Sometime last year, I began reading about White Fragility. The phrase was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, an accomplished academic whose work has been featured in various publications over the years. You can read her seminal piece on White Fragility here.
Below is a synopsis of White Fragility taken from DiAngelo’s aforementioned paper:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium…
Learning about this helped me to understand what so often happens when conversations about race go awry. Many white people of upstanding moral character, even many whose religious convictions lead them to abhor racism, quickly become defensive at the slightest suggestion that they may be – even unknowingly – morally culpable for or benefiting from societal racism, to one degree or another. And I came to see that White Fragility explains, in part, the inability of many to even consider the idea of White Privilege.
This helped me in very practical ways. Not only was I able to identify this phenomenon in other people, I could see it in myself as well, and understanding a little about it, I was better able to stay grounded in conversations about race that got pretty tense and uncomfortable.
But it helped me in other, unexpected ways too. Just as I was now able to recognize White Fragility at play when conversations about race ran up against brick walls, I was seeing a lot of parallels in conversations with straight people about sexual orientation. The concept of fragility helped me to make sense of what was happening when many straight people became defensive, angry, or disengaged when homophobia entered into the discussion.
I reasoned that, just as “white” isn’t the only variety of privilege, it’s not the only variety of fragility either. So I began referring to this phenomenon, jokingly at first, as “Straight Fragility.”
I googled the term to see if it was already in use. I found an article that was mostly about the trans-bathroom controversy that had “Straight Fragility” in its title, and another about homophobic violence that alluded to the term. But they both came at it from a somewhat different, albeit related angle. So it seems at present, this isn’t a thoroughly explored concept, but I think it’s one that will resonate with many lgbtq people right away, as they’re likely intimately familiar with its outworking.
It’s true that many Americans today have shifted in their thinking regarding gay marriage, trans rights, etc. In fact, the majority of Americans now support gay marriage as well as other lgbtq rights. Many conservatives would point to this as evidence of the nation’s continual moral decay. I disagree. I think it is evidence of growing empathy.
Most Americans have had an unbiblical sex ethic for a long, long time. The only thing that has changed now, is that many of them have come to see the hypocrisy in the double standard with which lgbtq people have been treated. Gay people, and increasingly, trans people are more visible than ever, and it’s much harder for the dehumanizing stereotypes that have been so prevalent throughout much of history to stick.
Likewise, many Christians are shifting to a gay-affirming theology (sometimes called Side A). I’ve made it clear that I believe them to be in error. But I don’t think the shift can be chalked up simply to a caving to societal pressure to adopt worldly beliefs. There are many thoughtful Christians who are willing to stand opposed to the culture on a number of other issues who have come to believe that God blesses monogamous same-sex unions.
There are many elements that lead some Christians to adopt the Side A position. It’s a complicated issue made all the more complicated by our cultural and historical distance from the biblical authors. And it’s not just a matter of simple right vs. wrong. There are some serious problems with much of the conservative church’s approach to homosexuality, and really, to sexuality in general. And it’s not just a lack of empathy. I’ve said before, that it seems a lot of Christians’ sex ethic is just the world’s sex ethic with a ring on it. In many cases, the journey that leads Christians to switch to gay-affirming theology begins with the lack of empathy they often see from those who hold the traditional view, and it is helped along by these other discrepancies.
Fortunately, many conservative Christians are starting to realize this. And they are ready to have conversations. This is great news, but there’s a long way to go. Because while they are ready to extend long-overdue empathy and compassion to the gay community, they’re not always ready to hear some of the hard things.
They’re not always ready to hear that some of their biggest heroes in the faith have caused deep pain and damage to gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that the political leaders they’ve always respected and the likes of which they wish we had in office again, were startlingly indifferent to the horrible deaths of huge numbers of gay men, and in some cases were actively opposed to helping them, determining that it was God’s judgment. They aren’t always ready to hear that this shocking animosity, or close affiliation with it, on the part of evangelicalism’s favorite politicians isn’t entirely a thing of the past.
They’re not always ready to hear that the church’s exaltation of the nuclear family isn’t biblical, but cultural. They’re not always ready to hear that the importance we place on marriage and the relegation of celibacy to an afterthought is expressly unbiblical. They’re not always willing to hear that the systems we have in place and our preoccupation with the nuclear family and marriage make celibacy (which is something that many, if not most gay Christians feel obedience to God looks like for them) seem like a bleak, lonely road – a being left behind, so to speak.
They’re not always ready to hear that Christians have been grossly hypocritical in their treatment of divorce and remarriage and of heterosexual sin. They’re not always willing to hear that many straight Christians enter into marriage with a sinful, self-gratifying attitude toward sex, and it’s often glossed over because it’s seen as natural, and as long as it’s in the context of marriage, perfectly acceptable.
They’re not always ready to hear that the church – not just fringe groups and cults, but the mainstream church – has a history of propagating outright lies and dehumanizing stereotypes about gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that, even if they weren’t the ones saying those things, they were complicit by their silence. It was as much as approving what was said.
