Across the United States, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians are coming out of the closet. For many of them, finding acceptance within the church can be a test of faith.
“I think it’s a decision I have to make every single day and every Sunday when I go to church,” Austen Hartke, a transgender Christian who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, told NBC News. “You’re always trying to figure out if you should leave and go somewhere where it would be easier to make positive changes in the world rather than within a system that in some ways is trying to keep you down.”
Studies show that LGBTQ people of faith are often conflicted. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, many feel unwelcome within most major religions and are much less likely to identify as Christian compared to the general public.
Hartke, who created the YouTube series "Transgender and Christian," said he stays because he wants to help LGBTQ youth growing up in the Christian faith.
“I want them to be able to grow up in a better community and a more knowledgeable community, and a more compassionate community,” Hartke said.
The 29-year-old is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While his church has issued a statement affirming members who are lesbian, gay and bisexual, he said it has not issued any doctrine concerning its stance on transgender members.
“That was what made me a little bit nervous,” said Hartke, who started hormone replacement therapy in his mid-20s. He said he wasn’t sure how people in the church would react but said no one responded negatively.
“I think I was very careful about it, but everybody that I talked to individually was very supportive, which was great,” he said.
While Hartke sees positive change on the horizon, he said there are some trends that disturb him: A slew of Republican-backed transgender “bathroom” bills, for instance, and an ongoing Supreme Court case — Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — which will determine whether business owners can choose not to serve LGBTQ patrons.
“Whether it’s trying to buy a wedding cake or trying to get in the bathroom, the more visible we are, the more threatening that feels to people who think we shouldn’t be in those spaces, and so it’s not just an issue of visibility,” he said. “It’s not just an issue of ‘Do you know what the word transgender means?’ It’s an issue of ‘Do you know any people who are trans, and do you know what their experience is like?’”
Hartke is publishing a book called “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians,” and he regularly gives lectures at churches around the country. He said he sees attitudes toward homosexuality and gender identity starting to evolve in “very small ways.”
“I go and I talk with people who are on the edge of things,” he said. “They just don’t know, or they’re coming from a position where they did think poorly about LGBT folks, and now they’re not sure, and they need to figure out what to think.”
Usually, he explained, they have friends or family members who are openly gay or transgender, and that forces them to rethink their views.
“I see these sort of small incremental movements all the time,” Hartke said, “and it gives me hope that, over time, society at large will sort of figure out a way to move in that direction.”
PUTTING A FACE TO LGBTQ CHRISTIANS
A report released earlier this month by Church Clarity, an organization that grades U.S. churches based on their LGBTQ policies, found none of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBTQ-affirming. But as more LGBTQ people of faith come out, advocates say, the more likely that is to change.
“Putting a face on what it looks like to be LGBTQ and Christian is really important for the Christian community at large to see,” Erin Green, faith programs coordinator at the Tyler Clementi Foundation, said. “We can show that we’re human beings with beating hearts just like they are, with proclivity to screw up just like they do.”
Sixty-eight percent of white mainline Protestants, 67 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of black Protestants now say they accept same-sex marriage, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. And while just 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor same-sex marriage, according to the study, that number has more than doubled since 2007.
But this growing acceptance, according to Green, has sparked a wave of backlash from the religious right. In August, a coalition of evangelical leaders announced their opposition to same-sex marriage and gender identity in an online doctrinal statement called the Nashville Statement.
"WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness,” Article 10 of the statement reads.
The Nashville Statement has been signed by more than 20,000 people, many of them evangelical leaders.
“The Nashville Statement,” Green explained, “is a direct response to the fact that there are LGBTQ Christians coming out and trying to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, actually, Christ accepts us.’”
Many Christian universities have also been reluctant to embrace evolving attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, according to Green. The activist, who is also executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Biolans’ Equal Ground at Biola University in California, is fighting what she sees as discrimination on campus.
In 2014, Biola was one of more than 100 evangelical Christian universities and colleges that filed for partial religious exemptions to Title IX, which prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of sex. Green said the exemption allows the university to discriminate against LGBTQ students.
In an email to NBC News, Biola University spokesperson Jenna Loumagne said Title IX exemptions “are requested not to discipline or penalize students, but so that faith-based institutions can continue to function in ways that do not compromise their religious convictions while at the same time caring deeply for students who are within this community, including LGBTQ students.”
But some Biolans, Green said, saw the exemption as a threat to the rights of LGBTQ students. In February 2016, Biolans' Equal Ground led an on-campus demonstration against it.
“We planned a walking route through the campus and stopped at specific high-traffic points,” she said. “We had signs and banners and a pretty substantial group of folks with us.”
The protest seemed to have made an impact, according to Green. In May of last year, a student psychology club invited her to speak at a panel about LGBTQ issues on campus. “They were really receptive to my opinions and thoughts, and it seemed to be a really wonderful thing,” she said.
