God vs. Gays

The likes of Jim Wallace do not speak for the queer religious community, writes Curtis Dickson, while a silent revolution has begun to purge homophobia from the Middle East, writes Fahad Ali.

Over the last few years there has been a groundswell of support for marriage equality – the push to extend state recognition to all couples, regardless of gender. Public debate intensified during 2012, after the Australian Labor Party changed its platform to support marriage equality and four different marriage equality bills ended up before parliament. Disappointingly, two of these bills were voted down last week.

In a bitter twist of irony, this was largely because of the actions of the two major parties, and the intransigence of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. The ALP (the party of collectivism) gave its MPs a choice to vote against their party platform, while the Liberal Party (the party of personal freedom) bound its MPs to vote against marriage equality.

If there has been one negative aspect to this process, it has been that the debate continues to polarise queer and religious voices in the public sphere. In her speech against marriage equality, Liberal Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells emphasised the point that most major religions have a special reverence for the institution of marriage. She mused: “I doubt that most people who are pushing these amendments are overly religious or even intend on staying in a monogamous relationship, which begs the question: why do they want to get ‘married’?” Of course, there is an underlying assumption to Connie’s question: that it is not possible to be queer and religious.

Nonetheless, queer people of faith do exist, albeit in smaller numbers. Research has shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex people are much more likely to identify as having ‘no religion’ and less likely to affiliate with Christianity than the general population. A 2008 study compared census data on religious affiliation with data found in Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria’s Private Lives report. The researchers found that in 2006, 63.9 per cent of the general population was affiliated to a Christian denomination and 18.7 per cent were not religious, while in the LGBTI population only 17.2 per cent identified as Christian and 71.6 per cent declared themselves to be non-religious. More recently, data from the 2011 Census showed that 40 per cent of people in same-sex relationships identified as being Christian (compared to opposite sex couples, who were 67 per cent Christian).

While these statistics do show that the queer community are less likely to be religious, they certainly lay rest to the claim that those pushing for marriage equality are not religious. Of course, one could be forgiven for assuming a dichotomy between churches and queer people. After all, Christian churches (as well as many other faith communities) have often stigmatised queer people, and excluded them from belonging to their congregations. Many hold firm to a strict binary notion of gender, privileging ‘heterosexual vaginal intercourse within marriage’ as the only acceptable expression of sexuality.

Some churches have been more supportive on LGBTQI issues than others.

In Australia, the dominant opposition to marriage equality has persistently come from the religious right – most vehemently from the Australian Christian Lobby. Invariably, conservative religious groups such as the ACL shift the parameters of the debate – pushing it from a discussion about the role of marriage in society to one where they have a platform to openly express their disdain for queer relationships as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘unnatural’. This sort of attitude was on display when the ACL’s national spokesperson Jim Wallace suggested that smokers lead longer, healthier lives than gay men (a claim based on flawed research). At around the same time, I attended two forums held on campus where this factoid was produced as an argument against marriage equality.

It is this sort of attitude that drives many queer people away from organised religion. However, a small percentage of people stay involved, managing to find a congregation or denomination that accepts them for who they are. The Metropolitan Community Church, founded as a gay-affirming denomination in the 1970s, has three congregations in Sydney. Many Uniting Church congregations are accepting of LGBTI people – with two recently appointing a gay or lesbian minister. Other groups are targeted towards people who may be members of less accepting denominations. These include “Freedom 2 b[e]”, a support group for Pentecostals, and “Acceptance”, an LGBTI Catholic group that celebrated its 40th anniversary in Australia this year – yes, it began in 1972, six years before the first Mardi Gras!

Over the past year I have been exploring queer Christian identity as a part of my Honours research in Sociology. I’ve found that for many LGBTI Christians, living the contradiction of being queer and religious becomes, as sociologist Jodi O’Brien put it, a raison d’etre. They are able to reconcile their identity by rejecting the six to eight ‘clobber passages’ – the pieces of scripture that are used to condemn queer people.

Instead, the people I interviewed embrace some of the more vital aspects of Christianity: they believe in a compassionate God, a loving Creator that does not condemn, but rather made them they way they are. They often see Jesus as a radical social reformer who stood for the marginalised in society. Christ’s example of battling the powers of his day inevitably encourages LGBTI Christians to challenge traditional religious authority and make the church a more inclusive and accepting institution. Still, many feel a sense of dissonance between themselves and the broader queer community, where admitting that they are a Christian can be met with reactions of bewilderment to outright hostility.

I understand first hand how this dissonance feels, particularly at university. In an environment where progressive politics and rational secularism are the order of the day, it often feels easier to come out as ‘queer’ than to come out as ‘Christian’. But I was raised in a Christian family – my parents are both ministers of religion in The Salvation Army – and I was a part of that denomination until my late teens (and no, they don’t believe that gays should be put to death).

