Forcing to Choose: Religion and the LGBT Community

Religion in the United States has become a distinct and important aspect of American identity. Religious beliefs are woven into almost every aspect of politics, economics, and civil rights. While many people find comfort and guidance in religion, there are many others who struggle to reconcile their sexuality with their religious beliefs. Often times these individuals are met with hate and judgment and are forced to choose between their beliefs and the opportunity to live an authentic life. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, responses from various religious organizations varied depending on their stance on homosexuality and their willingness to help those that were dying at alarming rates.

During the first five to six years of the AIDS epidemic, “moral judgments about high-risk behavior, particularly male same-gender sex, and fears of contagion seemed to dominate the public religious response.”[1] These beliefs were primarily fueled by fear and a misunderstanding of how the virus was transferred from person to person. By using scare tactics, “some highly visible Christian pastors used fear of contagion as a means to isolate people with AIDS and to justify a particular standard of sexual morality.”[2] Studies done during the height of the AIDS epidemic showed that hostility towards members of the LGBT community were primarily driven by conservative religious beliefs during this time.

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ACT-UP protest poster.

In Tony Kushner’s Angles in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, Joe Pitt struggles with his sexuality as a gay man and his religious beliefs as a practicing Mormon. Throughout the play it becomes apparent that Joe has struggled with silencing his true identity since he was a young boy and relies on praying to God to help him overcome his sexual desires. Confronted by his wife, Joe explains that it should not matter that he is gay, “so long as [he has] fought, with everything [he has], to kill it.”[3] Through “killing” his true self, Joe has essentially reduced himself to a shell, but in the eyes of God he is still whole, because he has resisted the very thing that his religion finds sinful. Although Joe repeatedly returns to his religion in search of comfort, it is that same religion that causes him to live an unhappy and unfulfilled life.

Joe’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality ultimately leads to the end of his marriage, which almost allows Joe to come out to his friend, Roy, who is secretly dying of AIDS. During their conversation, Joe states that maybe the reason he married his wife in the first place, was because she was, “farthest from the light, from God’s love.”[4] Kushner uses this line to show how deeply ingrained Joe’s religious beliefs are, as Joe married someone he saw as more flawed then him. It was easier to hide behind his wife’s imperfections and sins than admit his own. The fear of failing God is too much for Joe to handle so he prays “for God to crush [him], break [him] up into little pieces and start all over again.”[5]

Towards the end of the play, Joe finally realizes that he is losing the battle between the need to be his true authentic self and maintain his religious beliefs. In his last conversation with his wife, Joe admits that he has tried, “to tighten [his] heart into a knot, a snarl, [he tries] to learn to live dead, just numb, but then [he sees] someone [he wants], and it’s like a nail, like a hot spike right through [his] chest.”[6] It is at this moment that Joe sees no other option than to give up his religious beliefs, as the urge to be himself is too strong. Unfortunately for Joe, he saw no other option for balancing his beliefs with his sexual identity.

Joe’s experiences were likely common for many people within the LGBT community during the AIDS crisis and continues to be an issue of contention to this day. Finally, during the latter 1980s, prominent church leaders recognized the power their organizations held when it came to demanding research and education on the AIDS virus. The AIDS National Interfaith Network was created in 1988 to help LGBT people navigate their beliefs and foster a widespread religious response to the crisis. It was only after the development of the network that many religious organizations issued statements supporting the equal and compassionate care of those suffering from HIV and AIDS.

Joe’s abandonment of his faith in order to live an authentic life should not be the only option for LGBT people. Instead, religious organizations need to recognize that they hold incredible power when it comes to breaking down stigmas against the LGBT community and welcome LGBT members into their congregations. Religious organization need to practice what they preach: love and acceptance.

 

 

[1] Albert R. Jonsen and Jeff Stryker, The Social Impact of AIDS in the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), 130.

[2] Ibid., 131.

[3] Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, (New York: Theater Communications Group, Inc., 1993), 40.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] Ibid., 77.

Images:

Featured: Keith Haring 

ACT-UP protest poster Wikimedia Commons

15 thoughts on “Forcing to Choose: Religion and the LGBT Community

  1. I really loved how you intertwined how LGBT people should not have to give up their faith in order to live an authentic life. As long as you are not hurting anyone, everyone should be allowed to live exactly how they want to. Religion often adds a deeper meaning to life and it is unfair that a whole group of people would be deprived of that sense of community and meaning because of fear.

  2. I really like that you bring in examples of the 1980s AIDS crisis and how Joe’s experience in Angels in America was unfortunately a common occurrence. It’s absolutely heartbreaking that people who are already struggling with a society that isn’t necessarily open to their sexual identity, also have the added challenge of finding their place in religion. I really like your last sentence, that religious organizations really need to practice what they preach, rather than creating such unnecessary and devastating boundaries.

