Emily Daina Šaras is a Massachusetts Promise Fellow in youth empowerment and social justice, working with disadvantaged teens at a nonprofit organization in Boston, USA. After graduating from Wellesley College in 2010, Emily was a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania, and earned Fulbright-Hays and Smith-Mundt grants from the US Embassy for her work teaching Lithuanian youth about diversity and social inclusion through non-formal education programming. Emily has recently completed her MA in Sociology and Social Anthropology from Central European University in Budapest. Her research interests include LGBTQ+ advocacy, the sociology of science, youth empowerment, and social inclusion within faith-based communities. This week, Emily explores the tensions between spirituality and sexuality within media representations of LGBTQ activism.
Religious freedom – the right of individuals to publicly or privately manifest religion through prayer, ritual, education, and worship – is protected around the world and recognized as fundamental by many codes of law. However, many LGBTQ individuals who are religious or belong to faith-based communities face stressors and obstacles that, all too often, encourage them to either remain closeted, face the threat of ostracization from their community, or willingly abandon their faith (IGLYO 2011:3). Though unfortunately considered by some to be conflictual, faith and queer identities need not be mutually exclusive – in fact, the homophobia and transphobia practiced in many world religions are primarily legitimized not by the original sacred texts, but by particular interpretations held by xenophobic authority figures in the infrastructure of the religions at hand. These phobias are manifested in exclusionary practices within many of the major world religions, and such discrimination often pushes followers or believers, especially queer youth, towards secularization.
How is the tension between spirituality and sexuality changing as a result of media representation? Furthermore, how are young LGBTQ people today mediating between these conflicting calls to abandonment of either their spirituality or their sexuality?
Coming to terms with one’s own LGBTQ identity often results in an immediate abandonment of one’s faith. However, it isn’t always a one-sided affair. Some individuals are expressly excluded from their faith, while others feel pressure to remove themselves from their religious community. Either situation can result in an immediate loss of safety and sudden shift in identity, which both take a toll on one’s mental health and personal growth. Yet frequently, activists neglect these potentially traumatic disruptions in the spiritual lives of the LGBTQ individuals for whom they advocate.
Certainly, some faith communities worldwide have been doing groundbreaking work on a local level to embrace and include all members of their congregations regardless of sexual preference, such as within Bahá’í, Judaism, and many denominations of Christianity. Unfortunately, such welcoming and progressive faith communities are indubitably the minority. Within many religious communities, the practice of exclusion of and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals is not a topic for dialogue – and LGBTQ activists often demand disconnection as well.
Consider the ex-gay religious-based ministries that fall under the Christian faith umbrella, which inflict serious psychological damage upon LGBTQ teens. Patients typically attend these programs during the vulnerable developmental moments of adolescence, most not of their own volition, but under pressure from their families and faith-based communities. Many of the “treatments” these patients undergo are not only degrading, but classifiably emotionally and physically violent in nature (Just the Facts Coalition 2008:2). Hundreds of testimonials, ex-gay support forums, and ex-gay YouTube interviews have gone viral on the internet, which target individuals of all ages through campaigns that shame individuals into abandoning their sexual preferences. These various media, readily available online to vulnerable LGBTQ teens, often serve as false “proof” that these processes work, even though the medical community has dismissed their efficacy. As a reaction, several documentaries have captured the “treatment” methodologies that are in practice at these ex-gay ministries on film, exposing how these practices emotionally violate and physically abuse those who undergo them. Yet many of these films still enforce the opposition between spirituality and sexuality with additional binaries: religion and biology, choice and predetermination, and fiction and reality.
Another for consideration is the international online community that was assembled through It Gets Better movement, started by sex advice columnist and LGBTQ advocate Dan Savage in 2010 in order to provide hope for suicidal and suffering LGBTQ youth worldwide. The It Gets Better movement has grown over the last three years, as thousands of videos were uploaded as part of the project, including clips of celebrities and public figures such as Anne Hathaway, American President Obama and Vice President Biden, and Margaret Cho. Yet right from that first sentence of the movement – the first mere twenty-five seconds of the movement-defining video – the opposition between spirituality and sexuality was established clearly by Dan as a key problem for his struggles as a teen:
“High school was bad. I was Catholic, I went to Catholic High School, Catholic boys school, my dad was a Catholic deacon and my mom was a Catholic lay minister, and my family was very Catholic. And there were no gay people in my family, and no openly gay people at my school. But I was picked on because I liked musicals and I was obviously gay, and some kids didn’t like that and I did get harassed.” – Dan Savage, 0:00 – 0:25.
