Religious And Queer: Why The LGBT Movement Needs Religion

As LGBTI people of faith, we share much in common. We live multiple identities that many think simply do not go together. And as such, we can be bridges of communication between seemingly conflicting worlds. The intersection of our identities can serve to facilitate inter-religious dialogue around LGBTI issues, but also beyond them, to the core of the challenges facing us today, which I think can be understood as the question, “How do we relate, as individuals and as societies, with those who are different from us?” Or as the bible states it, with “the stranger, the widow and the orphan.” As LGBTI people we are on the front lines of working for inclusion, and we must realize that our work is not only for us, but for the “stranger, the widow and the orphan” as well, all those who would be considered “other” or outside the familiar norms of our personal lives and of society.

Historically, the LGBTI movement has been generally opposed to traditional religion, seeing it as an enemy. Religion has and is still being used to justify homophobia and violence against LGBTI peoples, and others for that matter. But what we often forget is that religious values are also the basis for LGBTI acceptance and equality. Religion can go both ways. On the one hand it can be idolatrous and exploited to justify evil, and on the other hand, it is the foundation for our highest ideals, such as human rights, freedom of conscience, and equality and justice for all. I would like to propose that when seen in this light, the intersection of LGBTI and religious identities is crucial to furthering the global LGBTI movement, particularly as religion is growing in size, power and influence around the world.

Religion is not going away. It is increasing. As religious populations grow, religion will gain increasing political power, and thus, judicial power. If fundamentalist ideologies are allowed to overpower and silence the humanistic messages of our traditions, the West will be at risk of losing the rights we have worked so hard to attain, and LGBTI people in still highly oppressive countries will lose hope for a better future. It is incumbent on us LGBTI people, and upon all those who value Western liberal freedoms, including freedom of religion, to show ‏how liberal values grow organically out of the rich soil of monotheism and religious tradition. We must show that it is religion itself that calls for LGBTI equality and inclusion as part of a larger context of religion calling for pluralism and social justice. Religion must become our greatest ally. And LGBTI religious people have a key role in making this happen.

In order to make religion our ally, we must work on many different fronts simultaneously: theological, academic, cultural, political and economic. Philanthropists, religious leaders, governmental institutions, NGOs, academics and activist need to work together to create organizations and initiatives that address these fronts. But I believe that the most vital work can be done only by religious LGBTI individuals themselves. Why? Because we have an intimate understanding of religious life, culture and language, and live the conflict of our identities daily, in our very being. It is these individuals that our efforts must primarily support. No matter how many resources and efforts are poured into advocating for equal political rights, and no matter how many outcries are made by the LGBTI movement against the homophobia emerging from religious leaders, progress will not be made in religious communities without transforming hearts first. And this can only be achieved through personal encounters with the pain and suffering of an LGBTI individual who belongs to the religious community. We must support LGBTI religious individuals to come out of the closet and instead of leaving their families and communities, staying, staying religious, and demanding that a space be carved out for them in their religious communities. For many years, religious LGBTI individuals were faced with the choice of either staying in the closet and remaining religious, or coming out, which meant leaving the religious world and sometimes one’s entire family, and becoming secular. In Israel this used to be the only option. Prior to 2005, the existing LGBTI organizations in Israel had an unspoken inclination towards zero tolerance for religion and religious people. Some organizations still do to a certain extent, and it is not difficult to understand why. But the pain of rejection from a particular religious community often causes us to reactively reject religion in its entirety. We label religion itself as our enemy and “throw the baby out with the bathwater” so to speak. This reflexive aversion blocks us from seeing the value of religion and prevents us from realizing the strategic importance of religion for the LGBTI movement as a whole.

In 2005, Bat Kol, the first public religious lesbian organization, was founded in Israel, with the goal of providing a supportive framework for encouraging lesbian religious women to live authentic lives without rejecting either their lesbian or religious identities. A few years later, Havruta was founded as a brother organization for religious gay men. These two organizations have created the possibility, quite inconceivable before in Israel, of living both identities simultaneously and out of the closet. For the past decade, they have allowed more and more LGBTI people to come out of the closet and stay in the religious world. And the effect that this has had on the religious world has been astounding. As more LGBTI individuals come out, religious people begin to realize that they are not just intellectual categories, easy to discard and reject. They realize that LGBTI people are people. They are their brothers and sisters, their child, their friend, their neighbor, a member of their community. They realize that LGBTI issues are not issues of “those secular people over there” who are so different from them in every way, but rather that LGBTI issues are their issues too. Because it affects them, it affects those they love and know. It is much more difficult for a Rabbi to spout hateful homophobic sentiment in his Yeshiva or congregation when he knows there are LGBTI individuals present. A large scale example of this recently happened with a homophobic statement made by a prominent orthodox Rabbi ahead of the LGBT Pride March in Jerusalem. The LGBTI community obviously came out against this statement. But what was not as obvious and what had a far greater impact, is that the larger religious establishment, including many prominent Rabbis, came out strongly against it as well, from a religious perspective. One of the most outspoken voices was a rabbi who has an out gay brother. After years of work within religious communities, we are seeing the results. It is impossible for theologians and religious leaders to maintain purely intellectual or conventional opinions of LGBTI peoples when they are confronted with the testimony of personal experience from someone of flesh and blood who is suffering and longing to come closer to God.

So that would be my first priority, supporting organizations and individuals that are working at the intersection of LGBTI and religion within the religious world.

