Many people of a certain age will recall the central role of Gdansk in the story of Polish resistance to communist rule. As the birthplace of the Solidarity movement and the base of its leader, Lech Walesa, it filled our television news screens often enough throughout the 1980’s. As a gay Catholic, I am struck by the powerful symbolism of choosing this city for a conference of LGBT Christians.
Hammering the message home, is the formal theme for the 2017 conference of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, is the formal theme for the conference: “Faith in Solidarity”. Further reinforcing it, is the prominent part in the program of the use as a secondary venue for the conference, the European Centre for Solidarity just a few blocks from the hotel which is the main venue. For one evening, we were at the venue for a screening of a documentary film about the life of a transwoman who had been a leading figure in the original solidarity movement, followed by and interview with the woman herself. Later in the week, there will be public workshops and a panel discussion in the centre, followed by optional formal guided tours of the centre.
“Solidarity” here is used in two quite different contexts. The primary use, is a reference to the English translation of the Polish trade union and democracy movement “Solidarność“. A subsidiary meaning, is that the centre was built by the Europeans, “in solidarity” with Poland and their struggle for democracy – and as a wider symbol of the solidarity of all Europeans in a common cause. It is in that sense that the European Forum choice of Gdansk as the venue for conference 2017, is particularly apposite. The Forum as a whole, and in particular the well-established groups from Western Europe where LGBT inclusion and equality are becoming well-established in law and in social custom, are here to demonstrate our solidarity with our LGBT colleagues in Poland – and others in similarly difficult conditions elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
That sentiment of solidarity will be given concrete expression later today, 27th May 2017, when delegates to the European Forum conference will join with the secular LGBT rights group “Tolerado” and other LGBT activists, for Gdansk’s annual “Tri-City March of Equality”.
I am now in Gdansk, in preparation for a five day annual conference of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups.
Meeting here in Gdansk is a notable achievement for the Polish LGBT group, “Faith and Rainbow“. While the push for LGBT equality and inclusion has made great strides in many parts of Western Europe and North America, even including lesbian and gay bishops, and same-sex church weddings in some denominations, progress in Eastern Europe, African and the Caribbean has lagged far behind. For Catholics, Poland is widely seen as a bastion of the most conservative elements of the faith, especially on matters of faith and sexuality.
And yet, founded just a few years ago, Faith and Rainbow has made impressive progress, and can boast of some significant achievements, of which hosting this conference is just one example. In a recent report at the National Catholic Reporterin the importance to the churches of standing up against homophobia and transphobia, Sr Jeannine Gramick described how in a visit to Poland she had seen signs of increasing acceptance and support for LGBT people:
A reconciliation effort initiated by the Campaign against Homophobia called “Let’s Exchange a Sign of Peace,” featured billboards with two clasped hands — one with a rainbow bracelet and the other with a Catholic rosary. This social awareness campaign moved the hearts and minds of many Polish people (but not, unfortunately, the Polish bishops, who denounced the campaign.)
I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who “rub me the wrong way” and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.
In the same NCR article, Sr Gramick also wrote about IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia – and how in Europe, there are often religious groups participating in IDAHOT events with religious services. (In Malta last year, a Catholic bishop led a Mass for IDAHOT).
She also described specifically an action undertaken by the European Forum of LGBT Christian groups – whose conference I am attending this week here in Gdansk, on behalf of Quest LGBT Catholics, . This is just one of many important and valuable projects of the Forum.
I’ll have more on these projects, and of the proceedings of the conference, as the week goes on.
At Bondings 2.0, Francis DeBernardo has reported on a new manual produced for the English bishops on combating homophobia in Catholic schools. In his headline to the post, DeBernardo describes this manual as a “gift to the church” (and so it is).
A new manual for Catholic school teachers in England and Wales on how to combat homophobia and biphobia has caused a bit of a minor controversy based on its origin, perhaps because the document offers strong practical advice on how to stop and prevent bullying of sexual minority students.
