The objective of this ethnographic study is to better understand how the LGBT community interprets and thus engages religion. For the purpose of this study religion is understood as the systematic formation of belief. The LGBT community is of interest due to the polarizing nature of homosexuality and marriage. In order to conduct a nonpartisan analysis of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender) community, objective data is necessary. Pew Research provides critical information about the attitudes, experiences, and values of LGBT Americans. It is impossible to fully analyze the LGBT experience regarding religion and faith without an initial analysis of other factors.
One confirmatory statistic reveals that ninety-two percent of LGBT respondents have identified an attitude shift towards acceptance of their lifestyle. They credit factors such as advocacy by influential people, frequent engagement with heterosexuals, and also evolving family dynamics. In fact, many LGBT partners are now getting married and raising children of their own (Pew Research Center, 2013).
Even with the shift in public opinion regarding the LGBT lifestyle, approximately forty percent of respondents recall previously undesirable experiences. Such experiences include inappropriate humor, rejection by loved ones, physical threats, and rejection at places of worship. Given the focus on this study the percentage of respondents who felt unaccepted at places of worship (twenty-nine percent) is significant (Pew Research Center, 2013).
In terms of religion LGBT adults generally attend worship services less frequently then heterosexual adults. Approximately half of the LGBT community does not attend worship service, versus half that does. In contrast about eighty percent of heterosexual adults do attend a worship experience and subsequently attribute religious values as contributory to their lives. In contrast LGBT adults do not automatically associate the worship experience and religion as integral to their lives. This could be attributed to the fact that approximately one third of LGBT adults recognize the existence of a natural tension between their sexual orientation and the moral principles taught at church (Pew Research Center, 2013).
Approximately seventy four percent of Caucasian Protestants and a little more than half of all heterosexual adults, affirm the tension between their religious belief and homosexuality. This would explain the natural downward trend of LGBT adult attendees at religious services. The reinforced message is consistently in opposition of their self-selected lifestyle (Pew Research Center, 2013).
Therein lays the central issue of religious engagement within the LGBT community. How to effectively engage religious experiences and create value, while simultaneously engaging in sexual activity that is not reinforced? One of the objectives of the Pew Research project was to measure LGBT perception of the six primary religious institutions. The goal was to ascertain whether or not LGBT adults felt there was acceptance of their chosen lifestyle within the various religious organizations (Pew Research Center, 2013).
What the survey discovered is that approximately eighty percent of respondents felt that Catholics, Muslim, and Mormon were unfriendly towards them. The LGBT community also felt that all six of the major religious institutions generally do not embrace them and their lifestyle. This belief is further reinforced in the interview found in Appendix 1. In that interview conversation with a homosexual male reveals frustration at the majority of religious institution in regards to their acceptance of the LGBT community (Appendix 1).
In terms of historical literature there are some prior studies that have addressed this topic. Wilson R Huhn actually presented a compelling argument in response to a previous literature document by Professor Dent. Huhn wanted to dispel the apparent tension between gay rights and religious freedom. His response was interestingly posed in the form of ten questions worthy of consideration.
The first question rhetorically asked whether Texans had the right to enact their religious ideology into law as the majority. A distinction was made between the Free Exercise Religion and enacted laws. Ultimately the government must act based on State action as opposed to individual preference or belief (Huhn, 2009).
Using the same logical principle Huhn proposed that the majority of voters in State’s like Massachusetts and California did not have the right to deny the benefits, and protection of same sex marriage. Justice O’Conner in referencing Lynch versus Donnelly affirmed the necessity of government operating with a secular agenda (Huhn, 2009).
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), is a prominent organization upholding the civil rights of the LGBT community. The stated missional purpose is education, support, and advocacy regarding the aforementioned group. In one such educational booklet they challenged a broad spectrum of society to reexamine faith within the context of the LGBT experience (PFLAG, n.d.).
The book acknowledges the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity is a private topic. However, due to associated legal cases, and other public news reports it has become a public matter. The book further implies that the LGBT lifestyle is something that through healthy dialogue can become a catalyst for faith transformation. This is important given the particularly delicate nature of the topic (PFLAG, n.d.).
