Building a Bridge and Drawing a Line: A Way Forward for Traditional Religious and LGBT Communities

Is there any hope of a bridge being build between traditional religious communities on the one hand and the LGBT community on the other? I don’t believe there’s an easy answer to that question posed in Fr. James Martin’s controversial book entitled Building a Bridge. I do feel that well-intentioned people sometimes fail to address the root of the debate, which comes down to fundamental difference of belief regarding the purpose and function of human sexuality. However, even with these differences being what they are, I believe all sides of the question should be able to unite on common issues involving the inherent dignity of persons, regardless of their persuasion.

But in the current sociopolitical climate, the trenches are only being dug deeper and the definitions of gender and sexuality growing broader and simultaneously more dogmatic. Most recently, J.K. Rowling found herself on the wrong end of more progressive fans when she came out in favor of gender being a hardcore biological reality as opposed to an interior feeling, which flies in the face of many arguments relating to what it means to be transgender. For her, however, this was actually a position that holds more true to her particular flavor of feminism, emphasizing the rights of biological women to hold their own space.

The fact that Rowling was so violently attacked for expressing this view on the subjecting shows a rather sad state of affairs in which any divergence from of progressive ideology on the subject can often be misconstrued as a form of deliberate ill-will or bigotry against those who, for whatever reason, identify as being a different gender from their biological make-up. I don’t believe we have all the scientific answers yet with regards to the causes and effects of what was traditionally called “gender dysphoria”, but a healthy discussion of diverse perspectives on the topic, barring hateful rhetoric, is probably a good thing for society.

Sadly, though, these discussions easily devolved into a war of words like “perverts” vs. “bigots”, without either side genuinely trying to understand the worldview of the other. This is the type of hard-line stalemate that makes Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” line seem so out of this world. It seems impossible that a person might simultaneously view a certain sexual relationships as sinful according to Catholic Theology of the Body, and yet see past that enough to admit one cannot read the heart and soul of another, and affirm the individuals and their capacity for spiritual growth on a much broader plane.

Perhaps the point is that we as a society need to learn to couch our disagreements in larger agreements. For example, I would hope that all sides might come together on such as the vital elements as consent in sexual matters as well as emotional and spiritual application that binds one to the partner in more than mere physicality. This is one reason why some bishops have proposed a type of blessing on gay couples, which is definitely not in the realm of a sacramental seal, but does acknowledge the interpersonal aspect of these unions. Though some within Catholic circles have decried this suggestion as blessing an illicit union, perhaps it is an effort to simply acknowledging the complexity of life, and trying to indeed show a willingness to seek the good in all things.

Whether such a blessing ever goes into effect within the Catholic Church, something along the lines of the civil marriage and Anglican blessing Charles and Camilla as individuals, is yet to be ironed out. Regardless, I feel certain we should strive towards balance on these issues in a way that enables us to better co-exist as a society. We must live with the complexities of the dichotomy, instead of forcing opposite views into some false resolution with sugary smiles, demanding opposition or affirmation even if it cannot be extended with sincerity. We must also both learn to bend by increments to allow the other side space to breath instead of constant mutual pounding which breeds enhanced suspicion and polarization.

One side fears being treated as second-class citizens for their sexual orientation, in the form of mistreatment and discrimination, as well as having their ability to make state-sanctioned, long-term commitments to their partners being withheld, revoked, or treated with disdain. They believe that marriage between the same gender makes no different to the definition of marriage than the difference between skin color, and therefore equate racial discrimination with those who are opposed to same-sex relationships. For those who identify as transgender, they believe that gender is indeed fluid, and that if they identify as a woman, or a man, even if their biology does not match up, then they should be able to fit into male-specific and female-specific sectors of society, and being barred from them again is interpreted as a form of bigotry.

The other side (which includes traditional Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others) fears being forced, explicitly or implicitly, to support or endorse a sexual lifestyle that runs against the grain of their religious beliefs and understanding of human sexuality, at the risk of destroying their reputations and businesses. They believe that human sex is a part of biological reality as opposed to an interior identification, and sexuality is tied to anatomical realities based in the shape and function of parts that naturally lead towards the capacity to reproduce, which is the origin of the sex drive to begin with and is believed God willed human beings to experience for unification and procreation. Anything outside of this is viewed as quite simply a radar malfunction, trying to make parts fit together when they do not. This is what makes it distinct from interracial marriage, in which the sexual act is truly the same, regardless of color.

