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?

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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.

Sr. Jeannine Gramick Asks, “What Can We Do to Lessen Anti-LGBT Prejudice?”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) earlier this month with a reflection on her ministry in an international context.

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IDAHOBIT poster from Italy

Writing for The National Catholic Reporter’s “Global Sisters Report, Gramick suggested, “perhaps the tide is turning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” Gramick wrote:

 

“The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia is particularly strong in Europe and Latin America, where it is commemorated with public events such as marches, parades and festivals. In Cuba, Mariela Castro [niece of Fidel Castro] has led massive street parades on May 17 for the past three years. The day can also include arts and culture-based events, such as a music festival called “Love Music – Hate Homophobia” in Bangladesh. Albanian activists arrange an annual bike ride through the streets of the capital on May 17.”

She also saw hope in the number of religious services held to mark IDAHOBIT, including several Catholic vigils. You can find out more information about these services by clicking here.

Still, while the tide may be turning in favor of LGBT equality, it has definitely not turned fully. IDAHOBIT celebrates the day–May 17, 1990–when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality as a mental illness. But in today’s world, Gramick explained, “the erroneous diagnosis of mental disorder persists, causing much fear and confusion about lesbian and gay people, with often tragic results.” IDAHOBIT then is not only a celebration of the past but a time for action towards a more just future, especially against transphobia.

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Sr. Jeannine Gramick, center, with Polish LGBT activists and journalists

To highlight the “already/not yet” reality of LGBT rights today, Sr. Gramick discussed her trip to Poland at the end of 2016. (You can read more details about the trip by clicking here.) She struck a hopeful note, despite the country’s strong opposition to LGBT issues from Catholic leaders and many politicians:

“I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who ‘rub me the wrong way’ and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.”

Gramick asked, “What can we do to lessen the homophobia and transphobia that engulfs those who are different?” She concluded:

“In my decades of ministry with LGBT people, I continue to be astounded and inspired by the example of those who remain in a church that has so miserably failed to nourish their faith life. In a spirit of non-violence, these LGBT Christian groups are now calling us to stand with them. We may not understand different sexual orientations or gender identities, but we do believe that each person should be treated with dignity and respect because each of us has been made in the image and likeness of God.”

Though IDAHOBIT has come and gone, the need to struggle against prejudices and biases that denigrate another person’s dignity or their love is always present.

How would you answer Sr. Jeannine’s question above? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

 

 

 

SYMPOSIUM: Frank Mugisha: Stand Up, Speak Out for Global LGBT Human Rights

When I had the honor to introduce Dr. Frank Mugisha at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium a few weeks ago, I described him as a “prophet in our midst.” Why this is the case came through in his address on criminalization laws and the LGBT experience in Uganda, according to the National Catholic Reporter:

“Frank Mugisha still thinks twice before going down certain streets, into malls or nightclubs in his native Kampala, Uganda. Mugisha lives as an openly gay man in a country whose Parliament tried in 2009 to introduce a bill seeking the death penalty for homosexual acts. The bill has cost some Ugandans their life and has made many live in fear, not show up for work, and hide from family and friends. . .”

Frank MugishaThese threats, however, have not altered Mugisha’s determination to see LGBT rights expanded in Uganda and worldwide. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and winner of several other prominent human rights awards, Mugisha leads Sexual Minorities Uganda, the nation’s leading LGBT rights organization.

Mugisha shared with Symposium participants how much Uganda’s LGBT community appreciated Pope Francis’ message of love for all people during his 2015 visit to several African nations. Mugisha had contacted the Vatican to ask for a meeting with the pontiff when he visited the country.  He said an assistant to Francis told Mugisha that a visit would not be possible, but that the pope planned to make clear to Uganda’s religious and political leaders that anti-gay rhetoric is unacceptable.

Though he did not speak publicly on LGBT issues, the pope’s message of love nonetheless challenged Catholics in a nation where the church remains both powerful and quite homophobic. Some church officials are still organizing to bring back the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Act.  He told The National Catholic Reporter that a Ugandan prelate’s new book argues transgender people can be changed. But while Pope Francis visited, Ugandan church leaders remained quiet on the subject.

