Faith Leaders Lift Up the Religious Case for LGBT Acceptance and Rights

August 19, 2013

“Church wasn’t just church for me. It was family,” says Aubrey Thonvald, 31, who grew up in rural Willmar, Minnesota, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was the center of her home life.

“Yet, there was a strong sense that if I lived fully into who I was, then that family wouldn’t want me.”

Thonvald enrolled in a master’s degree in 2009 at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry. After ELCA’s decision the same year to allow ordination of clergy in same-sex committed relationships, Thonvald told her mother she was gay.

With her family’s support, in 2012 she was hired by Seattle’s Pride Foundation to reach out to faith communities during a campaign to defeat a referendum that would have overturned same-sex marriage in the state of Washington.

Thonvald relied on messaging developed by New York-based Auburn Theological Seminary, which equips faith leaders to stand for justice. A pre-referendum campaign workshop for clergy in Seattle was attended by 83 participants, five times more than expected.

The clergy trainings, based on research published in Auburn’s 2012 report My Mind Was Changed, played a key role in shifting religious views towards LGBT acceptance in the four states where marriage equality won in 2012: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.

“It was thrilling that the strongest Christian messages—such as ‘God is love’ and ‘We are not to judge’—communicated by the right messengers, beat the strongest anti-LGBT messages,” says Macky Alston, a senior director at Auburn. “We saw a staggering movement of ideas.”

Helping to push votes over the top in Maine were some 15,000 phone conversations, coupled with several sold-out screenings of the 2012 documentary Love Free or Die, a film Alston directed about the country’s first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson.

“The bible is the word of God but not the words of God,” says Bishop Robinson, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. “You can’t take the modern understanding of homosexuality and read it back into an ancient text any more than we would expect Moses to have known that the earth was round.”

Robinson credits a number of organizations, including Integrity and the Chicago Consultation,with advances in the U.S. Episcopal Church, including the July approval of ordination for transgender priests, a measure that passed with a substantial majority.

A series of 2011 and 2012 convenings, including black pastors, scholars, and activists, aimed at reconciling faith and LGBT inclusion within U.S. black churches led to the establishment of the Black Church Center for Sexual Politics, which will open in 2013 at New York’s Columbia University.

Providing alternatives to the conservative education received by the majority of clergy is a worldwide priority, according to Robinson, to be extended to parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, where there are now more practicing Christians than in Europe and where anti-LGBT evangelists preach with considerable sway.

While anti-LGBT attitudes have been rising in countries such as Cameroon, Zambia, Nigeria and Uganda, some religious leaders in the region – including Anglican priests Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Uganda and Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma from Zambia-have declared strong acceptance of LGBT people of faith.

Bishop Senyongo was among 39 participants from 26 countries in Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, Europe, and North America, who gathered in December at the first Muslim-Christian conference to build a strategic network for LGBT acceptance.

One participant at the meeting in Stockholm, organized by Inclusive and Affirming Ministries and the International Lesbian and Gay Association, was Muhsin Hendricks, an imam and founder of the South Africa–based support organization The Inner Circle.

Hendricks, who built TheInner Circle over 17 years into a place where the principles of Islamic faith are reconciled with being LGBT, described how he was “locked in the closet for 29 years” and immediately fired from his mosques when he came forward about his sexuality.

While the majority of the Muslim world – including those countries which experienced democracy-inspired uprisings in recent years – condemns homosexual relations between men, in some cases with the death penalty, Hendricks says The Inner Circle has helped many.

“It’s enabled them to live their lives, to perform better in their work spaces and on a social level, and it’s helped parents of queer Muslims to understand their children better,” he says. “The fact that it’s existed for the last 17 years, and that I’m an openly gay imam and my work is known across the world and I’m still alive—that speaks a lot.”