World’s Religions Struggle Toward LGBT Acceptance

September 24, 2015

As a teenager growing up in Costa Rica, Natasha Jiménez intended to continue along the Protestant path that her family had followed.

Her journey was cut short in 1982 when, at age 15, her physician told her church pastor that Jiménez was neither male nor female. During a sermon, the pastor denounced the teen and expelled her from the congregation, saying that he was acting to protect other church-goers.

“The experience was very traumatic. When you’re a believer, you think the pastor’s word is the word of God,” Jiménez explains, adding that she felt that God was banishing her from his side. She contemplated taking her own life.

With the support of her family, however, Jiménez embraced her intersex identity, and focused her attention on challenging homophobic, transphobic, and anti-intersex discrimination within Costa Rica and internationally.

Jiménez is now general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexuality and Rights in Costa Rica, where Catholicism is the official religion and conservative evangelical churches are gaining in political influence.

She was part of a nongovernmental delegation at the 2014 U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, where 25 countries, including Costa Rica, voted in favor of a resolution against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Costa Rica also accepted four recommendations aimed at changing cultural attitudes and combating anti-LGBTI discrimination, which were made, with Mulabi’s input, through the U.N. Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights.

Across the globe in 2014 and early 2015, members of the world’s largest Christian denominations moved ahead of some leaders on LGBT equality: from Ireland, where same-sex marriage was voted in by a landslide and the United States where it was legalized by a Supreme Court ruling, to Chile, where lawmakers gave same-sex couples the right to civil unions.1

In the predominantly Islamic country of Malaysia, COMANGO, a coalition that supported LGBT rights in Malaysia’s 2013 UPR submission, included a number of faith groups. Other groups that supported SOGI human rights at the U.N. included the U.S.-based Muslims for Progressive Values and South Africa–based The Inner Circle.

The growing presence of religious groups in international efforts to drive SOGI-related human rights at the United Nations was among the advances heralded in a 2014 paper, Faith Advocates Help Advance LGBTQI Rights, by Sheherezade Kara, who formerly worked for ARC International.

Yet in the United States, during the 2014 and 2015 state legislative sessions, 28 states (with backing from some faith-based groups) mounted more than 90 efforts to exempt landlords, employers, charities, or businesses from extending equal treatment to LGBT people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the two states—Indiana and Arkansas—where such laws enabling housing and employment exemptions were passed, public protest and legal intervention by groups such as the ACLU removed some of the most discriminatory language.

Although most exemption bids failed, those that passed included a bill in North Carolina allowing magistrates and registrars to refuse same-sex marriages and one in Michigan enabling state-contracted adoption agencies to refuse placement of children with same-sex couples.

Utah, however, became the 19th state to protect transgender people in employment and housing and the 22nd to do so for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals.2

Religious Freedoms Clash with LGBT Rights

“There’s been a steady march toward equality for same-sex couples in areas of housing, employment, parenting, and now finally marriage,” says Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation and senior counsel for Lambda Legal. “But each time a state or city passes a bill protecting LGBT rights, right-wing religious groups start seeking exceptions.”

Many religious-exemption cases rest on the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, originally intended to protect members of minority religions by insisting that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

“Conservatives have gained traction for a ‘martyr narrative’ in which the religious people are the victims, unable to discriminate as they choose, even equating their supposed persecution with what Jews faced when silenced by the Nazis,” says Sara Hutchinson of Catholics for Choice.

Although there is a clear legal distinction between protecting the religious freedom of a church or its members and allowing a for-profit business to turn away LBGT people, Sommer anticipates that opponents of LGBT freedoms will continue to seek discriminatory laws.

Religious Exemptions Spread Internationally

The United Kingdom, Australia, France, South Africa, Canada, and Israel are among other nations that have seen petitions for faith-based exemptions to the law brought before the courts in recent years, with results tending toward rejection of the claims.

The report Faith Advocates Help Advance LGBTQI Rights affirms that, globally, advocacy for LGBT human rights by newly emerging faith leaders provides “a much needed counter-narrative” to claims of persecution by religious groups.

One counter-narrative is provided by Jean Elie Gasana, executive director of United Coalition of Affirming Africans Rwanda, who, at 36, is part of a new generation of African religious leaders, challenging conservative religious traditions.

“Homophobia in Rwandan society is at a high level,” says Gasana. “In some churches we cannot attend for fear of being excluded as gay, lesbian, or transgender. There are stores and restaurants where LGBT people are denied service and accused of working for the devil.”

Now there are affirming congregations in Africa, including two in Rwanda—the Church of God and Holy Power Ministries—where “LGBT people can go any day and say who they are,” he says.

Known for leading an accepting church, last year Gasana was accused in the Rwandan media of recruiting people to homosexuality and forced to leave his hometown of Gisenyi for Kigali, the capital, for two weeks until the fervor died down.

Gasana’s organization engages influential church leaders in theological and political discussions with the aim of moving them toward greater LGBT acceptance. He hopes leaders will spread a message of inclusion to their congregations and to the government.

“Things are changing, and I’m proud that people are talking about it,” says Gasana, who lobbied a radio station in Kigali to broadcast a public-service message stating that homosexuality is not counter to Christianity and announcing a website where people could seek more information.

“Now my neighbors understand me as I am,” he says. “If you can have 100 or 200 Christians listening to us, on our side, it’s a success for us.”

1Finland, Greenland, Luxembourg, and Scotland also approved marriage equality in 2014 and 2015, and the Mexican Supreme Court took steps likely to result in nationwide marriage equality.
2The result of initiatives by Equality Utah, the Human Rights Campaign, American Unity Fund, ACLU, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.