Following Monday’s guest post, “The Gay Divide,” I’m excited to bring you yet another perspective on queer issues and interfaith work. Today’s post for our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Robert Chlala, a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core. Written in advance of the recent IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institutes, it is an important and timely message on the importance of LGBTQ participation in interfaith work. As a queer interfaith advocate, Robert’s message resonates deeply with me. I hope it will with you, too. As Robert shows, not only does it get better, but we’re “better together.” Without further ado:
News had recently broke about the suicide of yet another LGBTQ youth in the U.S., the latest in a rash that has brought to light the exclusion and violence that continues to plague those marked “different.”
Speaking to a top conservative leader and member of the Young Republicans on her campus, Lily Connor calmly relayed her story of how she has worked to create a space for interfaith dialogue in the social justice campaigns she leads. She pauses for him to share his experiences, but he is unsure where he fits in. As she guides him he lights up as he realizes that he too has a story: that he is living interfaith cooperation in that very moment.
This could be your typical story of a growing interfaith student movement, one that we hear at Interfaith Youth Core almost daily. But I’m leaving out a few important details:
• Lily is transgender, and the leader of Feminist Voices and several other campus action groups.
• The campus is Southwestern University, located in the small, conservative commuter town of Georgetown, Texas.
In the face of a more-than-uphill struggle, Lily could have stayed home that day and forgotten she had ever heard the word “interfaith.” She could have chosen not to brave the possibility of awkward glances, retreated from trying to give LGTBQ people a voice in growing social movements.
Instead, as Lily explained in her application to IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington, DC – which she will attend this weekend with some 300-some college students, faculty and staff from across the country – she knew she could not just stay home. She wrote, “My faith informs the social work I engage in, just as other people’s religious or secular values inform theirs… In short, social justice and interfaith cooperation need each other.”
So she came to the table.
As did the several members of Auburn University’s LGBTQ organization, who worked with with two dozen multicultural and faith-based student leaders on a beautiful fall Sunday last month to understand how interfaith cooperation is integral to all their efforts at the Alabama public university.
As did Ted Lewis, the Assistant Director for Sexual and Gender diversity at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, who participated in an intensive interfaith workshop we held last Friday. Glowing, he shared how he was inspired by several local churches’ efforts to build bridges with LGBTQ communities.
Ted and his fellow staff, listening to the stories of young students from across the South that IFYC has encountered in the last few months, beamed with the understanding that the interfaith movement isn’t just something that happens in remote big cities up North or on the West Coast. It is already happening in neighborhoods and on campuses a stone’s throw away.
At a time when perhaps we have never needed it more, this growing movement is creating a space for young people – from Kentucky to California – to articulate their values and truly come as they are, towards creating a better world.
This weekend, hundreds of these dedicated college students and faculty, of all religions, ethnic and racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities, will gather to take this vision to the next level.
As part of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, they will gain tools to take interfaith cooperation home to their campuses, towards tackling some of the most pressing social issues of our time. As part of the Better Together campaign kicking off this fall, they will change the conversation on faith and values.
What they may not realize is that – by sitting in the room together – they are already moving the course of history. They will confront their fears and prejudices. They will ask questions they were long afraid to confront.
And they will understand that they are poised to overcome the verbal and physical violence that drive young people to hopelessness, to defeat the virulent xenophobia and intolerance that colored this last summer, and to build a world where we are truly better together.
Robert Chlala is a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core and a freelance writer. Over the last 10 years, he has helped lead numerous social change organizations, such as the California Fund for Youth Organizing , which have been rooted in the power of young people to radically impact issues such as immigration, media, human rights, and education. Interfaith engagement has been a core of this work: he has seen first-hand how youth working around shared values have transformed his home communities in Los Angeles and Northern California – and are creating a better world around the U.S. He is also a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active with the local Soka Gakkai International chapter.
Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.
It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy. I knew exactly which pills I would take. I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.
And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.
Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.
When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song. God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.
In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.
After that day, I never went back.
In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people. In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness? Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.
Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.
In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide: One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”
In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.
Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, “During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”
Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like. I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”
And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.
Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change. Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality. But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.
The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.
As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds. I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.
We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.
It saved mine.
