Phil Champain, 3FF Director
In July this year the Church of England Synod backed a parliamentary motion calling for a ban on the practice of ‘Conversion Therapy’ aimed at altering sexual orientation. As an organisation working to enable individuals to express and celebrate their ‘whole selves’, 3FF welcomed this. At the same time, we recognise there is more work to do on strengthening connections between LGBT and faith based organisations.
2012 research by UK LGBT charity Stonewall found that 61% of people believed that religious attitudes play a causal role in public prejudice against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Britain. Indeed, the support offered to an LGBT-identifying person of faith by an organisation affiliated to their faith community may lack nuanced understanding of support needs relating to their gender and sexuality. At the same time, an LGBT-focused organisation may equally express a presumption that their faith is part of the ‘problem.’
Overall, the needs of LGBT-identifying people of faith can be underestimated by support organisations at critical points in their lives. Such barriers can prevent an individual from flourishing, causing additional pressures such as increased risk of mental health problems. It’s a case of being caught in the middle.
The rights to express our faith, sexual orientation and gender reassignment are all protected by law of course, in that discrimination against these characteristics is unlawful according to the Equality Act of 2010. Nevertheless, there continues to be heated debate over LGBT rights that can sometimes be framed as religious values versus civil equality.
This polarizing debate leaves out the great diversity of perspectives many religious people hold on issues regarding sexual behaviour – the Christian Synod’s support for services for trans people and the banning of gay conversion therapy being a good example. Blanket proclamations such as “religion is the enemy” overlook the many LGBT people who are religious and who do not think they should have to choose between their sexuality and their religion.
It’s a complex and widely interpreted picture. What faiths and beliefs have to say about LGBT rights and issues varies considerably not just between different communities, but within communities, and amongst people who hold non-religious worldviews. It is worth noting that in both branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, the key distinction is not between good heterosexuality and bad homosexuality, but between celibacy and sexuality. And Hinduism has a complex and changing attitude toward homosexuality – same-sex attachments and desire were both known and generally tolerated in ancient and medieval India, as reflected in such sacred texts as the Kama Sutra and Krittivasa Ramayana.
No religion is monolithic. What faiths and beliefs mean in the lives of practitioners changes across historical periods, geographical locations, and in relation to other social forces. For example, it was not until India came under British colonial rule—with what could be interpreted as Christian assumptions about sex—that Section 377, the first Indian law banning “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” was passed, in 1860. The efforts of modern-day Indian activists—both Hindu and non-Hindu—for sexual rights finally led to the overturning of Section 377, in 2009.
Indeed, faith is a dynamic, living presence. As Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke remind us, ‘the last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation, as traditional forms of religious authority, and uniformity of doctrine and practice, have given way to a much wider and more diverse range of religious and non-religious commitments’ (Charles Clarke & Linda Woodhead 2015, A new settlement: religion & belief in schools).
This rapidly changing picture includes shifting interpretations of the intersectionality between faith and other aspects of our identities such as our sexuality and gender assignment. Perhaps Paul Bayes, The Bishop of Liverpool, is right in his observation that ‘over a whole range of things, not only over human sexuality, we’re learning as a church to listen harder to England as it is… We believe that we’ve got an unchanging gift from God, but we do believe we’ve got to bring it to a changing England.’
We need to recognise religion is not practiced in a vacuum – it lives and breathes through individuals and the communities they build in particular times and places. For many, seeking to unite faith, gender and sexuality plays a defining role in how they conduct their lives and express themselves in today’s society. There is a need to support the development of services which welcome and embrace every aspect of identity, allowing people to live in full faith and authentically according to their gender and sexuality.
This is why at 3FF we are embarking on a new initiative. Each year we work with more than 12,000 people across our programmes in schools, universities and community spaces enabling opportunities for interfaith learning. Building on our expertise in facilitating spaces which enable exploration of complex identities, we are excited to have secured funding for a new three-year programme to work with and support LGBT voluntary and community organisations, many of which are making important strides in advancing the needs of LGBT-identifying people of faith.
We will adapt our successful Faith Awareness Training model to support the specific needs of LGBT organisations. This programme will be delivered over a three-year period, accompanied by our Encountering Faiths and Beliefs workshops for adults with speakers from the LGBT community. If you are interested in this initiative you can of course follow 3FF on Facebook / Twitter and sign up to our mailing list at http://www.3ff.org.uk/get-involved/.
If you want to be involved, please contact email@example.com .