Zack Abu-Akeel (SFS'18) graduated from Georgetown University in 2018 with a degree in international political economy. While at Georgetown, he was an active member of the Muslim Students Association and served as a student worker at the university's LGBTQ Resource Center.
For all the attention that ideological “clashes” between LGBTQ and religious communities garner, I notice that scholars and the media alike often neglect the most obvious voices to include in the conversation. LGBTQ people of faith, congregants who contribute to their religious communities while also identifying as LGBTQ, are inherently the most knowledgeable witnesses and potential sources of guidance for their own communities when it comes to addressing LGBTQ identities. Yet, the concept of LGBTQ people is instead too often treated as an abstract debate for religious scholars. This approach not only frustrates and actively silences LGBTQ people of faith by pitting two essential aspects of their identity against each other, it also hampers potential progress for our communities by neglecting the best source of insight on this matter. LGBTQ people of faith demonstrate with their very existence that any talk of an ideological “clash” is mere hype. Moreover, the experiences of LGBTQ people of faith can inform workable and community-specific solutions for helping religious communities grow to welcome LGBTQ people as equals alongside their non-LGBTQ peers.
Religious communities can take their first step in seeking to understand LGBTQ identities by coming to know the LGBTQ people who already exist within. While it may be intellectually challenging for some, faith leaders must understand that LGBTQ people of faith represent more than just the associated sexual behaviors. They are dedicated worshippers whose primary goals include connecting with God and contributing to their religious communities. Eager to bring their full selves to their places of worship, LGBTQ people of faith require a bit of work on the part of their non-LGBTQ counterparts to establish spaces that encourage LGBTQ people to worship freely and visibly in front of their community.
Many may question why, if LGBTQ people of faith are already worshipping alongside others in their faith communities, we would even need to encourage acknowledgment of LGBTQ identity. LGBTQ people have been fighting this mode of thinking for decades, trying to show others that, in fact, “Silence = Death,” to use the 1980s ACT UP slogan. Keeping quiet around such a highly misunderstood identity allows ignorance and hostility fester, even within a religious community. Condemning LGBTQ people of faith to silence around their identities sentences them to a spiritual death. When every moment in a place of worship is fraught with fear of potential harassment due to others’ ignorance, one has less energy and attention to devote to worship. Therefore, only after actively creating spaces where LGBTQ people can feel safe and welcome to worship can these faith communities say that they fulfill their religious obligation to care for all their members.
To enact change, non-LGBTQ leaders must first begin speaking, without trepidation, about the role that LGBTQ people of faith already play and can further play in their religious communities. Of course, possible approaches will vary based on the specific religious tradition. In Muslim communities, for example (of which I am a member), imams and regular worshippers alike can attempt to recover the lessons from our past on including gender and sexually diverse people in the community. The Prophet (peace be upon him) acknowledged the existence of sexual diversity, specifically the mukhannath, and had his views regarding these people’s roles in society recorded. These lessons offer a starting point from which Muslim leaders today could begin explaining to modern congregations how LGBTQ people belong to our faith communities. Restoring this knowledge can help to both create space for LGBTQ people to feel welcome and begin dispelling an ignorance among non-LGBTQ people that does not belong in our religious tradition.
Islam is a relatively non-hierarchical religion, making it rather easy for Muslim communities to bring LGBTQ siblings to the table at the local level. The onus, however, will still be on non-LGBTQ community leaders to take the first step in speaking up for LGBTQ Muslims in order to create space. Approaches to opening up to LGBTQ people of faith in other communities will look different depending on their specific histories and authority structures. In the Catholic community, Fr. James Martin serves as a role model for how Catholic leaders can begin to create space for LGBTQ Catholics, encouraging them to bring their full selves to their churches and, in return, imploring the Church to treat LGBTQ Catholics as equal and respected members. Whatever the method, only through respecting the existence of LGBTQ members of faith and including them in community functions can we expect to generate the answers around how to incorporate LGBTQ identities.