Reflections on Inclusive Christianity

By Rev. Mike Starkey

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Stonewall

A Question and Some Interviews

A friend of mine recently joined a new inclusive Christian network, and wanted to know if I planned to sign up. He used the phrase ‘standing with the LGBTQ+ community’.

I hesitated before replying, just as I’d hesitated a decade earlier when asked a similar question at a church in the North of England. The leadership had decided, almost overnight, to affiliate to an inclusive church network, and asked everybody in leadership to sign up. When I hesitated it sparked a tirade from a colleague, who didn’t hold back in telling me the ‘real’ reasons for my hesitation.

The actual reason I hesitated was because I wasn’t convinced by the question. It was phrased (ironically) as a stark binary, yes or no. My feeling was that it was an incoherent question, because you can’t stand with a group who are not all standing in the same place as each other.

I’ve spent the past few weeks interviewing people who represent a wide range of views on sex, gender and identity. They include a veteran Christian gay rights campaigner, a diversity specialist, and a number of others who identify with various letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym. Some spoke on condition of anonymity.

My most surprising discovery was quite how many of them shared my instinct that ‘Will I stand with LGBTQ+?’ is an incoherent question. Like me, they felt being asked to stand with LGBTQ+ was like being asked to stand with politics, or religion, or lifestyle: too diffuse to be meaningful.

The LGBTQ+ acronym has expanded over time, from the early clustering of LGB in the 1980s to its present form. The lobby group Stonewall added the T as recently as 2015. There are many forms of the acronym in use today. I use LGBTQ+ here as it’s the version currently approved by Stonewall.

LGBTQ+ means Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer. The final + acts as an open category for a growing range of additions. Each of the letters, and each sub-group within each letter, has its own flag – as well as sharing the all-embracing Progress Pride Flag, designer Daniel Quasar’s 2018 update of the 1978 rainbow flag.

I want to take a few moments to reflect on my friend’s question about standing with LGBTQ+, in conversation with my interviews of recent weeks.

Tensions and Contradictions

As many of my interviewees pointed out, it doesn’t take much peering into the acronym to spot internal tensions and contradictions.

  • Lesbians are women attracted to women. But who defines what counts as a woman? Some say a woman is defined by an inner sense of gender identity, rather than biology. So a lesbian is anybody who identifies as a woman and is attracted to women. Opposed to this are lesbians who insist female sex is non-negotiable, and are angry about the arrival of male-bodied transwomen identifying as lesbians in their spaces. This argument over who and what defines a lesbian is part of a wider gulf. On the one side are LGB groups (including the LGB Alliance and the growing LGB Christians network), who insist on a biological definition of homosexuality. On the other side is Stonewall, which since 2015 has prioritised trans, and sees the sex binary as less significant than a fluid gender self-ID. LGB groups say that L, G and B are sexual orientations, while the rest of the letters are identities – and that these are not the same thing. This is an argument about fundamental perceptions of reality. In turn, it feeds disagreement on whether transwomen, who have experienced male puberty, should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. And whether male-born transwomen should be housed in women’s prisons, or allowed into traditionally single-sex spaces such as rape crisis centres and changing rooms.
  • Gay. America’s Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has added homosexual to its list of banned terms, describing it as ‘outdated, derogatory and offensive’ [1] – sparking outrage among many self-declared homosexuals. Here in the UK, Stonewall-influenced usage increasingly prefers queer to gay. Others, including new gender-critical gay men’s groups, are fiercely opposed to this and insist they are ‘gay, not queer’. Descriptions of what it means to live as gay range from relationships that are ‘permanent, faithful and stable’ (in Canon Jeffrey John’s phrase), to the wild, colourful and rubbery options on display at Pride festivals and in apps such as Grindr.
  • Trans has a different meaning today compared to 15 years ago, when most people who lived as the opposite sex were known as transsexuals. According to Stonewall, the meanings of trans now ‘include, but are not limited to: transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.’ It is significant that, unlike transsexuals in the earlier meaning of trans, many of the new Stonewall meanings are not obvious from a person’s appearance. They depend wholly on an individual’s inner feelings and self-ID.
  • Queer. For some, queer is still a synonym for gay. In Stonewall usage, however, queer is increasingly replacing not only gay, but also lesbian and bi too – even though many see it as a slur. When London’s Kew Gardens staged its Queer Nature events in autumn 2023 it was flooded with complaints from gays and lesbians objecting to the title. In the broader culture, queer has come to mean anybody who rejects conventional sexual expression. It says nothing more specific than ‘I’m a bit edgy’. Even Stonewall admits queer is fluid and contested. Stonewall’s definition of queer makes no mention at all of gay, lesbian or bi. Rather, it is a way of ‘rejecting specific labels’. It adds that queer can be ‘a way of rejecting the perceived norms of the LGBT community (racism, sizeism, ableism etc).’ In other words, not only does queer not necessarily mean gay, lesbian, bi, or even trans – it can be a reaction against them. If anybody can be queer, and even the chief gatekeepers don’t know what queer is, the rest of us can be forgiven for confusion about who we’re meant to stand with.
  • The + Then there’s the +, whose contents are kept vague to allow for an ever-expanding list of possibilities. Who decides what goes in the + category, and what doesn’t? Everyone I spoke to was hesitant to raise this issue, but for many it was the elephant in the room. A number of paraphilias say they belong in there. Each has its own flag, and sympathetic academics who write papers on why it deserves acceptance. These include Minor Attracted Persons (MAPs, previously known as paedophiles), and Zoophiles (humans attracted to sex with animals). Are MAPs and Zoophiles included in the + I’m being asked to stand with? Who decides? Who polices the boundaries? It feels like being asked to sign a blank cheque. Many of my gay and lesbian interviewees expressed a concern that some of the identities flying flags on the LGBTQ+ flagpole come trailing more red flags than China’s Red Square under Chairman Mao. At the other extreme, Asexuals define themselves by lack of sexual attraction to anybody. It’s hard to imagine how any Christian from any tradition could possibly object to somebody who’d rather have a nice cup of tea.
  • LGBTQ+ as a whole isn’t a self-evidently coherent acronym. There are many versions of it, some significantly at variance with others. One book, Being A Super Trans Ally! (2020) uses an acronym of 12 letters, as well as the +, ‘to reflect the infinite sexual orientations and gender identities.’ Most versions of the acronym keep adding new letters, with no transparency about who gets to add them, or why.