Needless to say, both sides tend to feel threatened and victimized by the other. For the LGBT community, this can be especially keen due to their tragic historical treatment in many countries within the Christian West and Islamic East. In the worst case scenarios, people have been jailed, tortured, or even killed for homosexual acts or perceived tendencies. Lesser, yet still extremely damaging, examples include being disowned by families, suffering expulsion from society, and allowed to die neglected and alone as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Even though circumstances have improved dramatically in many places, harassment and ostracization still exist aplenty, which may contribute to the high homelessness and suicide rate among the gay population.

The LGBT community also found themselves as one of the many targets of ISIS-inspired home-grown terror attacks in the Orlando mass shooting on June 12, 2016. With this backdrop of long-term societal injustice, it is understandable that various social justice movements tend towards the other extreme of trying to force a uniform consensus of public thought on human sexuality, portraying sexual preference as something akin to race, or being no different than preferences for different flavored ice cream. Of course, traditional religious communities might respond that it might be something more akin to a psycho-sexual malfunction, and the members of those communities experiencing are called to resist using their sexuality in a way which is believed goes against the very rubrics of the act.

In the end, I’m afraid a complete consensus of thought is simply unrealistic to expect, particularly when it comes to maintaining a respect for religious freedom and different doctrines on the subject. Also, instead of solving the problem, trying to silence all those who morally disagree seems to be making it more glaring. The fact is the law may stand recognizing the legal veracity of things like same-sex marriages, but that does not mean anyone can be forced to support, approve, or advocate them, nor change the definition of marriage according to their perspective. Legally I believe there should be a careful balance of legislation, not tipping too far in one direction or the other, but trying to keep both sides protected from being infringed upon. It is a delicate line to draw.

For traditional Christians and others, I believe the time has come to accept the reality of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, and respect it as a legally binding union between two consenting and committed adults. If working for government offices, one must abide by state law and sign marriage licenses to whoever requires them. If working in a secular wedding planning or bakery company without any specific religious exemptions, one must again abide by state law, whether or not one personally agrees with the decisions of the customers. If working for state-run adoption agencies, it is most likely going to be on a first come/first serve basis. When gay characters appear on in commercials on in TV shows, it’s time to start whining and accept them as part of representation and a realistic reflection of the world around us and the diverse individuals that inhabit it. 

That having been said, I believe religious institutions, or individuals with self-owned businesses that have a specifically religious theme (i.e. a Halal bridal service geared towards the Muslim community, for example), should be allowed to obtain exemptions based upon those convictions. Catholic adoption agencies may prefer placing children in homes with a mother and a father in accordance with the belief that both, male and female, are best suited for the child’s development. Catholic hospitals should not be pressured to do procedures involving attempts at gender chancing, which they would see as genital mutilation. There are many situations which require a careful handling, to make sure that forwarding civil rights does not simultaneously trample upon religious rights.

In the case of religious schools, such as the cases being introduced about Catholic schools in particular, I would say it wildly depends in what capacity the employees were functioning. Were they a math teacher, a switch board operator, a financial advisor, or a religious education teacher? The former three positions should not present a problem for those not living every jot of the Church’s teachings. The latter, though, most certainly would, and I believe the schools should reserve the right to terminate the contracts if the religious education teacher is found to be living in a way contrary to what they are supposed to be teaching impressionable students. This is true of any religion aside from Christianity as well. Obviously, I believe this should be applied with caution and compassion, and only on a case-by-case basis.

In essence, I believe in a kind of “live and let live” approach, trying hard to walk the tight-rope of respecting each other’s freedom and boundaries. Perhaps we need, more than anything, to get more comfortable with the presence of the other, as opposed to using the worn talking point, “If you don’t believe 100% what I believe about this issue, you’re part of the problem.” Of course, it’s a bit self-evident, in that the “problem” being addressed is the difference of opinion to which both sides contribute. I firmly believe we must be willing to engage in a genuine discourse as opposed to using it as a passive-aggressive ploy. Bishop Robert Barron managed to achieve this when being interviewed by a gay married talk show host, in which both parties managed to carry on the discussion with admirable honestly while never losing a sense of mutual decency and respect.

