Displacement, Solidarity, Home: Reflections from the Symposium

Today’s post is from Alfred Pang, a doctoral candidate in Theology and Education at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, who offers a reflection based on his experiences at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium this past April.

solidarity20hands201000x560“What has been your experience growing up as an LGBT person?” This question was posed to participants at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium during the “Youth, Young Adult Ministry and LGBT Questions focus session led by Dr. Michael Maher. The purpose of his question was to draw out generational differences in perception around being an LGBT person in the U.S.

Being Singaporean Chinese, I was naturally confounded by such a question premised on a cultural and political history which I did not share growing up. The following thoughts fleeted through my mind: What should I share? Where do I find my place at this conversation table? How will my voice be received?

alfred-pang
Alfred Pang

I was also wrestling with a deeper question: When and where did my personal history as a Catholic gay man begin? On the one hand, in coming out more publicly in Boston, I experienced a rebirth of myself. On the other hand, within this space of liberal American Catholicism that has been instrumental in helping me integrate my faith and sexuality, I found myself confronted by a felt-sense of displacement both ethnically and nationally.

Remaining with the weight of my intersectional identities, I finally spoke, “I come from Singapore, and my earliest image of a gay man while I was growing up had been a Caucasian white man. I grew up in a culture of silence around my sexuality as a way to preserve family harmony, which is a value for me. I do not identify fully with the particular history of sexual minorities in the U.S.,  but I also find myself not knowing a lot about the collective experience of LGBT persons in my country, Singapore.”

It was this sense of being an international/cultural ‘other’ that led me to my next symposium focus session, this one led by Dr. Elsie Miranda on “Hispanic Catholic Culture and LGBT Issues.” Dr. Miranda made a point which resonated immediately with me: coming out to our gender and sexual identities is a privilege. I understand this to mean that the conditions allowing for the public visibility of LGBT people are not possible for all in all cultural contexts. This is due to the complexity of gender and sexuality intersecting with race, culture, class, religion, and nationality , all of which can oppress and privilege at the same time.

This complexity was attested to in Dr. Frank Mugisha’s keynote address on the final day of the symposium. Carrying a gentle presence, Dr. Mugisha, a Ugandan gay Catholic and an LGBT rights advocate, spoke firmly and plainly against the anti-gay laws in his country. He criticized, too, the complicity of some African Catholic bishops in criminalizing homosexuality.  Mugisha had highlighted the cultural differences of gay people in the U.S. and Uganda when he wrote in a The New York Times  op-ed essay“The right to marry whom we love is far from our minds. Across Africa, the ‘gay rights’ we are fighting for are more stark — the right to life itself.”

Dr. Mugisha has consistently criticized the extreme religious rhetoric around sexuality American Evangelical Christians export to Africa. Mugisha noted that homophobia, not homosexuality, is the Western import in Africa, and that this fear is realized in violent preaching against same-gender relations.

Dr. Mugisha’s testimony illustrated the intricacy of intersectionality in the struggle for LGBT rights as human rights. Yet, our ability to transform situations for justice is not hampered by these complexities. Listening to Dr. Mugisha reminded me of what education theorist Paulo Freire once wrote: “We are transformative beings and not beings for accommodation.”[1]

Dr. Mugisha’s story connected me back to the situation in Singapore, where sex between consenting adult men is still criminalized under Section 377A of the Penal Code. Although this law is not strictly enforced, it stands as a sign of conditional tolerance for LGBT persons. The threat of imprisonment is real, which in turn feeds their invisibility as a community. Listening to the daunting and risky work of Dr. Mugisha has made me recognize the privilege of being ‘out’ here publicly and freely in Boston. Such privilege is not owed to me, but built on the backs of people who, across time and place, have put their lives on the line to speak the truth of our sexual lives as integral to the one humanity created in God’s loving image and likeness.

Where does this leave me as a gay Catholic Singaporean living in the U.S.? Standing in the borderland of the local and global, I wrestle to find a sense of home. Yet, perhaps this sense of homelessness is part of witnessing to global solidarity.  As Richard Giannone writes in his memoir Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire, “Home – come to think of it – is never stationary. Home gathers together breathing spaces and temporary havens on the horizon for me to tiptoe toward or lunge beyond to the peaceful Zion of the heart.”[2]

“What has been your experience growing up as an LGBT person?” This question lingers on, and the witness of Dr. Mugisha has helped me make sense of the displacement with which I wrestled throughout the symposium. I hear in this question now the challenge of standing in global solidarity with my LGBT siblings-in-Christ. It seems to me that in my felt-sense of dislocation both ethnically and nationally, I am also invited to remain at the periphery of the local and global, at the cross-cultural borderland of intersectional identities.

Ultimately, I have been challenged to let go of the “border controls” around my heart that make it difficult for me to be at home with myself and others in the world.

The symposium, whose title included the phrase “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss” reminded me that this kiss happens when I embrace God’s unconditional love, widening the geography of my heart, stretching its contours to keep receiving and walking with my LGBT siblings-in-Christ as a pilgrim church. Justice and mercy shall meet in our global advocacy for LGBT rights, in the perseverance to seek that most fundamentally human right to life. Where justice and mercy shall meet is in the hope that recognizes the fierce grasp of God’s love that never lets us go, a sheltering presence in which we find a home.

Alfred Pang, June 10, 2017

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, trans. Donaldo Macedo and Alexandre Olivera (New York: Continuum, 1998), 36.

[2] Richard Giannone, Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 168.

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