When I first started to realise that I was attracted to other guys, I was terrified of how my parents and church might react – so I pulled away from organised religion. I later met my partner, who had been rejected from his Anglican church for being gay. Together, we began attending a Uniting Church congregation, which we discovered through Rev Dr John Hirt in the campus Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre. When we first attended that congregation we were treated like any other couple, and still are to this day. Our friends at church are eager to one day be able to celebrate our wedding with us – I often feel that they are more incensed about the injustice of the Marriage Act than I am.

Behind all of the public debate around the worth of non-queer relationships, and the ugly comments from self-proclaimed Christian leaders like Jim Wallace and Cory Bernardi, there are thousands of queer people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists – trying to live out their deeply held faith in the best way that they can.

As the campaign for marriage equality moves (for now) from the Federal to State level, we can only hope that the dignity and worth of all people are upheld in the debate.

Curtis Dickson is on Twitter:


A silent revolution has begun to purge homophobia from the Middle East, writes Fahad Ali

I became fully conscious of my sexuality while living in the Middle East. This isn’t the greatest realization one could have: I’m gay, and I’m living in a part of the world where homosexuality is met with fierce opposition (and very heavy stones). A bit more than a year ago, I decided to come out to my closest friends. It went surprisingly better than I expected. When I told my best friend, he looked at me, shrugged, and said,  “You’re still the same person.”

It wasn’t perfectly trouble-free. When I came out to a classmate over Facebook, I had death threats hurled at me. And this:

“This is something that if you are in canada or the states they will put u in jail, i swear… U have a disease… go find a doctor and cure it”.

This kind of thinking surprised me. He seemed to be suggesting that homosexuals were condemned with more aggressiveness in the West than in the Middle East. This is, of course, completely batshit. There is no way these preconceived ideas could have formed from direct observation or experience. It was something borne from misinformation and ignorance. And the great thing about ignorance is that it can be remedied.

The Qur’an does not prescribe any condemnation for homosexuality; in fact, in my reading of the Qur’an, it’s okay to be gay. The Islamic perception of homosexuality as a vile act to be punishable by death is rationalized by the idea that it is a form of fitnah, or ‘mischief’. The act of fitnah, or “making mischief in the land”, includes things like acts of treason and terrorism; crimes that have serious negative consequences for the whole of a community.

The idea here is that homosexuality (or any alternate sexuality) will corrupt society and bring ruin to a nation.

This concept is beginning to deteriorate. It’s not such a huge leap to shatter the often recited lie that homosexuality is haram: explicitly forbidden by the word of God. From there, it is not hard to realise that  if indeed homosexuality did cause chaos, then the Western world would be in flames. Clearly, quite the opposite is true. The Arab Spring, to which I have been an eyewitness, has brought conflict to some of the most docile regions of the Middle East. If Islamic society were truly as utopian as its fanatical clerics claim it to be, there would not be the exchange of bullets, Molotovs, and tear gas on the streets. The Arabic youth know this.

They’re beginning to make the links, especially with the advent of file-sharing and social media. The infiltration of Western film and television into the culture of the Arabian youth has exposed them to a picture of the world that is radically different from their own. In the West, prosperity, peace, and liberty are nearly ubiquitous. Faced with the realisation that the grass is greener on the other side, we are seeing the Eastern youth trying to impersonate the West in all its aspects, including queer acceptance. I suspect that the quite recent emergence of queer identities in the mainstream media culture has brought about a shift in paradigms across the world.

After I had returned to Australia, I heard that the one of the newspapers in Bahrain, the Gulf Daily News, had published a letter from a young woman that was violently attacking homosexuality for being sinful and vile. A close friend of mine replied to this letter with her own, which was published as well. This was unprecedented. I did not find it surprising that the newspaper would publish a scathingly homophobic letter, but it was astounding that they would publish a letter defending homosexuality.

The friend who wrote the letter had not been raised in a country where homosexuality was accepted, but where it could be met with the death penalty. She had minimal exposure to queer persons, and yet she understood that queerphobia was terrible and unjust. I do not believe at all that her schema of acceptance would have been formed without an influx of Western ideas into the Middle Eastern ethos.

The implications here are significant. I would argue that our fight for queer rights here in Australia, and elsewhere in the Western world, have consequences for the Middle East. I think this is often overlooked. We need to realise that our fight for equality and justice at home are sowing the seeds of acceptance in parts of the world where homophobia is endemic. By championing our own cause here in Australia, we are lighting a spark of hope for those that will be the champions of their own fight, across the seas.

I do not pretend that it will be an easy task. Indeed, we have not won our own fights here in Australia yet, but I believe with certainty that we are getting there. Weapons and warfare will not overthrow zealous clerics and the men they control, including much of the monarchy and government in the Middle East. They will be overthrown when their source of power – unquestioned belief – has faded.

As the youth of Arabia begin to question their world, the grip of ignorance and hatred loses potency. The silent revolution has begun, and I find it difficult to imagine current conditions in the Middle East will be extant in the next century.
The worst possible thing we can do is be silent. An Islamic proverb reads: “he who remains silent in the presence of Satan is indeed himself a lesser Satan”. I think the same concept applies here.