While LGBTI religious peoples experience exclusion and rejection from their religious communities, they also experience exclusion and rejection in the LGBTI community for being religious. I personally often feel that there is even less room for me in the LGBTI community as a religious person than there is as a lesbian in the religious community. This is a problem that needs addressing.

I think that we need to educate and reform our LGBTI organizations that are working mostly on the political and cultural levels to prioritize creating an inclusive environment for religious LGBTI peoples, similarly as we have been doing for transgender and intersex peoples. And this is not easy, given that many LGBTI people still see religion as one of our greatest threats to equal rights and progress. But here I believe that religious LGBTI people have a special role to play as well. In addition to working for inclusion of LGBTI peoples in the religious world, LGBTI religious people can work for inclusion of religion and religious people in the LGBTI world. Often, religious LGBTI peoples are more able to understand that religion is greater than its practitioners, or any contemporary expression of religious community. They can bring a more open and compassionate religion to secular life, particularly to LGBTI people who feel alienated from and even resentful of their religious communities. I believe that they can provide an opening for LGBTI individuals, many of whom suffer tremendously in resentment, to rebuild a connection to their tradition and a healing relationship with God.

Our religious traditions are rich with the roots of our most lofty aspirations for ourselves and all of humanity. As we learn at the very beginning of Genesis, “All human beings are created b’zelem Elokim, in the image of God”, and as such, are all endowed with dignity and equality. Each and every life, regardless of who they are or where they come from, is uniquely valuable, as we learn from the Rabbis in Jerusalem Talmud, “Whomever saves a life, it is as if they have saved the entire world”.

In Deuteronomy we read “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” In Halacha, Jewish Law, we have a principle called Pikuach Nefesh, which states that the preservation of human life overrides nearly all other religious considerations. About 10 years ago, when I was deep in the ultra-Orthodox world, I was struggling tremendously with my sexual desire, and my inability to overcome it. I thought that through piety and severe religious devotion I would be able to “marry God” so to speak, and transform my sexuality into religiosity. But I failed over and over again. I came to a point where the shame for being unable to “cure” myself, was so great, that one morning I was not able get out of bed. I was curled up in a ball of overwhelming shame. The shame and self-hatred were so great, that I felt I couldn’t live much longer this way. I was faced with a choice. Yes, a choice. It’s interesting, a lot of the work that I do involves dialogue with Orthodox Jews. And often one of their first objections is that being gay is a choice. I agree I tell them, it is a choice. And here it is: Either I kill myself, because I was simply unable to live up to what at the time I felt God required of me, or I choose life, accept myself, flawed as I am, and try to serve God in best way I can. Thank God I chose the latter. Now this is something that any Orthodox Jew understands. Pikuch Nefesh. When I tell this story, even the most homophobic religious person cannot deny that I made the right choice. Because religious LGBTI people share the language, values and way of life of religious people, they are most well positioned to work within the religious community to transform it from the inside. By helping religious communities overcome fears and open to the “other” in their midst, this will not only benefit LGBTI peoples, but also religious communities themselves, and our society as a whole.

In the summer of 2015, I was attending the Jerusalem Pride March when an ultra-orthodox extremist stabbed 6 people, killing 16 year old Shira Banki, an ally who was there supporting her friends. I have been an LGBT activist for many years, working with Bat Kol and with my own organization to create LGBT culture and community in Jerusalem. But I never raised a rainbow banner in front of my events, not until the murder. The horrific event changed my understanding of LGBTI activism from something insular, “by us and for us”, to a more holistic approach. In addition to supporting LGBTI religious organizations and making our general LGBTI organizations inclusive of religious people, we need to also create partnerships with inclusive non-LGBTI organizations, both religious and not, that are working for a more open-minded religion and a tolerant and pluralistic society. We need them to include LGBTI as one of their target groups. The more partnerships and allies we can build the greater our chances of transforming societal and religious consciousness. An example: I started a project after the murder with an organization called the Yerushalmit Movement, a group of religious and secular Israelis working to create a more pluralistic Jerusalem. Until then they hadn’t been involved with the LGBTI community. But after the stabbing they also realized that the LGBTI cause is part of the larger cause for building a pluralistic society, one which can hold difference and respectful, non-violent disagreement. The project is called “Meeting Place”, and every Thursday night since the murder, which is more than a year now, we host inter-sectoral dialogue circles in the most popular and diverse square in the city center of Jerusalem. I usually bring a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it, which is particularly provocative to religious Jews. But the dialogue circles engage all peoples, on many different polarizing topics we face as a society. This is not the kind of activism many LGBTI activists are used to, since it is not only about our community and standing in protest demanding our rights. It is rather done in the larger context of engaging the notion of “otherness” in general, confronting deeply ingrained intolerance that ALL of us harbor, and claiming a part in the public sphere, along with all the other different kinds of people, together.

I want to leave you with the final thoughts that traditional religion is not our enemy, and can be our greatest ally in working to build a better society, for us, and especially for our children. Religious LGBTI people are essential to our movement as a whole, particularly as religion expands its political influence and societies around the world become increasingly polarized. It is up to us to go beyond our own prejudices and find meeting points for open and compassionate dialogue that will expand our horizons and enrich our lives, now and in the future.

*This text was originally delivered as a speech at the “Too Queer to Believe” conference on Religion, Social Activism and LGBTI Rights which took place in Berlin, German on October 6, 2016. The conference was hosted by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in partnership with the LGBTI organization Kaos GL, Turkey.

Dialogue circles and discussion at "Meeting Place" initiative in Zion Square, Jerusalem, Israel.
Dialogue circles and discussion at "Meeting Place" initiative in Zion Square, Jerusalem, Israel.