Mugisha shared how dangerous it still is to be an LGBT person in Uganda, saying, “We live every day in fear.” Last fall, he was arrested along with other people celebrating Pride, about which he explained, “We were put in police custody. Tortured. Forced to bathe in filthy water.”

Asked during a question and answer period how he sustains himself with prayer, Mugisha, a Catholic, replied, “Before I go to bed, I pray about things I care about. I ask God for help. I ask God to listen.”

Mugisha concluded with an exhortation to Symposium participants, encouraging them to be in contact with local solidarity groups as the best means of ensuring global LGBT human rights.  He stated:

“I encourage you to think of any way you can support an LGBT person. Take it personally. Stand up. Speak out.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 25, 2017

 

Former Vice President Joe Biden Calls for Greater Global LGBT Solidarity

Marking yesterday’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, former Vice President Joe Biden called for people in the U.S. to be in greater solidarity with LGBT people around the world.

Biden - Human DignityBiden, who is Catholic, wrote in the Washington Post that his father instilled in him a belief that “everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” He continued:

“It’s a simple but powerful notion that lies at the heart of our identity as Americans. It is a truth that continues to drive me today, particularly when it comes to full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . .

“Progress doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because good people come together and demand change. And any person of conscience, regardless of their religious or partisan beliefs, should be able to agree: Violence against any person, in any form, is intolerable. No one should be killed, tortured, assaulted or harassed because of who they are.”

Biden noted the many advances in LGBT rights in recent years, but he pointed out how much work remains when LGBT people are being discriminated against, tortured, and even killed in places like Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, and Uganda. Biden notably rejected the use of religion to justify such human rights violations:

“This offensive argument ignores the fundamental truth that LGBT rights are human rights. Prejudice is prejudice; inhumanity is inhumanity. Using religion or culture to license discrimination and demonizing LGBT individuals to score political points are no more justifiable around the world than they are here at home.”

Biden - Work to DoBiden concluded with an appeal to fellow Americans to enact greater solidarity with LGBT communities worldwide through government policy, business partnerships, and personal action:

“In the face of such atrocities, it is the responsibility of every person to speak out. . .Progress is possible. But we cannot wait, we cannot stand by. . .

“Together, we will work to defend and advance the human rights of all people, and we will not rest until equality, at home and around the world, is fully realized. Until then, to all those suffering discrimination and violence simply because of who they are or whom they love, know this: The American people are on your side.”

 As Vice President, he was a noted advocate for LGBT equality who once said trans rights were “the civil rights issue of our time.”  He vocally supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he is credited with moving former President Barack Obama to support marriage equality. Biden even officiated at a staffer’s same-gender wedding in the vice presidential residence, despite some bishops’ criticism. Biden has said that the criteria for marriage he used was, “Who do you love?

It is a hopeful sign that the former vice president, through the Biden Foundation, is still prioritizing global LGBT rights, growing his profile as one of the nation’s most high-profile Catholic advocates for equality.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 18, 2017

 

Catholic Parishes Hold IDAHOBIT Prayer Vigils to Oppose Anti-LGBT Actions

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia  (IDAHOBIT). While this commemoration is not widely marked here in the United States,  in other nations, particularly in Europe, it is an important time to oppose prejudice and discrimination.

An IDAHOBIT prayer vigil held in Milan, Italy, May 12, 2017

Catholic participation in IDAHOBIT has grown over the past few years.  According to Progetto Gionata, an Italian LGBT Christian group, reports that this year prayer vigils marking the occasion (over the course of a week) will be held in Catholic churches in seven Italian cities and one in Spain.  The cities and churches are:

Italy

  • Milan: Santa Maria della Passione
  • Reggio Emilia:  Regina Pacis
  • Pistoia:  Santa Maria Maggiore di Vicofara a Pistoia
  • Catania:  SS. Crocifisso della Buona Morte
  • Florence:  Madonna della Tosse
  • Bologna:  San Bartolomeo della Beverara
  • Genoa:  San Pietro in Banchi

Spain

  • Seville:  San Pedro de Alcántara

Most notably on this list are the additions of Genoa and Palermo, two places where bishops put a stop to such prayer vigils in previous years.  Notably, the Archdiocese of Palermo has an archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, appointed in 2015 by Pope Francis.

