Overcoming cultural and religious barriers to LGBT equality

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ILGA-Europe: Overcoming cultural and religious barriers to LGBT equality

During this panel Friday afternoon (30 October 2009) ILGA-Europe had two speakers: Vladimir Luxuria, a former member of the Italian Parliament and a journalist, and Juris Calitis, pastor of Anglican Church in Latvia.  Below you will find detailed account of their speeches.  This is however, not an official transcript.

Vladimir Luxuria, former member of the Italian Parliament, journalist

I am a very popular person in Italy for many reasons, for my activity in the LGBT movement, for organizing the 1st Pride in Rome and for being the 1st Transgender person (I am not a transformist.  There are many transformists in the Italian parliament, those who move from one party to another.  I just moved from one gender to the other, thats all.) in the EU to become a Member of the Italian Parliament.  This was from 2006-2008, when Berlusconi came to power

(He also wears make-up and high heels.)  I have appeared in theaters and in public debates, and very often on TV.

I am very interested in the title of this conference overcoming cultural and religious barriers to LGBT equality.  What does it mean to overcome?  Does it mean to win cultural and religious barriers?  After you have dealt with these barriers?  Or just to ignore these barriers?  This is central to those countries where culture and religion are synonymous culture, politics, art, clothes as they are in countries such as Italy, Malta, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and others.

What do I mean?  In Florence last Sunday, Sandra Alvino got married in church.  Sandra was born as a male, born in the wrong body (and the wrong society).  At first she decided to try to adapt her soul to the body.  Sandra was one of the first Transgender people in Italy in the 60s, when this was criminalized.  She went to prison and spent a lot of years there.  Now things have changed.  Transgender people are no longer considered criminals.  In 1982, Law 164 was passed that allows sex reassignment.  Today in Italy if you have a sex change operation, the law allows you to also legally change your gender and name.  This law was approved thanks to the efforts of the radical party.

I tried to propose a law, following the example of Spain and Britain, which would allow these changes for those Transgender people who do not want to have a sex change about 80% of the community.  This law has not been approved.

Well, Sandra managed to get married in Church.  She has been recognized as a woman by Italian law after sex reassignment, but not by the Vatican.  She could have a civil marriage, but not a Catholic marriage.  A courageous priest agreed to perform the ceremony, but, to no ones surprise, he has been removed from the church by the Vatican authorities.  What should the LGBT community do when faced with this situation?  Do we want to help?  Do we want to ignore the issue?  We do not want the Vatican to interfere with the Civil Laws, so we must not be the first to interfere with Vatican dogmas, which are even more radically discriminatory against Transgender people than against LGB people.  If you are Gay or Lesbian and chaste you are not committing sin and can aspire to sanctity.  You can have a place in paradise.  If you are a Transgender person and chaste you are a sinner.  Last year, Pope Ratzinger made a strong declaration because he wanted to correct a statement made by the previous Pope, Pope Luciani, who said God is the father, but mainly a mother.  He did not last long.  Pope Ratzinger made the statement that Man is man and woman is woman.  God does not have any gender identification.  The fact remains that in the church baptism and registry office, people who have had sex reassignment cannot change sex and name.  What should the LGBT community do?

How do we overcome these barriers?  Do we overcome by not being interested or by not facing these issues?  Even if we are not interested in religious issues, religion gets very interested in our issues.  Today gender identity is very difficult to insert into all types of law in Italy.  The most recent proposed law against discrimination was not approved (except in Laguria).

The LGBT movement must not lead the fight against the Vatican.  This would send a negative message. We want to send a positive message.  We must fight to defend and promote mutual respect and separation between Parliament and religious institutions.  Not just about same sex marriage, but also about living wills, the ru486 pill, the value of women, safe sex policies, and fertility treatments.  LGBT Christian association can raise these issues within the church and to be a bridge and a comfort those LGBT people who struggle to believe in their religious faith and the naturalness of their sexual identity.

Culture in Italy there has just been a big scandal, if it were just gossip I wouldn’t bore you with it, but it is more and involves cultural barriers as well.  It looks like an Almodovar film, but it is true.  Last week four carbinieri, or police, forced the door of a private flat and took pictures with the camera in a mobile phone to film what was happening in the bedroom.  There they discovered a Brazilian transgender person and the president of the province of Latzio. Their goal was to blackmail give us money or we tell all.  Although these men decided to pay the blackmail, the magistracy understood that something was going on and made it public.  As you can guess, the President resigned, he has retired to a religious monastery.  Now they say that there are other politicians involved.

Unfortunately, now there is a way to put Transgender people, prostitution, drugs (because there were also four lines of coke found there), transgression and sin all in one bag.  The best way to overcome this is to make a society where being caught in bed is no longer a convenient invitation to blackmail.  (I hope that they won’t force the doors at this monastery.)  Our task is to overcome these barriers by comparing our experiences and sharing our knowledge.  We can work to make a world where no blackmail or social judgment would be possible.

Thank you.

Juris Calitis, pastor of the Anglican Church, Latvia

It is a privilege to have been invited to this conference, thank you for the honor.  After we decide about the forcing or not forcing of the monastery door, we might think about the monastery as an item on the agenda.  The case is, that in fact religion and Christianity in Europe are really far off the radar and the only reason that you have an interest in religion is that you have had to suffer terribly at the hands of those who run the church institutions.

So if religion is so far off the radar, why is it a topic at this conference?  This reminds me of the couple who were going to christen their son Jesus and their friends were surprised at the name.  Why on earth would someone name their child with a swear word?  And the surprise that some people had that churches were open on a Sunday.  They thought that churches were against that kind of thing.  A quote from this afternoons god/God workshop is One of the biggest obstacles for LGBT people gaining their rights are the churches.  That is exactly true.  But why is that the case? This is an important matter.  Why are the churches the greatest obstacle in gaining rights, dignity and justice?  There are four reasons.  Take note, because it is true if you like it, or not.

