Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives

LGBTQI people and allies, clergy, activists and scholars explore LGBTQI inclusion in their religious communities, addressing how their faith’s teachings have been traditionally interpreted, the ways in which inclusion is being consciously constructed or denied, and where LGBTQI people can find support within the tradition.

Edited by Mychal Copeland, MTS, and D’vorah Rose, BCC
Foreword by Bishop Gene Robinson
Afterword by Ani Zonneveld, founder and president, Muslims for Progressive Values

Quality Paperback
6 x 9, 240 pp | 978-1-59473-602-5

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A multifaceted sourcebook telling the powerful story of reconciliation, celebration and struggle for LGBTQI inclusion across the American religious landscape.

“No matter what stage in the process of change, religious belief is unveiled in all its dynamism in this book.... Wrestling with issues and struggling for better understanding of one’s fellow human beings is at the center of every religion, no matter how old or new, narrow or expansive, Western or Eastern, that religion is. The struggle itself is a sign of life in these religious endeavors, and with life there is hope.”

—from the Foreword by Bishop Gene Robinson

We are at a critical turning point in American religious and political life over LGBTQI inclusion. How each spiritual community approaches the question will profoundly impact the American political and social climate of the future. This accessible resource explores thirteen faith traditions that wrestle with LGBTQI inclusion, documenting the challenges and transformation of American religion.

Faith Traditions Covered: The Black Church • Buddhism • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) • The Episcopal Church • First Nations (Native American) • Hinduism • Judaism • The Lutheran Church • Islam • The Presbyterian Church • Protestant Evangelical Traditions • The Roman Catholic Church • Unitarian Universalism

“A timely exploration of the grappling all faith communities must engage in to survive and thrive in modern pluralistic America.... Powerfully outline[s] the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Rick Davis, western regional director, Lambda Legal

“A wonderful compendium of resources.... Religion and LGBTQI rights are not at odds with one another and this book helps to show that.”

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, president, Central Conference of American Rabbis; founding president, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Interfaith Clergy Association

“Honest, compelling and hopeful faith leaders ... share their views on the issues that matter most. If we will hear them and respond to the divine spirit of love together, the struggle will be well worth it.”

The Rev. Peter Wallace, Day1 radio host; author, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically

“A strong addition to the fields of theology, religion and LGBTQI studies.... Of particular use and interest to those who regularly work in multifaith environments such as chaplains and pastoral counselors.... Clergy of all faith traditions will also find this a valuable resource.”

Rabbi Stephen B. Roberts, MBA, BCC, editor, Professional Spiritual and Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain’s Handbook

“An invaluable resource. This richly textured treasury will enlighten your mind, expand your heart and show you ways to engage more fully with the uniqueness of each person and the complexity of each religious tradition.”

Diane M. Millis, PhD, author, Deepening Engagement: Essential Wisdom for Listening and Leading with Purpose, Meaning and Joy




What was your inspiration for this book?
My first job working directly with an LGBTQI community was at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. As an intern, I provided counseling to the many people who called the synagogue for help. Even though the synagogue is affiliated with the Reform movement, many were Orthodox Jews in heterosexual marriages struggling with gay or transgender identities. At UCLA and Stanford, I created Jewish LGBTQI student groups that quickly attracted queer and questioning students affiliated with Catholicism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions across the religious spectrum—because these groups were the only safe religious spaces around. During my years working on campus and in synagogues, I’ve met a gay Muslim student from Saudi Arabia who was scared his family would have him executed. I’ve seen how gay men with AIDS were blamed for their illness—a divine punishment. I knew of parents of a lesbian, Latina, Catholic college student who sought advice from their priest, and he urged them to perform an exorcism. I met with a professor who had been fired from her post at an evangelical university when she was discovered to be a lesbian, and a transgender Jew struggling within his traditional community. I’ve met countless people who were out in their personal lives, but closeted in their religious ones, or vice versa. For some, any place where a myriad of religious identities were present opened up the possibility of discrimination. I’ve seen a community of fragmented selves, largely due to the homophobia and transphobia imbedded within so many religious traditions and the impact of these attitudes on society at large.
     In my work with meditation and yoga, I’ve taught students to see their physical selves integrated with their emotional and intellectual selves. Rather than separating how they felt about their bodies—including everything from body image to sexuality, gender identity and sex—we worked toward an integrated whole. I started to wonder what attitudes about institutional change are seeded within traditions that have been inclusive of LGBTQI people, and what the process toward transformation might be for more conservative religious denominations. How could we be listening more deeply and compassionately to the internal struggles of each group? How could we encourage the humane treatment of LGBTQI people from even the most dogmatically opposed religions? I began to feel that the reason I became a clergyperson at this time in history was to help traditions move along this trajectory toward transformation without sacrificing their integrity while encouraging individuals to bring their entire selves to their spiritual lives.

