Where are the interfaces between religion, faith, and LGBTIQ rights? This question was discussed at the international conference “Too queer to believe – Religion, social activism and LGBTI rights” which the Heinrich Böll Foundation held in Berlin in conjunction with the Turkish NGO Kaos GL at October 5th, 2016.
Religion and homosexuality are often viewed as being at odds with each other. It is also not uncommon for people to justify sexual-orientation discrimination on religious grounds. But how are religion and homosexuality compatible with each another? How can religious communities integrate gay, lesbian, trans, inter, and queer (LGBTIQ) people, and vice versa: How can religious people gain full acceptance in the LGBTIQ community?
An unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality by monotheistic religions cannot always be as clearly gleaned from sacred writings as is usually claimed. In Islam, for example, there is, according to Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed of CALEM, a Paris-based confederation of LGBTIQ, Euro-African and Muslim organizations, no authentic Islamic tradition and no religious text that condemns homosexuality per se. The account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often brought up in connection with this issue, but progressive religious scholars today doubt whether it can actually be construed as forbidding homosexuality.
Muhsin Hendricks, a South African activist and imam, endorses this view. He found in his research that the account of Sodom and Gomorrah serves mainly to denounce a number of transgressions committed by the “people of Lot,” ranging from polytheism and robbery to economic exploitation and rape. Hendricks, who is the world’s first openly gay imam, heads the non-profit organization The Inner Circle in Cape Town, which provides support to queer Muslims seeking to reconcile their sexual orientation and gender identity with Islam. He is convinced that social change from the inside out can only be possible if queer Muslims are empowered.
Liturgical blessings for same-sex couples
In conservative Protestantism, on the other hand, homosexuality is interpreted as a violation of God’s creation order and what is condemned is the homosexual act, not the person. Only some factions of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) support this viewpoint, as Gerhard Schreiber, an assistant professor at TU Darmstadt, reported at the conference, while also pointing out the changes that have taken place within the EKD over the past few decades. Meanwhile – and especially since the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code in 1994 – homosexuality is considered part of a person’s identity and positive attitudes toward this issue are predominant within the EKD. Furthermore, heterosexual marriage is no longer seen as the only ideal, and same-sex couples in Germany now have the possibility to celebrate liturgical blessings.
The fact that homosexual (primarily gay) sex is seldom mentioned in the Torah is interpreted by Armin Langer of the Salaam Schalom Initiative as evidence of the secondary importance of this issue in Judaism. He says there are actually various traditional answers that provide guidance on ways to handle one’s homo(sexual) drive: leading a celibate life, limiting oneself to certain sexual practices, or – as Langer advises – living as you please. For he believes God is even present when one commits sins.
Religion shapes societies, relationships, and institutions. The ability to encounter the apparent contradiction between religion and homosexuality requires, according to Zahed, building an alternative representation of identities. He points out the danger of insisting on a single truth – “There is only one Islam!” – for example, being either religious or gay. Instead, the importance of performative identities and the richness of a hybrid existence should be emphasized. For him, hybridity is the key to creating knowledge, in that one, for example, avoids saying religion is the problem and instead saying it gives people tools to deconstruct knowledge and in this way opens up paths to empowerment. According to Zahed, because many texts contain an internalized “LGBTQ phobia,” it is thus not enough to simply deconstruct them, but rather those that believe in them must receive guidance. He says there is a need for intersectional strategies that remove the “mental anchor” of these texts from people’s minds.
Langer, on the other hand, is concerned about prejudices against refugees who came to Germany and who are assumed to be homophobic because of their Muslim faith. He says that homophobia is, in fact, just as prevalent in other religions. He also points out the development of how we understand the body and sexuality, which, according to Michel Foucault, didn’t develop until the 19th century into a separate category that one had to reveal, and links this to the rise of the nation-state, which also had homogenizing ambitions.
Lack of acceptance in both communities
Schreiber, however, calls on people not to pit one Bible verse against another, but rather to use the Bible to develop principles for partnerships that one should especially adhere to, such as reliability, loyalty, and taking responsibility for one another – regardless if it’s hetero or homosexual partnerships. These principles enable sexuality as a whole to be defined as wholesome and respectable.
Activists from Germany, Israel, and Turkey showed how civil society groups and transnational queer movements are dealing with religion and faith. For example, Michael Brinkschröder, a religious gay man from Homosexualität und Kirche e.V. (HUK), has faced the difficulty of gaining acceptance in both communities. It wasn’t until the founding of the Committee of Catholic LGBT Groups in Germany and the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, as well as the integration of the issue into human rights discourse, that the German Catholic Church began to slowly open up.
Sarah Weil from Tel Aviv also criticizes the exclusion of LGBTIQ people of faith from the LGBTIQ community. The activist argues that religious LGBT people should be seen as a bridge between the two seemingly contradictory worlds. She says just as religion can be misused to justify evil, it can also form the foundation for ideals. Weil makes a case for religion not to be seen as an enemy of LGBTIQ rights but rather as an ally, pointing out that values held in high esteem by religious faiths, such as dignity, human rights, and justice, can give support to the issue of LGBTIQ inclusion. In her opinion, there needs to be more alliances with diverse groups, whether non-LGBT, religious, or something else, in order to work together to change society.
Bringing about change in society is also the aim of Aylime Asli Demir from Kaos GL, the Turkish LGBT organization, who gave a very gloomy account of the situation in her country. The activist denounced the hate crimes in Turkey, particularly the brutal killings of transgender women. She further reported that most of the killers are certain that they will go unpunished because of support from high up, and are motivated by the belief that “these bodies deserve to be killed.”
The killings are often especially savage: the perpetrators cut off the victims’ sex organs and leave their naked, tortured bodies lying on the street – in full gaze of the public. As if that weren’t enough, burial rites are used to change how the person is remembered – the imam, for example, speaks of the murdered transgender women in the masculine gender. According to Demir, all of this has left not only a strong mark on Turkish society but also strips the victims of their humanity and, in a sense, justifies the killings.
The conference made clear that the forces that are intent on seeing religion and homosexuality as incompatible are still very powerful. There are, nevertheless, various groups who see the efforts to reconcile religion and homosexuality as an opportunity to effect real changes. Bringing the two communities together and forming alliances and coalitions with other groups can be used to build a society based on respect and appreciation of diversity.