My wife and I were wandering around the hot, packed streets of our local Pride parade in Tampa, Florida, a few weeks ago. It was your typical Pride scene: lots of queer people, couples holding hands, laughter, rainbow everything, and roads filled with corporate-sponsored booths. We turned a corner and were suddenly confronted with a near block’s worth of Christian groups. At first blush, it was hard to tell if they were anti-queer protesters or pro-LGBTQ+ do-gooders. It was the latter variety that day, but with unspoken agreement, we decided to avoid engaging with them all the same.
As we moved through the crowd, I accidentally locked eyes with someone from a Christian group. The man, sporting a “God loves gays” T-shirt, moved toward me, arms open. “Do you want a free hug?” he asked.
“No,” I said. He looked disappointed, hurt even. Seconds later, a woman from the same Christian group stepped in front of us to ask if I would like a “Mom hug.” “No,” I said again, louder. I rolled my eyes and took a look at their signs and pamphlets advertising worship meetings and religious principle. The offer of a free hug didn’t feel free to me. We kept moving.
I’ve never been much of a Pride person — too hot, too many people, too many corporations — and I take that same sentiment into my work as a writer, preferring to think about less visible aspects of queer life. Part of this avoidance is my distaste for the same debate that happens over and over each Pride season: Should kink be allowed at Pride?
The question is usually reignited by people who are uncomfortable with displays of public sexuality, and those who feel concerned for any children present. The debate is endless — more a tug of war over respectability than an earnest question about what is appropriate in public — and already long-settled in my mind. To me, kink belongs at Pride because kinky queer people deserve to show up as their full selves. Teach your kid about agency, self-expression, and the not-so-family-friendly origins of Pride, or stay home.
But my recent encounter with the Christian groups tugged at me: What did they really want from me and my community? And why did a request for a hug scandalize me far more than any leather-clad kinkster ever could?
It’s no secret that queer folks often have a fraught relationship with Christianity. Many emerge from their youth with deep religious trauma, raised to believe that anything other than cisgender heterosexuality merits eternal damnation. For some, their religious upbringing also included “conversion therapy” — the discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender presentation.
In a 2020 study, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that 7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults in the U.S. had undergone conversion therapy at some point, with most of them receiving it from religious leaders. The data also showed that those had undergone conversion therapy were almost twice as likely to think about and attempt suicide, compared with their peers who hadn’t. And while any religious institution can inflict trauma on queer people, Christian organizations are usually the most visible in the U.S. and seem to touch the most queer lives — especially in the South, where I live.
If my brief run-in with Christian groups caused me — someone who made it to adulthood mostly unscathed by religion but not wholly untouched — such discomfort, I wondered what harm their presence might have on those who were not so lucky.
For Nathaniel Akers, a queer man from Canada, seeing these groups at Pride ruins the experience. His upbringing was deeply linked with evangelical Christianity. He attended Bible school as a child and worked as a missionary with plans to become a pastor, but he was eventually subjected to conversion therapy and disownment.
“I was taught [that] if you’re gay, you’re going to burn in hell,” Akers said. “I used to tell myself when I was having ‘gay thoughts’ to stop [because] ‘you’re going to burn hell.’” Even years after leaving his church, Akers has gone through periods of panic attacks, triggered by driving near or seeing churches on his way to work.
Now 28, Akers said seeing Christian groups at Pride — even if they support his lifestyle — brings his trauma to the surface. “It’s overall more harmful than beneficial,” he said. “It triggers a lot more people than it would actually affirm.”
Some groups owe an important debt to the queer community for the experiences of people like Akers. In 2018, the Church of Freedom in Christ Ministries went viral for its “I’m sorry” campaign in the Philippines, where members marched with banners saying, “We’re here to apologize for the ways that we as Christians have harmed the LGBT community.” Members also reportedly offered hugs.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Christian mother Sara Cunningham began giving out hugs at an Oklahoma Pride event in 2015 after experiencing a change of heart about her son’s sexuality. In 2018, she went viral for a Facebook post offering to attend same-sex weddings as a stand-in mother, and Cunningham soon launched the national nonprofit Free Mom Hugs. The organization, though not officially Christian, now boasts over 14,000 volunteers and chapters in all 50 states, according to its website. (HuffPost reached out to Free Mom Hugs for an interview, but the group declined to comment.)
The media lauded Cunningham and the Church of Freedom in Christ Ministries for their efforts, and often portrayed queer people’s reactions to such amends-making as singular and universal: We love this! But for some, these gestures can read as penance turned publicity stunts at best, or a demand for wholesale absolution at worst. Embodying accountability — something a single hug or sign can’t mimic — is harder to achieve.
“The role of these groups is to provide a corrective experience,” said Dani Rosenkrantz, a Tampa-based psychologist specializing in Jewish LGBTQ+ mental health, religious trauma and queer empowerment.
“[Their] purpose is to say, ‘We know not all parents in our community have been loving and supporting and affirming,’” Rosenkrantz added. “[They] are there to say they don’t agree with that, and that they love [queer people]. But in doing so, they are naming that people have experienced trauma from their families and from their faith communities.”
This acknowledgment of harm is huge — and for some people, the experience of feeling seen and accepted is corrective and healing, Rosenkrantz said. But these Christian groups must handle these complex emotions responsibly once activated. Rosenkrantz emphasized the need for training around trauma and consent before heading to Pride events. But in general, she said she believes religion does have a place at Pride: “In these times, anyone who wants to vote for our rights and celebrate our presence should be invited to the party.”
I later spoke with Maureen O’Leary, a field and organizing director at the Interfaith Alliance advocacy group, about how religious groups can show their support for the LGBTQ+ community in a meaningful, trauma-aware manner. In 2022, Interfaith Alliance launched Faith for Pride, a monthlong initiative inviting religious believers to organize for LGBTQ+ rights, inclusion and leadership.
Rather than show up at Pride — and assume invitation in queer spaces, as O’Leary put it — Faith for Pride encourages religious communities to hold their own events that welcome LGBTQ+ people, give religious sermons on queer inequality, and offer book clubs or film screenings. The emphasis is on critical thinking, where religious resources should go, how these efforts can support queer-led initiatives locally, and how these efforts can be sustained throughout the year, rather than in Pride month only, said O’Leary.
Rosenkrantz and O’Leary — both queer people of faith — expressed concern about the cultural narrative that queerness and spirituality are like oil and water. In some ways, I believe, they can be impossible to mix. As it surges in power, the religious right crusades against the dignities of marginalized people, with Christianity used as justification. From medical treatment (such as abortion and gender-affirming care) to education (like restrictions on books and discussions at school), it seems that public and private life in the U.S. is often defined by Christianity, to the detriment of millions.
But for those who hold both queerness and spirituality, an us-against-them mentality feels too zero-sum.
“The whole ‘God versus gay’ fight will continue in and outside of Pride month and queer spaces,” said the Rev. Roland Stringfellow, who is the managing director at the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. It’s easy to forget how radical it can be for Christians, including queer ones, to attend Pride.
“The first instances of religious people taking part in Pride celebrations were congregations that included ‘out’ individuals in leadership and in membership,” said Stringfellow.
Pride season is a holy time for inclusive congregations, added the reverend, who also serves as the senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit. He noted, “As someone who lives at the intersection of many identities — Black, gay, Christian, pastor— [and] as someone who left the Baptist church because I’m gay and not knowing that I could be gay and a Christian, let alone a minister, I needed to see affirming and welcoming congregations at Pride events.”
Stringfellow’s congregation marches and hosts a booth in the Motor City Pride parade. “[It’s] never our intention to re-traumatize anyone, and thus we are cautious about how we present ourselves,” he said. “But for those who do find us, [and] didn’t realize they were looking for us, it is an act of divine intervention.”
Certainly, my thoughts on hug-happy, performative mom groups haven’t changed. But in speaking with so many people — those traumatized by religion and those attempting to reconcile that hurt — I have found a little more forgiveness. Just as kinky queer people deserve to show up as their full selves, so do their religious counterparts.
Maybe, maybe, there is a little more space at Pride than I thought.