You can almost see it coming, the train wreck of queers and religion, especially if a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage is framed in a way that encourages religious exemptions. Already, nonprofit religious institutions have a lot of leeway to discriminate. But the new Indiana law has implications far beyond church services, or even the selling of wedding cakes and floral arrangements.
In fact, our apartments, our jobs, our health are at stake. And we have to be more thoughtful than the guy I saw on a panel Friday who first sneered at religious nutcases, and when he got chastised for his attitude and for ignoring the positive role churches have in the lives of many Americans, including queers, became all ass-kissy. And went on at length about the “real people of faith” who are apparently all nice, good-hearted folks practically poised to join us on the frontlines fighting for LGBT human rights.
Reverence and snark are equally disastrous. There’s no way to deal with things like HIV/ AIDS in places like Louisiana or Alabama unless we find some way to get local churches on board. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the vast numbers of queers of all races and ethnicities who have fled the slow asphyxiation or active tyranny of their local church. “Real people of faith” can be absolutely terrifying in their sincerity.
Matt McLaughlin, a California attorney, who recently submitted a ballot initiative which would actually require the state to execute gay people, honestly believes same-sex relations are a “monstrous evil” that has to be addressed. And while he may be a nut, his “Sodomite Suppression Act” is more or less identical to the legislation that American pastors like Scott Lively have coldly and rationally encouraged in West African countries like Uganda.
And in Brazil, where trans people can get free gender-reassignment surgery and lesbians and gay men can get married if they want to, adopt kids, serve in the army, or march in the largest Pride Parades in the world, LGBT people are facing increasing violence on the street, due at least in part to the growth of American-style, anti-gay evangelical churches.
While evangelicals numbered just 5 percent of the previously Catholic population in 1970, UK’s the Guardian estimated last year that 22 percent of Brazil’s 200 million people are now participating in Pentecostal churches. In the next few decades, they will be the majority. And unlike most Americans, they don’t just sit passively in their pews. In 2013, more than 800,000 people attended a March for Jesus rally in SÃ£o Paulo that included anti-gay propaganda. They’ve bought up hundreds of radio and TV stations, not to mention legislators, who defeated the 2013 bill that would have prohibited discrimination or inciting violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Queers are feeling it in the street. Even before this evangelical upsurge, almost one LGBT person a day was being butchered in homophobic and transphobic murders in Brazil. Now the violence is only increasing as the evangelical Christian Right emerges as a national power.
Many queers were terrified last week when a video went viral showing huge rows of “Gladiators of the Altar,” screaming en masse that they “were ready for war in the name of the Lord.” They saluted like Hitler’s Nazi youth, promising to hunt down queers and also threatened to attack participants in Brazil’s African religions, which include a vast majority of LGBT attendees.
These “gladiators” are not some fringe group, but part of the enormous Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which has raised so much money it’s put Edir Macedo, the founder, onto the Forbes billionaire list. They immediately yanked the video, and issued statements asserting that the event was just a performance in church and that its army of “Gladiators of the Altar” was only a missionary group that wasn’t going to actually kill queers, just get them incarcerated in conversion therapy. In fact, their website claims the group’s only regular activity is “bible classes that meet once a week.”
Silas Malafaia, the multimillionaire head of the Assembly of God, another of the country’s largest evangelical groups, has declared himself “public enemy No 1 of the gay movement in Brazil.” According to the Guardian, Malafaia said he will support anyone who can topple the relatively gay-friendly Worker’s Party, which is struggling to stay in power. During last year’s election, he threatened opposition candidate, environmentalist, and fellow evangelical Marina Silva that he’d drop his backing if she didn’t retract her support for same-sex marriage. And she did.
My point here is not that US queers should start arming themselves against anti-gay militias, but that LGBT progressives should get serious about grappling with religious institutions as a major force in American life that can either support our efforts or feed bigotry, inspire violence, and terrify people into silence. Yes, it can happen here.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.