As one who has (twice) participated in Stonewall training to combat HBT (homophobic/biphobic/transphobic) bullying in English schools, I can confirm that much of this material is not just “similar” to the Stonewall material – it’s identical to some of what was used in Stonewall’s own training. Some other material consists of direct quotes from Stonewall publications in the public domain.
The desire to combat bullying is in fact clearly required by Catholic teaching, which insists on the obligation to oppose “violence or malice, whether in speech or in action”. It is for this reason that Quest (the British association for LGBT Catholics) has partnered with Stonewall to deliver their well-established training to Catholic schools, funded by the UK government Department of Education. What is helpful in this document from the Bishops, is that it provides useful faith-based material which will be helpful in adapting the standard Stonewall material, to make it more directly relevant to Catholic schools.
What I find particularly striking about this initiative, is that deliberately or not, the English bishops have in effect entered an informal partnership with Stonewall. Not long ago, there were widespread perceptions (on both sides of the divide) that Stonewall and the churches were necessarily in opposition to each other. From Stonewall’s side, under the leadership of the current CE Ruth Hunt, Stonewall is actively promoting alliances with faith-based LGBT groups. Now it seems that Catholic bishops too, are seeing value in Stonewall’s work to combat homophobia and bullying.
The critics said that portions of the document are very similar to anti-bullying materials produced by Stonewall and lgbtyouth Scotland, two leading UK LGBT equality organizations. Stonewall denied any involvement but said their materials are public and they’d be glad if their ideas were used by others.
What is most remarkable about this “controversy” is that the criticism seems intended to discredit what is a fine document on how to educate Catholic students about respecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
It is extraordinary that some, who would certainly see themselves as “faithful” Catholics, should be so critical of an initiative by their bishops, that is so clearly in accordance with established Catholic teaching in opposition to “violence or malice, in speech or action”. The only possible explanation must be that the critics are so obsessed with their opposition to “homosexuality”, that they are unable to see or accept those elements of Catholic teaching that are in fact inclusive and welcoming.
We, on the other hand, must welcome this initiative of the Catholic bishops – with a single reservation. While this document is strong on the importance of combating homophobic bullying, it is completely silent on the increasingly pressing issue of transphobic bullying.
There is abundant evidence that homophobia kills, directly (as in hate crime murders) and indirectly (as in driving the victims to suicide). As with all forms of hatred, what begin as thoughtless or careless language acquired at school, can mutate into something much more serious in later life. Conversely, good habits acquired when young, can prepare people for sound, healthy attitudes and behaviour as adults. This is why for several years, Stonewall has been running an established, highly effective program in schools, training staff in the importance of countering homophobia in school, and giving them tools and resources to do so effectively.
Further, the evidence from Stonewall’s schools research is that in general, pupils and staff believe that the problems are greater in faith schools than in their secular counterparts. For Catholics, this is a sad indictment on the failure of some schools (not all) to properly apply standard Church teaching, which is clear the obligation that “all forms of violence or malice, in speech or in action”, must be opposed. Teaching also insists that homosexual persons must be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”.
This is why I and three other members of Quest met with Stonewall in London today, for the first of two day’s training in how to take the standard Stonewall training on countering homophobia, into faith schools specifically. Tomorrow, we will be back to continue the training. Next week, three more Quest members will do the same training with Stonewall in Manchester.
By March, we expect to begin visiting schools, delivering the training to those at the coalface.
It’s been a long day, and I have no more time to write more about this, tonight (it’ll be an early start to my day tomorrow, for an early train up to London for a 9am start). Later, I’ll report in more detail, on just why the program is needed, on the evidence that faith schools in general are under-performing in this area, how the program works, and on why Catholic schools in particular have a clear pastoral obligation to oppose homophobia vigorously – and to support lgbt pupils themselves.
This afternoon, I was up in London, talking to the staff of St Bonaventure’s Catholic secondary school about “The Catholic Obligation to Protect and Support Lesbian and Gay Pupils”. Part of the headteacher’s regular program for staff continuing professional development, this kicked off the school’s annual commitment to LGBT History Month.
