Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Religious roles in identification

Labels and their perpetuations are a constant theme that should continue to be looked at through the lens of equality, social justice and advocacy. The perceived definition of a person or their identification appears to get in the way of resource allocation and coping mechanisms.

Some of those labels are perpetuated in religion institutions. As discussed in previous writings, the idea of dual stigma is one that needs specific attention because not only are queer people facing marginalization from the hetero world, a queer religious person is further seen as somewhat atypical and therefore are often silenced and further ostracized. Those who are already marginalized in society, such as the black community, may be less inclined to accept those who are queer because many may feel they have to fight off the white majority by presenting a positive and normative front (which is defined and perpetuated by heterosexual white men). And if the powers-that-be perpetuate a world where heterosexuality is the norm (for what ever reason: economic, religious, etc), making the act of silencing and ostracization a normative action against LGBT individuals, means that the hetero status quo is not disrupted. Melendez and LaSala state the silencing as a “purposeful attempt to reduce contact based on the knowledge that when people have personal contact with those from other races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations, their prejudices diminish and their tolerance increases,” as Melendez and LaSala state.

That being said, one of the few places one can feel like themselves may be inside of a building of worship – a place where they feel accepted as humans and not subjected to the isms that individuals face in daily life. That sentiment unfortunately is not true for those identifying as LGBT.

Robert Miller’s article, “Legacy Denied: African American Gay Men, AIDS, and the Black Church,” points out the hole left not only because one is shunned, but also because they now do not have a place to form spiritual relationships. As a person who is not religious, and not theologically educated, the idea of ostracizing a person is strange to me because the underlying message of religion seems to often circle around the idea of being good, fair and just humans who strive to live together in one world. Miller’s article states that many believers and participants of religious sects interpret certain scripture passages as messages that back up homophobia.

What is upsetting is that research shows that “religious participantion offers additional benefits for most members [such as] positive health benefits, emotional and psychological support during crisis moments, and increased life satisfaction,” yet people can not participate because being gay casts them aside. More, Millar points out that religious centers are often like family, and just imaging losing those closest to an individual based on their sexual orientation is hard to swallow. That being said, clergy can not take coping mechanisms and resiliency away from people.

For example, some folks may not attend the physical church, but still find ways to incorporate god in to their lives by using a different lens to interpret the biblical words (there are, apparently, no specific lines in the bible saying that being gay is wrong, but it has been interpreted as such in many churches). Miller writes, “over time an increasing number left their churches; they felt capable of leaving because they believed the homophobic sermons inaccurately described how god felt about them.” The torah’s words are more explicit in that they clearly denounce gay men: Naomi Grossman’s article, “The Gay Orthodox Underground” points to Jewish texts that state, “if a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.”

Still, people are moving away from the ostricization by joining support networks and altering from a sin, to seeing gayness as a “test from god,” as stated in Grossman’s article: “Just as there are people born with disabilities and disadvantages, and these are all ordained by god to deal with and overcome, homosexuality is no different.”

The ability of people to willingly alter their faith’s foundation to incorporate other viewpoints is extremely positive, and focuses on an area of queer life that is often undercut by the multitude of negative issues: LGBT individuals can use the strength perspective to maneuver through life. Moreover, social workers, or others who are in helping professions, can use these strengths to affirm LGBT communities.

However, one can only really highlight strengths if they have a historical understanding of the ways ideals such as religion has created and perpetuated certain biases and prejudices in social and legal arenas. Another way social workers, and the like, can positively guide marginalized individuals is by eliciting the strengths of collateral contacts, such as the parents of the gay men highlighted in Michelle Lee and Robert Lee’s research article, “The Voices of Accepting and Supportive Parents of gay Sons: Towards an Ecosystems strengths Model.”

A sense of community and family, however defined, seems to be an integral part self appreciation and sound mental and physical health among LGBT individuals. In the Lee and Lee article, parents of men who came out seem to have recognized the importance of this, and have accepted their children. For both the gay men and the parents, being resilient in the face of a hetero society (that typically marginalizes queer people) serves as a model for future individuals who will come out at some point. It may also serve as a model of family structure normalcy, which breaks down the stereotype that queer people can not have positive and healthy family relationships. One parent in the Lee and Lee article pointed out the ways society have marginalized their children, and how it hurts to know that a family member could ever be in pain because of ostracization: “Quite honestly, this isn’t something you would wish for one your children. I think it was a very lonely place for him to be and for him to worry about having to hide such a basic part of himself. It makes me sad to think about all of those years that he went through that.” And while some of the parents interviewed had difficulty coming to terms with having a queer child, not letting their own struggles get in the way of the struggle their child was going through.

In fact, most of the parents went beyond just making their own child comfortable; according to the article, they also wrote letters to the editors, signed petitions against inclusive legislation, and the like, to ensure that other parent’s children did not suffer. Cathy Resmer writes about another parent who helped her child come out in her newspaper article “From Daughter to Son.” Again, we see a mother who as a “fiercely protective and supportive” advocate for trans people lobbied for hormones, surgeries, inclusion in the local school, in addition to accompanying him to support groups, and defending him in “a world where his unconventional identity puts him at the mercy of other’s prejudice.”

The realization that some parents were so supportive that they step way beyond a head nod of approval makes me somewhat jealous, as I do not believe that my mother went straight to the PFLAG web site and made a donation. My queer friends’ parents mirrored my own; they are accepting but not necessarily proactive. Still, as Lee and Lee point out, having any acceptance has enabled my relationship with my mom to be strong because I know that not only am I faced with a struggle in a heteronomative world, she must also struggle each time a person asks her when her middle child is going to get married to a special man and have children. Knowing that she has to pause and decide how to answer makes me cognizant of her role in the LGBT community.

Again, as noted in the beginning of this post, if people stop at labels, then they may be less inclined to break away from the misconceptions that come along with lumping all people under any identifying umbrella; this goes for LGBT individuals, as well as society at large.