Religious groups counsel, advocate on behalf of LGBT faithful

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Apr 15, 2010

As the dialogue over marriage for same-sex couples remains largely framed by religious-based arguments, it should come as no surprise many LGBT people have abandoned faith all together. But an increasing number of groups have emerged to offer support, educational and social opportunities to LGBT people.

Activist Jay Michaelson founded Nehirim (which means "Lights") in 2004 as an opportunity for LGBT Jews to "celebrate being queer and Jewish as a blessing and not a predicament." Though originally only a small retreat, the group has blossomed into a nationwide grassroots network. And Rabbi Aaron Katz held the first service of a new LGBT-geared monthly group at the Beth David Congregation in Miami last month.

Nehirim's Southeast retreat in Atlanta in November will be the first such gathering for the organization, which has previously focused its programming on the East and West Coasts. Michaelson, who grew up in Tampa, told EDGE this recent expansion has brought his organization to a new level; one he hopes will allow the group's message of acceptance and celebration to reach more people.

"[Nehirim's] been really life changing for me and I believe a lot of other people who have helped build this community," he said. "It's been really empowering to not let either the bigots or cowards define what our religion is for us. We've gone ahead and created the kind of community we've always wanted."

Michaelson said Nehirim has served people from diverse backgrounds - everyone from LGBT people who had not explored their Jewish faith since their youth to Orthodox adults who had lived in the closet for decades.

"This is often the only place where they can be out as who they are, queer and proud, where it's also not only about hooking up," said Michaelson. "It's about a fuller kind of picture, a community of people looking to find a meaningful connection with each other."

Groups as diverse as Al-Fatiha, an organization for LGBT Muslims, to Affirmation, a group for gay Mormons, have sprung up to support LGBT faithful, but these organizations also seek to change their religious institutions from within.

LGBT activists and faith leaders from a variety of religious backgrounds gathered in Chicago last weekend for a first-of-its kind prayer breakfast. Attendees discussed strategies to overcome the long-standing tension between the two groups.

"It's not enough for people of faith to fix their communities without taking their lessons to the world," said the Rev. Joy E. Rogers of St. James Episcopal Cathedral at the breakfast.

But many complications still exist for LGBT-friendly faith leaders from religious institutions that have funded Proposition 8 and other anti-LGBT measures. Reeling from accusations the Roman Catholic hierarchy has covered up clergy sexual abuse for decades, some Vatican officials have publicly castigated gay men for corrupting the priesthood.

"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia, but many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia," said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, told reporters at a press conference in Chile earlier this week as EDGE reported on Monday, April 12. "That is true. That is the problem."

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the New Ways Ministry said Bertone's assertion is not representative of the position of many of the church's "middle managers" - pastors, presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and heads of Catholic hospitals.

While Cardinal Francis George, the highest-ranking American bishop, officially condemned New Ways Ministry, DeBernardo said his group's educational and outreach programs and retreats remained as popular as ever, giving him hope for a more gay-friendly church sooner than many others could expect.

"We're seeing much more of an interest on the part of those people working in the Church to learn more about gay and lesbian issues and they're also coming in with more of an awareness to start from than even 10 years ago," DeBernardo told EDGE. "I think one of the reasons the bishops are becoming more vociferous in their statements on homosexuality is because they realize Catholic people are becoming more pro-gay. The [bishops] are losing this debate within the church."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.


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