Religion continues to dominate discussion about LGBTI life around the world and it will be in the spotlight this February.
That’s because we’ve chosen Religion, Belief and Philosophy as the theme of this year’s UK LGBT History Month.
Our national Equality Act says we must ‘foster good relations’ between religious people and LGBTIs. That is the law but it is not being done.
We need to realize lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people are also Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, pagans, agnostics and atheists. Our duty as Schools OUT UK, which runs LGBT History Month, is to represent our community in all its diversity, so we must support LGBTI people of all religions and none.
There are, of course, some who use – or abuse – religion to justify their own prejudices and bigotry.
Each of the Abrahamic religions has something in its scriptures that can be interpreted to suggest homosexual relations are sinful. Religious doctrine has brought harm to many in the LGBTI community including despair, suicide, murder, torture and execution; both in the past and the present.
The media feeds on this conflict between religious and LGBTI people because its job is to present disharmony and expose threats to our accepted norms.
But most people who belong to a faith group have religion to bring peace and understanding to their lives.
Secular ideologies, faiths and beliefs do not bring answers to people who feel a sense of spirituality. Nor do they speak to a great many of us who believe we have had experiences that cannot be explained by rational earthly explanations – no matter how intellectually compelling or logically sound.
The Pew Research Center in the USA says 59% of LGBTIs have a religious affiliation. LGBTI people are almost as inclined to have faith as heterosexuals. This suggests we share a sense of spirituality and a need for explanations. Alas, no such research yet exists for the UK.
Their research also shows they are less likely to follow mainstream Christianity in favor of smaller Christian groups, New Age religions and Jewish and Buddhist groups. Obviously we are more likely to embrace a welcoming institution than a hostile one.
Other LGBTIs are still prejudiced towards people of faith. This is not without reason. There is a history of antagonism, apart from the current struggles over same-sex marriage, adoption, conversion therapy and gender reassignment. Religious orthodoxies continue to exclude us and deny us access to opportunities enjoyed by cisgender heterosexuals.
But religions promote universal love, as well as demanding we do not judge. These ideals can form the basis of a dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding. We need to hold out the olive branch here.
LGBTI people of faith have made great strides to makes their own places of worship inclusive. This goes from the out churchgoer who ensures the rest of their congregation knows at least one LGBTI person, to the brave campaigners who challenge those at the top of the hierarchy.
As the referendum for same-sex marriage in Ireland has shown, the hierarchy often has a lot to learn from the grass roots. Through people of faith who out and proud, many places of worship will have become more open and welcoming to us and to other communities.
My black, Asian and ethnic minority friends often point out to me their religion is as much a part of them as their sexual orientation or gender identity. For many their belief comes first and they feel uncomfortable when it is challenged by western LGBTI activists who don’t fully understand their lives.
We need to be sensitive. But this is not an argument for cultural relativism without frontiers. There are terrible crimes committed in the name of family honor adopted by faiths in a number of regions. These are often barbaric and indefensible.
Some of us have choices. If we are unlucky enough to find ourselves in conflict between our faith and our true identity, we can walk away from that institution.
Those who do not have that choice are having their human rights abused and that is a different, but massively important issue. But where a choice is made, we need to respect it.
If someone belongs to a church that refuses to accept them as they are and walks out of that church, they need our support. If they choose to stay and defend their true identity, they need our support. Either way, our duty is to support them.
Lastly, while it is fairly secular in nature, the UK is not secular in law. The Queen is the head of state and head of the Church of England. The bishops in the House of Lords, our upper house of Parliament, give the Anglican church a guaranteed unelected role in how our country is governed and in every one of its laws.
Every school in the land has an ethos. Most are Church of England, many more are Roman Catholic or have another faith. There are more and more religiously led academy chains running groups of high schools. And there is legislation to allow ‘free schools’ based on faith. So the current trend is towards more religious influence in schools rather than less.
We need to involve ourselves in these issues to make sure the LGBTI community is protected, safe, and visible and has a voice in all of our educational institutions.
Religion, Belief and Philosophy maintain a strong presence in our schools, our country and the LGBTI world. It may not be a comfortable or easy theme for History Month but it is one we cannot ignore.
Tony Fenwick is CEO of Schools OUT UK and LGBT History Month. Find out what’s happening in February here.