Within the PFLAG document are personal stories of tradition within the context of changing societal needs. When the church is exclusive in response to the needs of the LGBT community it heightens the existent divide towards inclusion. As such, exploration includes implicit suggestions to evaluate whether or not one’s spiritual home remains a refuge of acceptance (PFLAG, n.d.). This strikes at the core foundation of faith institutions which are largely built on the ideology of values such as inclusion, healing, and love.
Another literature review was more specific as it focused on a prominently traditional faith institution, the Catholic Church. Within the report there are various statistics indicating the Catholic Church, like other faith traditions has not yet established an effective response to the LGBT community. One affirming statistic revealed that approximately seventy-five percent of Catholics support either same sex civil unions or traditional marriage (Jones & Cox, 2011).
However, there appears to be a sharp divide between the attitude of congregants towards same sex union and the pulpit messages. For example among the approximately twenty-five percent of clergy addressing homosexuality, the message is typically destructive. Also less than forty percent of Catholics believe the church handles the issue of homosexuality appropriately. From a macro-perspective approximately seventy percent of Catholics believe that negative responses towards homosexuality attribute to increased suicide rates among lesbian and gay children (Jones & Cox, 2011).
Another report identifies faith communities that offer greater inclusion of the LGBT community. The attitude of the literature suggests that useful principles from the faith community must be preceded by inclusion. Affirming religious organizations include Queer Asian Spirit, Pine United Methodist, Grace, Equal Partners in faith, and even Al-Fatiha a Muslim organization. Approximately twenty-five to thirty percent of the listed organizations currently have a denominational affiliation versus the seventy percent that do not (Lindsay & Stern, n.d.). This would indicate that denominational affiliations may in fact hinder the shift towards inclusion of the LGBT community. However, this assumption would require additional research and validation.
In terms of specific methodology there were various data collection processes. One relevant method was interviews with congregants as well as personal observation. Although Appendix one provides relevant information regarding the perception of the LGBT community towards faith communities. However there have been a number of interviews over the course of the last few years, of those within the LGBT community. The general consensus is that greater inclusion needs to take place.
Appendix one does also share the fact that the Pastoral Leadership of Open Door ministry is part of the LGBT community. This would indicate a distinct advantage of those within the LGBT community assuming leadership roles within their faith community. The sensitivity and awareness they bring to their understanding for example of biblical text creates a modern, applicable theology. This is not to suggest that heterosexual leaders cannot provide relevant ministry to the LGBT community, however there appears to be a much greater challenge based on historical evidence.
Another specific methodology was personal observation. Over the years through attendance at various worship services the issue of biblical positioning on the issue of homosexuality has been forthcoming. The message has usually been accompanied by a tone that is equally judgmental and unsupportive. This has even caused me personally to feel an unusually high level of guilt and condemnation regarding the issue. Implicit within the message is an us against them mentality. There is no compromise it is either the LGBT community changes or they are condemned to a life of torment.
A third methodology is substantive literature review. The goal has been to identify historical literature that covers a wide spectrum of ideologies and data regarding the issue concerning homosexuality. Within the context of the brief literature review, was an intentional focus on the legal foundation for analyzing the issue of homosexuality. Without creating a clear delineation between individual rights and that of the State unhealthy overlap is inevitable. Interestingly enough, if certain individual rights were denied heterosexuals, inevitably they would argue for separation of individual and State authority
All three methodologies have proven to be beneficial as informative sources for appropriately analyzing this ethnographic study. Interviews have proven to be an effective method in gleaning personal information. As human beings we identify more readily with those that have gone through specific hardship. In fact, getting to engage those from the LGBT community has been a wonderful experience.
That engagement occurred within a wide spectrum of experiences from shared meals to other social outings, like theme parks. What was gained from that experience is the realization that LGBT individuals are very similar to heterosexual individuals. They have the same fears and passions about life that heterosexuals do. The primary distinction is their conscious choice in regards to selecting a “life partner.” So basically, our fear of engaging those within the LGBT community is often baseless and unjustified.
Observation is probably the least reputable of the three sources. Not that it does not have value; however it is primarily based on subjective interpretation of social situations. Even when examining the way that a certain message is preached, there must be a recognition of limited identification. I can empathize with what the LGBT community is going through but yet not understand the depth of emotional impact. I imagine that it is difficult if not impossible for same-sex partners to distinguish between a religious group’s opinion of their lifestyle and them personally.
