Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at Sydney’s “A Different Conversation” – a conference designed to bring the Christian community and the LGTBI community together for open and honest dialogue. The aim was not for one group to try and convince the other, but to increase awareness and understanding, and (hopefully) move forward in a healthy way.
Over the course of the conference, there were many different speakers from a diverse range of back grounds. As always, the personal stories were by far the most powerful part of the conference, and I was left in awe at the courage and bravery of many Christian LGBTI people who find themselves stuck between two worlds.
My contribution to the conference was three fold. I presented on the opening day with Anthony Venn Brown (ABBI) and Father Rod Bower (Gosford Anglican) about the challenges of talking about LGBTI issues in schools, churches, community groups and society in general. On the second day I was a counsellor/pastoral carer, keeping an eye out for anybody who was struggling with what was being presented and walking with them when necessary.
On the final day I was presenting on the issue of “Advocacy and Marriage Equality”, sharing the stage with documentary maker Maya Newell and the managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Lyle Shelton.
Maya is an engaging young woman and her documentary, currently being made into a feature length movie, is called “Growing Up Gayby” – a show about growing up in a same-sex parented family. Maya has two Mums and shared the journey of growing up in a loving, nurturing environment, despite some people claiming that her very scenario is damaging for children. When children became the focus in the marriage equality debate in Australia, Maya was concerned that one voice was being left out of the discussions. The voice of children just like her. And so she set about producing the doco to ensure the children’s voice was heard.
If you’ve read my blog or facebook page over the years, you’ll know that I haven’t been a fan of some of the things the ACL has been saying about the LGBTI community. I expected this encounter to be frustrating, if not infuriating, but made a promise to my self to act with as much grace and compassion as I could. I promised myself not to attack the ACL or Lyle, but to address the hurt his words would inevitably cause the group.
Lyle spoke after Maya, and presented as a likable person with a gentle manner. His background is similar to mine in that we both have worked as ministers, but also quite different in terms of his family upbringing. But, right from the beginning of Lyle’s presentation, buttons began to be pushed and people in the audience began to fidget. Over the previous few days we had heard a wide variety of opinions and experiences, and the ACL was now stating that they were all invalid because “the Bible clearly says…”. I wondered how Maya was feeling as she sat right next to Lyle as he systematically criticized the family that she loved dearly.
There was a lot I disagreed with, but two things that I found plainly offensive. Lyle stated that if same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia, we would create a whole new stolen generation of children. I cringed as he spoke these words and said a silent prayer of thanks that there were no indigenous people in the room. Using the pain and heartache of the indigenous community as a political tool to argue against the the desire of same-sex couples to get married is appallingly disrespectful. I don’t have time to go into the reasoning behind is argument, but in short he believes that children growing up in a same sex parented family would have no access to information about their biological parents. They would be ‘stolen’ from their true family.
Despite this simply not being the case (information is freely available in Australia) words like these open up deep wounds in the memory of our indigenous brothers and sisters, and takes their pain and turns it into a political tool. I fail to see the love in this. (Note: An example was used of women in poverty stricken countries selling their wombs to foreign couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) to give birth to surrogate babies. Rather than use this situation as an argument against marriage equality, perhaps we should be asking what circumstances support this woman having to sell her womb in the first place.)
The second comment that got my blood boiling was claim of Christians and faith base organisations being persecuted in the marriage equality debate. Leaving aside the definition of persecution (you know, being killed, maimed, made homeless etc for your faith) what Lyle was referring two was aged care facilities not being allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples. That is, if a same-sex couple applies to move in, or already lives in a residence, then they should have the same access and treatment as everybody else. Keep in mind here that many same-sex couples applying for aged care accommodation are elderly, have been together for decades, and want to live their twilight years together in a place where they will be looked after. Also keep in mind that in many rural settings, aged care is often provided by faith based organisations and same-sex couples may have no alternative other than moving to another location. According to Lyle, aged care facilities like this should be allowed to say no to same-sex couples based on nothing other than their relationship. If they are allowed to move in, then they could be made to live in separate rooms, paying twice as much, based on sexual orientation alone.
The tension in the room from some quarters was clearly running high when it came my turn to speak. I spoke as a counsellor and shared some of the stories I hear every week about how words like those of Lyle contribute to the pain and isolation of the LGBTI community. I spoke of the guiding principle of the health professions of “Do no harm” and how those that claim to represent the gospel must have the same attitude, but with the added clause of “Do good”. If we claim to represent God, then we don’t cause further harm to the already marginalized. We work for their good, regardless of their race, gender, religion, wealth or sexuality. Jesus said he came to give “Life and life to the full” – if we are to be advocates for anything, then it is to be advocates for full and meaningful lives. For everybody. Like Jesus did.
Yes, Jesus spoke harsh words for some people in Scripture. Harsh words for rich people. Harsh words for religious leaders. Harsh words for those that abused their places of power. Harsh words for those that placed unfair burdens on the shoulders of others. If Jesus was to have harsh and scathing words for anybody in our time, they wouldn’t be for the elderly same-sex couple wanting to live in a retirement village, they would be directed at people in positions of power and influence. People like Lyle. People like me.
Words like Lyle’s do harm. They contribute to the appalling mental health stats of the LGBTI community and, in extreme cases, the suicide rate. They make families of LGTBI kids feel isolated from their faith communities. They support the bullying of LGBTI students in schools. They allow some schools to justify their discrimination of students trying to come to terms with who they are. And there are ample studies that point to Lyle’s words simply being untrue. While said with motives to defend “Australia’s Christian heritage” they are not a reflection of the gospel. They drive people away from God. They drive people even further from the church.
However, there was one thing that Lyle said that I have never heard him say before. I’ve never heard his predecessor say it either. In a moment of striking honesty, Lyle faced the crowd and said, “I could be wrong”.
Only four words, but perhaps a glimmer of hope that the objective of “A Different Conversation” was being achieved. Different views being expressed, heard and understood.
I’ve no idea whether those words were just said as an act of false humility in the face of a crowd that largely thought differently, or they were a genuine expression of an internal wrestle. But to hear them from the leader of the most vocal opposition to the LGBTI community was significant. Time will tell.
Anyway, if you were there, please leave a comment below on your thoughts about how it all went. I’d be interested to hear your take.