The insidious nature of systemic homophobic prejudice at the heart of the respectable church

The Guardian published a long article by Reni Eddo-Lodge on Tuesday 30 May 2017. It is titled Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race and develops ideas first expressed in a blog she published on 22 February 2004.

She chooses to use the word “structural” rather than “institutional” because she thinks racism is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions. Thinking of the big picture helps you see the structures. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly.

As I read the article I was inevitably thinking about homophobia in the church. But the church’s problem isn’t structural but institutional homophobia.

Eddo-Lodge references the Macpherson report which investigated the death of Stephen Lawrence. Published in February 1999, it described institutional racism. If we substitute institutional homophobia for institutional racism, does Macpherson’s analysis then transfer to the Church of England and its systemic attitude to LGBTI people?

This institutional homophobia, the report explained, is “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their sexuality or gender. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and homophobic stereotyping which disadvantage LGBTI people.”

Most importantly, the report described institutional homophobia as a form of collective behaviour, a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo, and a consensus often excused and ignored by authorities. Among its many recommendations, the report suggested that the Church of England boost its LGBTI representation in the General Synod and the House of Bishops, and that all clergy and bishops be trained in homophobic awareness and cultural diversity.

I think Macpherson’s analysis can be applied to the Church of England, both in respect of racism and homophobia. Let me continue by adapting the Guardian article.

The Church of England is failing to provide an appropriate and professional service to lay and ordained lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Those alert to inappropriate systemic practice will be able to identity multiple examples of “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and homophobic stereotyping which disadvantage LGBTI people.” It is routine because those in senior positions are compromised in their understanding by the culture they inhabit and by the theology, teaching and practice which is normative in the Church of England.

Using the words of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s article, homophobia still thrives in places in the Church of England where those in charge do not align themselves with extremist attitudes. We tell ourselves that good people can’t be homophobic. We seem to think that true homophobia only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that homophobia is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. The covert nature of systemic homophobia is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands. We may think we are entering this conversation as equals. We don’t.

Eddo-Lodge describes how . . .

“amid every conversation about Nice Christian People feeling silenced by conversations about homophobia, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences. It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that LGBTI people have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisals, or bite your tongue and get ahead in the church.”

I don’t think either we LGBTI Anglicans or the “Nice Christian People” fully understand or are aware of the effect of the lack of understand or empathy in the church. I have often censored my thoughts and feelings, knowing the effect they would have on others present. To speak the truth has meant reprisals for many of us. In my case, I have been refused PTOs and faced abuse from people both at General Synod in England and at Anglican meetings in other countries.

I identify with Eddo-Lodge when she writes that “Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.”

Our sexuality and/or gender identity has been politicised against our will, because homophobia and prejudice have given it meaning. This is a situation we didn’t choose. But I don’t want it wilfully ignored in an effort to instil some sort of precarious, false harmony in the church. Though many are happy to console themselves with a doctrine of sexual orientation-blindness, the huge differences in life chances between LGBTI and straight people prove that while it may be preached by the church, equality is not being practised.

The reality is that, in material terms, we are nowhere near equal. This state of play is violently unjust. The difference that LGBTI people are all vaguely aware of from the moment we become self-aware is not benign. It is fraught with homophobia, homophobic stereotyping and, for women, misogyny.

Not seeing differences in sexual identity does little to dismantle homophobic structures or improve the lives of LGBTI people. In order to do so, we must see differences of sexuality and gender. We must see who benefits from their heterosexuality, who is affected by negative stereotyping of their sexuality and gender, and on whom power and privilege is bestowed – not just because of their heterosexuality. Seeing the varieties of sexual and gender identities is essential to changing the system.