'Believe Out Loud' - Gay community fighting prejudice in Christian and Muslim groups
Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Buoyed by the legal recognition of same-sex marriages in a number of states in America, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community has intensified its struggle for greater equality and recognition within mainstream churches in the United States.
The fight, vocalised through the Christian initiative, 'Believe Out Loud', has also taken the campaign to the doorstep of the far more resistant Muslim community.
Sung Park, director of community engagement and advancement at 'Intersections', an influential New York-based organisation and underwriter of this growing campaign, spoke about the LGBT struggles.
"We are gradually seeing that within the largest Protestant churches, there is a shift in perspective," declare Park as he named the United Methodist, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist and the Anglican Church as some the bodies where inroads have been made.
He said this development has not been entirely surprising as the Protestant movement has been historically supportive of gender and class discrimination, and issues related to immigration and poverty.
"Right now, the Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran churches have approved marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT persons. This is huge step," said Park.
A recent research study conducted by 'Believe Out Loud' showed that 40 per cent of the US clergy was in the middle on the issue of equality for the LGBT community but had failed to take decisive action on its behalf.
"We must do more to influence that movable sector of the clergy," stated Park.
He identified what he termed "a multi-tier strategy" to galvanise support.
"We have engaged individuals on a personal level. We also have a strong online presence - interactive websites, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos of testimonials. We also have advocacy groups on the ground."
Park rejected the belief that the Christian community as a whole rejects alternative lifestyles.
"We hear the opinions of conservative Christians, but there is another side - the progressive, the moderate Christians, and we are offering a platform for that seldom-heard voice."
Park, who is about to begin seminarian studies, is keenly aware of the theological debates surrounding alternative lifestyles. However, he refused to be drawn into any such contentious discussions.
"It's all about interpretation, and we all have our views based on our understanding of the holy books. These debates can be never-ending," he said, as he focused on the core teachings of all religions.
"Many of my friends no longer attend church because they are tired of the messages of condemnation."
He spoke of his travails in the church that nearly moved him to follow in his friends' footsteps.
"I have been fortunate. Whenever I was about to leave, there was always someone there to bring me back, to affirm who I am and how I was created by God."
Park dismissed a growing movement in Christian conservatism that claims to have used biblical counselling to change the sexual orientation of some gays and lesbians
"The Ex-Gay ministry is really saying that there is something wrong with being different. I don't believe that you could change others by putting them down, but then again, if one feels fulfilled and happy after therapy, that's their personal journey."
He referred to the 'Ex Ex-Gay ministry,' which reflects "those who have tried counselling to change but have given up, and finally accepted who they are".
'Believe Out Loud' has also taken its campaign of tolerance and equality into Muslim communities, conducting a number of surveys in the process.
Park cited the curious parallel between present-day Islam and Christianity as practised 50 years ago.
"There is a wall surrounding Muslim communities. It is a very taboo subject and people are reluctant to speak. The imams are silent and the LGBT Muslims are silent."
He spoke of the clandestine nature in which focus groups and surveys had to be conducted.
"Everything was done in a secretive, interpersonal level, using our internal networks with strict confidentiality agreements. We could not advertise where focus groups were being held for fear of retaliation."
Nevertheless, the research had indicated that despite the overt signs of resistance, there is some momentum for change and that LGBT's visibility and outreach programmes can be that catalyst for Muslim reformation.
The 'Believe Out Loud' spokesman expects that the growing acceptance of alternative lifestyles will lead to gender equality within Islam.
"We have spoken to a few imams, and some are supportive but are cautious. The bottom line is that some very religious Muslims are in the closet. They are afraid. But the time has come for all Muslims to follow teachings of Prophet Muhammad that encouraged caring for the weak and the outcasts. They must really reflect on these values. The same goes for people who call themselves Christians."
Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith CouncilFeedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby