Lifting our voices: reconciling religion, gender and sexual orientation

Like so many people who are committed to LGBTI rights and to freedom of religion, it is painful to experience the opposition or hostility which can sometimes be expressed between groups that advocate exclusively for one or the other freedom. Inclusive societies must include all our diversities, and human rights for one group cannot be at the expense of another group. It is only within this all-encompassing paradigm that we will ever achieve true equality for all.
Legal frameworks and case law provide an important mechanism through which the balance of rights can be clarified and potential conflicts of interest can be resolved. The legal tensions and opportunities in human rights law are well explained in the research paper by Dr. Alice Donald and Dr. Erica Howard from Middlesex University on “The Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief and its Intersection with Other Rights,” commissioned by ILGA Europe and published in January 2015 (see summary of this paper on pages 6&7 of this magazine). But such cases will always leave one side unsatisfied and will unlikely lead to a transformation at the source of intolerance.
The question which we at CEJI – A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe have been dealing with in the anti-bias training work we do is how to “reconcile religion, gender and sexual orientation” in order to reduce the perception and reality of opposition among these three elements of diversity. Our training takes a nested approach to learning. Insights, implications and connections are found by examining the individual, communal, and societal levels. With a starting point that honours these three dimensions of every person’s multi-faceted identity, it becomes more difficult to divide people along the fault lines of “us” and “them”, and participants are able to approach the practical issues of living together more constructively. For example, when bringing together representatives of an LGBTI group and a religious group(s), it is important to take time in the process for everyone to realise that LGBTI people have beliefs and perhaps subscribe to a particular faith. We also must recognise that those from the religious side also have a sexual orientation and may even be LGBTI themselves.
It is only in the last few decades that LGBTI freedoms have begun to be normalised in certain spaces and parts of the world. The experience of rejection, betrayal, denial or exclusion of LGBTI people is still in living memory. In many places, it is still present. The poles of greatest resistance to LGBTI rights today are often propped up by religious arguments, and despite strong theological contradictions, many have come to view “religion” and therefore “religious people” as inherently homophobic. The problem is that religious texts such as the Bible say very little about some subjects, such as homosexuality. Popular attitudes about those matters are determined much more by other sources such as scientific information, social changes and personal experience. Interpretation of religious text is the way in which it has real-life meaning. Over the last 50 years there has been a long list of books, theologians and religious leaders who have theologically refuted the idea that homosexuality is a sin.
To complicate matters, there is also the reality of religious discrimination in Europe today, especially in employment and housing. Incidents of hate crimes are rising in many countries, an escalation of political discourse against Muslims in particular, and a series of policies this last decade are seen as an attack on religious freedom. It is ironic that some of these policies are justified in the name of women’s rights, yet it is Muslim women who are most often the victims of hate crime perpetrated by non-Muslims.
As the multicultural fabric of Europe continues to diversify, and this includes communities that may be more culturally or religiously traditionalist, there will be increasing demand on LGBTI support groups to provide a safe and welcoming space for people who are struggling to reconcile their sexual orientations with their religio-cultural roots. Prejudices will need to be confronted, within their families of origin, but also within the LGBTI movement, if intersectionality is to be properly addressed and if truly inclusive community groups are to be created. In the face of exclusion and bias both within their religio-cultural communities of origin and within the mainstream LGBTI movement, one of the ways LGBTI people of faith have created safe spaces is by creating separate LGBTI communities of faith. This is one possible solution, emerging from the possibility to connect with others who share particular intersections of identity.
There is so much to learn from the ways LGBTI people of faith have reconciled these dimensions of identity within themselves, and how faith-based LGBTI communities have harmonized values, beliefs and traditions into a coherent whole.
In one of our CEJI training activities, we take real personal stories of reconciliation from across a range of religio-cultural contexts and ask participants to place these stories within the four quadrants in this diagram. This leads people to reflect upon their own experiences and choices, and also to become more aware of the prejudices they may have about the choices other people have made to feel at peace within themselves.
Within the European Network on Religion and Belief (ENORB), faith-based organisations that are not defined as LGBTI have taken on the challenge of addressing LGBTI inclusion. In order to confront anti-religious bias, it is necessary to lift the voices of religious people who are committed to equality for all, which includes LGBTI people. ENORB members believe that there is much in common between the fight for religious freedom and the fight for LGBTI rights. We should show solidarity for all human rights by not shying away from tough issues, but rather, by tackling them head-on and thus reduce intolerance within and towards our respective communities.
Over the last two years, ENORB and ILGA-Europe have held a series of joint seminars, at European and at national levels, to open up the possibilities for dialogue and cooperation. Some of the issues which we have discovered to be of joint concern are: hate crime, dress and symbols, freedom of assembly and inclusive education. Several ENORB members have also organised discussions within their religious communities, sometimes involving ILGA-Europe members, about the spiritual values as well as anti-discrimination commitments which should drive them towards a more pro-active approach to LGBTI inclusion. We believe it is the responsibility of faith-based communities to provide a welcoming and safe environment for all of their
members. The struggle to achieve this is not done, but we are proud of the progress which is being made.
We have learnt a lot about ourselves and about our faiths in this process. And it is a process; a process that requires trust-building, active listening, and a sincere consideration of each others’ needs and experiences. We must frame the issues as shared issues in a shared society based on a set of common values. These are the key ingredients for creating a culture where respect for diversity and equal rights will finally thrive.
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