Queer and Christian in the Most Godless City in England

Roosa Herranen interviews the founder of Queer Christians on Brighton's queerness, lack of religion and how they intersect.

Queer and Christian in the Most Godless City in England
Source: The Brighton Seagull 

The 2021/2022 Census by the Office of National Statistics, released in November, revealed that Brighton & Hove was both the gayest and most ‘Godless’ city in England. Roosa Herranen met with Genevieve, founder of Queer Christians, who doesn’t think this lack of religion is surprising. In fact, their (maybe controversial) opinion is that it could even be a good thing.

I’d hate for people to be forced into a belief system. I like that we're moving into a more secular society where people don't have to pretend that they have a faith when they don’t, or they can happily be atheist or agnostic, I think that's a really good thing.

However, it saddens them that Christianity often comes with a more conservative environment, especially as 'someone who really loves the character of Jesus'. They said:

Whether or not you believe that he’s the Son of God, or God incarnate, or a prophet, he is a really interesting character, and quite socialist, anarchist, very left wing. So I find it very sad that the representatives of the religion [that] has come from him are generally quite right wing. And that really alienates people, so I’m unsurprised that a place that is very left wing is more non-religious, or more involved with religion or spirituality that is not connected to an institution.

As the founder of Queer Christians, though, Genevieve believes that queer-affirming church spaces are possible.

Originally from South London, Genevieve found themselves in Brighton due to University. “Eventually I dropped out of uni because of mental health issues. I don’t mind being open about that,” they tell me. “Going back home wasn’t an option and I’m not really a good fit for a London suburb anyway. That's where I got ill originally. So I accidentally stayed in Brighton and then got housing here. Who knows, I might leave at some point, but not anytime soon.”

As for many other queer people, they found the city to be a safe haven of sorts. They describe how Brighton was the first place that they could truly be themselves, a notion that has been shared by practically all of the Brighton people I have interviewed so far. To be yourself and not be stared at or discriminated against, to be able to just exist, is a big relief - and Queer Christians wants to make sure that queer people can feel this in church, too.

Queer Christians’ aim is to connect people with LGBTQI+ affirming churches in Brighton & Hove. It was founded in 2019, while Genevieve was living on a friend’s sofa.

I was essentially homeless. I had left a church about six months before and wasn’t looking to join another one at that point, but I was really curious about what the local churches’ stances were. I sent some e-mails, got loads of responses. Not all of them replied at first, that came a bit later, but I did have a lot of things answered and I compiled a whole list. That is when I decided that I couldn’t keep it to myself and that I should share it, so the Instagram page was made.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to this list was less than positive. “I took down the “unsafe” list for a while because I was getting backlash from churches [in] private messages and also in-person conversations. I was at a time in my life where I had just had a suicide attempt, and had just come out of a mental hospital, I was homeless - so I was not in a good place. I had to take it down for a while to protect my mental health.”

Now, it’s the core of Queer Christians’ service, dividing Brighton & Hove’s churches into, as Genevieve explains, “three categories: affirming, non-affirming and queerphobic. Non-affirming and queerphobic often overlap, but they don't always. And affirming, what I mean by that is that there's not any discrimination against queer people. They can be on any level of leadership and they can even lead the church.”

And does this definition apply to any and all churches? It’s complicated. “I make an exception for some,” they say, “such as the Catholic Churches, or the Church of England, for example, [because] they can’t do gay marriage. However, I don’t want to rule out some Anglican churches who are really working for inclusion as queerphobic just because they come under a denomination that doesn't allow gay marriage. So it's more to do with the fact that there's no discrimination within the church itself, rather than the denomination as a whole. I try to treat each church as kind of its own [thing].”

So what makes a church queerphobic? Genevieve believes that it’s more complicated than people think. “The thing that's been talked about a lot over the years, and it's great that it’s being talked about again, is conversion therapy,” they explain. “I think the reason why it's talked about so much is because it's easier, in a way, to define homophobia within churches with something concrete. Conversion therapy is a massive danger. But it's also the culture of the queerphobic churches [that is dangerous], which means that especially if you've grown up in it, or have started as a teenager, you absorb all the messages that being gay is not okay, that being trans is not okay, [that] you’re a sinful abomination.”