And they’re not always ready to offer love and compassion without qualifiers. They’re certainly not always ready to offer apologies without qualifiers. “I love you but… I’m sorry for how you’ve been treated, but… I grieve with you in this horrible tragedy, but…” is never appropriate. But Straight Fragility, perhaps more particularly religious Straight Fragility demands it. And when a straight conservative Christian does show unqualified remorse and compassion to the lgbtq community? Well, it’s time to reel him back in and get him back in line and demand more clarification.
In short, there are many, many Christians who are happy to adopt a kinder, gentler conservatism. But when the conversation turns to things that may be uncomfortable, things that require some self examination, some reassessing, and perhaps some painful changes on the part of the church as a whole, and straight Christians individually, that number drops considerably.
But if we Christians really want to make things right, it’s going to take action, not platitudes. It’s going to take some owning up to our huge failures, and to the really bad things that we’ve done, and our leaders have done in the name of Jesus. It’s going to take repentance, patience, and humility. And it’s going to take a change of course.
To my straight Christian friends who’ve been trying to navigate this conversation that’s been thrust upon you by the changing tides in our culture: I know it’s uncomfortable. But I’m asking you as your friend and a fellow believer, to step into that discomfort and stay there for a while, knowing that those of us who are gay and Christian have been living in it for most of our lives.
Please hear me when I say that I’m not trying to demonize or vilify you. Instead, I’m trying to do the painful, difficult job of showing you that that is exactly what so much of the conservative church has done to gay people. And people like me can write article after article, give talks and lectures, and have conversations with straight people until we’re blue in the face. But it’s going to be up to people like you to affect change. So I have a vested interest in your hearing me out. And that’s why I’ve highlighted this thing I’m calling Straight Fragility.
My hope is that if you are aware of it, you can recognize it when it surfaces, and you can resist it, choosing instead to remain humbly engaged, moving toward real progress and reconciliation. And when you recognize it in others, you can humbly come alongside them and help them do the same. I know that it sometimes doesn’t feel this way, as you’re increasingly harangued by our culture for some of your deeply held beliefs (beliefs that, by and large, I share with you), but you are in a place of privilege in this situation. And your voice matters. Please use it responsibly.
Really appreciate this perspective. Thank you!
Fantastic, Mike! Thanks for writing this.
Hi Julie! Good to hear from you, and thanks for the encouragement!
Mr. Allen – I will not try to invalidate your experience with my own experience, but you paint with broad strokes here, and the Christian church which you describe may be an endemic problem peculiar to a certain region or a certain creed; for instance, I grew up in San Francisco during the 1980s, and not only was my homosexuality respected by the Catholic priests that I knew, but they actually encouraged my coming out and the full self-acceptance of what I thought was my orientation; when I decided to leave the “gay” life, the priests I talked with actually tried to dissuade me.
Oftentimes, the LGBT community tends toward monolithic thought; they take-up a talking point and stick with it: currently it’s the victimization of homosexuals by Christian religious bigotry. I found little room in many gay circles for divergent opinions. I still find that to be the case.
In terms of Catholicism, I never experienced “the really bad things” that you describe. In contrast, the most difficulty I encountered in the Catholic Church, was finding someone who would actually help me when I decided that I didn’t want to be gay anymore. Again, your experience is your experience, but they are other experiences.
I suspect that your experience is rather unique to SFO. I tend to identify as bisexual/asexual. My “life” outwardly looks pretty heterosexual. But I’m honest enough to admit that my sexual desires are much more subdued and fluid than “heterosexuality” permits. In my experience within a Reformed evangelical context (PCA), confessing to anything short of robust heterosexuality will get you nothing but fierce hostility. It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which conformity to heteronormative gender roles is THE centerpiece of evangelical theology. Evangelicals generally believe that any kind of same-sex attraction–whether it be emotional, aesthetic, romantic, or sexual–is an egregious sin, especially for a man.
That said, I’ve long suspected that the hair-trigger defensiveness of evangelicals on LGBTQ+ issues flows from a fear of heterosexuality’s fragility.
I think your use of the term “heteronormative” is interesting as it takes me back to the late-80s and 90s when there was a real split in the direction the gay movement was going – I was part of a group, still headed by the original gay liberation leaders who came out of the free-love generation of the 60s and 70s, who saw the faction that were then just beginning to talk about gay marriage, as a kind of surrender to heteronormative or “heterosexist” norms; the original idea of the gay sexual revolution was just that: a revolution – we were throwing off the bourgeois concepts of marriage and monogamy and we certainly didn’t care what the religion of our parents thought about us or how we chose to live our lives; the current trend, by some, in the gay community – is a rather conservative (and reactionary) swerve back to the morals and traditions of heterosexual monogamy. Some see this as a sign of progress – I see it as a sign of panic; that after the AIDS crisis, which the gay community has still not come to terms with, many have subconsciously figured out that the gay experiment failed; part and parcel with this, is the rush by others to somehow combine Christianity with a homosexual identity. Just as same-sex marriage goes against the very basics of natural law – this experiment too is doomed to failure; though, I truly wish you all well.
For the record, you can call me Mike. (Can I call you Joseph?)
You really do have some interesting insight to bring to the table thanks to your past. I know that the idea of marriage has historically been controversial in the gay community, and your first-hand knowledge of that is a valuable resource in that conversation.
