HRC Blog

Panel Explores Tensions Between Religion and LGBTQ Advocacy

Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, HRC Senior Content Manager

LGBT Advocates Panel In the struggle to reconcile religious traditions with sexual orientations and gender identities, LGBTQ people of faith have so often felt forced to stay closeted, or abandon their spiritual communities. But in recent years LGBTQ Christians, Muslims, Jews and those from many other religious traditions have begun to voice the conflict they feel as people of faith who are also LGBTQ identified. 

Hoping to further discussion of the tensions and intersections between religion, sexuality and gender, HRC’s Foundation collaborated with Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Carpenter Program on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality to host a panel last Thursday evening, titled "When Identities Collide: LGBTQ Advocates and Religious Conflict." 

The panel was the kickoff for a powerful and revitalizing three-day conference that brought together over 50 alumni of HRC Foundation's successful Summer Institute for Theologians and Religious Scholars.  A project of HRC Foundation's Religion and Faith Program, the Institute's mission is to foster and nurture new LGBTQ religious leaders who can speak to the complexity of navigating religious and LGBTQ identities

HRC Foundation's Religion and Faith Program director, Dr. Sharon Groves, explained, the panel was intended to be "a different kind of dialogue" about sexuality, gender, and religion, faith and religious institutions, which she described as "the place where dialogue is most needed."

Huffington Post Religion Editor, the Rev. Paul Raushenbush, who moderated the panel, emphasized the extent to which faith and community inform one another, including when a person's "community" is comprised of a same-sex spouse or partner. As Mormon organizer Samy Gálvez explained, within the LDS faith, religion is a major part of a person's cultural identity, and thus not easily abandoned. LGBTQ Mormons like Gálvez have begun seeking more forums for discussing sexuality and gender identities, hoping to make space for themselves within their communities of faith. 

Even in the most conservative parts of the Muslim world, people of faith are working to increase dialogue on LGBTQ issues. Zainab Al-Suwaij, who joined the panel, began an organization in Iraq to help LGBTQ Muslims whose lives were threatened by their own families and communities. She’s found religious authorities who, through discussions with her and others, are coming to realize that LGBTQ Muslims just want "a simple life" and "to survive on a daily basis." In some cases, the dialogues she has begun have brought families back together with their LGBTQ loved ones.

The Rev. Cedric Harmon and Dr. Christopher House both addressed tensions within African-American religious communities surrounding issues of faith and sexuality, adding nuance to what are often over-simplified discussions of "homophobia" in black churches. In Harmon's experience, he sees black churches and religious leaders reconsidering anti-LGBT rhetoric, and he encourages them to "consider the core essential nature" of Christianity, with its emphases on compassion and acceptance. House, an 8th generation Pentecostal preacher who works on HIV/AIDS advocacy also emphasized the power of having open dialogues with faith leaders rather than simply dismissing any hesitance as "homophobia."

As Dr. Lynne Gerber discussed, LGBTQ Christians facing rejection from their churches have been creating their own queer religious spaces for decades in the form of affirming denominations like the Metropolitan Community Church.

But for a younger generation of LGBTQ Christians like Alex McNeil, executive director of More Light Presbyterians and an openly transgender man, opportunities for remaining within mainline protestant churches and effecting change from within are increasing. 

Jewish trans organizer Dana Beyer concluded the panel discussion by encouraging LGBTQ people to strive for dialogue rather than debate when working with religious leaders and communities, an important lesson for those involved in discussions that can so often breed contention. 

"The panelists demonstrated how far LGBTQ people of faith have come in advancing dialogue about sexuality and gender within their own congregations," Groves said. "These are discussions we need to keep having, no matter how difficult they are."

Pictured left to right: Zainab Al-Suwaij, Alex McNeill, and Rev. Cedric Harmon. Photo (c) Ward Morrison 

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