I have travelled through a number of religious and spiritual communities (Quaker, Vedanta, Theravada Buddhism and, most formally, Vajrayana Buddhism) in addition to my life in the Jewish world. In all of them, heterosexuality was the assumption and the norm. Even in the queer-friendly Buddhist sanghas with which I sat, all of the teachings, practices and iconographies were heteronormative. I often found it difficult to locate myself spiritually and even communally, because nothing ever quite spoke accurately or empathetically to my experience and perspective. As a nurse and as a healthcare chaplain, I see many LGBTQI patients and healthcare providers made invisible by the healthcare system. LGBTQI healthcare providers often feel they must be closeted in their professional lives, forcing them to make their families invisible and denying them the collegial support enjoyed by their heteronormative colleagues. There are still many conversations about whether being out will affect one’s ability to advance in medicine or nursing. If emerging and currently licensed healthcare providers do not feel safe being out, would even allies risk advocating for LGBTQI patients and families in this climate? So often I have met LGBTQI people who are in such great despair that they have lost interest in living. And just as awful, in some cases they are terrified of dying, because they have been told by their religious communities that identifying as LGBTQI (even if celibate) will condemn them to eternal torment. I have seen extraordinary transformation when people hear that they are, in fact, accepted and loved. They (re)gain their wholeness and vitality and often go on to support others. 
     I am also a lover of religion. Experience has shown me that religious or spiritual practices and communities, when involved wisely, can produce extraordinary support, meaning, beauty and transformation. But religions have to change over time or they become stagnant and die. It seems that many people involved in religious life believe that their religion has never changed from the time it first appeared, but this is not correct. We live in a remarkable time in which religions are making huge shifts in response to larger social changes. There are an increasing number of religious and spiritual traditions in which practitioners are crafting liturgy and mystical imagery that responds to and explores the continuum of sexual identities and orientations. More truth is being spoken about the fullness of the human experience.
Are all of the authors LGBTQI themselves?
No. In fact, we do not even know how some of our contributors identify themselves and we have not asked. Of those who have identified themselves, most do identify as LGBTQI, while others identify as straight allies. We imagine that some do not make their own identities a central part of their work on LGBTQI justice in their traditions. Transformation necessitates a variety of approaches.

Are all of the authors working within religious institutions, denominations or communities?
All but one of our authors place themselves within their religious, cultural or spiritual communities. The outlier is Ryan Bell. When we met him, he had just been forced to resign from his Southern California parish. Raised and ordained within the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, his church opposed his views on theology, women’s ordination and gay marriage. He has taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution, in the doctorate development program. He brings a unique view to our book.

Do you think all LGBTQI people need to find a religious community?
No, just as not all heterosexual people need to find a religious community. But we hope to show LGBTQI people that there are many religious communities truly eager to fully include them in religious life, and to help religious communities understand that not only are there many LGBTQI people who want to be engaged actively in religious life, but that their religion can actually make space for them.

What do you want all religious traditions to learn, regardless of whether or not they will ultimately change on this issue? Do you think any argument could compel them to change—and must that change come only from people active within that tradition?
Ultimately, we believe that change needs to come from within institutions themselves. There are many examples of religious institutions being forced to change due to external pressure, only to experience more problematic backlash later. Allowing an institution to figure out how to change from within lets the change be organic and the community members be invested in and take ownership of those changes. That said, ongoing pressure from outside the particular community can be essential in supporting and assisting those potential change-makers within the religion.
     Even in religious traditions that do not foresee transformation on LGBTQI issues, we call on their leaders, families and practitioners to treat each person with dignity and respect. Many of our religious traditions teach that each human being is a reflection of divinity, and we expect that people will be treated as such regardless of the stance of the organization. Such dignified treatment would not erase damage done in other arenas, but it is a great place to start.
     Religious leaders and practitioners need to recognize and take responsibility for the connection between the theologies they espouse (celibacy, sin, abomination) and the high murder and suicide rates of LGBTQI people. Such ideologies don’t stay in our pews; they seep out, instigating and perpetuating attitudes that cause people to lash out at their neighbors and family members in ways many leaders would never condone, causing immense psychological and physical pain.

