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.

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

 

U.S. Bishops Back “Inclusion Act,” Which Seeks to Exclude LGBT Adoptive Parents

Attempting to redefine what inclusion means, the U.S. bishops endorsed the U.S. House of Representatives’ “Inclusion Act,” which aims to protect social services agencies who exclude same-gender couples from being foster or adoptive parents. Crux reported:

“Three bishops, in a joint letter to the measure’s sponsor, voiced their support of the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would permit social service agencies to refuse on religious grounds to provide adoption or foster services for households headed by same-sex couples.”

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USCCB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The three church leaders behind the letter–Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore;  and Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska–are the respective chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Religious Liberty;and the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

Bishops claim the Act, if passed, would advance religious liberty by ending “unjust discrimination” against those providers who deny services to people based on the agency’s religious and moral beliefs. The bishops also claimed:

“‘Women and men who want to place their children for adoption ought to be able to choose from a diversity of adoption agencies, including those that share the parents’ religious beliefs and moral convictions.'”

Controversies about adoption rights have increased in the last decade as more jurisdictions legalize same-gender couples’ rights to marriage or civil unions. In the U.S., Catholic Charities and other church-related agencies have stopped providing adoption services in Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia because as government-funded organizations they could not exclude LGBT clients.

Church institutions elsewhere have followed a similar pattern despite more supportive stances held by Catholics in the pews. The Missionary Sisters of Charity, the community which Mother Teresa founded, stopped facilitating adoptions in 2015 because they feared single gay people would become parents. Scotland’s St. Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society successfully attained the right to discriminate against LGBT clients. And, according to an unconfirmed report from one of Malta’s bishops, Pope Francis was “shocked” in 2014 to find out that same-gender couples could be granted adoption rights in the island nation.

[Editor’s note: a follow-up post on Bondings 2.0 later this week will dig deeper into the intricacies in these issues by exploring a story from Australia about Catholic parents, LGBT rights, and adoption.]

Given the U.S. political environment, including Judge Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court, it is uncertain whether the so-called Inclusion Act will succeed. But even if the legislation fails, there is a larger issue for Catholics at play. We must not allow the rich concept of inclusion, a defining value of Jesus’ ministry, to be hijacked by church officials for their LGBT-negative agenda.

Real inclusion, in the law and in the church, would recognize that the greater good is for children to be in loving homes, and for families to be strengthened by the protections and assistance which the State can offer. Those ideals are deeply rooted in the Catholic social tradition. It is from these places from which we should be the basis of Catholic adoption policy.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 18, 2017

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. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

For Transgender Day of Visibility: How Catholic Tradition Can Stop Trans Murders

Today is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to raise awareness about trans people’s accomplishments and fight back against transphobia. But amid celebrations is the sad reality that hate crime-related killings against transgender people in El Salvador are on the rise. Disturbingly, LGBT activists have claimed the Catholic Church in that country, and elsewhere in Latin America, contributes to this tragedy. But the people of God in that country can choose another path.

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Trans advocates marching through San Salvador on International Women’s Day.

In February, Reuters reported, three trans people were murdered in just the town of San Juan Talpa, bringing the total number of trans people murdered in 2017 up to seven. Of one murder, the news service reported:

“The town’s latest victim was Elizabeth Castillo, a transgender woman, who police say was kidnapped in February after attending the funeral of two transgender women. Her body, showing signs of torture, was then found dumped on the roadside.”

Another 40 trans people, said Karla Avelar, director of group Communicating and Training Transwomen, “have been forced to migrate to other countries to safeguard their own lives.” Teresa, a trans woman in San Juan Talpa, has considered fleeing because of her fears, saying:

“‘I think that someone is coming to kill me. . .I live in constant fear. . .With a doubt, I’ve thought about being far away from this country because staying here the gangs find you.”

“The gangs don’t accept lesbians, gay boys or transgender people. Diversity doesn’t fit into their rules.”

