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Including LGBTQ Voices in Interfaith Work

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As an atheist and interfaith activist, much of my work focuses on advocating for the inclusion of nonreligious voices in interfaith dialogue. But a related -- and, for me, equally urgent -- push for inclusion can be found in efforts to welcome LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people into interfaith spaces. I am passionate about LGBTQ acceptance, and I am passionate about interfaith cooperation. In my eyes, these passions are not in tension; they are intimately connected.

In "Faitheist," I write about times that I have experienced exclusion and demonization for being an atheist, and also times I have been attacked for being queer. I included both in order to highlight the reality that fear of the "other" has frequently pushed me, and many others, to the margins of our society -- this includes atheists and agnostics, but also LGBTQ people, Muslims, Sikhs, women and many others. Interfaith work, which brings together people from diverse communities to better understand one another and build inter-community networks that advocate for the dignity of all people, must necessarily welcome all people.

I was reminded of this last month when I sat on a panel of LGBTQ authors who write about religion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, alongside authors Jeff Chu and Aaron Hartzler. During the panel we were invited to reflect on and discuss the intersection of our queer identities and religion. Issues of power and privilege came up, and as we talked about the ways in which each of us had experienced discrimination because of our identities, I couldn't help but think of the important role interfaith dialogue and cooperation can and does play in challenging normative narratives -- especially the narrative that suggests we cannot be in community with one another despite holding deeply different views and maintaining diverse identities.

Relatedly, interfaith dialogue provides an opportunity to challenge commonly held stereotypes about different groups of people -- stereotypes that frequently serve to reinforce the narrative that we cannot find common ground, that serve as barriers to dialogue and collaboration between various communities. For example, there is a widely held idea that Catholics are necessarily anti-gay. But in 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute found that Catholics are actually more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than Americans overall, and that Catholic support of all rights for gays and lesbians is higher than support among the general public.

In addition to creating a space to recognize the complexity existing within different communities, interfaith dialogue is structured to help participants see the humanity in one another. These humanizing relationships can be transformative. For example, support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14 percent of Americans who changed their mind from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it in the last decade, the top reason cited was having "friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian." Only 2 percent of those surveyed said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are "born that way." So even if someone views homosexuality as immoral, interfaith dialogue positions people to see the humanity in one another and recognize that freedom of conscience is the foundation of a civil, cooperative society. We may not agree with one another about everything, but we can agree that we have to live alongside people with ideas and identities other than our own.

Thus, I feel more convinced than ever that interfaith efforts should include LGBTQ voices; if interfaith work is intended to bring together people with different and sometimes contradicting convictions and identities, then it has to. We will not agree about everything, but we can and should agree that all people deserve respect, dignity and equality. Discussions regarding LGBTQ people and religion have frequently been quite damaging to LGBTQ people, and have generally been contentious for all involved. (For more on this subject, feel free to check out a piece I wrote last year about an interaction I had with someone who told me that I had a demon inside of me that was making me gay.) Interfaith spaces built upon a foundation of mutual respect and a desire to understand our differences are an ideal forum for us to recognize that, even in our disagreements, we all have to share this world. Upon that foundation, we can begin to see that our world would be much better if we were in relationship with people outside of our own communities.

As I reflect on these issues, I look to next month, when I will be the invited speaker at Boston LGBTQ Pride's Interfaith Service. I am excited to gather alongside representatives from many different communities and, together, pledge to dismantle the narrative that says that our communities should remain siloed. Like other disenfranchised communities, many LGBTQ people know all too well that religious differences have been used as an excuse to divide and dehumanize. But as we imagine and work for a better world, all of us -- queer and straight, religious and nonreligious -- know that it doesn't have to be that way. We can build a society that creates space for all people to live alongside one another in peace, embracing our differences but recognizing our shared humanity. That begins with making space at the table for everyone, and extending an invitation to communities that haven't always been welcome.

A version of this piece originally appeared on IFYC.org.