Soapbox – LGBT Interfaith Dialogue – finding welcome within faith?

Jonathan McMurray is a freelance writer who is helping form a new political party that hopes to launch in the near future.

As I left my motorcycle parked up behind Victoria Square last Thursday night, I noticed a good few revellers soaking up the last rays of a rather pleasant evening. Picking my way through to Rosemary Street, a busker belted out the appropriate line “you don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand” as an invisible choir swelled behind him.

This foreshadowed sentiments later that evening that amongst the religious establishment there is a lot more private sympathy for LGBT rights than there is public support. I didn’t spot much signage referring to Pride as I made my way to the venue.. The only reference to it I could see was a rainbow flag-festooned ad from a well known brand of vodka, the subtext being that your preferences and proclivities did not matter so long as you paid for your own vodka. The idea that the first sector to truly accept LGBT people without prejudice was the marketplace would be worthy of a PhD thesis in itself, for it turns out that the so called pink pound is in fact the same colour as the regular pound, much to the chagrin of lefties everywhere.

These thoughts were still sloshing around my head as I took my seat in a pew in the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, the impressive denominational home of a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation who were hosting the event alongside CaraFriend (an LGBT advocacy group).

According to the promotional material, the night’s aim was to gather together speakers from several faiths to create a kind of pro-LGBT bloc of allies in the religious community, no mean feat in the city that the BBC asked might be the “worst place in the UK” to be gay, the most famous example of LGBT and faith interfacing in it being the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign usually accredited to Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian denomination.

I had some experience of the uneasy relationship between faith and all things LGBT, having been one of a handful of people who turned up a few years ago to protest at what we – mistakenly, it seems – believed was a gay conversion therapy session operating out of a church in Ballynahinch.

I remember it as a weird hour or so of chanting and waving before possibly the oddest moment of that night when a well-meaning member of the host Baptist church came out to apologize to us. She claimed this was the work of a well known rabble rouser in the congregation who invited the group in to talk, rather than to practice, and had in fact just hired the space, something the congregation had been unable to block. I didn’t expect to hear a clearly evangelical person explain that they really didn’t have anything against gay people and they were sorry the church was getting this unwanted, negative press.

Returning somewhat ashen faced from needling a rather less heinous event than I expected, I had somewhat of a return of karma a few weeks later when I received a sneering response to a complaint I made to my political party about not providing a welcoming space for those of faith.

So last Thursday I anticipated a somewhat fraught evening. The battle lines are easily imagined, and religion and LGBT advocacy are not often the most natural of bedfellows.

I had some experience of the “locally sourced” portions of the panel, having been married by the impish ex-Dublin native, boxer and former postie Rev Chris Hudson as well as recently attending bleary eyed wall staring sessions overseen by Djinn Gallagher at Black Mountain Zen Centre. Joining them were late addition Kate Green, a woman who seemed to be the inspiration for Catherine Tate’s “militant Northern Irish mother of Gay Son” character. Outside the locals, we had Rabbi Emily Jurman carefully draped in a rainbow shroud and finally what for me was the most interesting prospect of the evening, the impressively titled Sheikh Nassr Eddine Gabriel Errami, a “queer Islamic theologian”, which to my mind made attending vital.

Sheikh Nassr struck me as an incredibly modest, earnest man whose soft spoken manner played havoc with the already wonky microphone. He spoke about his background, of Moroccan heritage and birth, he currently resides in France. Being an Islamic Scholar and gay person are not always seen as the most natural companions. Despite this, he claimed that being LGBT in an Islamic society was okay provided you were “in the cupboard”. The nature of the reform, and the lobbying that he had been doing, wasn’t focused on the same goals as those that have been prioritized domestically: namely, equal marriage, which considered a much longer way off, and potentially too polarising at this stage. Getting violence against LGBT individuals condemned from the Islamic pulpit, so to speak, was his number one priority. He made a clear distinction between pushing for social acceptance and responding to physical reprisals. A laudable, but somehow understated aim given the almost horrific way some LGBT individuals have been treated in the Islamic world, that seemed to make more sense when Sheikh Nassr mentioned a desire not to be seen as “colonizing”, or forcing a conclusion from outside. He stated that he had received a generally favourable and supportive reaction to this from within the structure of the Islamic establishment privately, but there were not many examples of this extending into the public realm. The experience of Islamic society and LGBT rights were bipolar, he claimed: outright acceptance and outright condemnation.

There seemed to be a huge, looming threat lurking behind him – something that his calm and sweet manner almost belied. Even seasoned chair William Crawley couldn’t help but let out a “yikes” when Sheikh Nassr outlined plans to visit Iraq and Iran soon to speak to Islamic Scholars in the near future. Of course, the Islamic community in NI is fairly small, and it’s fair to suppose the LGBT proportion of it is smaller still, but for all the speakers I heard, Sheikh Nassr’s words echoed loudest on the worlds’ stage.

Moving on, as Crawley intoned, “from Islam to Judaism”, London-based Rabbi Emily Jurman pointed out that there are as many different denominations of Judaism as there are Protestantism. She outlined the opposition she had received from within the Semitic world from the Orthodox Community and also from within her own, more liberal and modern facing, branch of Reform Judaism who had to get to terms with a Female Rabbi who was also a Lesbian. Aside from her warmth and wit, what stood out for me was the sheer volume of work she reported on having to do with young members of her synagogue struggling with sexual identity issues, particularly as she was almost acting as a “light house” for them due to her own sexuality being public knowledge.

Next up was Djinn Gallagher, the priest and teacher at Black Mountain Zen Centre here in Belfast who ran through her own biography with reference to Buddhism. For my money, of all the faiths on display that night, Zen Buddhism would be the easiest “sell” of the lot: no cultural expectations, no institutional system or formal prohibitions against LGBT people that would need to be negated before practicing. Djinn outlined a troubled start to life that had been, in a sense, properly grounded and channelled by the practice of Buddhism.