The most reputable sources of information are most likely scholarly and researched literature. Opinion based literature is not as beneficial as there is very little empirical data. However, when a court case is referenced, it provides the researcher with substantive information useful for understanding legal precedence. When surveys or other information are integrated the study has an even broader scope. For example one of the referenced documents in the literature review had an interview sample size of approximately 1100-1200 persons. This would indicate a substantial group size which increases the accuracy of the information provided.
Appendix 2 provides a great example of a reputable and diverse group size. Within respondent group there are individuals that represent multiple genders, a spectrum of socio-economic classes, cultural distinctions, and even educational variance. In Appendix 3 there is a comparison between the LGBT community and the general population as it relates to religious affiliation. Although there is a category for blacks/Hispanics/ and mixed groups it is combined together. This may be primarily due to the volume of participants representing that specific category.
In Appendix 1 there are two quotes that have great significance from a research perspective. The first is when the interviewee was transparent in sharing how he had personal life struggles up until about 6-7 years ago. Being able to find a faith group that he identified with seemed to be the door that enabled authentic connection with God. In fact it was also telling that out of more than 2 billion Christians worldwide, he did not feel universally accepted. This had to be emotionally difficult especially when he had similar beliefs as those who are heterosexual.
The other telling quote was when he discussed his connection with the media ministry. It reveals the fact that many churches are losing out on some amazing talent by not including those from the LGBT community. As a point of further clarification, he stepped down to pursue the development of a technology based customer service company. He also ran a consulting company that advised Fortune 500 organizations. This is important because it reveals that there are those LGBT individuals who have significant executive leadership experience.
In seeking to tie up the principle elements of this ethnographic study, it comes down to two distinct factors. The first is discourse within the faith based community concerning the LGBT lifestyle. The second is the modes of negotiating from the perspective of the LGBT individual and the faith organization. In other words the faith based or religious organization must challenge previously held assumptions about what the faith community looks like. In contrast the LGBT community must also determine how to connect with God (or accepted deity) and simultaneously practice the gay/lesbian lifestyle. Both groups must decide whether compartmentalization is better than integration and transparent dialogue.
One study aptly gathered autobiographical interviews from youth with backgrounds ranging from evangelical to orthodox reformed. There was a clear objective of identifying personal belief regarding self-identity within the group and subsequent social engagement. For example hyphenated membership is where one individual’s social engagement and associations are drastically different than individual practice (Ganzevoort, Laan, & Olsman, 2011).
Although internal conflict and discourse is inevitable there are potential coping strategies. One such strategy is to compartmentalize social identity from individual expression. Within a group if the individual actions are viewed adversely, then the group may embrace the individual anyway. However there may be a negative label placed on the “struggle” that the individual is going through with regards to their lifestyle. This ultimately leads to LGBT individuals minimizing how integral religion is in their life (Ganzevoort, Laan, & Olsman, 2011).
Although the four modes of analysis are too extensive to go into detail about there is one mode worth examination. For the LGBT community this mode often flows from the labeling of their individual actions as sinful. The response is understood as a counter-rejection of faith. Since engagement with the Christian community often leads to judgment and pain the alternate choice is rejection. Not just rejection of the faith, but rejection of a faith community as there is no apparent distinction. Interviewed individuals accepted this as the best alternative to avoid disappointing God, the faith community, and denying their biological nature (Ganzevoort, Laan, & Olsman, 2011).
When analyzing the original problem it begins with an understanding of the role of faith traditions and the law. The primary advantage of separation of State and church is that both have distinctly different roles. The primary role of the State is to execute the public will of the people. In other words the primary focus is ensuring that the well-being of the citizens is met. In contrast the church is essentially a faith-based community of individuals with shared values and beliefs. As such if an individual has distinctly different views than the faith community they are free to pursue fellowship with another faith community.
Whether analyzing responses of those within the LGBT community or those within the various faith communities there appears to be a consensus regarding treatment of LGBT individuals. Currently the six major religious groups have been wrestling with how to engage the LGBT community. Often the result is that those within the LGBT community feel excluded from a shared religious experience with their heterosexual counterparts. This creates a natural tension especially since many heterosexual and homosexual individuals have repeated engagement in other social settings.
