Anthea Colledge is a part-time WRoCAH PhD student in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, and is currently also Anglican Chaplain to the University.
I remember the first time I went to an LGBTQ Pride. I was still getting used to wearing a clerical collar, and hadn’t ever worn a rainbow before either. I went along to Millennium Square for the start of the Pride parade, intending to just watch what was happening. Before I knew it, I was part of the parade, gathered up by a group of defiantly joyful Christians carrying placards that said “Some Christians are gay, get over it”. That Sunday afternoon was quite an overwhelming experience: colour, noise, and walking through applauding crowds with people jumping into the parade to get photos with the vicars at Pride. I spent quite a lot of time trying to dodge the press cameras, anxious that I’d end up on the front page of the Evening Post…
Fast forward to today, and I spent the summer of 2018 researching the phenomenon of Christians at Pride, in collaboration with Leeds Church Institute. I got quite good at predicting the face people would make when they heard the project topic – some kind of mix of surprised, concerned, and doubtful – because almost everyone assumed that I meant the Christians who go to protest at Pride with angry neon signs. But in fact I was talking about quite a different kind of Christian presence at Pride – those individuals or groups who go to Pride to support, affirm and celebrate it, often through having a visible presence (e.g. walking with banners in the parade). Through a national survey and interviews with key stakeholders in Leeds, Sheffield and Hull I explored the experiences of that group of people.
In this blog I want to highlight two particular themes that emerged from the data. Both are related to the often still high level of anxiety in both the Christian and LGBTQ communities when it comes to mixing religion and Pride.
First, I found a discrepancy between perception/expectation and actual experience in two particular areas. People perceived that a) Christian groups are (or would be) unwelcome at Pride, and b) Christian protestors far outnumber and are far louder in every way than affirming Christians.
Secondly, I found that visible Christian presence at Pride is very significant for people who hold both identities – Christian and LGBTQ.
The first discrepancy I noted between perception and experience is that Christian groups are unwelcome at Pride. Just while I was waiting for other people to arrive for the Leeds Pride parade, someone from HMRC – the tax people – came to speak to me. He said we should stand near each other, because hated organisations needed to stick together. In the research people reported being quite frightened to go to Pride for the first time, because they expected to encounter anger and hostility.
What I found was that the fear of negative reaction was far greater than any actually negative reactions people received. Around 80% of the reactions that people reported were positive, and they were much more positive than the negative reactions. Positive reactions were things like cheering, wanting selfies, sometimes even just spontaneously crying because of the emotion of the moment. The negative reactions were things like people tutting, turning away or blanking them.
The second perception I noted is that Christian protestors outnumber and are louder than affirming Christians.
What I found is that the protestors do not outnumber the affirming Christians at Pride, but they are certainly louder. In every Pride event I attended in 2019, the Christian protestors were a tiny group compared to the affirming Christians, but their influence is disproportionate. Research participants consistently reported that the reason they go to Pride as part of an affirming Christian group is to provide a counter-narrative to the Christian protestors and the idea that Christianity and LGBTQ rights inevitably conflict.
The final thing to note is that Pride, and a visible Christian presence at Pride events, is significant for individual LGBTQ Christians. Participants said that it’s the one day in the year when they can feel fully part of their communities, instead of always feeling like an inconvenience that doesn’t quite fit anywhere. It’s the one day when they can hold both their identities in one hand, instead of always hiding one behind their back.
In summary, when it comes to Christians at Pride, the fear is worse than the reality. Even allowing for the sometimes complicated relationship between Christian and LGBTQ communities (but which should not be thought of as entirely separate communities), Christians do not receive a hostile reception at Pride and protestors do not outnumber supporters of Pride. Additionally, for many LGBTQ Christians, Pride is a rare experience of affirming and celebrating an identity that encompasses both communities.
Want to know more?
A related activism and research day, ‘Guide to Pride: Christian perspectives’ is happening on 23 March in Leeds. All welcome. https://lcileeds.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/a-guide-to-pride-christian-perspectives/
The full research report is available here: https://lcileeds.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/why-do-christians-participate-in-pride/
Written By: Anthea Colledge
Image Credit(s): Anthea Colledge