But then in September, Green attended a seminar hosted by the university’s Christian apologetics department called “Addressing Homosexuality: Clarity and Compassion.” She claimed that during the event, a guest lecturer named Alan Shlemon endorsed reparative therapy (also known as gay conversion therapy), a controversial and medically defunct practice that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
In her email, Loumagne said "Biola does not endorse or practice reparative therapy," and she added that Shlemon presented “secular research that presented a perspective of reparative therapy” but “did not endorse it at the seminar.”
Some students at Biola saw the lecture as an endorsement, according to Green, and in December, Biolans’ Equal Ground held a demonstration on campus calling for administrators to apologize. “Direct action in this area is really important for the purpose of creating dialogue rather than allowing the echo chamber to continue,” Green said.
Green said LGBTQ students on non-affirming Christian campuses are vulnerable. Many fear expulsion, she said, if they are discovered to be in same-sex relationships. They don’t always get to choose where they go to school, she added, as their parents may dictate which colleges they attend, or they may want to major in studies that are only offered at those schools. That is why she fights for LGBTQ rights on campus, she explained.
“I can keep my mouth shut and hope for the best,” she said. “But in reality, it’s the fact that I’m willing to stand up and speak and take action and ask questions and call people out on things — and I expect the same to be done to myself — this is what causes dialogue. And that’s a huge victory.”
CHANGING VIEWS FROM THE PEWS
For John Freml, a devout Catholic who is also gay, abandoning his faith is not an option.
“If everybody who thought like me were to leave the church, then there would be nobody left in the church for the youth who are dealing with the same things that I had to deal with,” he said.
Freml, 32, is a coordinator for Equally Blessed, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ Catholics. He lives in Springfield, Illinois, with his husband and two foster children. Like many Catholic families, they go to church on Sundays. But they have to drive across town to one of the only churches with a gay-friendly priest, Freml said.
“LGBT people really have to search and do some research to find a parish that will accept them for who they are,” Freml explained.
Freml came out as gay his senior year of high school, he said, after “quite a few years of inner turmoil.” Catholic school, he explained, had taught him that marriage and sex should only be between a man and a woman. He said the shame was so intense that he contemplated suicide.
“I remember feeling that God hated me,” he recalled, “and I remember praying to this God that would not listen, that would not change me, and thinking that this burden I have — this cross I have to carry — was just too heavy.”
Freml stopped going to church for several years. Then, in his 20s, he decided to attend a young adult retreat for Catholics, where he met other gay Catholics like himself. He said it helped him reconcile his sexuality with his faith and brought him back to God.
“The Church, for better or for worse, has always been a part of my life,” Freml explained. “It’s what I grew up in, and it’s part of who I am.”
Freml said ordinary Catholics are beginning to embrace the LGBTQ community.
“The thing to remember is that the hierarchy — the bishops and priests — they’re only one part of the church,” he said. “The majority of the church are the people in the pews, the laity, and the majority of the church has already decided that it accepts birth control, it accepts sex outside of marriage, it accepts LGBT people, it accepts a lot of things that the hierarchy does not.”
About two-thirds of American Catholics say it is acceptable for same-sex couples to raise children, and many Catholics support changes to key teachings on policies like birth control, according to a 2015 study. While churchgoers attitudes are evolving, Freml said, many within the Catholic hierarchy are more wary of change, especially on LGBTQ issues. In December, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an open letter that rejected the legitimacy of transgender identities. The letter echoes statements made by Pope Francis, who in October denounced medical technologies that allow transgender people to transition.
“We’ve got a long way to go, because he still has some really harmful ideas, especially about trans people,” Freml said of the pontiff.
Pope Francis has been more ambiguous concerning his stance on homosexuality, according to Freml. For instance, he has said that gay people should be protected from “unjust discrimination,” but he has upheld the church’s teachings that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
Some leaders within the church have been more critical of the issue, Freml said. In June, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, who heads the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese in Illinois, issued a decree instructing priests to deny communion and church burials to parishioners in same-sex marriages.
Freml said he had previously organized a meeting between members of the LGBTQ community and Paprocki to confront him about his history of controversial actions toward the LGBTQ community.
“The reason we met is so that he can no longer think about us in an abstract way," Freml explained. "We forced him to put faces to this group that he keeps decreeing these harmful things about.”
Freml said he believes the church will evolve its stance on issues like same-sex marriage and gender identity as pressure to do so is driven from the pews. According to a 2015 study, about half of U.S. adults leave the Catholic church at some point.
“People are already getting fed up and leaving [the church], and that’ll just continue to happen,” Freml said. “There aren’t a lot of people like me who stick around. And if the church is going to survive, it’s got to change. It’s got to.”