Anti-LGBT violence is closely affiliated with the gang violence ravaging the country, which Reuters described as “one of the world’s deadliest countries outside a war zone.” Gangs maintain control of many communities through extortion, violence, and rape. But social stigma is also contributing greatly to the suffering now endured by LGBT people in El Salvador, and activists claim the Catholic Church is complicit in this regard. Humanosphere reported:

“Advocates say LGBT people face a double threat from such violence. They say anti-LBGT rhetoric from religious figures and politicians perpetuates already entrenched social prejudices, and that the influential Roman Catholic Church furthers anti-LGBT sentiment by publicly condemning gay marriage and sex.”

LGBT-negative stigmas are widespread in El Salvador. Reuters said a “2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre found nearly two-thirds of Salvadorans believed society should not accept homosexuality.” Reparative therapy is also commonplace; another survey found two in five LGBT people had experienced it. Given the church’s considerable, and at one time dominant, influence in El Salvador, these stigmas are derived, at least in part, from LGBT-negative statements and actions of Catholics. Avelar, herself the survivor of two attempted killings, summarized the situation:

“‘They are criminalizing us. . .They use the word of God and the Bible to judge us. It’s destroying us.'”

“Destroying” is not hyperbolic. Twenty-five LGBT people were murdered last year in a nation with a population equivalent to that of the U.S. state of Massachusetts.  After the first quarter of 2017, El Salvador is on pace to exceed that number.

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In 2015, Archbishop Romero was beatified on the same day that Ireland passed marriage equality. It was a great day for the laity! Click to share this graphic.

But the Catholic Church in El Salvador has another option: a liberationist tradition already being taken up by some Catholics in regard to LGBT people. The Universidad Centroamericana, where six Jesuits were martyred in 1989, hosted El Salvador’s first LGBT rights conference in 2013 (to read a reflection on this event from Bondings 2.0’s editor Francis DeBernardo, click here).

This liberationist tradition is rooted in the nation’s martyrs, including Blessed Oscar Romero who was not beatified, due to conservative opposition, until Pope Francis. Shortly before his assassination, Romero told a reporter:

“If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”

Trans Salvadorans murdered are themselves martyrs; they were killed for walking the path of holiness, for living openly as their authentic selves. In their blood, new seeds of freedom and hope take root to flourish. These children of God should have never faced violent deaths in the first place, but their murders now compel Catholics to be a leading voice for LGBT human rights and as a defender of crucified LGBT communities.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 31, 2017

Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman and LGBT rights activist from El Salvador, 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. She will join an international focus session panel of transgender and intersex advocates. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will be a plenary speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.”  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Bishops Take Note: Marriage Equality Linked to Decreased Youth Suicides

According to a new study, suicide attempts by youth have decreased where marriage equality is enacted. Such data should be a wake-up call for Catholic bishops rethink their strong opposition to equal civil marriage rights and LGBT rights more generally.

web1_suicide-stop2JAMA Pediatrics, a leading medical journal, published the study, “Difference-in-Difference Analysis of the Association Between Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts,” in its February 20, 2017 edition. PBS Newshour reported:

“The researchers found that suicide attempts by high school students decreased by 7 percent in states after they passed laws to legalize same-sex marriage, before the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide in 2015. Among LGB high school students, the decrease was especially concentrated, with suicide attempts falling by 14 percent.

“But in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage, there was no change.”

PBS noted that overall deaths by suicide for all populations have risen during the period surveyed by this study, 1999 to 2015. Led by Julia Raifman of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers compared suicide rates between states that had and had not passed marriage equality. She told PBS:

“Raifman told the [PBS] NewsHour she was interested in studying same-sex marriage laws ‘as a marker of equal rights in general,’ adding that other laws that pertain to LGBT rights — such as employment and housing protections — still vary widely around the country.

“The study noted that the laws themselves reflected larger social trends toward support for the LGBT community, a possible factor in the fall in suicide attempts. But Raifman said that the decrease was especially concentrated around the time that same-sex marriage laws passed.”

What is left unexplained is why the decrease in suicide attempts is correlated to marriage equality. Raifman suggested it could be mental health improvements that come with being considered equal in society or seeing more representations in public life of married same-gender couples. PBS reported further:

“The feelings of being accepted and connected to society have “a protective effect in relation to suicide risk, suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviors,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer of the JED Foundation who works to reduce youth suicide. Schwartz wasn’t involved in the study. . .

