Out of Our Hiding Places and Into the Love of Christ

In many regions of the Christian world, people hide their sexual orientation if it does not conform to heterosexuality. This is because they have to fear reprisals and exclusion in their communities, churches and sometimes even home countries. But this should no longer be the case. Christians of diverse sexuality are openly claiming their identity among the people of God. One of them is theology professor Enrique Vega-Dávila. In an interview with EMW, he tells us about it.

For some time now, the voices of people of diverse sexuality have been growing louder and louder, claiming the love of Christ without reservation and demanding integration even into existing faith communities and the traditional churches. This can give the impression from the outside that this is a comparatively new issue. How does the situation look from your point of view?

Enrique Vega-Dávila is a theology professor specializing in Dogmatic Theology © Foto: private | Enrique Vega-Dávila is a theology professor specializing in Dogmatic Theology

There have always been people of diverse sexuality like us in different Christian communities. But we have been forced to live a double life and hide part of our identity because we are who we are. Few denominations have opened their doors to us without violating our identity. For us, the gospel was not always good news, because there was often only one choice: either we live out our affective-sexual orientation or we find space in the community. Coming out often meant exclusion, and social and religious pressure kept us from doing so for a long time.

People of diverse sexuality don’t experience the same intensity of exclusion and pressure everywhere in the world. Which region are you referring to?

I live in Peru and exclusion is carried out in a pronounced form in the majority of the largest churches in Latin America. Of course, we can be part of the faith communities, but we cannot openly live out our personal faith and our sexuality there.

In what way does this manifest?

This is primarily reflected in not having the same civil rights as heterosexual people. In countries like Peru, Paraguay or Venezuela, there are still no clear laws for people of diverse sexuality.

And how does this manifest itself in personal experiences in the church environment?

Many of us of diverse sexual orientations grew up in spaces of faith where the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) or of the “man lying with a man” (Genesis 18:26) were held up to judge us. The texts were also used to reject secular initiatives that called for either marriage for all or for pride in diversity. The religious discourse was “God created man and woman,” and “God forgives sins but not scandals.” Living in secrecy was always the only implicitly offered possibility of expressing sexuality that did not fit the heterosexual mold.

When you say secrecy was an implicit offer to live non-heterosexual forms of sexuality, what should we understand from that?

The religious world created a “sacred hiding place” that guaranteed security, comfort, or social and ecclesiastical advancement. As a Catholic theologian, I was often afraid that I would be excluded by the discovery of my sexuality. People appreciated me for the lectures I gave, but I could never present myself with this particularity that was part of my life. Love and also the experience of disillusionment had to be lived in secret or with a small group. This is true not only for Catholics, but also for those who grew up in Protestant families and heard from an early age that same-sex affection was to be condemned. Control and guilt are two mechanisms of power that have been used to maintain institutions. Many lives have been sacrificed to maintain those constructs that relate not only directly to the body, but also to the creation of culture.

You describe a “sacred hiding place” that the religious world has created. Who hides in it or who is made invisible by it?

Being in the “closet” is an expression that means secretly living one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. When I speak of the “sacred closet” or hiding place, I am trying to describe how a certain religious world values our contributions to religious communities. They don’t want us to make our sexual orientation or gender identity visible to the outside world.

What is the trigger that causes people of diverse sexuality to no longer want to be limited or pressured by these circumstances?

People of diverse sexuality believe that the love of Christ has moved us and continues to move us to break out of these alienating structures in order to recover our identity within the community of the people of God. There is no reconciliation or unity if we do not recognize each other in the midst of a diversity steeped in the Paschal Mystery.

However, this recovery is a process that affects the people concerned very personally. What challenges did and do non-heterosexual Christians have to face in the process?

For many struggling for the recognition of sexual diversity, it means reconciling sexual experience with faith, and this meant developing a sense of self-worth that has been damaged for many years. We were told that we were loved and accepted in communities, but at the same time our form of affection was rejected. We were looked at with disgust, made to feel like we were living in squalor. Feeling different and wanting to express that meant guilt, fear and rejection, and not just fear of God and of the people who claim to be His followers. Rejection and insult were also experienced in non-church spaces. However, at no time has this been able to destroy our divine lineage. We profess the Christian faith in community without denying our sexuality.

How have you been able to develop a sense of self-worth to reconcile sexual diversity with faith? How do you approach people who deny you this?

This process was one of the most complicated. Because it is not easy to see that those institutions that preached love to us are perpetrating injustice on us. Personally, after therapy, I managed to see things more clearly for myself. I invite persons of diverse sexuality to this process of asking ourselves seriously about the ways in which religion harms us. To the people who don’t accept people of sexual diversity, I meet them as a matter of course, without hiding my sexual orientation. I defend my right to live my faith as who I am.

Have you encountered only rejection in the church or are there other experiences as well? Open and inclusive churches?

I think while I was in the “sacred closet” I didn’t feel any explicit rejection. But I have always suffered from the dictates of heterosexuality, which commanded me to be less feminine, less delicate, and to speak in a raspy voice. Within the Catholic Church, I have experienced closeness, especially from women. Mostly, this has expressed itself through gestures of acceptance, but not through an open affirmation of sexual diversity. Unfortunately, the lack of alternative discourse within the Church has led to the notion that the Church is homo-lesbo-bi-trans-phobic, when in fact there are other attitudes and openings in many denominations. For example, the Inclusive Christian Ecumenical Community El Camino (the Way) is a non-Catholic open space for diverse people. I stayed here for seven years. Currently, I am supporting the creation of the Lutheran Community of Santísimo Redentor (Holy Redeemer) in Mexico City and in the Lutheran Community of Peru. These are free spaces enriched by feminism and open to diversity.

