There’s no ‘right way’ to be a queer person of faith
Coming out as LGBTQ+ can be difficult for many religious people. In fact, Stonewall research shows that a third of lesbian, gay and bi people of faith aren’t open with anyone in their faith community about their sexual orientation. This figure rises to one in four among trans people.
This is often rooted in the false belief that a religious and LGBTQ+ identities are mutually exclusive. With religion often historically being used as a means of persecuting queer people, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community’s wariness of faith is not ill-founded. But many religious groups have shown progress in their attitudes towards queerness: for example, one study found that the path towards acceptance among various Christian groups in the UK has largely mirrored that of non-religious people between 1983-2013.
Exposed to homophobia as a teenager, Amardeep, 27, struggled to reconcile their beliefs as a Sikh with their queer identity. They point to the double standards within the Sikh community and the argument against allowing queer people to marry within the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. “Often people say no, because they say queer people have a ‘deviant lifestyle’, or that sex is only for the purpose of procreation,” they explain. “But a lot of the heterosexual people who [can] get married in the gurdwara will drink, they will have had casual sex, they will have [recreational] sex in their marriage.”
As Amardeep grew up, they learnt that an open-minded, less orthodox approach to faith helped them find greater empowerment in their identity as a whole. With queerness still largely taboo, they decided to take advantage of their “non-respectable” status in their interpretation of scripture.
Hein, 24, a Burmese Buddhist, also grappled with homophobia in religious settings in his youth. Notably, he faced hurtful accusations that he had accrued bad karma in his past lives leading to him being reincarnated as a a gay man. Despite the trauma from his experiences, Hein recently decided to reconnect with his faith since moving to London and finding more openness from religious authorities.
He says that opening up about his sexuality in a religious setting was freeing. “I decided to go to a monastery and be open about my sexuality to the monks,” he says. While there, to his surprise, he found a connection with one of the monks. “He’s a Burmese Buddhist, and it’s been going well. He completely accepted [my identity]. He didn’t say anything about bad karma or that it’s a negative thing.”
Hein stresses that reconnecting with religion is still an ongoing process. “For me, it’s still hard to approach temples and monasteries because I hate, hate, hate having to explain my sexuality to a monk. But in a temple, all you have to do to take part is pray to Buddha and that’s it.”
“The relationship between my faith and I is very personal and no one has the power to take that away from me” – Furgie
Furgie, 29, is a non-binary Muslim, and like Hein, they believe that embracing faith on your own terms can be freeing. When they faced faith-based homophobia, they found themselves fielding accusations that they didn’t belong in the Muslim community, should stop labelling themselves as Muslim and repent. “It made me want to investigate what is the truth for myself, and what I learned really helped me get closer to my faith,” they say. “The relationship between my faith and I is very personal and no one has the power to take that away from me.”
Unlike Furgie, Meriem, 23, still identifies as a relatively orthodox Muslim. She recently came out as bisexual to her religious community, and has been touched by their efforts to understand and accept her identity.
“Everything is so black and white in our world right now [...] but being Irish and Egyptian, there were always two contrasting opinions in my house at all times,” she says. “I think it’s a really big step for someone who’s been so wired to believe that [being queer] is the biggest sin that you can commit to be on this path of learning. I think these are all really good steps in the right direction, and not all of us start from the same starting point. So for me, personally, it was massive, and I was really grateful to see those changes, even if, to someone else, those changes are really minor.”
However, Furgie disagrees and insists that acceptance isn’t enough. “Some of my religious friends tolerate my identity, but they don’t accept it. They use the justification that they are taught from religion not to judge, but to me, tolerating someone and accepting someone are two very different things,” they say. “I definitely feel a lot of religious folks aren’t allies. They tolerate our existence as LGBTQIA+ folks, but they wouldn’t fight hand in hand with us for our rights and our humanity.”
Others also find it hard to be so open about their sexuality. Merab, 23, a Pakistani Christian, has chosen to not tell her religious community about her bisexuality yet due to the threat of homophobia. Deciding to identify openly as religious and LGBTQ+ can be difficult: “historically, Christianity has excluded the LGBTQ+ community,” Merab says, and there are myriad connections between religion and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.
However, that’s not to say that these identities can’t co-exist. “The Church has evolved as an institution and I want those who are LGBTQ+ to know that they are welcome in the Church and that Christianity is a faith that loves and accepts everybody,” Merab adds. “This hasn’t changed my own view of my faith. I believe that my religion does not allow for homophobia because Jesus loves everyone and we were all made in His image.”
To all of these young people, faith is a highly personal experience. There’s evidently no ‘right’ way to be queer and religious. But faced with accusations from both within their religious communities and the wider LGBTQ+ community that religion and queerness are mutually exclusive, they all stress the importance of cultivating links with their religious roots, in spite of – and sometimes even because of – the homophobia which often runs deep in their communities.
To Amardeep, the decision to remain religious is even more than just one of faith; as difficult as the journey may be, remaining openly, confidently Sikh is an act of defiance. “Criticism of religious LGBTQ+ people doesn’t recognise the fact that actually, for a lot of us who engage with our faith, it’s not just the spiritual path that we’re engaged on. It’s actually a political path as well,” they say. “Carving space within the spiritual community, for people who have traditionally been outcast, or shamed, or born the brunt of violence, is as much a political action as it is a spiritual action.”
“Remaining and clinging to those communities, refusing to let them go, having those awful, horrendous conversations, doing that work and being visible within them – that’s what we can do for young queer kids that are growing up in our own communities,” they continue. “And that’s really important politically – even if you think God is bullshit.”