“‘[Stigma is] a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community. . .It’s very painful, and can be very frightening. You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.'”

Dr. Brian Mustanski of Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, said the wider literature shows “positive health effects of social policies that affirm and protect the equality of the LGBT community, and those positive benefits extend beyond LGBT individuals to the general population.”

Will these findings affect the way U.S. church leaders relate to LGBT equality? They should. Religious leaders, including Catholic bishops, have led the opposition against marriage equality and LGBT rights generally. But their opposition, as many pointed out, has the potential of causing harm to LGBT people, especially youth. Given the fact that 15 youths in the United States die by suicide each day and that LGB youth have an attempted suicide rate four times the average, this approach is no longer tolerable, if it ever was.

The U.S. bishops promote pro-life activities, but most often limit these to abortion. Many Catholics question bishops’ real commitment to social justice. But if the bishops are indeed pro-life, then why have they shown so little regard for the lives of LGBT people? If this latest research, which shows how much good legal equality can have on the lives of LGBT youth, does not move their hearts to end campaigns against LGBT rights, then their pro-life admonitions will ring empty.

Earlier this week, Bondings 2.0 reported about the Vatican’s effort to gather input directly from youth and young adults for the 2018 Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis and the Curia seem to have the right approach to engage youth, who are much more strongly aware of the need for LGBT acceptance, inclusion and justice. The U.S. bishops need to change their approach to LGBT rights not just for the good of sexual and gender diverse people, but because doing so will save lives and help youth flourish.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 23, 2017

 

Malta’s Rapid Shift on LGBT Rights Is Case Study for Other Catholic Nations

Malta has elected the nation’s first transgender politician, a sign of just how far on LGBT rights a country where Roman Catholicism remains the state religion has come. A closer analysis of this shift could help Catholics in other regions in their own journeys towards equality.

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Crowds in Malta celebrating Pride Week

Alex Mangion became Malta’s first transgender politician when he won a local election as the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party) candidate, reported The Independent. But support for LGBT rights in the conservative party that had controlled Malta’s government since the late 1990s is a recent development, and came only after its 2013 defeat to the Partit Laburista (Labor Party) who had made LGBT rights a major platform item.

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Alex Mangion

Though the Nationalist Party had abstained from a successful vote on civil unions in 2014, Mangion said that presently “having a transgender person in the party made people realize it’s not conservative.” And by 2015, the Nationalist Party had joined the Labor Party in passing a groundbreaking transgender rights law. (It is worth noting that, under that very law, Mangion became “the first person in this tiny nation to be able to update the gender on his official documents without undergoing surgery or hormone treatment.”)

The Independent noted that this shift in a political party is “a microcosm of the evolution underway in Malta,” a traditional Catholic country which outlawed divorce as late as 2011. But where LGBT people once hid, rejected by church leaders and stigmatizing social norms, a married same-gender couple, Steve and Manuel Aquilina, now hosts and produces a leading cooking show. A colleague of theirs, Victor Anastasi, said:

“‘They’re accepted like everyone else. . .We’re a Catholic country. But eventually the church has to come to terms [with society changing].”

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Joseanne Peregin

Joseanne Peregin, the Catholic mother of a gay son, recalled a bishop once saying, “If you’re gay, excommunicate yourself. Go, there is no place for you in the church.” But then in 2011, she said, the Catholic Church’s control over Maltese politics was undercut sharply when divorce was legalized through a popular referendum.

Now it must be acknowledged,, said Fr. Rene Camilleri, that Catholics in Malta “are not taking a package deal.” Camilleri, who is Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Malta and a lecturer at the University of Malta, has previously described church teaching on homosexuality as “nonsensical.” He also said Catholic ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.”

Today, other nations seek to learn from and even copy Malta’s LGBT laws. Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs, and Civil Liberties Helena Dalli said that “what we have done here is serving as a model to other countries, and, in a good way, because more people are leading better lives.” And The Independent continued:

“Kyle Knight, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what’s particularly admirable about Malta’s LGBT rights laws is ‘not just the result as much as the process’ that led to their creation.

