Beyond Tolerance: Helping Religions “Come Out”

A still from Kohl’s new holiday commercial titled “Celebrate Togetherness”

A gay Muslim student whose family comes from Saudi Arabia worries that they will have him executed if they discover his identity. The parents of a lesbian Catholic Latina college student seek counsel from their priest, and he tries to perform an exorcism urging her “evil spirit” to flee. A young gay man who attends a black church echoes the sentiments of others from across the American religious spectrum, “I doubt myself… Why am I this way?”

As college students across the country pack their bags to go home for the holidays, many will make other plans. They don’t feel safe visiting relatives, and even if they do, they won’t bring their full selves to the family table. These students are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex, many of whom come from families that forbid embracing such sexual or gender identities on religious grounds.

As a college campus professional for fourteen years, I created safe spaces for students to explore and discuss religious and LGBTQI identities. Although these support groups—one at UCLA and another at Stanford University—were housed under the Hillel Jewish campus umbrella, they attracted students from across the religious spectrum. Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and even a Zoroastrian student, sought out these groups because they were the only spaces on campus where one could discern how an LGBTQI identity could possibly coexist within a distinct religious, spiritual, or cultural framework.

An underlying paradigm for these circles of support is the Hebrew word, “shalom.” Usually translated “peace,” the word comes from a root meaning “wholeness.” We cannot be at peace until we are completely whole, bringing the entirety of ourselves to our spiritual lives. The need for forums to explore intersections between sexual or gender identity and religion is so great that students in the Stanford LGBTQI community eventually created a group specifically designed to encompass all faiths called “Queerituality.”

Struggling in Good Faith

Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives
Mychal Copeland and D’vorah Rose, eds.
Skylight Paths
November 30, 2015

Although each religious community possesses a distinct history and faces unique challenges, students who take part in these campus conversations feel a common bond amongst a group of people who powerfully challenge religious boundaries in the hopes of celebrating their LGBTQI identities within these contexts. They seek out and create spaces where they can integrate all of the pieces of their disparate identities into one, unified, whole.

What I witnessed on college campuses is merely a microcosm of the issues LGBTQI people face within our nation’s religious institutions, families, and cultural or ethnic communities. The newly released book I co-edited, Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives, addresses the intersections between LGBTQI identities and religion beyond the campus.

This multifaith sourcebook for students, campus professionals, families, religious institutions, and medical professionals spans the American religious landscape. Chapter contributors situated within their respective religious traditions call for the expansion of boundaries and identities in their religious communities, including the Black Church, Buddhism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), the Episcopal Church, First Nations (Native American), Hinduism, Judaism, the Lutheran Church, Islam, the Presbyterian Church, Protestant evangelical traditions, the Roman Catholic Church, and Unitarian Universalism.RDinboxThe causes of homophobia or transphobia vary greatly from one tradition to the next. Each contributor balances challenging narratives with stories of significant strides, passionately urging fellow leaders and lay people to engage in the sacred struggle to bring wholeness to LGBTQI people and their allies.

What will ultimately bring about this transformation of American religion?

1) Recognizing the intersections between religion and LGBTQI inclusion

In the past, many LGBTQI people “came out of the closet and out of the church,” leaving behind oppressive religious institutions. Today’s college students, by contrast, increasingly arrive on campus already having realized their identities—and many remain committed to religious life. Many find new, affirming spiritual homes. But others demand a place at the table in the least likely of institutions. Those conversations are occurring in every tradition across the American religious spectrum.

LGBTQI people do not stand outside of religious structures; both on campus and off, we are filling the pews, creating theology and liturgy, providing pastoral care, and leading religious organizations and congregations at a rate unparalleled in history. That narrative does not receive the publicity it deserves.

2) Hearing every voice at the table 

Even among our most affirming traditions, there is still work to be done. True transformation will take place when we go beyond “welcoming” those who reside on the fringes of our institutions, when we are ready to be profoundly influenced by everyone’s presence. As Marvin M. Ellison and Sylvia Thorson-Smith write about the Presbyterian Church:

Non-heterosexual and transgender persons reside in every faith community, so the change agenda is not how to include “outsiders” and bring them inside, but rather how to create the communal conditions of hospitality, safety, and respect so that people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities alike can acknowledge and share what they have come to know, often at great risk, about resisting injustice, enhancing human dignity, and revitalizing community.

3) Acknowledging the evolving nature of religion

Bishop Gene Robinson writes in the foreword, “Most people would tell you that religions are the keepers and preservers of unchanging, eternal truths. They would be wrong.”

Every religion evolves. To what degree each is willing to claim language of “change” varies wildly, but they indeed transform themselves again and again, sometimes bending to include a multiplicity of voices, other times splintering. Our chapter contributors ranging from Islam to Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Mormonism all acknowledge the shifts and negotiations that occur within American religious traditions.

Even for those whose rhetoric claims an eternal, unchanging Truth, they are never static. And the most lasting change occurs when an institution finds that the inclusion of LGBTQI individuals is consistent with its most authentic, core principles.

4) Allowing institutions to “come out” too

When my students come out, revealing an LGBTQI identity to themselves or others, they undergo a series of stages, often coming to a point of integration of their identities over many years or even a lifetime. A parent first hearing about a child’s LGBTQI identity undergoes a process of “coming out” as well, integrating this information and often talking to people about it in stages.

Perhaps we need to allow our religious institutions the same leeway, voicing our urgent need for them to change while acknowledging that they are each following their own trajectories toward “coming out” as inclusive of LGBTQI people. Those of us who are adherents of those traditions have a powerful role to play in setting the stage for deep transformation while offering compassion to our co-religionists in their struggle on this journey.

Let us create the environments that enable people to live in wholeness. I supported a student who went home over winter break last year, and chose this time—as many do—to come out as a lesbian to her mother, who teaches in a Christian evangelical religious school. She was received with open arms. A Jewish transgender young woman went to her first Sabbath service at an LGBT synagogue and discovered a warm, embracing community. These individuals are ready to bring their entire selves to their spiritual lives. We must ensure that our religious institutions are safe spaces for people to bring that kind of authenticity. When we find ways to integrate the diversity of people who are ready to bring their fullest selves to the table, all of our voices will become clearer.