Magazine article Tikkun

A Progressive Religious Agenda toward Gay Rights

Magazine article Tikkun

A Progressive Religious Agenda toward Gay Rights

Article excerpt

A Response to "Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue" by Jay Michaelson

J AY MICHAELSON AND I BOTH WANT RELIGIOUS PEOPLE to accept gay people, but our tactics are different: his approach is incremental and mine is progressive. I suspect the divergence is rooted in our definitions of queer community and our ideas about how much control one has over the contours of identity. He thinks gay people are born; I think we are shaped. His essay, "Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue," in the July/August 2010 issue of Tikkun was oriented toward moving traditional religious persons toward the middle; in contrast, I'm hoping our culture will take a sieve to notions of left, right, and center so each of us can learn undifferentiated compassion. Michaelson's article suggests that liberals should persuade conservatives to support gay rights using entrenched liberal religious tactics, such as reinterpreting Leviticus 18 : 22 and mobilizing biblical compassion for the "other." I suggest liberal religions have already done that work and have succeeded wherever it was possible to do so, and that the gender binary is the front line of the culture wars.

One way to parse Michaelson's argument is this: those who employ the dominant religious narrative on behalf of change succeed. Those who instead provide alternatives to that narrative fail. He rightly points out that "many gay activists have justifiably relegated religion to the same mental basement as other repressive ideas," but he goes too far in adding that "so far our current national debate regarding equal rights for sexual minorities ... has included religion on only one side of the argument." This is not so. His article neglects the rise of powerful gay churches and synagogues and the huge gay rights victory that enables transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay (TBLG) people to argue their rights from pew and pulpit, bench and bimah within mainstream traditions rather than from outside in the street.

For more than thirty years a liberal religious narrative has been successful in achieving gay rights. The significant evolution of beliefs and attitudes toward gay people and homosexual sex as a normal sexual practice can already in some part be traced to these liberal religious voices. I am referring to advances won by organizations like the TBLG-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which was founded in 1968. Other protestant denominations are fully inclusive: Unitarian Universalism has had an Office of Gay Affairs since 1973 and the United Church of Christ adopted a "Covenant of Openness and Affirmation" in 1985. Gay Catholics (via the national organization Dignity) have organized since 1969. The first gay Jewish organization began in 1972 (the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews). These organizations and others like them exist because their founders believed in and promoted the ten points Michaelson lists in his article. At times, an entire denomination accepted the liberalizing narrative after much soul-searching. At others, in the face of opposition from their traditionalist forebears, the liberalizing narrative caused a split, and the MCC and similar organizations emerged as new entities alongside their conservative brethren.

Michaelson believes it may now be viable for some of us to use these same ten points to persuade conservatives, but I believe a more effective strategy is to pursue a bolder path. Leviticus 18 :22 read through liberal eyes won't help a congregation welcome a lesbian transwoman on the women's side of an Orthodox synagogue (nor indeed will it make the congregation any more palatable to her). A rent boy who's putting himself through law school might feel comfortable claiming only one part of his complicated reality when he's invited for Shabbat dinner. While "compassion" might help traditional religionists welcome an old man and his son to synagogue, the discovery that they are not related but rather are in an intergenerational relationship might strain things. …

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