Rev Chris Hudson, the minister of All Soul’s Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church, was asked if he had ever experienced homophobia in his own denomination. The answer was a clear yes. I’d have to say that the largest single group represented in the audience were All Souls’ parishioners. Chris pointed out that people’s images of religious orthodoxy tended to exclude marginalized groups.

Finally, Kate Green spoke. A seasoned and involved lay member of the Catholic Church, Kate was a lay minister (of both music and of the word), as well as a lifelong RE teacher in a Catholic School. Kate’s son came out to her as a young man. She took the experience as changing nothing fundamental about her relationship with him: he was “still the same person he was 2 seconds ago”. Kate extended this experience heavenward, believing it therefore changed nothing of his relationship to God; and therefore it should not change anything about his relationship with the church, despite its official line of homosexuality being “intrinsically disordered”. This began a series of what seemed to Kate to be quite profound encounters with the church and its reality, ultimately with the realization that the Church may be out of step with the moral teaching of Christ with its attitude to homosexuality. She also revealed she has “many gay friends … many priest friends … many priest friends who are gay”. She felt no need to defend the Church, as there are many others “more qualified to do so”.

Questions from the audience included asking Djinn Gallagher about whether she had any experience of homophobia in the Buddhist establishment, to which she answered a resounding no. Not only had she, who self defines as a bisexual, never experienced it, but 2 A abbesses in the recent history of the San Francisco Zen Centre, the “spiritual HQ” of the Belfast group, had been lesbians. Crawley quipped that one would expect no less of San Francisco, but Djinn also mentioned that there is no liturgical prohibition in Buddhism on being gay. Shakyamuni (or the first Buddha) had written a rule forbidding monks in monastery from having sex with each other, but the justification was that this was a distraction from “the way” and was no more grave an offence than over-eating or drinking alcohol. And it was a rule for monks and not lay people. She did mention that the most prominent Buddhist monk in the modern world (probably), the head of the (small) Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and the leader in exile of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, had been “press ganged” of late into issuing a kind of condemnation of homosexuality. However she explained he has no clout in terms of this missal outside of his own sect, and she did note it was out of character for him. She stated that, rather than being a God-like figure, Buddha was a sort of “only adult in the room” for her. Issuing guidance on how to approach reality rather than dogma, Buddhism served as a practice or guide on how to emulate the achievements of the Buddha and explore the self and its relationship to reality. Which, you have to admit, sounds neat.

Chris Hudson expounded more on the private support in areas of religious life that seemed hostile to LGBT people. He gave an example whereby an unnamed, but prominent, member of a protestant denomination had shown a great kindness by officiating at the funeral of an LGBT person, acknowledging their same-sex marriage in the service. He also mentioned that he gets his communion wafers for the pride service from nuns, who are aware of what he’s using them for and consider the usage “lovely”. Chris also said that he felt it unhelpful to tar someone with the label of “homophobic” or “bigoted”, saying that these labels can adequately describe behaviour but only contribute to making someone feel attacked and bulwark their opinion if applied to them as a person. This remark drew some consternation from some audience members who considered that this stance was asking them to be “more generous” than these detractors who had no problems brandishing LGBT people with the epithets “perverts and sinners”.

Kate Hudson recounted the stories whereby staff coming out had managed to encourage better atmospheres in schools and allowed colleagues to follow suit. An interesting theological discussion emerged when William Crawley described a ‘suspicious’ relationship in the Old Testament between two women, Ruth and Naiomi, whose poetic expressions of love to each other are often voiced in heterosexual Christian marriage services. (No mention of David and Jonathan, but it’s a similar idea).

Sheikh Nassr’s demeanour and responses so far had not portrayed him as a madman, attention seeker or someone with a wish to be martyred, so I asked his why was he commencing on such a dangerous path in the Islamic world? I suppose I was asking the question to myself about tolerant environments. Was it the case that this kind of discussion could be even replicated in an Islamic context, given the horrific images of persecution and summary execution that reach us from newswires across the globe? Sheikh Nassr took this question with a note of resignation, stating that he expected this to come up. He did concede the note of danger, and may have mentioned that his group in Paris had already received a Fatwa, which he joked had made him jumpy of noises as he went about his business. But his response was to try and get violence against the LGBT community issued as a fatwa. He challenged the assumption of uniformity of opinion across the Islamic world, mentioning the established area in Pakistan of Trans sex workers who are seemingly accepted. He reiterated his point that the focus on equal marriage, for example, was not possible in the Islamic world yet as it was seemingly a long way off. In fact, it was strange that given that equal marriage was a focus of Belfast Pride this year, the topic didn’t figure often in the evening’s speeches. And he acknowledged that outside influences can have a positive impact, such as a newly appointed LGBT “chief” of the UN. He was fascinating to listen to, and much of what he spoke about put things in our local situation into a new context.

Common to many speakers was the idea that being both gay and religious can marginalize you in both worlds: you can be too gay for the religious crowd and too religious for the gay crowd, an experience that can lead to someone feeling they’re in two closets at once.

As the evening wrapped up, I wondered about the clear place for LGBT people in religious life here in NI.

In the more open and liberal quadrants of the major faiths, LGBT people can find themselves welcomed with open arms. Those faiths that interface most with politics and social policy (generally the Abhrahamic ones) seem to have the most baggage to overcome.

It’s clear there is a welcome awaiting the spiritually or religiously inclined in LGBT circles. The Christians who spoke seemed invested in challenging the negative where they see it. Voices that are not always heard.

Photo by CaraFriend.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.