News of the mass murder of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando spread through social and mainstream media last month, prompting a now familiar pattern of shock, anger, denial, and accusations.
That pattern includes not only expressions of grief, but the now equally common attempts to assess blame and frame the public response to tragedy in a way that will highlight and advance political and social agendas. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick first tweeted then deleted a message quoting Galatians 6:7 (“A man reaps what he sows”); Connecticut senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal called Congress “complicit in these murders.” A social media campaign was quick to accuse politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” of hypocrisy for accepting donations from the gun lobby. The New York Daily News was blunter, running a headline that said, simply, “Thanks, NRA.”
In an environment where even generic expressions of sympathy or compassion will be most likely met with suspicion (if not outright hostility), well-meaning Christians might be tempted to remain silent. That’s not—or shouldn’t be—an option. Jesus’s proclamation in Matthew 7 is that his followers not only hear his words but “put them into practice.” More than prophesying or even “performing miracles,” producing good fruit by practicing the teachings of Jesus is the most faithful indicator of a Christian.
Truthfully, most of us lack practice in interacting compassionately, respectfully, and honestly with those whom we are unfamiliar. Critics from the first centurary (Longinus) through the modern era (Shelley) have argued that art’s distinctive moral power comes from its ability to engage the emotions and imagination. Are there books and films for Christians who want to understand LBGTQ people (both those who profess to share their faith and those who don’t) better? Absolutely.
Of course, reading a book or watching a movie is never an adequate substitute for talking to an actual LGBTQ person. Consciousness-raising for its own sake, I have argued, can be as much of an evasion of principled action as a form of it. What films, literature, and books can do is inform our efforts to engage the world around us, possibly making those efforts more effective by helping us to understand the particular fears, scars, and needs of whatever audience we are addressing. Art can highlight what we have in common with neighbors we don’t know and infuse discussions of our differences with a much needed measure of grace.
Finally, the titles I recommend here are not meant to give straight Christians a full, nuanced portrait of the LGBTQ experience. It is unlikely that five (or even fifty) books could do that. Lists of films with gay characters already exist, and Christians willing to watch films with LBGTQ characters such as Carol, Big Eden, Brokeback Mountain, or The Crying Game, may find it slightly easier to interact with such people in real life after they have gotten to know and care for a few of them in the fictional realm. Such lists serve a purpose, and I don’t wish to denigrate them. I just don’t want to write one more list that trots out the half-dozen or so canonical gay titles that can one can read or watch to prove one is multicultural.
What these films and books have done is influence the way I talk with LBGTQ friends, neighbors, students, and colleagues. They have helped me explore how “love thy neighbor” can be more than an abstraction and how speaking the truth in love is impossible without educating myself about the subject I am speaking about. When that subject is another person’s life, one must be particularly careful. Despite the best intentions, we will make errors when we speak in the public square or address people where they feel (or are) the most vulnerable. I remain convinced, however, that imperfect expressions of love and compassion are preferable to public silence in the wake of tragedy. In the aftermath of the Orlando murders, one bisexual friend and colleague shared that he found the public silence of those who privately affirmed him even more painful than the theological rejection of those who nevertheless ministered to him and his community. In light of that confession, I offer a handful of titles that have helped shape my tone and message when I speak as a Christian about LGBTQ issues.
American Experience: Stonewall Uprising
There are many worthy historical documentaries about gays in America. Kate Davis’s and David Heilbroner’s carefully researched film is my favorite for several reasons. It includes an interview with at least one of the police officers at the riot, giving straight viewers a foothold into the documentary. It uses archival footage, including that of CBS’s The Homosexuals, to give us a glimpse of what straight attitudes towards gays were in the 1960s. It blends first-hand testimony with computer simulations and judicious use of still photography to create a slightly more immersive experience than do most talking-head documentaries.
Stonewall is referred to in the film as the “Rosa Parks moment” of the gay liberation movement. Comparisons to the push for African-American civil rights are perhaps inevitable, but they may also be misleading. The Montgomery bus boycotts were part of a systematic movement of intentionally non-violent resistance. What is the significance of the fact that the seminal moment of this movement is most accurately characterized as a riot? Non-violent movements led by Dr. King and Gandhi presupposed that their commitment to non-violence secured a moral high ground that would eventually make violence against its members intolerable to onlookers. To the extent we as Christians countenance (or are merely indifferent towards) violence against LGBTQ people, do we make those in oppressed groups feel as though their only choices are passive slaughter or armed resistance?
It is probably important, too, in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings to understand the role of the bar/club in the gay community. Yes, straight people have venues that serve similar social or dating functions, but we may not understand, unless we have been part of a minority community, the psychological importance of an oasis or safe zone in a broader hostile environment where one can let one’s guard down and is free to be oneself. They are not religious centers, but they are community centers. For that reason, it is not completely out of line to imagine the psychological effects of the Orlando shootings as being akin to the bombing of a Black church or the desecration of a mosque or synagogue.
