World’s Religions Take Small Steps Towards LGBT Acceptance

September 23, 2014

Pope Francis’ words “Who am I to judge?” in July 2013 raised hopes, not least among LGBT Catholics and people of faith worldwide, for greater acceptance of homosexuality within the world’s largest Christian denomination, comprising one-sixth of the world’s population.

“We’ve hit a tipping point where many Catholics no longer see church officials as the center of the church,” says Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, an organization based in Medford, Massachusetts, that promotes acceptance of LGBT people within the Catholic church.

“[They] are claiming the power of their own beliefs and… embracing their LGBT members,” says Duddy-Burke, citing resistance growing among some priests who quietly refused orders to preach against marriage equality in recent years.

“Exclusion haunts our community members and affects their spirit,” says Chris Paige, executive director of Transfaith, which developed and piloted a suicide-prevention learning model in 2013 to enable religious communities to better serve their trans and gender nonconforming members. Baptist clergy also stepped forward during 2013 in some of the world’s least LGBT-accepting countries, including at least 10 in Africa, according to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), made up of churches that welcome all regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It’s risky to operate an inclusive ministry. So we’ve taken it underground,” says a Baptist minister in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and president of one of AWAB’s partner organizations. “As spiritual leaders, we must show compassion and that we’re ready to help,” said the minister, who requested anonymity.

The year 2013 saw the proposal of the “Sexual Practices Against Nature” bill in DRC—one of the few central African countries where homosexuality is not illegal—that threatens jail sentences for being gay or transgender. If passed, it would follow the recent enactment in Uganda and Nigeria of highly punitive anti-LGBT laws.

Fearing the domino effect that these new laws could have, and seeing that the roots of their justification are often found in interpretations of sacred texts, Rev. Michael Kimindu of Other Sheep Africa launched in 2013 a series of dialogues with Kenya-based Christian and Muslim religious leaders.

Among the issues raised in the seminars were mental-health and substance-abuse problems that LGBT isolation can lead to, a growing concern among Muslim leaders in Kenya, including the 252 participants who attended the seminars.

The strain of being disconnected from a religion that is synonymous with family and culture is personified by Omar El-Hajoui, 26, whose family immigrated to Los Angeles from Morocco in 1977.

“The Koran is whispered into a newborn’s ear. It becomes a part of your DNA,” says El-Hajoui. “When you don’t feel like you can be your whole self with the people who are meant to love and protect you, it’s very damaging.”

After isolating himself for years throughout middle and high school, El-Hajoui found L.A.-based Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) through a web search and recalls that the LGBT acceptance cultivated by the group “felt amazing, like coming home, and being part of the family that I always needed.”

MPV, founded in Los Angeles in 2007, and with several international chapters, has created inclusive communities where LGBTQ Muslims are welcomed. In August 2013, El-Hajoui became the first LGBT member to give the khutbah, or sermon, at an MPV prayer service.

“I think change has to come,” El-Hajoui says. “Culturally, we’re moving very fast.”

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