I met the head,teacher, Paul Halliwell, at Stonewall’s Education Day last October, where he was a panellist in the Faith breakout group. Stonewall’s Dominic Arnall introduced him with glowing praise for the work that he has already done to promote LGBT inclusion in his Catholic school, St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate Newham – and his leadership with other schools in the area. I was delighted to accept his invitation to bring a specifically Catholic dimension to his valuable work on LGBT protection and safeguarding.
When I was at school, a lovely boy with a mop of dark hair called me a pansy when we were playing kiss chase; I was running away from the boys in an apparent game of one. I heard him definitely call me Pansy though and, ecstatic that at the age of 8 someone had finally seen me as me,
I adopted the name with huge pride and wore it like an enormous, enamelled brooch. My name was Pansy.I convinced most of my classmates to call me Pansy – I didn’t notice or care about their sniggers or sneers, and after some persuasion my teacher, Miss Honey (not a word of a lie), agreed to call me Pansy during story-carpet time. One foot off dead name, one foot on Pansy. Home.
In 1989, when the Gender Identity Development Service (Gids) at London’s Tavistock Clinic opened, it received two referrals in its first year of operation. As Dr Polly Carmichael, current director of the service, observes, it was considered a career-limiting option for a clinical psychologist to specialise in the field of gender identity in young people – there weren’t enough patients. That is not how it has turned out. Last year, 1,400 children under 18 were referred to Gids, double the number the year before. Of these 1,400, nearly 300 were under the age of 12, with some as young as three years old.
The reasons for this exponential increase are obviously complex. One factor seems to be a huge shift in awareness of transgender individuals in wider culture. The attention paid to Caitlyn Jenner in America, and Kellie Maloney here; a transgender actor, Riley Carter Millington, playing a transgender role in EastEnders; the historic tragedy of the story told in The Danish Girl and the many public controversies about respect for trans rights have all informed this awareness.
Reports of Pope Francis’ apology to the gay community drew extensive commentary in the press, with divided responses from LGBT sources. There many statements that this was welcome, but also many who pointed out that the statement was limited, and just didn’t go far enough.
On Sunday (3rd July) I had the privilege of participating in a live TV discussion about this, on BBC1 (available here on BBC iPlayer, at 30:41 from the start, to about 42:30).
For the benefit of readers unable to access iPlayer, here’s a summary of my contributions.
My first point was that this statement needs to be seen in a broader context. Coming from the pope, this attracted the attention, but there have been other apologies before, from both Protestant and Catholic leaders. When I was in Sweden for the European Forum of Lesbian and Gay Christian organizations, the Bishop of Gothenburg said in his address to the opening ceremony that the Church should make an act of repentance to the LGBT community, for the past harm it has done to them. At the Family Synod in Rome last October, the entire group of German speaking bishops made a collective apology to lesbian and gay Catholics.
I went on to say that this apology was just one part of a much broader interview, which could explain why it was so brief – and so disappointed some LGBT Catholics. While welcoming the apology, some said that it should also have gone into some explanation of why the apology was needed, what needs to be done to prevent future harm, and how can we begin a process of healing. However, it’s important that the apology has been made, however limited it is at the stage.
After inviting contributions from the rest of the panel, the moderator brought up the popular but mistaken idea that homosexuality is regarded as immoral in Catholic teaching, asking me directly, “Are you immoral?” My response was to point out that there is nothing in Church teaching against homosexuality – but only a few statements opposed to homosexual acts. The Church accepts that “homosexuality” as an orientation is entirely natural, and does not endorse attempts to change it.
