LGBTQ+ religious leaders, students discuss intersectional identities

Monday, April 2, 2018 - 8:35pm

Panelists speak at the panel on Queer Faith: Navigating Identities, Building Bridges in Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Monday.

Panelists speak at the panel on Queer Faith: Navigating Identities, Building Bridges in Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Monday. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Talking on their experiences as queer, practicing members of their respective religions, a panel of speakers Monday night covered discussions about what it means to be an LGBTQ+ person and a person of faith, and considered the harm or ignorance people may face in either community. 

Though the speakers at the event — hosted by the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan — came from an array of religious backgrounds, a shared sentiment many of them expressed was the reconciliation of their different identities. Reverend Matthew Lukens, a chaplain at Canterbury House, recalled being raised in a fairly conservative environment as a Southern Baptist in Alabama. He talked of the difficulty he had in bringing together his appreciation of the church and his gay identity.

“I was really involved in my church and I loved it,” Lukens said. “It was a great community for me. It was just a way that really defined how I moved through the world. Realizing that I was gay completely pulled the rug out from me as a person. I had to spend a lot of time putting back together how I fit myself into the world.”

Merton Spencer, a member of the Lord of Light Lutheran ministry on campus, echoed Lukens’s sentiment, saying sometimes one identity would take precedence over the other.

“At times, my gay identity would be more evident in the way I was living my life, and my thoughts, and my feelings and how I handle that as a person of integrity also,” Spencer said. “And sometimes my identity as a Christian would become more prominent and impactful on my life. Those would sometimes go back and forth, and sometimes they would be almost equal.”

Reverend Lindasusan Ulrich, an assistant minister at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, acknowledged this struggle, but also said she was able to find ways to join her religious and queer identities.

“For me, I see definitive connections having a non-monosexual identity and being a Unitarian Universalist in that there’s an openness to different possibilities and a curiosity about different possibilities,” Ulrich said. “I realized how much that openness has influenced me in my ministry. For me, they are very intertwined.”

Panelists also described the issues they had in being open about their queer identities in religious settings, or vice versa. These two communities have a history of negative interactions — a recent one being accusations against a church in Detroit of planning conversion therapy workshops. Incidents of discrimination like the church in Detroit cause animosity in both communities.

A Public Health graduate student, who requested to be anonymous due to her sensitive identity, said many may believe the stereotype of Muslims being homophobic, which can make it hard for her to interact in queer spaces. She also said while her Muslim group of friends is very open, conversations about gender and sexuality are more closed-off in mosques.

“Most of my Muslim friends never really had to say, ‘It’s cool to be gay’ within our friend circles, but if we went to mosques or we went to Sunday school, there was a kind of hesitation with being so open and expressive about it,” she said.

An undergraduate student who also requested anonymity felt similarly about her queer and orthodox Jewish communities. She highlighted the unwillingness to discuss sexuality within the Jewish community, as well as the lack of awareness surrounding Judaism in LGBTQ+ spaces.

“It’s hard to find ritual spaces that are meaningful for me because when you go in and your identity isn’t there, or it’s erased, or it’s invisible,” she said. “In the wider LGBTQ spaces, I encounter a lot of ignorance about Judaism, what it is, what its rituals are like. This can be hard when you want to start to talk to people about things, and have them understand where you come from.”

Both Jewish and Muslim students talked about the genderedness of their respective religions, particularly in their rituals and traditions. The Muslim student discussed the gender divide between men and women in mosques, and how this has a harmful effect on members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Jewish student expressed her pain in acknowledging because of her sexuality, she won’t be able to partake in certain traditions.

“It’s hard, the knowledge that in some ways I won’t really be able to participate in the milestones and rituals that are important to me because of my sexuality, because of the possible gender of my future spouse, and because of inherent gender separation in the rituals,” she said.

To work through these struggles, the religious leaders among the panelists emphasized education. Ulrich said she uses her position as a minister to her advantage in terms of teaching her congregation about LGBTQ+ issues.

“Sometimes the teaching is really vital because I have the privilege of a pulpit from which I can say things like, ‘How can this open our minds?’” Ulrich said. “‘How about we think about this?’”

The Jewish student offered up a different viewpoint, questioning whether she has an obligation to educate her peers on these issues.

“On the one hand, we shouldn’t have to, but on the other hand, if you don’t advocate for yourself, who’s going to?” she asked.

In response to a question posed by an audience member on how to approach coming out, the panelists had differing perspectives. The Muslim and Jewish students expressed how it’s unnecessary to come out to everyone while Spencer emphasized the importance of doing what feels comfortable.

“If I may give you a bit of advice: Do it at your pace, at what feels right for you,” Spencer said. “Don’t let other people tell you how fast you have to go.”

Alyssa Cozad, an academic advisor at the Stamps School of Art and Design, felt enlightened by the perspectives and opinions of the panelists. The difficulties the panelists expressed in trying to live authentically and exist in either spiritual or LGBTQ+ spaces resonated with her. She expressed her hopes for events of a similar nature.

“There’s room certainly for more of this on campus and in the Ann Arbor community,” Cozad said. “We’re an open community, I hope, for a lot of people and a resource for people. So I like to come to these sorts of events so that I can let them inform my work and how I relate with students.”