“Members of the LGBT community, other advocates and a local human rights group served on a council set up in 2013 to advise the government. Legislation was accompanied by directives that covered how LGBT people in prison should be treated and how schools should deal with bullying of transgender or gay students.

“When Knight was recently asked in Japan how schools should handle anti-LGBT bullying, ‘We copied and pasted these (Maltese) guidance documents and we said, “Look, this is how you do it,”‘ he recalled.”

While marriage equality is not legal yet in Malta, same-gender couples are recognized through civil unions, there are extensive non-discrimination protections, so-called “conversion therapy” is banned with harsh penalties in place, and a 2015 law on transgender and intersex persons is considered the gold standard in Europe.

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The island nation of Malta

How does a country where Roman Catholicism is named in the constitution as the state’s religion and where 95% of its citizens identify as Catholic become so progressive in a short time? Some observers might consider Malta a paradox, understanding LGBT equality and the Catholic Church to be opposites. Yet, there is a very plausible explanation for what has happened.

First, it is an oft-repeated but worth reiterating truism: Catholics support LGBT equality because of, not in spite of their faith. Key tenets like social justice, human dignity, and non-discrimination have informed the faithful’s engagement in civic matters, and this includes working for the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It makes sense the citizens of Malta who practice, or even are simply informed by, Catholic faith would vote for equality.

Second, it has to be admitted that there are non-ecclesial matters influencing this shift. In Western contexts, homosexuality has been largely de-stigmatized and neighboring countries in Europe have been moving forward on LGBT rights. Some have credited Malta joining the European Union as an impetus for catching up to their neighbors, and now taking the lead. As in other Western contexts, Mass attendance and the moral authority of bishops have declined in recent years. Some people leave, or are pushed out of, the church, and there is a certain amount of secularizing that happens. These factors and more, as in other regions, contribute to the rapid pace of the shift.

2b5de-drachmabloglogoBut third, many Maltese remain practicing Catholics and this has made the biggest difference. A few weeks ago, I highlighted the positive outreach of the country’s bishops to LGBT communities . In fact, Malta’s leading gay rights group gave the bishops an award in 2014. Here are other important examples of positive Catholic moments on LGBT issues:

  • Drachma and Drachma Parents are both Catholic organizations engaging LGBT issues in the church, and they have made an impact. They helped consult on the civil unions law, pushing back against a bishop’s criticism, They hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick in 2011 to educate about LGBT equality in the church. They also hosted theologians Sr. Margaret Farley, RSM, and James Alison.) They were credited by Bishop Mario Grech as helping him to understand the need and urgency for new pastoral care of LGBT people;
  • A priest who blessed a same-gender couple’s rings was not punished by the bishop; indeed, Archbishop Charles Scicluna affirmed the priest’s outreach efforts to LGBT people;
  • After releasing a harsh position paper opposing the government’s efforts to ban “conversion therapy,” a paper in which homosexuality was compared to pedophilia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna listened to Catholics’ criticism and then apologizedsaying the church was “dead set” against such programs.

Though I have never experienced the Church of Malta firsthand, I sense a serious Christian community of mature and critically engaged Catholics. Lay Catholics, and clergy like Fr. Camilleri, have grappled with not only church teaching, but the realities of their context.And, quite notably, the country’s bishops have been willing to affirm LGBT people as beloved by God and to listen to their people. They have even been willing to acknowledge where the hierarchy had it wrong, and to apologize to those whom they have harmed.

In under a decade, Malta went from being socially conservative to a world leader on LGBT rights. Maltese Catholics are a shining example of what can happen when the faithful really listen to the Gospel and live their faith in public life. Let us hope more and more historically-Catholic regions follow this path, especially in areas like Latin America and Africa where the church is rapidly growing and yet LGBT rights remain limited.

If you would like to read reflections from members of Drachma Parents, you can find Louise Laferia’s reflection on the call of being a parent to an LGBT person here and Joseanne and Joseph Peregin’s reflection on what makes a family holy here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBT Catholic issues in Malta, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2017