Spokane Gets a D From Human Rights Campaign, but Faith Communities Are Working to Make It Better
By Riley Haun
Name a Christian denomination, and there’s a fair chance Alix Hunter has worshiped in its churches at some point.
Raised in a “very conservative” family in western Colorado, Hunter attended Lutheran services throughout childhood, then Presbyterian when they were 12. When they left home at age 16, Hunter went searching for the faith that fit them best. As a queer and nonbinary person, the traditions they’d been raised in didn’t work for them.
“I grew up in this environment where women were viewed as subservient or less-than; gays were horrible,” Hunter said. “I was totally rejected. So I tried a little bit of everything else to figure out what I wanted.”
Over the next decade, Hunter would move from their rural hometown to Denver before eventually landing in Spokane. They attended Southern Baptist services, Foursquare revivals and everything in between. But they never did find the right fit. Many churches wouldn’t accept their queerness or gender identity at all; others were outwardly affirming, but Hunter encountered resistance within the membership nonetheless.
Hunter now identifies as more of an atheist than anything. But over the course of their long faith journey, they’ve seen how a church reflects its community in affirming queer members, and vice versa.
The times have changed, undoubtedly – Hunter knows plenty of queer people who attend churches far more affirming and welcoming than they would have found in Spokane 10 years ago, and the larger community is making progress, too. But Hunter feels there’s a lingering sense that more can be done.
“I can see how Spokane has this this heart of everybody is welcome,” Hunter said. “We want everybody to feel like they’re a part of the community here. But I think there’s just still a lot of deeply entrenched conservative values that tend to be more exclusionary than inclusionary.”
Recently, the Human Rights Campaign released its annual Municipal Equality Index, which assigns cities in each state a score based on steps taken towards LGBTQ+ equality and safety. Spokane earned 67 points out of 100, while Pullman was given a score of 56.
While the study doesn’t address issues of religion, church leaders and queer people of faith have seen how faith communities can influence the region’s overall sense of safety and welcoming for queer people. The church has helped make small changes for the better in their eyes, but leaders acknowledge there is still more work to be done.
The Rt. Rev. Gretchen Rehberg, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, said she’s seen many denominations change their tune over her time in ministry but said the Episcopalians have often been pioneers of LGBTQ+ affirmation in the region. For example, the diocese was largely accepting of marriage equality well before the church’s governing body recognized it nationwide in 2018, Rehberg said.
“That’s just been the natural progression of things, it’s who we are,” Rehberg said. “But I think there are still a lot of folks who aren’t rejecting or pushing out, saying ‘we don’t welcome you,’ but there’s a hesitation to ask questions or learn more in case they inadvertently offend someone.”
Prior to becoming bishop, Rehberg led an Episcopal church in Lewiston, where the region’s tone of acceptance was markedly different from what she’s seen in Spokane. Her church was the only affirming one in the area, and several out gay couples were members. Rehberg said she can’t speak for the experiences of queer people in the church, but what she does know is that those couples have all since left Lewiston for more welcoming places.
During her time in Lewiston, Rehberg said a big part of being an affirmative, loving church was simply showing up to Pride events – something she still does today in Spokane but felt to be especially important in smaller towns. Rehberg would set up booths and march in parades with a rainbow-emblazoned flag that read “God loves all colors of the rainbow,” and she made sure practically every sign the church put up somehow included a rainbow year-round. The small steps of just being visibly supportive made a difference, Rehberg said.
“We wanted to confess publicly that the church has hurt you in the past, and I am very deeply sorry for the sins of the church,” Rehberg said. But we also wanted to say that not all people who follow Jesus are bigots, and we want to be that safe place, to walk with you and stand with you.”
Jan Shannon, a former assistant pastor at Spokane’s Westminster United Church of Christ and a queer person herself, remembers seeing Spokane as a sort of “gay oasis” when she came out over a decade ago. She’d previously been a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, which had kicked her out when she came out. As she made connections in Spokane’s faith community outside her old church, she felt truly affirmed for the first time in her life.
Shannon helps organize the annual Interfaith Pride Service in conjunction with several other Spokane faith leaders. The simple act of seeing clergy in collars and stoles, marching arm in arm and carrying a massive rainbow flag, can change the minds of queer people feeling shut out of faith and the wider community alike, Shannon said.
Shannon agrees with Rehberg that church leadership must do the work of actively welcoming and promoting affirmation to the larger community. She credits Rev. Andrea CastroLang of Westminster UCC with being one of the first – and, for a long time, the only – Christian leader in the region who would go to city council meetings and stand up against anti-LGBTQ policies. That kind of work on the part of church leaders can inspire whole congregations to do the same where they can, eventually reverberating out into the wider community and not just the faith community, Shannon said.
But much of the work must be done on a small-scale, interpersonal level, Shannon said. She’s seen faith and politics become increasingly intertwined over her years in ministry to the point where many queer people want nothing to do with the church, and many churches are far less than affirming.
“It’s always going to be person to person to get people to see that gay people are people and Christians just like them,” Shannon said. “I may be the first person some churchgoers have ever met that’s gay and a Christian, but it’s that human touch that ripples out. That’s how it’s going to get done.”
Rehberg agrees that politics and religion have become entangled, and she acknowledges that some members of her church don’t like when leadership takes a stance on social issues. But she feels the church is called to be a prophetic voice, to cry out on behalf of the oppressed.
“Religion is politics,” Rehberg said. “It’s about how we live together, and God cares about how we live together.”
For Rehberg, it’s hard to point to concrete steps her church has taken to support and safeguard queer people in the community. But that’s because much of the work has been done behind the scenes, among small groups and within one-on-one interactions, she said.
Going forth, she wants to see people of faith make their voices heard in matters of discriminatory policy, and for the church to remain a moral voice of reason to its members. But the true test of success will be when being queer is simply normal – when no church makes a big deal of anyone’s expression, because they see everyone as beloved in the eyes of God.
“What I want to do is work for the day nobody’s even going to think about asking that question, because it’s just normal,” Rehberg said. “We want to be visible at Pride in our clericals with our rainbow flags, but there’s that quiet part of wanting you to just come sit with us in the church and be part of us.”
Hunter, who spent years searching in vain for a community that would truly accept them, believes a top-down approach from church leaders will ultimately be the way all churchgoers learn to accept and affirm their queer neighbors. That could mean big events like guest sermons from queer people of faith sharing their experiences, or it could mean a quiet cup of coffee shared between a queer person and a pastor who wants to learn.
People of faith are frequently the loudest in their larger communities, Hunter said. Faith shapes personal relationships, social interactions, votes and actions; many politicians make their faith a key part of their policy. If faith communities take steps to open the hearts and minds of their members, Hunter feels the impacts will reverberate endlessly.
“It speaks volumes if someone is posting about God on social media one moment and posting hateful anti-LGBTQ+ content the next,” Hunter said. “If people would extend more love and openness and less hatred and exclusion, a wonderful community could form.”