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to change an individual's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to align with heterosexual and cisgender norms, and comes in many forms such as talking therapies, prayers, physical violence, exorcism attempts, and even food deprivation. In 2022, a letter written to then Equalities Minister Liz Truss, claiming that banning conversion therapy breached the legal rights of church leaders, was signed by 2,500 ministers and other church representatives, including some from Brighton & Hove.

However, Genevieve points out that merely not being actively queerphobic doesn’t make a church safe for queer people. They often receive messages from people stuck in non-affirming churches who are sad, anxious, and depressed, even scared, and tell me the story of 14-year-old Lizzie Lowe from Didsbury who took her own life in 2018 because she worried that her community and her parents wouldn’t accept her sexuality.

Though the church did not have a hostile environment directly against queer people, sexuality was never explicitly discussed, it was a weird middle ground where no one talks about it. So this atmosphere of, I guess, uncertainty and not knowing if it was a safe environment is difficult. What I think is really important about that is to realise that this was a girl, a child, that didn't go through conversion therapy, but the church definitely wasn't openly affirming. We don’t know if there were, say, very casual conversations about gay people, [but] something added up to a 14 year old dying.

Since the loss of Lizzie, [her] church has become loudly and proudly an inclusive, affirming space, even attending Didsbury Pride. Some members of the congregation did leave the community in anger and as a protest, but the church remains in their stance, saying Lizzie’s death ‘put everything into perspective’.

Despite this, the research and questionnaires carried out by Queer Christians has found that many churches in Brighton & Hove remain vague on their stances. I wonder out loud if this is on purpose—Genevieve seems to think it is, though why that is, they’re not sure: “I have a few theories. I think some of them, deep down, know that their beliefs are immoral, and being vague about it means that they don't wrestle with it themselves. I think some of them don't have that moral ambiguity, and they just want people in the seats, especially young people. For some, the reason they don't advertise it is because of backlash within their own denomination.”

As part of their work with Queer Christians, Genevieve is also working on a mini archive of coded language, denominational LGBTQI+ history, and what it has meant to have been queer and a Christian historically. They mention a documentary originally broadcast in 1977, The Lord’s My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay, which can still be viewed on BBC Archives. “The conversations that they're having in churches are exactly the same conversations we're having now,” Genevieve says. “50 years on, [and] society around the church has completely changed, the church not so much. And that is both fascinating and so depressing.”

For a long time queer Christians have had to try to bring change by slowly implementing things quietly and ‘the right way’ to get Parochial Church Councils to even have those conversations. “I think it's time that we disregard the respectability politics,” they say, “you know, enough is enough. So many of us are dying. I do not want to see another person take their life over this or have a mental health crisis. I don't want someone to have to message me over Instagram late at night having a mental health crisis because their church has been treating them like shit. I don't want this to continue.”

I ask Genevieve whether they believe it’s easy to find an affirming church in Brighton & Hove. “It is now!” they laugh, “I don’t think it was before us.” They tell me about when they joined a, seemingly friendly, local church after attending the University’s Christian Union’s Church Search event. After attending for a whole year, they eventually sat through a service where being gay was declared as ‘life without God’ and Pride was deemed demonic—and this was a church that advertises itself as inclusive. They later discovered that the Church Search only included queerphobic churches, and founded their own annual Church Search primarily for students of local universities to find queer-affirming churches.

Now, Genevieve has restarted a university course, and is part of a church community in Brighton with a predominantly queer denomination. “This was the first time I’ve ever been to a church where a married gay man is the preacher,” they tell me. “We have a memorial service and a Pride service every year. I didn't know how low my bar was for churches until I went to this one. I realised we didn't just have to be quietly affirming, we could actively pray for queer people across the world. And that’s great.”