I think our dualist “us” vs. “them” mindset struggles to utilize non-dualist solutions, holding shadows to the light and allowing contradictions to be what they are while rejoining the divided factions on a deeper level of shared personhood and an acknowledgement of free will. I could think of so many situations where this method could be used in our increasingly gridlocked society. Perhaps winning it all is not the most important thing; it’s being mature enough to strive for solutions that make co-existence and a better future for all possible.

I sometimes fear our society has begun to put an unhealthy emphasis on sexual attraction, or lack thereof, as being the defining factor of personal identity. This, in part, is simply a pendulum swing after centuries of sexual strictness, and mistreatment of those deemed deviant. However, labels for our psycho-sexual radar are only a fraction of all the functions which constitute human life and which we hold in common. Making it overly fashionable for increasingly younger people to ground themselves according to what often amounts to a flavor of sexual fantasies or gender tropes, as demonstrated in plenty of online literature, may not entirely beneficial. There are, in many ways, bigger fish to fry.

But there is another side of the coin to consider. The fact is that we Christians have gained something of an abysmal reputation for dealing with two things: Non-Christian Religions and the LGBTQ Community. Frankly, if our intent was to drive these people as far away from us as possible, we might get an A+, painting them as the devil incarnate, and telling them that’s where they’re headed, without giving them as much of a chance to get a word in edgewise to explain what they actually believe and how they actually live. It’s very easy to dehumanize what you don’t know, or won’t allow yourself to know. It’s time to do some learning, not in a “know your enemy” kind of way, but in a “know your neighbor” kind of way.

Whatever we do, we mustn’t stay trapped in our own little bubble. Maybe a good way to get rid of the internal panic attack is to spend some time with the people we may view as “other”. It’s about sharing life, the human experience, the opening of the inner person. If you can’t do this in person, then at least think about broadening your experiences online by visiting the websites, social media pages, and YouTube channels of people outside our traditional “comfort zone.”  You do not have to agree with everything, but still leave yourself open to respectfully processing differences and then finding all sorts of common ground you may not have known existed. Research, observe, interact. That way, when the time comes to dialogue about differences, the conversations should be built on the foundation of appreciation as opposed to apprehension.

One of the YouTube channels I have followed in the past is called “Team2Moms.” Quite simply, it follows the lives and adventures of a bi-racial Lesbian couple, Denise and Ebony, and their three children, a little girl from Ebony and twin little boys from Denise. Do I agree with every topic presented on their channel, you ask? That’s really not the point. I don’t have to agree with their every aspect of their worldview or lifestyle choice to be able to appreciate the basic humanness of it all. No matter what I think of the rubrics, or the Catholic ideal for marriage, I can all the same appreciate emotional love and devotion found between persons who form a family unit and share their lives together.

I can just as much enjoy following them to the shopping mall, and to movie night, and to a water park, and to a Chinese buffet, and to YouTube conventions, to birthdays and weddings and friend’s houses and Christmas mornings and Halloweens and house decorating exercise work-outs and an instructional on the need to hug more. And you know what? Half the time I want to tag along. Whatever disagreements we may have, humanly, we are all one in those simple moments of exchange, and we share this common earth and life and capacity and, dare I say, this wonderful transference of grace that is a free gift and touches any open to it.

I cannot conclude this reflection without noting the impact friends from the LGBT community have made on me. I don’t mean it as a throw-away line. It is their presence in my life which has helped me to become more nuanced in my understanding on their perspective. It is their kindness and creativity and passion and individual uniqueness, that makes me all the more sure that what we hold in common far outweighs where we differ. There is a deeper well to be drawn from, and our wide-ranging conversations alone can attest to this. I believe we are all children of God, loved into existence in order to shine our light and become one with each other. That, in the end, transcends any grouping or label.

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