Dan’s relation of his lived experience as a teenager is heartbreaking, and that young people worldwide suffer through bullying and various forms of abuse because of sexual orientation, gender identity, and self-expression is a devastating reality. However, it is unclear within his testimony whether, as a teen, he recognized his faith, or the Catholic leadership system, as the source of his identity conflict and struggles. Of course, he has later addressed these issues within his columns, podcasts, and books. Yet the message for struggling LGBTQ youth who viewed this video, looking for hope and some answers to help them survive difficult and vulnerable times, remains convoluted. In my opinion, the advice comes across in terms of surviving the present, and then abandoning that life and all that comes with it for a new, more welcoming communities. These new support systems – whether real or “imagined” in the Andersonian sense – can provide a safe structure that meets the needs of LGBTQ youth who lose the web of support they once (or perhaps never) had in a faith-based community. But what happens to the strongly-held beliefs that provide guidance and motivation through the growing pains of childhood and adolescence – does divine love and power mysteriously disappear when a believer leaves a bigoted religious system?
It is no wonder that, faced with these unclear, yet conflicting, messages from the media about faith and sexual identity, young people feel pressured to choose between spirituality and sexuality instead of embracing both.
During a recent interview with queer Muslim activist Maryam Din from the United Kingdom, I was surprised to see the commonalities between her experience and my own journey to mediate between my spirituality as a Catholic with my queer identity. Both of us had experienced extreme levels of guilt during our coming-out processes, and had experienced pressure to remain closeted within our spiritual community. Our processes of coming out to family, friends, and spiritual advisors were different, but equally challenging. Though many people have come to fully accept us today, the mere threat of losing the support of important mentors and role models from our faith-based communities – never mind the pain and struggle when this actually happened – was a heartbreakingly difficult experience, ridden with anxiety. These anxieties were compounded by examples in the media of gay or lesbian teens who were excommunicated from their families, which were easily available to us as users of the ever-growing internet of the new millennium during our teenage years. I believe that a decade later, these same two conflicting messages dominate the dialogue, and it is still difficult for queer religious youth to find a place of balance and belonging with regards to religion and sexuality.
“All too often,” said Maryam, “I come across people who identify as LGBTQ that used to identify as religious, too. They explain to me that they felt as such odds with their religion because of how their fellow worshippers behaved towards them because of their sexuality. Many of them felt the only way to deal with this was to leave their religion, even though they still believed in it and ultimately still believed in God.” Maryam said that her friends, activist allies, and some members of her family have been important in helping her feel supported and welcomed while still a member of the Muslim community and an active practitioner of her faith. I could relate to that privilege, and had a similar support network that helped me throughout the long process of coming out. Yet I took a different route in the end, virtually abandoning my faith. No longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I feel little connection to that faith-based community in which I was raised. I might not believe in, or agree with, all of the principles of Catholicism, but I truly miss the space for celebration and worship, the encouragement faith gave me for reflection and self-development, and the positive messages of helping and supporting one another. I personally regret that I have lost so many relationships with members of that community that made me feel spiritually connected to a greater power. I know I’m not alone.
“When I contrast [my experience] to my counterparts around the world,” Maryam noted, “the realities for them are often in stark contrast. Many countries around the world still have the death penalty for homosexuality. It is for those reasons that I acknowledge my privilege and am thankful for the safe environment that I live in because my life is not at risk.” Surely, this is something for which I, too, am thankful. Yet for individuals with experiences similar to mine and Maryam’s, the consequences can be more immediate than the threat of eternal damnation: faith is tied within a complex web of social and cultural connections between family, friends, local communities and virtual networks, and without religion, an individual’s entire web of support can disappear.
Knowing how important spiritual health is for a full and rich life, I wonder about how advocates should modify their approach to working with LGBTQ individuals. Does our advocacy work embrace methodologies that are centered upon intercultural and interreligious dialogue – or do we have a tendency to fall into the same identity-abandonment rhetoric and practices as do the bigoted leaders of religious institutions? All too often, I have witnessed activists condemning religious institutions and actively encouraging LGBTQ individuals to abandon their faith, with little consideration of the various benefits religion and religious communities provide to those queer individuals already experiencing the pain of discrimination. Although it is becoming a norm for many LGBTQ people worldwide, abandoning one’s faith is not necessarily the right answer for everyone in terms of mediating faith and sexual identities. Without a doubt, changes need to be made in our advocacy tactics such that religion and sexual orientation are no longer automatically placed in opposition with one another, and we must ensure that this new perspective be made increasingly visible through various forms of media.
Image by Emily Daina Šaras.
International LGBTQ Youth and Student Organization (IGLYO), General Assembly.
2011. Position Paper on Intercultural and Inter-religious Dialogue. Brussels, Belgium:
Just the Facts Coalition.
2009. Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals,
Educators, and School Personnel. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.