June is Pride Month. A month intended to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, and to raise awareness about the issues that are impacting said community at an alarming rate. It is more than parades, more than corporations changing their logos to include rainbows, more than your annual social media post about being an ally. Pride Month is about choosing life and love in places and spaces that would often tell many of us to show up as someone else or not at all.
After all, here in the Bible Belt South (the states ranging from Virginia and North Carolina to Texas), it is frowned upon to steer too far from the teachings of church folks, specifically those who believe that their interpretation of scripture gives them permission to mistreat others while praising themselves. Those who continue to profess to “hate the sin, but love the sinner” frequently demonstrate a version of love that feels more like punishment.
LGBTQIA+ people in the state of North Carolina do not have adequate protections in employment nor do our youth have appropriate protections in school. So many of the issues impacting our community are exacerbated by the role that religious leaders and religious teachings play in encouraging their followers to love one another in word, but not necessarily in deed. This affects everything from legislation to school curricula to healthcare. One can simply look at the fact that many laws pertaining to LGBTQIA+ equality have had to come from the federal government or the Supreme Court to see that — if left to their own devices — North Carolinians would still be relegating marginalized communities to the outskirts of society.
Earlier I referenced the issues impacting the LGBTQIA+ community. Those issues are literally life AND death, ranging from mental health to suicide to homelessness to physical and emotional attacks. Over the last several years there has been a rise in the number of incidents of violence against Trans* people, as well as an increase in the more open and apparent hostility directed at stereotypically masculine-presenting women and stereotypically feminine-presenting men. This is especially true for People of Color who identify as LGBTQIA+ in the South. These acts of violence, as well as threats of harm, are a contributing cause to mental illness, trauma, depression, and suicide amongst those in the community. We see that these particular problems do not solely impact adults, but that they are factors that must be considered in conversations about the suicide rates among LGBTQIA+ youth as well.
So much of this is rooted in a self-hatred that is both intentionally and unintentionally taught to those who are (or who are suspected to be) part of the LGBTQIA+ community. For many, this self-hatred is closely connected to growing up in the church or traditionally religious settings. Our youth are experiencing trauma at the hands of those who claim to love them solely because of who they love or how they identify. Many adult members of our community are still battling their own traumas for the same reasons.
Too often the biblical teachings and scriptures shared from the pulpit focus on condemning a chosen few without realizing how such words communicate to people that they are unloved and unlovable. For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, their relationship with religion is a toxic and abusive one, often causing more self-inflicted emotional and physical harm than those on the pews next to us are even aware of.
Imagine looking to a higher power for guidance and protection while simultaneously wondering if the said higher power truly hates you because of who you are or who you love. In this context, even the act of prayer can cause emotional and spiritual turmoil. I sometimes wonder how my fellow North Carolinians feel knowing that a tradition that has taught them love and hopefulness has led many of them to target others in a manner that seems hateful and provokes feelings of despair.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. -John 15:12 (NIV)
In the 2019 Southern LGBTQ Health Survey, it was noted that “A quarter of all survey respondents (26.3%) said they have experienced suicidal thoughts, and 20.2% said they have practiced self-harming behaviors. These rates are much higher than national rates. seperate survey noted that suicide rates have continued to rise during the COVID pandemic and that now — nationally — Indigenous youth, LGBTQ youth, and Black youth are groups that have the highest risks for suicide among people of all ages.
As a resident of North Carolina — a southern state with eight American Indian Tribes and more than 80,000 American Indian residents — I find this data to be particularly unnerving. As a resident of a southern Bible Belt state, I am not shocked at all because I see the influence that religion has on many LGBTQIA+ people and on those who hate them. Whether non-LGBTQIA+ people consider their feelings towards the community to be hatred or not, where they are not doing more to ensure the safety and rights of this group of people, it certainly does not seem like love.
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” -Proverbs 3:27
For those who have been in states like North Carolina for some time, it is also quite noticeable just how much religious teachings impact legislation, policies, and laws in our state. It is all related and intertwined, which is part of why there continues to be so many barriers to growth and progress in our state. We can see obvious parallels between how our declaration of certain actions as sins and certain people as sinful determines how our governing bodies decide who should and should not be protected under the law.
As of 2019, there were only two North Carolina counties with specific ordinances intended to protect people from discrimination due to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It took our state until December 2020 to allow LGBTQ people the same domestic violence protections that have been afforded to those identifying as heterosexual since 1979.As of 2020, there were no legal protections for LGBTQ students in North Carolina schools.
Some North Carolina-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations have reported that “LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly children, still experience high levels of discrimination and stress especially in the school setting where they spend most of their time… LGBTQ+ youth face higher levels of stress, rejection and bullying than their heterosexual peers. High levels of childhood stress can impact life-long mental, emotional and physical health issues in addition to academic performance. This issue is compounded for youths who also experience other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like physical or emotional trauma, poverty and homelessness. Disproportionately high rates of LGBTQ+ youth contemplate and carry out suicide compared to their heterosexual peers.”
My brothers and sisters, you are believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. So treat everyone the same. -James 2:1 (NIRV)
While we continue to explore the idea that we should “hate the sin and love the sinner,” there are some necessary questions I must ask. How have we decided that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a sin? And how did we decide that it outweighed other sins so much so that we could discard the people that have (or that we suspect have) a sexual orientation or gender identity different from the majority of people in our individual worlds? Is this the demonstration of love that we are taught in the Church? Does hating this particular sin allow you to feel better about your own sins? Or is it the opportunity to act as judge and jury that many are clinging so tightly to when they openly speak of hatred towards a group of people on an altar where all are supposed to be welcome?
Judge not, that ye be not judged. -Matthew 7:1 (KJV)
We have long since passed the point in our state’s history where we could right even a portion of the devastating wrongs that we have inflicted on marginalized communities, but it is not too late to re-evaluate how we treat our fellow residents in our actions, our teachings, and our practices. You should not have to identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community to demand that we be treated fairly and that we have access to the same protections as anyone else. Despite how many people may interpret and debate certain stories in the Bible, there are some words that are firm and finite.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. -Leviticus 19:18 (NIV)
Shereá Burnett, JD is an LGBTQIA+ Afro-Indigenous woman who is passionate about literacy programming for children, promoting the work done by Black and Indigenous women, and raising awareness about the issues impacting marginalized communities. Learn more about the work that Shereá is doing in her community by visiting www.thiswomanswords.co.