Progetto Gionata also reports that at least in one location, a high-ranking diocesan official will lead the prayer vigil:

This is not the only news for this year, for the first time religious orders and Catholic associations will also publicly take part in the vigils. In Genoa the vigil will not only be hosted by a parish but, last minute changes notwithstanding, the general vicar for the dioceses Nicolò Anselmi will participate. “I think this is the most visible sign of how the Church is beginning to really ask itself the questions brought forth by the Synod in regards to providing pastoral welcoming for LGBT people and their families” says Innocenzo Pontillo, from Progetto Gionata.

Last month, at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” participants heard Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, speak about how homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia translate in his country into oppression and violence.   After his talk, New Ways Ministry asked symposium participants if they would pose for a photo that would be used on IDAHOBIT to show over 300 U.S. Catholics who oppose such prejudice and discrimination.  Here it is:

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Catholic doctrine is so clear in opposing harmful attitudes and actions based in phobic reactions to people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  Catholic parishes around the world should be opening their doors on this day to sponsor prayer vigils to counter such destructive practices.  The growing number of parishes, including those listed above, are great pioneers in this movement.

It may be too late to organize and IDAHOBIT action for this year.  But one thing you can do is make a pledge that you will work to get your  Catholic parish, school, or other institution, to host a prayer vigil on May 17, 2018.  It’s not too early to start now!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 17, 2017

London’s Catholic LGBT Ministry Rallies Around Ugandan Exile

In what is a strong display of Catholic advocacy for the human rights of gay people, the members of LGBT Catholics Westminster have rallied around a gay Ugandan who worships with them to prevent him from being deported to his native land where homosexuality is criminalized.

LGBT Catholics Westminster embers at London Pride.

London’s Tablet reported that the man “faces a very high risk of being killed if he is forced to return to the place of his birth.”  LGBT Catholics Westminster is the official diocesan pastoral ministry in London, approved by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Westminster Diocese.

The Tablet provided background about the man at the center of this situation:

“Godfrey Kawalya, a gay Ugandan refugee, LGBT campaigner and a member of LGBT Catholics Westminster, has been living in Britain since 2002. In Uganda, where same sex acts are illegal and punishable by life imprisonment, he says he was expelled from secondary school, sacked from his job and rejected by his family for being gay. He was also an active member of the political opposition to the current president, Yoweri Museveni.

“After he fled from Kampala to rebel-held territories in Northern Uganda, Kawalya said he was attacked and robbed, and a friend who sheltered him was killed. He escaped to Kenya with the help of some nuns and eventually made his way to England.

“In August 2015 the Home Office refused his claim for asylum on the grounds that they did not believe he was gay and because he didn’t disclose his sexuality when he first arrived. ‘I was fearful, it wasn’t easy. I don’t know why they don’t believe me’, Mr Kawalya told The Tablet.

“Several appeals have failed and Mr Kawalya has one final chance to appeal by supplying new evidence to support his case by 17 May.”

LGBT Catholics Westminster has organized a petition for UK citizens to sign, asking the British government to grant Kawalya asylum.  Several Catholic leaders have already signed the petition, including  Vincent Manning, chair of Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support, Ged Clapson, Jesuit Communications Officer in Britain, and Fr. Tony Nye, a pastor at Farm Street Jesuit Church in Mayfair, London, which hosts the LGBT Catholics Westminster organization.

Martin Pendergast, a leader in the LGBT Catholics group said of Kawalya’s case that “even if he were not (gay), the law takes the view that refugees who are in danger of death or persecution because they are perceived to be gay in their home country must be granted asylum.”

