Why Queer Liberation Must Be Queer Led

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” — Audre Lorde, from the essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

When it comes to “LGBT issues and the church” or “LGBT reconciliation” who takes the lead? Is it straight pastors? Straight authors? Straight activists? Or is it queer people? When it comes to justice, help, and healing, who defines what that looks like? How is success measured?

Queer people are taking up the work of our own liberation. We are creating theology, housing each other, guiding each other through life decisions, supporting each other when families of origin disappoint. We do this on an interpersonal level and we do this on a macro level. Queer people lead churches and businesses (in Iceland, we even run a country). We offer unique insights into life and faith to our communities.

We do this not as a hobby or a choice, because we want to or feel convicted to. Every day that we exist is an act of resistance against a system that would see erased. The recent high-profile LGBT youth suicides are a somber reminder that we do not all survive.

Queer liberation is risky business

There is an impulse to lavish praise when straight people, especially high profile straight people, come out in support of LGBT equality. I know this impulse because I feel it in myself. It’s not a “wrong” impulse: straight people do take on risk (at least today) in making such decisions. It is also important to acknowledge the benefits that come with that position: respect and praise from LGBT people, especially friends; the potential for speaking engagements and book deals with secular or queer-affirming religious institutions; a sense of personal pride.

There are some other impulses we will be wise to notice.

As a white man, I feel a sense of pride that I “understand” institutional and interpersonal racism and sexism. I sometimes want to distance myself from “those white people” or “those guys.” As a queer man, I sometimes want to use the queer aspect of my identity to distance myself from men when they act oppressively or fail to act justly.

When I first began to become aware of the entrenched nature of racism, sexism, homopobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, and all sorts of other systemic injustices, I wanted to be taught. I wanted Black people to help fix broken, racist institutions. I wanted someone else to explain to me what the prison industrial complex is and why hate crimes legislation are harmful to marginalized people.

Sometimes when I enter into tough conversations around issues that I do not personally experience–race, gender, gender identity–I am critiqued by people who do have those identities. Sometimes I want to clarify, “No, I understand that racism is institutional!” or offer evidence “One of my best friends is transgender!” Sometimes people are snippy and I want to be snippy back. I’m sure on at least one occasion I’ve simply walked away.

Do you recognize those impulses in yourself? Perhaps you are queer and you’ve had similar experiences. Perhaps you are straight and have had similar impulses around LGBT issues and queer people.

We need to unlearn unhelpful impulses.

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Matthew 20:16

In the canonical gospels, Jesus lays out a peculiar understanding of the world. My friend Shane Claiborne sometimes calls God’s kingdom “topsy turvy.” God seems to have different priorities than the world. Jesus, in Matthew 20, describes a re-centering of priorities: the last become first. It’s not that the last are simply included, rather the last are prioritized.

Who do you prioritize?

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” — Isaiah 61:1

The prophet Isaiah delivers a clear call on his purpose. In my work as an activist, I come back to this. Smash the system! Shut down the prisons! Redistribute the wealth! I focus on myself as an agent of change, as the one with power. That is good and helpful. We need a kick in the butt sometimes to remind us about God’s priorities. At other times, I approach this passage as one of pastoral comfort. The Spirit of the Lord comes to announce good news. Good news! She offers good news for me!

What is good news to the gay son who is estranged from his family? What is good news to the transgender teenager who was kicked out of her school? What is good news to the lesbian who was denied ordination after years of study? What is good news to the partner who is deported? To the sick person who lacks medical care?

Where do we find ourselves?

Privilege is a powerful force. Privilege allows me to get called in for a job interview while a person with a “foreign sounding” name will be passed over. Privilege is when I earned 50% more than the woman who replaced me at work. Privilege is never having my bag searched in the subway.

Remember that bit in Matthew about the last becoming first? When it comes to the issues affecting marginalized people, we need to center and prioritize their perspective. As a white man, that means I often need to step back, listen, and support. Sometimes, as a queer person, I need to step forward and lead.

If I’m not careful, I can abuse my white privilege, my male privilege, my gender-conforming privilege. Sometimes, I need to pass the mic to Shay, or Vince, Onlielove, and others. They are already saying powerful important things.

Going where God is

Jesus was a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine. He was born to a border-crossing teenage mother who heard voices. The Jesus movement began as movement by the very people most affected by injustice at the time. God is in the margins. As Christians in the modern world, some 2000 years later, we are continually invited into the live-giving, life-changing, life-saving work of redemption and transformation. My friend Eda Uca-Dorn of Hosanna! People’s Seminary reminds me, “salvation is wrapped up in how I respond to the other, how I change myself; not whether I ‘save’ them.”

The challenge then is to change the world by changing ourselves. For some of us, that will mean learning to love ourselves and finding an inner strength to survive and thrive. For some of us, that will mean stepping back and listening, learning some new ways of being in the world, and unlearning some old ones. For all of us, we work to create a place right now on earth as it is in heaven.

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Next week, I will be running a series on “unlearning” in order to build better movements. You can subscribe below to receive updates.