  3. Love this post. The quotes you pulled from “Angels in America” really brought out the tragedy of Joe’s character. He is, in himself, a contradiction. Joe identifies as a Mormon and he identifies as gay, and those two essential components of his life could not fit together.

  4. I loved your analysis and break down of Joe’s experience with is religious world and beliefs. The play tackles so many themes and issues, and your analysis really makes me want to go back and read it again through this new lens.

  5. Excellent post, Trish, that really underscored the fundamental conflict within many religious communities at the height of the AIDS virus. The fever pitch of many religious organizations and religious leaders against what they labeled as morally bankrupt can truly send a shiver as one considers the hostility manifest in what they alleged and railed against. For people to be in this position, navigating something so terrible and trying, willing, to find comfort in something that rejects them at such a time is truly hard to consider. More still, is then denying one’s true self in trying to allow religion and faith to be an unwilling guide. I thought you best illustrated this when pointing to Joe and Harper’s relationship: he could only be with someone flawed because it allowed him to avoid confronting his imperfections and sins. That such exploitation takes place because one is trying to hide and suppress what they see as sinful reflects the damage religion can have when its meaning is twisted and warped to exclude and harm.

  6. Trish, your post brings to light a horrible truth; that members of the LGBT community are often forced to chose between being themselves, and conforming to a set of beliefs. I have immense difficulty calling these hateful people “Christians,” people who would abandon, attack, or even kill their loved ones because they are LGBT. But I digress. your post does an amazing job of exploring (what I imagine) is something so incredibly painful for a human being to suffer through. I hope that someday VERY soon, people will be able to love each other unconditionally, and practice what they preach.

    1. I agree with Luke’s comment about having difficulty calling people Christian, or otherwise religious, who reject people in the LGBT+ community simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. I found your last sentence a very powerful ending to a very insightful post. Something that has always profoundly bothered me is how religions which base their entire belief systems on the core tenets of love and treating others with compassion and charity could turn their backs on even one person who needed to be shown kindness. Even more frustrating is how such a religion could exclude someone who is full of love, just because that love is for the “wrong” type of people. I have to believe that those who claim to be religious, and yet behave this way are not truly religious and are simply attached to an outdated social institution. I am very glad that although these institutions still loom, progress is being made a little at a time as more and more people break away into modern, accepting forms of faith.

    2. I agree that this post really does a good job of showing the internal conflict that the character faces, and brings to light the issues that the community still faces today.

  7. Great post. While progress has been made on this, it’s frustrating how little. Too many groups, including the Mormon Church, continue to fight against the rights of their LGBT members. It’s heartening to see the reformers, and I hope they keep making strides.

  8. This is a fantastic post. The new information you disclosed was very helpful in understanding Joe’s struggle with his religion and sexuality. I cannot imagine the difficulty of having to be forced to chose between parts of your identity that should be able to coexist without scrutiny, especially from an institution that does preach love and acceptance.

    1. Great post Trish. I think your exploration of identity through Joe and his relationship with himself and his beliefs is central to the book. I think you bring up an important point of sexual identity coexisting (or not coexisting in this case) with other pieces of one’s identity like their religious affiliation. We see the tension between these identities come to a head in Joe’s life and the harm this kind of tension can cause the individual. On a larger scale, I think we are seeing how important it is to create safe spaces for people to explore these extremely personal aspects of their identity and be welcomed and supported.

  9. Well said, Trish. You did a beautiful job exploring the excruciating experience of Joe, who is morally and emotionally torn in two. It’s heartbreaking to realize that this inner conflict is completely unnecessary. In my opinion, faith and sexual orientation should have nothing to do with each other, and yet many religions actively crusade against those who aren’t heteronormative. Your last line really resonated with me. It reminded me of our reading by Jennifer Boylan who came out to her religious Republican mother. Instead of reject her, her mother responded with a quote from the bible about love and acceptance.

  10. I had never heard of the AIDS Interfaith Network before. Looking through their organization’s website, it seems like they do really wonderful, inclusive work helping people with HIV/AIDS. I wish that this level of inclusion was more common within the religious community. As you point out, it can be devastating for people to have to navigate between two seemingly irreconcilable identities, especially if it could be avoided if some religious organizations spent less time qualifying love and more time practicing it.

  11. Excellent post. It really drives to the heart of this controversial issue. Growing up, I saw a lot of hate towards LGBT individuals based on faith, the faith I had grown up with. It really sickens me that a religion based on love could hate so much. I remember all the justifications I heard from friends and even family, that “they should just learn to control those sinful urges.” Your post really emphasizes the growing problem of LGBT individuals who have to bury their identities to continue in their faith.

  12. I am glad you brought up this topic Trish! So much of this class has been looking at identity of the individual. I like how you break down Joe’s inner struggle between two aspects of his life that are deeply apart of his identity yet others refuting the possibility since the interpretation of individuals denies a whole community. Your last line hits the issue head on. If love and acceptance are the core of the institution, then they should be accepting of all members no matter what.

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