For more information about LGBT Catholics Westminster or to learn how to sign the petition if you are a UK citizen, visit www.lgbtcatholicswestminster.org or email lgbtcatholicswesminster@gmail.com.

When people speak about appropriate Catholic pastoral ministry for LGBT people, I can think of no better example than this story of Catholics using church teaching condemning discrimination against LGBT people to help save a person’s life.

In less than two weeks, Frank Mugisha, the head of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the leading LGBT advocacy organization in that country, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 19, 2017

 

Australian Priest’s Campaign Against ‘Gay Panic’ Defense Reaches Parliament

An Australian Catholic priest’s long campaign to end his “gay panic” defense in his state of Queensland may finally be successful.  Just two days ago, Attorney General Yvette D’Ath introduced the bill to Parliament, the end of years of lobbying by Fr. Paul Kelly.

The “gay panic” defense has been allowed in murder cases where the accused claims he did not have control of his mind because of being provoked by what is perceived as a homosexual advance towards him.   The defense allows for charges to be lowered from murder to manslaughter, thus avoiding a possible life sentence.

Fr. Paul Kelly delivers his petition signatures to Queensland government offices.

Fr. Kelly, who is pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Maryborough, 330 kms north of Brisbane, began the campaign after a heterosexual man was beaten to death in the parish yard in 2008 by two men who thought he was making an advance toward them.  The priest began a change.org petition which has collected  over 290,000 signatures.  Through his efforts, he persuaded politicians of all political stripes to work to eradicate this defense from law.

The Guardian reported on Kelly’s reaction to the bill finally being introduced.  The priest stated:

“It’s been a massive effort, unfortunately. At one point both sides [of politics] were sort of saying, aw no, the law didn’t exist and doesn’t need changing – but suddenly everyone’s saying it is a problem and does need changing, so that’s good to hear.

“This is as far as we’ve ever gotten and I’m fairly confident it will [pass].”

Kelly had used even stronger language in his change.org petition:

“I’ve made it my mission to see this revolting law abolished – it belongs in the dark ages. I have no words to describe how offensive, harmful and dangerous it is that two of our governments uphold that a person can be panicked enough by gay people to justify murder. The common law can really be only over-ridden in this respect by explicit legal ammendments to the Code of Criminal law covering murder and the partial defence of Provocation. Gay panic will continue to be a part of the law of these states until expressly excluded.  I am also concerned that even when cases are not formally and specifically pleading the ‘gay panic’ defense, the mere bringing in of suggestions that the victim made a non-violent homosexual advance, (whether true or not), poisons the waters and taps into deep-seated homophobia and bigotry and ought not be brought up at all in any way in the hearing of a jury. The victim is not on trial here.”

Kelly also reported that when he started the petition, he only expected about 100 to sign it.  The overwhelming response delivers a strong message, he said:

“When it took off I hadn’t seen anything like it and it really opened my eyes the power of the community. But in some ways it was a no-brainer. The fact it’s taken so long sends a message. But that this law’s being changed now sends another message that the law is the same for everybody. It’s not going to give certain members of the community less protection from violence.”

You can watch a video clip of Fr. Kelly delivering his petition signatures by clicking here. A parliamentary committee will report on the bill by February 21, 2017, reported The Brisbane Times. 

While it is gratifying that it looks likely that this archaic law will soon be abolished,  it is even more gratifying that a Catholic priest has led the campaign.  Fr. Kelly is a shining example of how the Church’s teaching on the defense of human rights for LGBT people can be applied to concrete political and legal situations.  To use Fr. Kelly’s own words, there are many similar “no brainers” for Catholic leaders to follow his example. Decriminalizing sexual orientation and gender identity are one case.  Pushing for stronger anti-bullying programs is another.  And speaking out forcefully when violence against LGBT people occurs is still another.

Our church needs more leaders like Fr. Paul Kelly.

For previous Bondings 2.0 posts about Fr. Kelly’s campaign, click here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2016