By Alyssa Weston
Religion and LGBTQ may sound to many people like oil and water. The two do not necessarily mix well together in terms of gender identification, marriage equality, non-discrimination and ordination.
But many LGBTQ people who practice faith are challenging old traditions and expressing how their religion aims to be more inclusive.
When the United Methodist Church strengthened their ban on gay marriage and LGBTQ clergy during a general conference in February, Pastor Vicky Kelley of Girard First United Methodist Church posted a video on Facebook to tell churchgoers her disappointment.
“The events that took place may have made us sad, broken-hearted, angry even, but they are not going to make a difference in what we will commit to do together as a group,” she said. “We have this place where we can belong together, even if we disagree. I just wish that the global church had been able to create that place, as well.”
Kelley said she made the video because she believes discrimination against LGBTQ people or any group of people is inconsistent with Christ, and LGBTQ people shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens.
In a second Facebook video, Kelley told viewers her journey of becoming an LGBTQ ally. The video was aimed at her more traditional friends who aren’t allies, to tell them about her experience on acceptance.
“I grew up in a very conservative church, but I came to embrace full inclusion for everyone, while I was still in [the conservative church]. I thought that maybe somebody else who was struggling to understand this could be helped by my story,” she said.
Khakan Qureshi, a Muslim LGBTQ activist and founder of Finding A Voice, a Birmingham South Asian LGBTQ group, said he was born into Islam and came out 28 years ago at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the controversial anti-gay legislation of section 28 in the United Kingdom.
“[Growing up] in a Muslim household, talking about homosexuality was not particularly allowed,” he said. “It was something to be very ashamed of and embarrassed.”
Qureshi said being gay impacts how he practices faith, and he is more inclined towards the spirituality of faith.
According to Qureshi, as a gay Muslim, he aims to reconcile faith with his sexual orientation and encourages others to do the same.
“I believe whatever religion you are, the relationships you develop are between you and your God,” he said.
Qureshi suggests that other LGBTQ people interested in converting to Islam, or another religion should read the religion’s holy book and how they want to interpret it moving forward.
Omar Mushaq, Muslim LGBTQ activist and lecturer of Chapman Univeristy in the Department of Sociology, said Islam is broken into different denominations and when discussing LGBTQ Muslims, different ethnic backgrounds should be taken into consideration.
“In any culture, there’s going to be homophobia, and there’s going to be intolerance. There’s definitely some of that still. I’m not saying it’s all roses. But I will say that your ethnic background, I think, will largely impact the way you see [LGBTQ] issues,” he said.
Mushaq said the biggest misconception about gay Muslims is that they don’t exist.
“You can pretty much have any religion and interpret it anyway you want,” he said. “There’s a perception of people that are Muslim, that is characterized as damaged and intolerant.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Muslims in the United States who believed homosexuality should be accepted is 52% compared to 27% in 2007.
Hunter Thomas, a senior early childhood education major at Youngstown State University, discussed his experience converting to Judaism as a gay man.
While working at the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown for the last seven years, Thomas took an interest in Judaism after researching Jewish values and holidays for his students.
Thomas said he felt an immediate connection to Judaism after attending temple for the first time. Two weeks after, he spoke with his rabbi to start the conversion process.
“Just like any religion, there are different levels of observances, different groups of people that refer to themselves as Jewish,” he said. “There are more liberal denominations of Judaism. Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reconstruction Judaism are the three major liberal movements.”
According to Thomas, he hasn’t experienced backlash about his religious conversion from the LGBTQ community or the Jewish community, and he hasn’t felt the need to express his sexual orientation with his synagogue community.
Thomas is part of a Reform synagogue that is inclusive of LGBTQ members, and has had open communication with his Rabbi about why he has joined Reform Judaism.
“For many LGBTQ people, their experience with religion conflicting with their values [as LGBTQ], is with Christianity or with more conservative forms of other religions,” he said. “So, I think for a lot of people, it’s shocking that you can be an LGBTQ person and also be religious.”
Thomas said it’s important for LGBTQ people interested in joining a religion to find a community that they feel comfortable in, research, find support groups and mutual friends to attend religious services with and to go out of their comfort zone .
“If [LGBTQ people interested in joining a religon] feel safe stepping out of [their] comfort zone a little bit and exploring, that’s where the first step is,” he said.