When I went up to London last Sunday, flags and patriotic paraphernalia were everywhere. Even my favourite gay bar, Compton's of Soho, was festooned with flags hanging from the ceiling, both the Union Jack and the Royal Standard, as the country was in the midst of a four day celebration for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. An estimated one million people lined the banks of the Thames to watch Elizabeth II pass by in a royal barge accompanied by a flotilla of 1000 additional boats. Riding in the flotilla were 20,000 participants, and 20 million people (a third of the country) are believed to have joined in street parties and picnics up and down the country - much of it in very English rain.
But my own visit to London had nothing to do with these celebrations - my sympathies are mildly republican, and I cannot feel the same surge of emotion at every glimpse of this elderly lady or her extended family. I was there for quite different reasons: after my single pint of beer in Compton's, I headed off to church - the Soho Catholic Mass, organized twice monthly with a specific focus on LGBT Catholics. It is from this perspective, as a gay Catholic activist (who just happens to be 60 years old), that in common with many others in this country, I have been looking back over 60 years of history, in my case queer church history: in the UK, worldwide, and in my own life. Over this period, there has been a truly remarkable transformation of Christian responses to homosexuality. This transformation matters to all of us, whether believers or not.
"Diamond jubilee royal monogram"
Although there's obviously a long way to go, and it remains true that the strongest forces against us defend their bigotry with arguments from religion, the momentum towards inclusive faith is powerful, and likely to extend much further. Recognizing this, and bringing people of faith on-side, is potentially more effective than the more usual, sterile opposition of civil rights set against religious belief - a confrontation in which neither side is likely to convert the most fervent adherents of the other.
Consider, for instance some US news reports from just last week: an openly gay bishop is actively campaigning for marriage equality in Maine, a Kentucky Baptist church has ordained an openly gay pastor, and Conservative Jews have approved procedures for conducting same - sex weddings.
In London last month, religious and trade union gay activists convened a joint conference on combating faith - based homophobia, and next month's London Pride parade will include a walking group of 200 - 300 people identifying as "Christians Together at Pride".
In Europe, when Denmark approves gay marriage legislation later this summer, it will include provision for same -sex weddings in church, and France is the latest overwhelmingly Catholic country which should soon pass marriage and family equality laws.
Possibly the majority of books sold today on the topic of the Bible and homosexuality reject the traditional idea that same - sex relationships are condemned. In addition to the Metropolitan Community Church, which was founded specifically to minister to the lesbian and gay community, LGBT self-ministry and support groups now exist in every denomination I can think of (including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists), and on every continent.
Openly LGBT pastors and bishops are serving in many denominations, and taking their place as theologians or bible scholars in seminaries and schools of religion. Gay and lesbian theology is now a recognized (niche) academic discipline, with sub-disciplines of its own, and an introductory college textbook. The expansion of marriage and family equality has forced clergy in many regions to consider appropriate responses in pastoral practice - and many are doing so by conducting same - sex weddings or church blessings for civil unions, and baptising the children of queer families.
As queer people have begun openly to take their place in churches and synagogues, they have been winning support in increasing numbers from straight allies. The successful struggles by the ELCA and PCUSA churches in 2009 and 2010/11 respectively to begin ordaining openly gay or lesbian partnered clergy could not have been won by LGBT Lutherans and Presbyterians alone, without substantial help from their co-religionists. Just last week, 300 Mormon straight allies joined the Utah Pride parade, as a show of support and to build bridges.
In the early political struggles for equality, it was easy for our opponents to argue that their hostility was required by religious faith, that equality or even tolerance for homosexuals was against God's will. No longer. When religious leaders and organized groups are lobbying privately or speaking publicly in favour of gay marriage, when openly gay or lesbian clergy are leading church services, and when straight pastors are conducting gay weddings or blessing civil unions in church, it becomes steadily harder for the homophobes to hide their bigotry behind a pseudo-religious front. Every advance for LGBT inclusion in church weakens the religious argument against - and we have already won the secular argument.
At the heart of all major religions is an emphasis on love. Jesus Christ was no bigot, but instead associated very conspicuously with the weak and social outcasts of all kinds. Instead of simply assuming that Christians are the enemy, it is time for the LGBT community to recognize the value of working together with people of faith for equality. At the same time, queer people of faith, especially the young, need to know that they are not alone - and that hidden from history, we have always been there. Jesse Monteagudo wrote earlier about some of the gay popes, many of whom could conceivably be dismissed as among the "bad popes". To counter them, we could recall instead the numerous queer saints and martyrs.
As a new contributor to the Project, I hope to report regularly on the progress to equality and inclusion in church, on our religious straight allies - and to bring into the light some of the queer strands in church history.