This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.
Nicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.
Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a re-feature from Tikkun Daily by Jorge Cino. Jorge is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern and a NonProphet Status reader, and it’s a total pleasure to refeature his work here. His post is in honor of National Coming Out Day, and though “spiritual” is a dirty word to some atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other nonreligious people, it is an important and worthwhile read about coming out and how rejecting religion impacts the queer community. Check it out — the original post can be read here — and many thanks to Jorge for offering to share his work with NonProphet Status.
For those of us who have come out of the closet, National Coming Out Day – which is being internationally celebrated today – is a good reminder of the spiritual journey each of us have undergone since the fateful day we decided to say, “Enough. I am who I am, and from today onwards I will live by it.”
The idea that coming out is a defining spiritual moment in a person’s life is not something you’ll find in mainstream LGBT discourse. Understandably so, of course: those who control religious discourse in America and elsewhere have done a tremendously effective job at turning gay people against organized religion. Ask a gay guy if they believe in God and an overwhelming majority of them will say, “I don’t think so,” or “No, I don’t.”
In reality, what they are rejecting is the entire cauldron of anti-gay sentiment that classmates, relatives, priests, politicians, etc. have been unloading in our ears since we were born. It is no surprise then that a lot of us in the gay community have gone as far as rejecting religion and faith all together. (The question here would be, “What has the LGBT community replaced religious virtue with?” The answers to that question would merit another post.)
It’s a clear case of blaming the sinner instead of the sin. Because we hear the Pope saying grotesque lies about homosexuality, because the Mormon Church donates exorbitant amounts of resources to state, federal, and even international anti-gay initiatives, or because many evangelicals go out of their way to vote against our rights, the majority of us get so frustrated, so infuriated, that we decide that religion as a whole is inherently wrong; a harmful man-made power tool; a below-par way of thinking.
And yet, whether we like it or not, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and subsequently coming and living “out” in a society that by and large is still religious – those are all experiences that test our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. But why are we letting them thwart our relationship to a higher power, or a higher way of living? Why are we letting bigots strip us of our faith, whatever our faith is?
Being “out” should not necessarily mean breaking away from religion, God, or faith. On the contrary, it could be an opportunity to positively rethink your personal relationship to your god, to respectfully and fully engage in spiritual conversations with yourself and others, and to learn how to live in love and kindness. Gay people, contrary to mainstream conservative diatribe, are looking for happiness and fulfillment just like anyone else. We want equality for us and for everyone else. We defend freedom and kindness and respect for all beings. We have and continue to work hard to build a community that is supportive of those individuals who are going through special struggles, whether it be AIDS, substance abuse, depression, discrimination–you name it, we have support groups and organizations for all of them.
How much easier would it be for a gay man to go to take a good second look at the sacred text of his family’s religion and study it under this his “new” worldview? How much more quickly could we gay folks win over the religious middle if we engaged in healthy, constructive conversations with them about religion and faith, instead of antagonizing with them? Or how much easier would it be for someone who is really struggling with his coming out experience to look at it as an opportunity to test her fears and doubts, and make a commitment to be loving and kind with those people who she thinks will not accept her?
I am sure most straight Tikkun readers have reflected on these issues, but if you haven’t lately, this might be a good time to do so. How can you be more empathetic and show more support to a colleague, a child, or a neighbor who is gay? Let’s remember that they who are different depend on the “other’s” willingness to listen and engage with them. They will live a better life (including, perhaps, a more spiritual life) if you show an interest to integrate them fully into your life.
Jorge M. Cino is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern, and a recent graduate from University of San Francisco. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has lived in the Bay Area for the past six years. He is passionate about social justice; here, there, and everywhere.
Hey readers – check out my new post on The New Gay, an original piece entitled “All My Friends” on secular and queer identity and interfaith cooperation. (Thank you to “all my friends” at The New Gay, and a warm welcome to any readers who were directed here from the article!) Be sure to check out The New Gay for a variety of engaging pieces on a wide spectrum of queer-related topics.
[Update: Thanks to everyone who commented on the post -- it was great to read your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. I'll be doing a weekly column for The New Gay beginning this Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) called "The Non Prophet," so stay tuned!]