Why do you think acknowledging sexual diversity is so difficult for many people and communities?

Believing in sexual diversity is not easy because for many people it is contrary to their faith.

The Bible is often used to reject homosexuality and other sexual orientations. How do you interpret the Scriptures?

It is interesting to see how a subject as central to certain Christian circles as homosexuality is reduced to so few passages of Scripture. Many Christian groups are very arbitrary in their use of Scripture when referring to sexuality. The existence of the relevant passages is not to be denied. Rather, we need to know them, study them, and understand them in their context. In doing so, we learn not only from studying the lives of those who wrote the passages, but also from decolonial readings, from a hermeneutic of suspicion used by Christian feminist women or by communities of African descent. With them, we read Scripture from the flip side of the heterosexual story that has made us invisible. Our approach is based on the conviction that we belong to the people of God but are excluded from it.

How can we imagine this in concrete terms? What are the challenges?

Through my training as a theologian, I have learned from historical-critical methods to interpret the Holy Scriptures. We ourselves have interpreted the so-called “toxic” texts of the Bible, those passages that condemn homosexuality. This has led us, starting from the original languages, to question the meaning of the words in their own context and to what realities they applied. Moreover, we have learned to question the translations applied to the extent that they are oriented to the mentality and prejudices (of the translators) and not necessarily to the spirit of the text. The challenge we recognize as communities of diverse sexuality is not to justify homosexuality biblically (that word does not exist in the Bible to begin with). Our endeavor is to open ourselves to a much broader dimension of sexuality and love expressed in a variety of ways. Our reading leads us not only to defend our human rights, which are rejected by a cis-heteropatriarchal society, but also to our divine heritage, in solidarity with other groups who are victimized. It is important to me to communicate the Good News of the Scriptures to people of diverse sexuality.

Are there other reasons why people reject the recognition of sexual diversity? And how could this problem be confronted?

The rejection of the sexual diversity of human beings is based not only on a literal interpretation of Scripture, but above all on an anthropological reductionism that understands the whole of humanity only from the genitals and therefore as a subject of reproduction. The mystery of the Incarnation helps us to enter into a relational dynamic in which the human does not contradict the divine; on the contrary, humanity will be the path to the divine. Divine kenosis means for us that everything human is consecrated, including our various sexualities. By reducing the human being only to the procreative act and the binary sexual experience, we renounce the appreciation of love from other perspectives.

You lament anthropological reductionism. How would you describe your image of humanity?

It seems to me important to insist on the coherence of a holistic anthropology that does not push sexuality to the margins of reflection. I think that the Christian message speaks only in general terms about sexuality, but is not yet able to celebrate it. Our liturgies are not alive with sexuality or desire. I believe that this reductionism continues at all levels. In this sense, I think it is fundamental to recognize humanity as diverse and to embrace this.

How does Christ’s love manifest itself for you? And what does it move the world to do, or what should it move the world to do, in your opinion?

The love of Christ is a personal love. People have the experience of a partner with whom one enters into a dialogue and a discussion. From this perspective, the love of Christ is manifested in the experience of multiple identities being accepted and loved by Him as valuable. The love of Christ should make us realize that however life arises, love has the last word. In this sense, it is a requirement to repair the harm that faith communities have done in the name of God to vulnerable populations.

What would have to happen for something to change in the church? What change do you hope for?

I think, first of all, the churches would have to acknowledge that they have been wrong about our lives. That their explicit and implicit teachings have destroyed many ways of living. Then the churches would have to ask for forgiveness for all the forbidden kisses, for the love we had to hide. I know this is an illusion, but I feel there is a historical debt to the persons of gender diversity. Also, reexamining our understanding of divinity and humanity opens new horizons for reconciling faith practices – and lets us step out of all hiding places without leaving God in them. Therefore, it is good to move from a “doctrinal church” that wants to teach and proclaim to a “disciple church” that has its ears to the lips of the Master who cries out in all beings that cry out for justice.

Why does the shift to a Disciples’ Church offer such great opportunities for you?

Because it recognizes the listening character that the Gospel propagates. Understanding the Church as a teacher has given to it a role that has caused it to forget to listen to the Master; all the more so because He is also present in the people who are not in the religious environment. The Church must be more of a student, which means also learning from the social movements, from their struggles and experiences and their methods of making contacts.

The interview was conducted by Tanja Stünckel and Corinna Waltz for the EMW-Themenheft 2021.

About Enrique Vega-Dávila

Enrique Vega-Dávila is a theology professor specializing in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical and Civil Faculty of Theology of Lima. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in critical gender studies at the Ibero-American University of Mexico. He has been a professor of theology at various universities in Peru and is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians and the Study Group on Religion and Politics. He is also pastor of the Christian Ecumenical and Inclusive Community El Camino (The Way) in Lima, Peru. His academic-pastoral interests are in theology, youth and sexual diversity from a gender studies perspective.

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