Faith groups marshal support for LGBTQ rights, challenge discrimination based on religion

By: - June 29, 2023 5:30 am

First Baptist Church in Madison, Wisconsin. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

As a teenager the Rev. Tim Schaefer went with his pastor father to a denomination assembly where delegates made the rules for member churches to follow. 

Rev. Tim Schaefer (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Several pieces of church legislation on the body’s agenda that year targeted LGBTQ people. “And the debate got incredibly heated. Slurs were thrown around. The language was harsh. There was so much anger,” Schaefer recalled Wednesday.

For Schaefer, it was a deeply wounding experience. “I was at a point in my own life when I was struggling with my own sexuality,” he said. “And I was too scared to talk to anybody about what I was going through, including my dad.”

Instead, “I internalized that debate” — crying himself to sleep and praying nightly “for God to make me normal,” Schaefer recalled. “And when that didn’t happen, I started to make a plan for taking my life. I considered how I would do it. What would I write in my notes? Who would I write that out to?”

A friend intervened, and in time Schaefer grew up and found his own calling. 

He told the story Wednesday in a room off the lobby at the First Baptist Church on Madison’s West Side, where Schaefer is the pastor. 

The occasion was a gathering of  faith leaders who came together to present a faith-based response to the Human Rights Campaign’s declaration earlier in June of a state of emergency for LGBTQ Americans. The event was organized by Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and featured a panoply of other faith leaders.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, said the group has written an open letter in support of the LGBTQ community and in opposition to anti-LGBTQ legislation and policy. So far 27 congregations and organizations in Wisconsin and more than 185 faith leaders and clergy throughout the state and beyond have signed on, she said, and more signatures are being collected.

One reason for the Human Rights Campaign’s declaration is the surge in anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. — more than 550, “415 of which are specifically targeting transgender and nonbinary people in education, health care and more,” said Megan McDonnell, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, an LGBTQ civil rights organization.

Pointing to his own willingness to consider suicide in reaction to hearing his emerging gay identity demonized as a teenager, Shaefer said the very introduction of legislation that diminishes the rights and identities of LGBTQ people does harm, regardless of whether it passes.

People who oppose  pro-LGBTQ legislation and support legislation that targets LGBTQ people’s rights “often use religious rhetoric that does incredible harm” and use religious scriptural passages “as weapons against people,” Schaefer said. “And so it is extra important for people of faith to offer a counter narrative, a narrative of love and acceptance. That’s why this is so important for people of faith to speak up and especially clergy to speak up.”

Rev. David Hart (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

The Rev. David Hart, pastor of Sherman United Methodist Church in Madison, linked the call for LGBTQ human rights to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s  and drew on the work of Howard Thurman, a prominent theologian and writer credited with helping to influence leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his era, Thurman challenged civil rights activists to ask, “Where are we going?” and “Who is going with us?” Hart said — questions to inspire them to squarely face the country’s direction, work to “put us back on the right track,” and bring the community together in the process. 

Despite progress, racism, sexism and income disparities persist, and in addition, “we’re witnessing breathtaking oppression against our siblings in the LGBTQ-plus community,” Hart said. “We have an obligation not only to stand in solidarity with those in the queer community who are fighting and toiling for justice, but we have an obligation ourselves, to fight, to toil and do the same thing as allies.”

Representing nature-centered spirituality, Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister and high priestess of the Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, cited a maxim that in some form is common to a wide range of faith traditions.

“Many of the world religions have some form of what is often called the golden rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, or stated in another way, don’t do to others, what you don’t want them to do to you,” Fox said. 

Divine love has “no exclusions or opt-outs,” she said. “And as religious leaders, we need to stand up for love. We need to stand up for inclusion.”

God is love, said The Rev. Jason Mack, pastor of Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa. 

“I serve a God who, I believe, sent their own son, a very piece of themselves, to come to Earth, to show us that to live a life of love is to love the outcast, the left behind, the marginalized,” Mack said. 

Jesus was killed “because he dared to love the wrong people and told others to do the same,” he said. “So I speak to you today to say, as loud as I possibly can, that the hate and the scapegoating of the trans community has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Jesus, or the God that sent him, and I, for one, will speak out against it as long as I have breath.”

There’s a personal dimension to his message, Mack said, because he is the parent “of a trans youth, who every day must watch as their country and the leaders who are supposed to be there to protect them, threaten their very existence. Just a kid just trying to love their life and love their friends and get into college. They shouldn’t have to worry if their very existence is going to be outlawed.”

Rabbi Betsy Forester of Beth Israel Center, Madison’s Conservative Jewish synagogue, criticized the use of ancient texts in isolation to condemn LGBTQ people. 

“I know well what the Hebrew Bible says,” said Forester. “It says that all people are created in the divine image. It says, God’s love is meant to respond to changing conditions. And leaders of every generation are meant to understand this.”

Jews have long recognized “an array of different genders and gender change,” she said. 

“Drawing ranks around dead ideas has never saved anyone,” Forester added. “Refusing to see diversity in creation blinds us to the pain and suffering we inflict on real human beings. Shame on the state or country that commits such blasphemy in God’s name! We are all God’s children created to learn and transform ourselves.”

Vica-Etta Steel, a minister at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison, told her story of shifting from rejecting the Bible to becoming a faith leader.

“I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m transgender,” she said. “I’m a faith leader. How did that happen? For so long, I only knew the Bible as a weapon. Words of faith twisted into a knife held at our throat till we bleed.”

As a child, socialized as a boy and still aware that she was a girl, Steel “thought the Bible was something I never wanted to touch.”

Later, however, “I actually read the Bible,” and developed a new understanding of it that was part of her journey to becoming a Lutheran minister. 

Some people read the story of Genesis, with God creating man and woman, as a rejection of nonbinary and trans people, Steel said. But the world shows other concepts that are binary in the creation story to have a nonbinary nature. There are land and sea, but also beaches — the transition from one to the other. “We don’t have trouble with dawn and dusk, the non binary night and dark, right?” she said.

“The thing about the Bible is, the Bible is not God,” said Steel. “The Bible is a conversation with God. And it’s a conversation we keep having.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.