Religion and the churches are the repositories of the deepest feelings, experiences and interpretations of human life.  That doesn’t mean that they are correct, but they are the deepest felt and held understandings.

All religious traditions represent the most consistent and continuing, extensive, authoritative, and deliberate explanation of what it means to be a human being.  For that reason, the church inevitably is conservative and slow to change.  This understanding is very difficult to achieve.  ILGA members and any other intelligent humans have the opportunity to understand the true feeling of the mass majority of people using statements made by the church as a barometer.  For good or ill.

I have two suggestions.  For the present, when talking about rights, the secular arena, and not the religious, is your best bet by a long shot.  But, in the long term, the goal of these endeavors is to change the psychic and emotional experiences and convictions of people.  Laws are good.  We need just laws, but we also need just people.  And more necessary than rights are friendships.  What is the good of having rights of you are still enemies?

I would like to share five observations with you.

The actions of religious bodies are more politically than theologically driven.  There are many Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, who hold different views than their institutions.  But their relationship with their conservative constituency prevents them from speaking truthfully.  These are politics of convenience; don’t waste time on such discussions.  You are right to move on legal rights issues, but even if policies and legal instruments are in place, sooner or later even religious leaders will have to find religious reasons to explain their position.

Sexual ethics are not central to Christianity.  Habermas said that Gay people are like the rest of us, they have more important things to do than be gay.  So long as Christianity is about who you go to bed with, no bishops are going to be crucified and that is very depressing.  Sexual morality is a tool of aggressive manipulation.  The West has lost its sense of identity and seeks control through fear and a sense of moral superiority.  The sacrificial lambs are the minorities.  Callously and cruelly as the authorities use this, sexual ethics is not the central issue n the Christian faith.

Change at the deepest levels and layers of the persons being are what the long-term case is all about.  The most difficult part of acceptance resides deep within.  This is what religion tries to access.  Western consciousness has experienced at least four major shifts in consciousness.  The teachings of Jesus brought in a new human community: men and women, foreigners, all religious groups, sinners, outcasts, poor, rich.  Jesus creates a new community with one father for everyone.  Paul says that no religious or biological social fact is true and longer for Christianity.  This truth, this vision of hospitality as central, was lived for a few centuries before the surrounding community suppressed it.  Despite the terrible acts in the name of Christ, remember the true spirit of Jesus.  Let the other be whom he or she is, engage not by control or moralizing, but by listening and learning.  The Gospel of John is a long series of conversations about speaking and listening.  Your campaign is not for surface recognition, but for a final release of human energy at the deepest possible level of experience.

If my reading is correct, we are moving toward intolerance.  The reasons are many.  The collapse of the dominant enlightened culture has made for great insecurity; there are no longer restraints on the dark side by civil society and religious traditions.  I don’t want to overdo the doom and gloom; there are numerous acts of kindness, legal and juridical charters around Europe, such as the new Swedish church charter.  But at the level of the heart, the religious and social direction is not toward freedom, but to the opposite.  This freedom is a sham.  The truly different are attacked severely; they are forced into conformity or attacked as dangerous.  For at least the next five or ten years, do not place hope in religious authorities in Europe and America. Individuals may be courageous, but the organized religious bodies wont accommodate strange new complexities.

There are many voices in the position of the church Roman, Lutheran, Anglican, Reform, Charismatic, and Fundamental each has their own approach.  And this is where I think I can be of most help.  The voices are linked, but individual.  However, on the whole there are only two theological approaches to homosexuality and sexual identity in the Christian faith.

The Roman position bases its antagonism on natural law, the God given order of nature, life, and man. Gays and Lesbians are acting out of a faulty nature that must be corrected.  Prohibitions are made against acts of homosexuality because the underlying order has been corrupted.  If it can be shown that there is no underlying disorder, if you are born hetero- or homosexual, than the Roman Catholic Church would be capable of change.  Actually, such an understanding has already occurred.  The statements from Ratzinger in Rome are proof of this change.  His statements reflect the acceptance of the legitimate state of the human psyche as represented by gays and lesbians.  You may ask if the church has accepted this, then why is the opposition still so violent?  The answer is the weight of tradition, attitudes and thinking, and the repercussions of Today Roman Catholic theology tries to deal with acceptance of the gay as reality in strange combination with the baggage of previous morality that for so long outlawed this view.

Protestant antagonism is on the basis of a revelation from God in the scriptures.  For Protestants, no amount of evidence or experience will ever change that truth which is given by revelation; change the objective truth given by God.  Change can only come if one can prove that God is saying something other than what he is though to be saying.  James Ellison is trying and so are some others, but it is a hard long road.  Some try to use a side door creating strong statements on the necessity of good will toward gays and lesbians.  If you are able to see them as fully human, then they can be neighbors and friends, and then also perhaps, friends of God.  It would be more dignified and healthy for the message to come from the center, but perhaps a side door is better than no door.

I believe that the enemy of truth is not in the noise of those who oppose, but the silence of those who know the truth, but dare not speak out.  The Dominical theologians say that one needs a profound sense of humility before the unspeakability of God.  It is humility, the ability to laugh at ourselves, that makes our differences cease to be threatening. In my experience, the LGBT community has no shortage of laughter.  Should the differences between us be seen as threat or discovery?  Do we feel fear or happiness, or maybe laughter at a strange, exuberant wonderful world like this.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing your conference.

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