LGBTQ people to divert attention from their own failings and to shore up votes ahead of the 2022 election season. There’s nothing Christian, nothing democratic and nothing worthy about anti-LGBTQ legislation, and we need to say it, hard though that may be, to our friends and neighbors, our families, our pastors, our schools and, most of all, our elected officials.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
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