It’s no disrespect to any of the letters to recognise that each has its own distinct priorities, that some are in tension or conflict with others, and that within each letter there’s a vast range of views.

Dealing With Dissent

This issue of dissent and difference within the movement is a tricky one, and hard to admit to if you’re keen to promote LGBTQ+ as a community with a unified agenda. In practice gays, lesbians and bis who question the Stonewall line are often written off as unrepresentative and inauthentic.

When I discussed this question of internal dissent with my interviewees, those sympathetic to Stonewall told me that gender-critical lesbians and gays who define themselves by biological sex, detransitioners who regret medical transition, desisters who call a halt before transition, and members of groups such as Living Out who describe themselves as same-sex attracted and called to celibacy are all dupes of the far-right.

The true motive of these groups is transphobia and hate, I was told, so they don’t count. This accusation is a common trope in social media.

This amounts to an allegation that some people are the wrong sort of gay, or the wrong sort of gender nonconforming, because they don’t toe the party line. Like all utopian movements, current Stonewall-defined orthodoxy tends to vilify and airbrush out those who don’t fit the narrative.

One of my interviewees was a partnered gay man, who was made unwelcome at an Anglican church that described itself as inclusive. He was seen carrying a tote bag from the ‘wrong’ gay advocacy group, and the vicar told him he must never bring it again. He described the experience of being excluded in the name of inclusion as Orwellian.

Group psychology is a relatively new science that explores the inner dynamics of groups. [2] Two of its insights are highly relevant here:

  • Dissenters are valuable in a group, because they offer a healthy check on drift towards groupthink and extremism.
  • When a group feels threatened by outside forces, dissenters may be accused of being saboteurs, traitors to the need to present a united front. The group may not have the power to slay the attacking dragon, but they can accuse internal dissenters of being the dragon’s minions.

The current widespread vilification of gender-critical LGBs and other dissenters by the broader LGBTQ+ movement appears to be a textbook example of how to handle dissent badly. [3]

If I’m being asked to stand with LGBTQ+, does that mean standing with whatever the current majority opinion happens to be? Does it mean not standing with those who dissent and are ostracised for having different views, even if their views feel more compatible with my faith?

An Incoherent Question

What I’m clear on is this. Everybody should be treated with respect, receive fair treatment in the eyes of the law, and be able to live free from fear. But when I’m asked to stand with a particular grouping, that’s not what I’m being asked.

Dictionary definitions of stand with include ‘support’, ‘back’, ‘unite with’, and ‘be a loyal ally’.

I feel I’m being asked to bless en bloc a grouping that’s disparate and fluid, unboundaried and constantly expanding, unaccountable and internally contradictory, and whose wilder fringes shade off into lawless badlands.

What does standing with that even mean?

It’s a characteristic of today’s Manichean identity politics that every contested issue is presented as having only two sides. Yes or no. For or against. Opposing slogans shouted through megaphones. Tribal affiliations signalled.

That seems to me a disastrous framework for Christian discipleship, moral judgement and pastoral care.

So will I stand with LGBTQ+? I still find it impossible to give an answer, because the question feels more incoherent than ever.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

(Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass, 1871)

 

1 GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 11th edition (2022)
2 Yascha Mounk, The Identity Trap (Allen Lane 2023), pp117-126
3 Simon Fanshawe, The Power of Difference (Kogan Page 2022), Chapter 2

Mike Starkey Q&A

Briefly summarise who you are.
I’m a London-based writer and Anglican priest.

And the longer version?
I started as a radio journalist. After a serious car crash I was ordained in the Church of England. I spent 20 years in parish ministry, mainly in London, then 10 years in the North of England, latterly as Head of Church Growth for the Diocese of Manchester.

I continued doing writing and media alongside my church work. I’ve written six books on aspects of faith and culture, I present Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2, and review books for the Church Times.

I publish feature-length articles on my website Flâneur (www.FlaneurNotes.com). Recent articles include: On Drag Going to Church, On Weaponising Kindness, and On Not Having a True Self.

I’m the voice of grumpy Edwardian MPs in the Pankhurst Centre’s audio-visual history of the suffragette movement.

These days I’m a freelance writer, broadcaster and priest.

Why the interest in identity and gender?
In the late 80s and mid-90s I wrote books on consumer culture and fashion. I’ve remained fascinated by the ways people make sense of their identity, and how this relates to faith.

A particular event catalysed my concerns about gender ideology. In March 2022 I attended a meeting of Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) in Manchester. The speakers were drowned out by around 150 young trans activists outside the building with megaphones. Many wore balaclavas to hide their faces. They shouted abusive slogans, saying their existence was threatened by the ‘hate’ meeting inside, and tried to storm the meeting.

I remember thinking, ‘If you want to persuade me transwomen are women, violent misogyny probably isn’t the best look’.

Mike blogs at Flaneur Notes.