An example is the interviewed gay man whose interview is described in Appendix 1. He is someone that has many talents and gifts but has often been rejected by those who are part of a faith community. As soon as he found acceptance he connected to God at a deeper level and began to assume leadership roles in his faith community. In other words he did not need to live a dualistic existence. He could live an integrated life without feeling condemned about his sexual preference which he feels is part of his biological nature.
The conclusion that can be drawn from the study is the need for authentic dialogue within various faith communities. My personal perception has drastically shifted from staunch traditional belief to understanding the need for inclusiveness. It is impossible to reject a particular sub-group (i.e. the LGBT) and yet demand that they change. There must be an unconditional inclusion within the faith community. It would also be important to have dialogue with those who are practicing same-sex relationships.
By engaging those individuals the worship experience is shaped in such a way that it becomes more inclusive. Open door ministry is an example of one such faith based community that embraces people from all walks of life. The church mission and functioning is not limited based on traditional and dogmatic doctrines.
In a conversation with Interviewee #1 (I-1) we discussed what it means to be a part of the LGBTI community, from a religious perspective. The Interview that took place is as follows.
Me: Good morning, I appreciate you taking some time to discuss your experience as a gay man who also loves God.
I-1: Thanks so much. Yes it has been a challenge because often the church is not supportive of someone who is part of the LGBTI community.
Me: In what ways has the church and faith been instrumental in your life?
I-1: Well I have not always been a Christian; I just came to know God about 6 or 7 years ago. Prior to that I was really self-centered and messed up.
Me: Ok. So how has your life changed since coming to know God?
I-1: Well change in my life has been possibly primarily because I found a church that is accepting and loving. My church does not judge a person based on their sexual preference but rather opens the door to everyone.
Me: Well there are an estimated 2.18 billion Christians worldwide. Have you found that since embracing your new found faith Christians are more accepting?
I-1: Well... there is still so much work to be done… however I have found some acceptance. Especially among those that attend the church I do.
Me: Ok great. What church in your city do you attend by the way?
I-1: It’s a church called Open door ministry in Long Beach, CA. The website is http://opendoorlongbeach.org. The church is affirming and supports those who are part of the LGBTI community and also those who are heterosexual. In fact about 80 percent of the congregants are LGBTI and the other 20 percent are heterosexual.
Me: Oh wow! So the ministry has a mix of heterosexual and homosexual congregants. That seems like a different approach to ministry. How significant has this experience been for your faith life?
I-1: Well it’s been nothing short of amazing. In fact up until recently I was heading up the media ministry. Due to work and other personal obligations I had to step down from the position. However it was a rewarding experience and once things slow down I would love to reconsider leading another ministry.
Me: Any final thoughts?
I-1: My belief is that the Christian community and other faith traditions need to understand the vibrancy and the uniqueness of the LGBT community. When we stop taking the bible so literally and focus more on the principles that will cause us to love people more. Everyone has faults but instead of judging others let’s love them…regardless of one’s sexual orientation.
Source: (Personal Interview conducted on 11/21/2014)
Ganzevoort, R. R., Laan, M. V., & Olsman, E. (2011). Growing up gay and religious Conflict, Dialogue, and religious Identity Strategies. Mental Health Religious Culture, 14(3), 209-222.
Huhn, W. R. (2009, July). 10 questions on gay rights and freedom of religion. Retrieved from http://www.akronconlawjournal.com/articles/ten-questions-on-gay-rights-and-freedom-of-religion.pdf
Jones, R. P., & Cox, D. (2011, March). Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: A Comprehensive Portrait from Recent Research. Retrieved from http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Catholics-and-LGBT-Issues-Survey-Report.pdf
Lindsay, R. A., & Stern, J. (n.d.). The National Religious Leadership Roundtable: David V. Goliath a report on Faith groups working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality and what they're up against. Retrieved from http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/DavidVGoliathFaithGroups.pdf
PFLAG. (n.d.). Faith in Our Families: Parents, Families, and Friends talk about Faith, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity. Retrieved from http://community.pflag.org/document.doc?id=494
Pew Research Center. (2013, June). A Survey of LGBT Attitudes, Experiences and Values in Changing Times. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2013/06/SDT_LGBT-Americans_06-2013.pdf
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