And your critique of the terminology that we use is worthy of consideration and conversation as well. Of course, as you know, that conversation is ongoing, and there’s a multitude of articles on Spiritual Friendship devoted to it.
I’m just not seeing how the things you bring up, while interesting and important to discuss, have any immediate relevance to the point of this particular article.
If, when refrencing myself, I were to exchange the word gay in this article for same-sex attracted, or some other term, it wouldn’t change the meaning of the post.
I realize we’re coming at this from vastly different perspectives, so it’s possible that I’m missing something vital to what you’re saying. But I just can’t see why this, in particular, would be so controversial. I’m merely saying that we, collectively as the church, can’t claim to be faultless in our dealings with the gay community (even if you want to limit that to exclusively non-Christians) and we should be ready to humbly acknowledge that, and repent where necessary, in order to move forward.
Thanks for the perspective. I recently read the book “Not Gay” by Jane Ward. I found the book’s thesis to be persuasive, even though the book is a bit poorly organized.
Ward also observes that the queer movement failed as a counter-cultural movement, i.e., as a challenge to heterosexuality. In its aftermath, there was no clear sense of what constituted being “gay.” Is a guy gay merely because he experiences an emotional attraction to one of his male friends? What if he enjoys non-sexual tactile contact with other guys? Or what if he thinks that Zach Efron is a handsome dude? Or what if he likes swimming his laps in a Speedo? No one knew, and a vast social no-man’s land emerged. So, a certain fear set in in the early 2000s about whether guys might be gay. As a result, guys starting seeking female companionship at an earlier age, stopped touching each other, started pretending that they had no ability to assess whether a guy was attractive or not, and traded in their Speedos for floppy board shorts. By Ward’s reasoning, same-sex marriage became accepted because it answered the question of what qualifies as being gay. Henceforth, one is gay if one wants to settle down into a committed relationship with another dude. Thus, having safely defined what it means to be gay, heterosexuality could reclaim the no-man’s land. For example, this summer I’ve seen several 20-something straight guys wearing Speedos to my building’s rooftop pool. I’ve not seen straight guys wearing Speedos in social settings since the late 1990s. Straight men are starting to feel a bit more free to toy with femininity. In other words, same-sex marriage has permitted the redefinition of what it means to be heterosexual.
Ward noted the tendency of 20-somethings to use phrases like “heteroflexible” and “straight but not narrow.” In that sense, the cabining of “gay” to the institution of same-sex marriage allowed straights to reclaim activities that might have been construed as gay just five years ago.
I would argue that I tend to be bisexual/asexual. But, among kids in their 20s, heterosexuality now encompasses a fair degree of what might previously have been the province of bisexuality. I generally see that as a good thing.
The queer movement failed as a challenge to heterosexuality. But it eventually succeeded by allowing heterosexuality to be redefined to include a fair bit of what was queer. Heck, if oversight middle-aged men in Slovakia can feel comfortable wearing tight swimwear, why shouldn’t fit 20-something guys in America feel the same way?
I, like a lot of gay Christians I’d guess, am at least a little familiar with your story. So certainly, I realize that there are people whose experiences are far different from my own. But I wouldn’t say that what I’ve written here leaves no room for your experience.
I didn’t intend, with this article, to give a comprehensive account of the American church’s interactions with gay people, nor did I presume to speak for every person who’s ever been part of the gay and/or Christian community.
The point of this article was to highlight a particular phenomenon that I’ve observed often impedes dialogue. I tried to include qualifiers all along the way to be clear that I didn’t literally mean every part of the church and every single Christian. Of course there are churches and Christians to whom this doesn’t apply. I just wasn’t talking about them.
But you’re right that I’m brushing with pretty broad strokes; I just don’t think they’re disproportionately broad.
Even if, let’s say, the things I mentioned in this article are confined to the southern United States, which they’re not, that’s where nearly 40% of Americans live. Even if it’s only conservative evangelicalism that has a problematic history regarding the queer community, which it’s not, that group represents a significant number of American Christians. And many of the most prominent evangelical leaders have been the most politically active and the most vocal in the culture wars. It can’t be denied that they have shaped much of the Christian conversation (and conservative political one) on homosexuality in the US.
Well said, Mike. This is an awesome insight.
Mike, Thanks for the article. It resonated with me.
Joseph – I have followed you for some time and I am glad to see your language seems to have softened some. In previous posts I have read of yours, you write as a person coming out of the homosexual culture of the past; in my opinion you have sounded to me like a non-smoker who is now intolerant of other smokers or a former Catholic that now disdains the Catholic church.
This is a complicated time for Christians, Gays, and Gays who are Christians. Speaking for myself, I am in a posture of gratitude for this as a person who is still trying to figure out where I fit in all of this. I have been evangelical all my life, and am now ashamed at how my “brothers and sisters” in Christ have so cruelly and arrogantly treated anyone who might even question if they might be gay, much less admit to it. It is the reason many people I know have left the church, and some have even committed suicide.
So I am happy to see this article from Mike and hope that we can all see the illustration of White Fragility as compared to Straight (conservative religious) fragility.