Saturday, March 25, 2006

A religious experience

On Wednesday I found myself a witness to an amazing all-day conference at the Interfaith Center on "Teología y Sexualidad" which addressed issues of diversity, sexuality, homophobia and pastoral care in Hispanic religious denominations. Participants included, for the most part, Latino clergy and church goers as well as a few academic experts on theology from the tri-state area.

Originally, I expected the conference to address issues related to sexuality and religion in general but from the opening prayer, through the workshops and the final plenary I was astounded to just how directly conference organizers, workshop moderators and participants addressed the issue of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and the need for Latino churches to reach out to believers among them.

As a somewhat objective participant (I had been asked to translate from Spanish to English for the few English-language speakers who participated), I had the honor of sitting back and watching the dialogue unfold.

Not that everyone was on the same page or welcomed the dialogue. I heard that two people walked out during one of the workshops saying that they had been misled into participating in the conference and that they would have had nothing to do with it if they had known that homosexuality as a topic would be treated in a positive way.

Then there was the older Dominican man who just walked into the conference while he was passing by the Center (he tought the topic was interesting) and said at one point that he didn't care what two men did with each other in privacy but that he took issue with gays wanting to "destroy the family" (I assume he was talking about marriage). In his case, though, I was actually touched as I saw a man being sincere with his feelings, yet struggling to be accepting and make sense of the issue. He said that in the Dominican Republic, he had been taught that being gay was wrong by his elders (he called it "teachings from an 18th century generation") and that it was tough for a man his age to change his feelings about things that he had been taught as a child. But he also said his daughter thought that he was crazy for thinking that there was anything wrong with being gay and consistently called him on it (interestingly he said that she was part of the "21st century generation" and that he was glad to see younger people not carrying the baggage of older generations).

A Puerto Rican Reverend who spoke of ending oppressive religious teachings against women, immigrants and Latinos also spoke about these being the same oppressions that LGBT communities faced in the church, he paused, "LGBT, that's how you say it, no?" He also spoke of social constructs and his belief that, even though he had never consciously felt attracted to another man, he truly felt that sexuality was more fluid than anyone let on and that we all had the capacity to "choose" to be gay, which he admitted was a politically incorrect thing to say. A Cuban priest from New Jersey, who said he had recently come out in his community as a gay man, objected to the choice issue and spoke of the many years he spent wishing he could "chose" to be straight while being loyal to his wife of 20 years and raising children but, ultimately, how much pain he had caused himself and his family by forcing himself to make a choice that ultimately did not exist (and how he now knows that God has finally shown him the way).

And then there was the married man who I have known for sometime, who was not a priest, but is a Catholic man, who spoke of seeking a place in the church and being rejected as a man who struggled with issues of sexuality and seeking a place of understanding in gay organizations and being rejected or challenged because he is a married man and sure of the fact he is bisexual and not gay.

For gay men who have been rejected by their religion, feelings can also be as strong and emotional as those by people who outright reject homosexuality. A gay man in one of the workshops rejected the idea of "acceptance" arguing that he didn't need to be "accepted" to be validated as a human being and that the church was losing out in not accepting him. He said he was proud of who he was and stong in his belief that he was worth just as much as anyone else, whether others "accepted" him or not. And, during the closing plenary, a Catholic friend took issue to calls for the LGBT community to "walk halfay down a bridge to meet the church" and to understand that if the LGBT community wanted acceptance by the church, the LGBT community should also accept that some religious people would never see homosexuality as anything but wrong.

All in all though, it was a far more progressive and welcoming environment that I ever expected, particularly from the overwhelmingly straight Latino clergy at the event. Somewhere down these roads lies the answer to the pain that segments of the church have caused lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for centuries. I for one think that this was best illustrated by a Dominican man who called himself a Catholic and, in his life experience, clearly indicated that this too shall pass as new generations challenge religious dogma to find the true loving meaning of God and religion.

A very moving experience indeed and I don't even think that I did such a bad job at translating (at least I hope so). Thanks to the Reverend Damaris Ortega for inviting me to translate.

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