Religious communities in South Africa are often violent towards the LGBTQIA+ community. The forms of violence are wide-ranging. The discrimination is based on heteronormative bias (belief-system that heterosexuality is the norm), prejudice, stereotypes, and literal reading of sacred texts.
These ideological positions are enforced by a false sense of moral high ground and enacted by the abuse of power. An example of this is corrective-rape that happens in many, not only black, communities. Lesbian women are violently sexually molested and raped to “cure them” of their sexual orientation.
Religious organisations/institutions misrecognise LGBTQIA+ people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE). As an ordained cleric and former reverend of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, I’m reflecting on my and other LGBTQIA+ people’s lived experiences within the Christian community.
For me, to address violence, comprehending the cause rather than addressing the symptoms is key. Understanding the reasons of violence enables me as a faith leader to start to organise, conscientisation and mobilisation in the faith communities where I work to become change agents and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The organisation I work for developed a theory of change called the Wheel of Change that assists faith communities to Open Minds (Diversity Awareness), Open Hearts (Dialogue in Safe-Spaces) and Open Doors (Inclusive and Affirming Faith Communities). For this blogpost, I will focus on Open Minds – Diversity Awareness. This encompasses listening to life stories and doing Contextual Bible Studies.
IAM believes in dialogue rather than debate. Why? Dialogue builds consensus through respecting conversational partners’ human dignity. While debate, is self-centred and focuses on winning. Over many years, we have been part of local faith communities where dialogue transpired in safe-spaces.
A safe-space refers to a non-threatening space to one’s wellbeing internally (inner-being – emotional, psychological and spiritual health) and externally (environment – people, physical structures and safety). Unsafe-spaces are threatening to one’s well-being both internally (internalised LGBTQIA+-phobia) and externally (discriminatory language, religious fundamentalism and distrust).
When faith communities start moving from unsafe towards safe-spaces, healing and justice are set in motion. Integral to this process of setting up safe-spaces is listening. The act of listening becomes a contemplative method to acknowledgement and affirming LGBTQIA+ people. I have struggled for a long time to master the art of listening to understand and not listening to respond. I have found that listening to understand requires language that enables me to voice what I have heard.
Human beings give names to “things” thereby ascribing meaning and purpose. Naming is both positive and negative. Positive-naming fosters a sense of longing, being at home and cared for. Negative-naming alienates, shames and contributes to othering. As an activist within religious communities, I experience in my own body the misrecognition that people in faith communities do to my body and other LGBTQIA+ people.
The following definitions offer language to speak in a non-violent manner to LGBTQIA+ people:1
- Sex (biological): male (penis, scrotum, testosterone etc.), female (vagina, ovaries, oestrogen etc.) and intersex (genitals and reproductive organs that are ambiguous).
- Gender (social construct): femininity, masculinity and transgender (transman – born female transitioned to male; transwoman – born male transitioned to women). Transgender people experience their gender different to their assigned gender at birth. Gender expression means how one expresses one’s gender through behaviour or clothes etc.; while gender non-conforming people do not subscribe to gender roles or gendered behaviour.
- Sexual Orientation (physical, spiritual, economic and romantic attraction to the same or different gender): gay (male to male), lesbian (female to female), bisexual (female to male/female; or male to male/female) and heterosexuals (female to male). Asexual refers to people that do not experience attraction or desire. There are a variety of asexual people.
- Sexual Play (sexual intercourse): various ways of expressing love and affection.
These definitions assist faith communities to listen to the stories of LGBTQIA+ people in a non-threatening way. Because every LGBTQIA+ person is not gay!
For Christians, the Bible stands central to their faith. IAM has been assisting faith communities to read the Bible contextually for the past 25 years. Most Christians read the Bible literally, without engaging scripture critically. A Contextual reading considers the context in which the scripture originated and the initial message for the audiences it intended to serve.
In Genesis 18 and 19 the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was – and still is – used to demonise LGBTQIA+ people. The actual sin of Sodom was the inhospitality of the city towards the strangers or guests. Abraham and Lot are examples of the value and custom of hospitality. The men of the city’s behaviour of rape was interpreted for centuries as an act of homosexuality. The above definition of sexual orientation contours this false assumption. Homosexuality is an expression of love been two consenting adult males; not rape.
Faith communities are called to be healers and agents of justice. Therefore, listening to LGBTQIA+ people’s stories is one way to combat the stereotypes, bias and prejudice that nurtures violence. As human beings we all desire that our dignity be affirmed. Referring to LGBTQIA+ people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression by using the correct terminology is life-affirming. This life-affirming language becomes the contesting tools with which to read scripture by love and for love.
1See for reference Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Gender toolkit: