Though he was raised in the United Methodist Church, Harry Knox knew he couldn't become a minister in his denomination because it doesn't ordain openly gay members. He enrolled in a seminary of the more liberal United Church of Christ but was eventually denied ordination anyway. "My whole career as an activist is an accidental ministry," says Knox, 48, who now works at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group. "I would rather be a local pastor."
Instead, since 2005, Knox has built HRC's "religion and faith program," which works to combat the stereotype of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community as antireligious. "For far too long, LGBT organizations did not put religious allies at the forefront of our efforts," Knox says. "That's a mistake we're making less often now."
Those religious allies may be more plentiful than most Americans think. A Barna Group survey out last week shows that most gay Americans lead pretty robust faith lives. While 72 percent of straight American adults describe their faith as "very important" in their lives, so do 60 percent of gays and lesbians. Almost as many, 58 percent, say they've made a personal and ongoing commitment to Jesus Christ.
And though they are much less likely than straights to share the beliefs of born-again Christians—which comes as no surprise, since most churches in the born-again tradition condemn homosexuality—the Barna survey found that 27 percent of gays do hold those beliefs. "Many in the Christian community assume there's this significant gap between heterosexuals and homosexuals in terms of faith beliefs and activities," says George Barna, the country's top pollster on religious issues, who supervised the survey. "While there are statistically significant differences, it's the narrow size of the gap that's most surprising."
The poll unleashed a torrent of hate mail, mostly from believers furious with Barna's conclusion: that many gays are Bible-believing Christians. But more and more gay rights organizations are joining HRC in stepping up efforts to highlight the faith beliefs of many gay Americans, largely through religious outreach programs. And some religious traditions and denominations are taking steps to welcome gay and lesbian members.
Gay rights activists say that the 2004 election, when voters in 11 states passed gay marriage bans that were heavily promoted through churches, was a wake-up call. To help counter the image of the gay marriage battle as a fight between gays and religious Americans, HRC, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other national gay rights groups quickly hired religious outreach staff.
Some gay rights leaders objected to the idea of building bridges to faith groups and leaders. "For as long as there has been an anti-LGBT movement, the language and organizations behind it have been religious," says the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who spearheads faith outreach for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "So there's still a gulf between the LGBT secular community and pro-LGBT religious folks, and there's a lot of trust that needs to be built."
But the gay rights movement's religious voices have used the passage of a gay marriage ban in California last year to strengthen their case for religious outreach. A recent National Gay and Lesbian Task Force analysis of gay activists' failure to stop California's ban, known as Proposition 8, concluded that the movement "has a problem with religion."
"The voices of conservative religious leaders," the report read, "must be responded to by the voices of progressive faith leaders whose religious beliefs and traditions allow them to speak to people of faith as moral equals." Since then, activists like Knox and Voelkel have spent time meeting with religious leaders in California as they strategize about how to challenge the ban.
While enlisting religious leaders in political fights, gay rights activists are also working to make churches and denominations more gay friendly. Many mainline Protestant denominations have made changes. The United Church of Christ now ordains gay ministers, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering following suit. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will vote on the issue this summer. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Voelkel says she is working with all five movements of American Judaism to help them become what she calls "welcoming and affirming" toward gays. Her group's list of welcoming and affirming Christian congregations has swelled to 3,400, up from 1,300 four years ago.