There is of course, a great deal more than I could have said, given more time. Even this simple idea that homosexual genital acts are contrary to Church teaching, is not as straightforward as it seems. In a later discussion of the Anglican synod “Shared Conversations” process, I pointed out that this is not just about discussing “what the Bible says”, as one of the panellists had claimed, but also about hearing from the lived experience of lesbian and gay people themselves. To that, she quickly interrupted to talk about her second-hand experience of a gay man she knows, who she said had come to Christ and rejected his homosexual life. I deeply regret that I was not given the chance to reply that my own experience was the exact opposite: time had run out on us. Otherwise, I would have described how my attempt to live fully within the bounds of Church teaching on sex and marriage had left me steadily drifting away from all religious practice and belief. It was only later, after I had come to terms with my sexuality as an openly gay man in a committed, stable same-sex relationship, that I was able to return to the church. Since then, I have found, like many others, that fully embracing my sexuality in fact has enhanced my faith and my spirituality.
Looking back on my experience of how time severely limits how much one can say, I have more sympathy for Pope Francis’ failure to elaborate more fully in his apology. However, he has opened up a conversation. It’s now up to the rest of us, to keep that conversation going.
We must warmly welcome Pope Francis’ apology to gay Catholics, for the harm done to them by the Church:
In a press conference Sunday on the flight back to Rome after his weekend trip to Armenia, the pontiff said bluntly: “The church must say it’s sorry for not having comported itself well many times, many times.”
“I believe that the church not only must say it’s sorry … to this person that is gay that it has offended,” said the pope. “But it must say it’s sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work.”
“When I say the church: Christians,” Francis clarified. “The church is healthy. We are the sinners.”
“Who are we to judge them?” he asked, reframing his famous phrase from 2013 into the plural. “We must accompany well — what the Catechism says. The Catechism is clear.”
Initial reaction from the people most affected, gay and lesbian people themselves, illustrates how badly this apology was needed – there is a tone of bitterness in many responses that reveals the extent of the hurt. This is understandable. In many respects, it is indeed too little, too late.
However, as Frank DeBenardo points out at Bondings 2.0, a formal apology from the head of the Church, no matter how limited, will itself bring a degree of healing, putting into practice Francis’ vision of the Church as a “field hospital for the wounded”. There have been earlier, similar apologies from the German language small group at the family synod, and from the English bishops attending, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Bishop Peter Doyle. This clear signal from the man at the top will undoubtedly encourage many of their colleagues to follow suit.
For these reasons, I fervently welcome this apology, limited though it is.
Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of what is still needed.
We need recognition from the Church that gay and lesbian Catholics have not been simply “offended” – but in many cases severely damaged by the Church’s responses. This is illustrated by the high rates of suicide, self-harm, substance abuse and other mental health problems and internalised homophobia and self-hatred in many lesbian and gay people. The dangers of such self-hatred are clear from numerous examples of closeted gay men expressing their anger in acts of violence or murder.
We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and damage are not simply the result of careless and insensitive language, but are deeply embedded in formal Catholic teaching on sexuality, with its numerous internal contradictions on sexual ethics for gay men and lesbians. The Church claims that we need to “respect” the findings of science, and has accommodated these findings as they apply to the physical universe, and to evolution – but has conspicuously ignored any insights from physical or social science into matters of sexuality or gender identity.
We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and damage is not just historic – it continues today, both in the Church’s own documents, and in the profound damage done in parts of Africa. Catholic doctrine is clear: all violence against gay or lesbian Catholics should be condemned
It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.
(CDF, Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, para. 10)
Some African bishops tragically do the opposite, and instead encourage harsh criminal sanctions against homosexuals, which contributes immeasurably to popular homophobia and actual violence against gay men and women.
We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and harm perpetrated by the Church applies not only to gay men and lesbians, but also to transgender people, who continue to be damaged by the gender paranoia displayed by many bishops, and in the documents of the Family Synod and “Amoris Laetitia”, with its inaccurate labelling and condemnation of academic gender theory as “gender ideology”.
So, much much more is still needed.
However, we must recognise and value the enormous step that this in fact represents, in moving away from the practices of the past. A process of reconciliation has begun. It is now appropriate for LGBT Catholics to accept this in good spirit – and to engage ever more vigorously with their local bishops and pastors, to encourage an acceleration in the process, leading to ever increasingly emphatic welcome and inclusion in church.