The Issue that Dare Not Speak Its Name

The Issue that Dare Not Speak Its Name May 9, 2016

As a visible leader within a Humanist congregation, playing an equivalent role to clergy, I attend a lot of interfaith meetings and events, and frequently work with interfaith coalitions. These are mostly jolly affairs: an opportunity for representatives of different religious faiths + Humanism to come together to develop deeper understanding of each others’ traditions, build relationships, and occasionally put out a statement on an issue of importance. We don’t agree on every issue, but most often we are able to discuss those areas where we don’t agree and come to some accommodation. Usually we can find enough common ground to say something – even if something anodyne and saccharine, as interfaith statements tend (in my experience) to be. In the past months, as I have worked with these coalitions, we have discussed racial justice, economic justice, education reform, immigration, and Islamophobia – all with the hope of bringing our religious and ethical perspectives to bear on the issue at hand, and to try to find a unified voice with which to pursue what’s right.

Yet there is one issue on which these coalitions remain perpetually silent – which, in some cases, cannot even be spoken of. That issue is the full and equal dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and other queer people. Bring to the table a proposal to affirm the rights and dignity of Muslims after a terrorist attack, and you will (rightly) receive unanimous and enthusiastic support from people around the table. Suggest that LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace and the marketplace, and the squirming begins. You will doubtless receive the full support of many individual clergy people in the room – some of the clergy I’m working with are staunch activists for queer liberation – but the interfaith organization as a whole will take no stance. To affirm the humanity of queer people is seen as divisive, dangerous to the coherence of the coalition, an issue that dare not speak its name.

The “queer issue” is a live one in Missouri: we recently beat back a particularly insidious homophobic bill which would have amended the state’s constitution to allow people to discriminate against LGBTQ people if they believed they had religious reasons to do so. This bill had obvious relevance to the interfaith coalitions of which I am a member, because in large part it was designed to “protect the religious freedom” of clergy, and the individuals who comprise these interfaith coalitions are largely clergy themselves. You might think, then, that coalitions of clergy and congregations would have something official to say about such a measure. But no: while individual clergy took a stand, the interfaith organizations remained silent.

I don’t appreciate that. I am an openly gay leader of a Humanist congregation, working closely with interfaith coalitions to fight for justice while they will not stand for me or for my people. This isn’t easy. Honestly, I think I hate it. It is an extraordinary strain to work with coalitions which, in some cases, will not even discuss the ways in which you are oppressed: to take the oppression of queer people off the table of discussion is to compound oppression with oppression. It’s a measure, too, of how deeply queerphobic attitudes and beliefs are embedded in religious traditions that it is even considered acceptable to “debate” questions of equal marriage and employment protection at these otherwise-genteel gatherings of the faithful. It would be seen as astonishingly offensive, in this same company, to come to the table with religious objections to interracial marriage or the equality of women (although, of course, a woman’s right to choose is fair game) – yet rank homophobia is an acceptable and “respected” religious opinion. What is considered a legitimate religious viewpoint and what is considered obvious bigotry is a reflection of whose humanity you respect and whose is negotiable: and right now, in these interfaith settings, my humanity is negotiable.

I’m still going to show up and work for justice. Despite the number of times I’ve returned home angry and disappointed, feeling dejected and disrespected, I still think I’ll probably do more good attending the meetings and making my view know than withdrawing from them on principle – though on some days that calculation seems wildly optimistic. Being close to religious queerphobia has actually made me less optimistic that fast and widespread change will occur, because I’ve seen how deeply this poisoned river runs, and heard what people are willing to tell you to your face. But I trust in the end that turning up is itself a powerful statement: even when you cannot talk about an issue you can embody the issue, and no one’s going to stop me saying my name. It’s not easy and it’s not fun, but I guess someone has to do it. Don’t they?

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