Bill Condon’s biopic of Alfred Kinsey is a hard “R.” It has pervasive sexual content and some disturbing imagery that may be difficult for some Christians to watch. It—like its subject—is also highly controversial.
Even with all those caveats, though, I think the film important for this reason: the majority of young people I speak to about human sexuality have been educated about and seem to accept Kinsey’s assertion that homosexuality is not a binary opposition to heterosexuality. There is little doubt that the Kinsey Scale, like culturally entrenched ideas from Marx, Darwin, or Freud, is something with which an educated American must be familiar. To enter into public conversations about sexuality (or evolution, or climate change) without at least familiarizing oneself about pervading cultural beliefs and how they evolved is to allow one’s voice to be too easily dismissed.
For that same reason, academically prepared Christians would do well to try to process at least some of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. The assertion that sexual identity is a social construct has far reaching implications. To cite just one, the fact that so many of the most influential writers about sexuality in the last generation have been sociologists, social scientists, or political scientists rather than biologists or theologians has an had an undeniable impact on the assumptions parties hold when they enter into public debate.
Although not overtly Christian nor about LGBTQ people, Stuart Blumberg’s Thanks for Sharing presents a sobering picture of people from all walks of life experiincing the devastating impact of unhealthy sexual practices. It’s marketed as a Romantic Comedy, but it is often more tragic than funny. There are many heterosexual Christians who struggle to conform their own sexual practices to the principles they believe we should all live by. A film that gently reminds us of our own failures and need for grace may well do more to inject our conversations and declarations with a measure of humility than would any public admonitions to speak compassionately to those unlike us.
In a similar yet slightly different vein, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity draws on her experience as a couples therapist to explore the question of whether (and how) married or committed couples can sustain desire. Christians may not agree with all of her recommendations, but her experience should help them better understand the psychological components of sexual relationships.
A Sinner in Mecca
Recommending Parvez Sharma’s documentary of his Hajj pilgrimage runs the undeniable risk of inflaming Islamophobia in the name of descrying homophobia. For some, the cultural differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia might be just enough to mask the uncomfortable similarity in portions of each that are most vociferous in their condemnation of homosexuality. God Loves Uganda, How to Survive a Plague, or The Laramie Project could all serve the same function by highlighting the most extreme forms of hatred in different parts of the world.
But there is a part of the homosexual experience in the modern world that must be acknowledged and which A Sinner in Mecca highlights more effectively for me than any of the others: fear. An anonymous gay man chats with Sharma via the Internet early in the film and says, “I am so fucking afraid all the time.” Fear is a universal emotion, but the circumstances that give rise to it are doled out disproportionately in our lives. I can count on one hand the number of times in my two-score and ten years that I have feared for my life. Almost all have been brief flashes of terror rather than sustained confrontations with possible (or probable) imminent violence. We are only just beginning to understand the psychological or even biological consequences of long-term fear. Post-traumatic stress, depression, drug and alcohol abuse (as a form of self-medication), are all possible consequences of and exacerbated by fear. Victims of trauma or violence may need more than the usual amount of assurance from us—even if we were not the perpetrators of that violence—that they are safe with and among us.
Be the Message: Taking Your Faith Beyond Words to a Life of Action
This book, from Pastor Kerry Shook and Chris Shook, is not specifically about interactions with the LGBTQ community, but its reminder that talking about God is not the same thing as acting on His words is one that is well worth reviewing, especially if it has been awhile since our Bible readings have taken us through the book of James.
The Pure Flix documentary Undivided is about an Oregon church that “adopts” an at-risk school. Like the Shooks’ book, it is not explicitly about interactions between Christians and gays. It is, however, a beautiful witness to what can happen when Christians put ministering to others above preaching at them.
What would be the reaction—what changes would be effected in ourselves and others—if the first question we asked in the face of suffering was not “who is to blame?” but “how can I alleviate it?”
Queen Rock Montreal
Here is my non-rigorous theological confession: I have a hard time imagining a heaven that has no place for the music of Freddie Mercury and his mates. “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “I Want It All,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Under Pressure” are songs that have lifted me, lightened my own suffering, assuaged my own loneliness and fear, and made me joyful in ways that Christian praise music rarely does.
For me it is Stone Cold Classics and W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being. For you it might be The Lord of the Rings movies, Star Trek, Go Tell It on The Mountain, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or Ziggy Stardust. Gay actors, musicians, and authors have made contributions to countless works that have inspired us and enriched our lives. Watch one, read one, listen to one. Once you know through personal experience that your life is the better for having received the gift of art from an LGBTQ person, it is easier to believe the stranger you don’t know may have a contribution to our society that is worth making. Once we have thanked God for one person—or his work—is it not more likely that we will better understand the anguish of his community when confronted with tragedy?
And will not that understanding inform out thoughts, prayers, and deeds in such a way as to embolden us to try to bridge the ever-widening gulf of suspicion and silence that separates us from our friends, our neighbors, our families, and our best selves?