By Trevor Barnes
Senior religious leaders and academics drawn from the main religions and Christian denominations in Britain have joined forces to form the first inter-religious advisory board on LGBT issues.
While the broad aim of the board, launched by the Ozanne Foundation, is to tackle ignorance, discrimination and prejudice within religious organisations, it has also flagged up its immediate concern over so called “gay conversion therapy” that it hopes to persuade the British government to proscribe in law.
It follows hard on the heels of an announcement by the Faith and Belief Forum that it has launched its new LGBT Interfaith Network designed, among its other aims, to offer safe spaces in which to explore faith, belief and identity across all the religions and denominations.
For many religious believers the judgment of Peter Tatchell, the veteran campaigner for gay and transgender rights, is an uncomfortable and sobering reality.
“Organised religion has probably been the single greatest oppressor of LGBT+ people throughout history,” he says. “It has preached that we are sinful, immoral, abnormal and unnatural. For much of the past 2,000 or 3,000 years it has even preached that we should be put to death.”
Many religious people would find it hard to disagree with his stark conclusion.
However, mindful of such episodes in their history, many religious leaders and thinkers have, in modern times, sought to make amends for errors of thought and action and to formulate a theology that strives for understanding, tolerance and the full inclusion of sexual minorities in religious life. In doing so they have often turned to specific texts traditionally judged inimical to homosexual orientation and practice and sought to reconsider them in the light of the overarching spirit of their scriptures.
THE SPIRIT AND THE LAW
Such reform, however, frequently comes up against resistance from those who argue that holy writ cannot be reworked to suit either the fashions of the secular age or the desires of individual men and women. They argue that God’s law clearly and necessarily puts a brake on activities that, in non-believing circles, would be entirely permissible, for example sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside marriage (adultery) and gay sex.
While the three Abrahamic monotheisms point to specific texts in justification of this point of view (see below) they further argue that the overriding principle is that of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage as instituted by God in the union of Adam and Eve. As a result, they have argued, the prohibition on extramarital sex does not discriminate against gay people per se.
Heterosexual bachelors and spinsters are bound by the same rule. Gay and transgender people counter this by saying that, while heterosexual bachelors and spinsters are wholeheartedly welcomed into religious communities, they, very often, are not.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, a member of the inter-religious advisory board, is mindful of the importance of law. She argues that, yes, all Jews are bound by God’s law but that the context is crucial to its interpretation.
“I think you look at it absolutely as a textual study,” she says. “You ask yourself ‘what is the context?’. And what we know from scholarly works is that the context of the time was a context of incest between homosexuals. You don’t avoid the text and say, ‘Oh, we’re all made in the image of God.’ That’s too fluffy. You ask, ‘What is the context?’”
Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sihkism have fewer — if any — comparable “legal” prohibitions in their scriptures. Rather they promote general principles of right behaviour, devotion, justice, prayer, equality, love, compassion and so on as pathways to spiritual fulfilment.
But they do so against an historical and cultural background of strongly patriarchal societies with overwhelming pressure towards heterosexual marriage and the production of sons. As a result, the inference has often been that heterosexuality is not just the ideal but also the norm. An interesting anomaly, however, is to be found in Hinduism (see below).
These insights will be routinely shared with both the leadership and the wider congregations of religious communities to challenge discrimination and prejudice that often operate at a subconscious level. Further resources are available at OneBodyOneFaith, formerly known as the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
GAY ‘CONVERSION THERAPY’
In addition to supporting LGBT people and affirming their role in churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras, the advisory board will have a lobbying role. Its immediate concern is to ensure that the government bring forward legislation to end the practice of “conversion therapy”.
Although mainstream medical and scientific opinion has shown that the practice of attempting to change a gay person’s sexual orientation is not only ineffective but deeply damaging, it is widely known to be promoted or carried out by many religious leaders.
Indeed Jayne Ozanne, whose foundation led to the formation of the advisory board, has written movingly of her experiences on the receiving end of such “therapy” and described the appalling psychological damage it inflicted on her.
Challenging this through reason, science, scriptural insight and common humanity will be one of the board’s early endeavours.
THREE OFTEN-CITED PROHIBITIONS
From the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament)
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination” Leviticus 18:22
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God . . . neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers nor effeminate” 1 Corinthians 6:9
“You lust after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds!” Surah 7:81
A SURPRISING EXCEPTION
While most of the world religions have a binary view of sexuality, several of the classic texts of Hinduism allow for the existence of a third sex known as tritiya prakriti. This is closely linked to beliefs about reincarnation and the bodily and gender fluidity involved in moving from one form to another. The acceptance of transgender identity has a place in Indian society.
Known as hijras, this community of transvestites, intersex and transgender people, while largely leading a separate life on the edges of mainstream society, have never been persecuted or punished solely for their sexuality. Today they are frequent if uninvited guests at weddings and naming ceremonies where their blessings and tacit appeals for alms are received with reactions oscillating between delight and mild irritation — but rarely with outright hostility.
Faith and Belief LGBT+ Forum 0207 482 9549
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner 020 8349 5672