What do you hope readers get out of the book?
Confronting our own assumptions can help us better understand the depth and intricacies of the intersection of LGBTQI identity and religious life. Each of us carries a certain amount of religious baggage, positive, negative or neutral. Just as our own identity formation was affected by our families of origin, our education, our ethnicities, our opportunities or lack thereof, we have also been influenced by subtle or explicit attitudes about religion growing up or in our adult years. Religion may be part of our personal story without us realizing it. Whether we embrace, reject or feel ambivalent toward religion or spirituality, the more we are able to confront our own presuppositions, the better equipped we will be in listening to others with different viewpoints and affiliations.

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Where do you see LGBTQI issues and religion clash? In the news? In families you know or in your own family?

If you are connected with a particular spiritual tradition or denomination, what do you think people assume about you when they hear of this affiliation? Is it true?

If you are not connected to a spiritual community, why do you think some people find religious and spiritual life so compelling, even at the risk of rejection?

How might gender or sexual identity affect the way a person conceptualizes the divine?

Are there areas in your life where you bring partial versions of yourself or downplay particular parts of yourself? Why does it feel necessary to do so? How does this affect you? Others?

As you begin your discussion, please reflect upon each community’s struggle with this issue and consider these questions: Does resistance come from traditional, textual or societal sources? If so, how are those supporting LGBTQI inclusion responding to these barriers? Why are some community members worried about removing these barriers?

The Black Church
What connections does the author make between black churches’ ostracism of LGBTQI people and racial discrimination?

How would you explain Rev. Coates’s stance that his support of gay and lesbian Christians is due to his belief in the authority of scripture, rather than being in spite of it?

How has this chapter affected your understanding of personal identity? Do you find this unsettling or liberating? Why?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
What similarities and differences do you see in how LDS church leadership responded to prior civil rights movement–influenced issues such as entry into the priesthood for African Americans and the leadership’s response to LGBTQI issues? Why do you think they are similar or different?

The Episcopal Church
What does it mean to accept the “givenness” of your body if you do not accept your body?

First Nations (Native American)
In what ways are these communities coming to terms with their history around LGBTQI issues and returning to traditional narratives, as well as creating new ones?

How might traditional Hindu stories about sex change be used to support LGBTQI people? How did it feel to read about sex change in sacred texts, if this was a new concept for you?

How has colonialism impacted Hindu religious attitudes about LGBTQI people?

Since traditionally Muslim prayer space is separated by sex—male and female—what do you imagine the impact might be upon one’s spiritual experience to sit in mixed-gender spaces, including those who identify as gender-fluid?

How is the idea that “all of Judaism exists within an interpretive practice” significant to this tradition’s approach to LGBTQI issues?

The Lutheran Church
Can you think of a familiar text and explore the approaches of exegesis and eisegesis? In what ways do you read your own personal context into scripture? In what ways do you leave your own contemporary lens aside when reading sacred text and attempt to only draw the meaning out of the text itself? Now, try this with a text about an LGBTQI-related text and ask the same questions.

How does the concept of God’s grace as a free gift influence how we treat the LBGTQI community or any outsiders? How should or could it further our welcoming of the disenfranchised?

The Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian theologian Jack Rogers states that the majority within the church—typically white men—have taken the authority to interpret the Bible and to claim their own perspectives on social issues as normative. Rogers observes that the community therefore reads social prejudice back into the text. What do you think about this statement? Can you identify places in your own scriptural or ritual tradition where current social beliefs are held as truths?

Protestant Evangelical Traditions
The author highlights the selectivity practiced by Evangelicals. The church says that Jesus fulfilled all the commandments found in the Hebrew Bible via his death, yet they point specifically to Hebrew Bible commandments prohibiting male-male sexual activity. What, then, might be the primary issue of concern? Do you think it is possible that church leadership has selected the issue of homosexuality for a reason other than religious doctrine? If so, how might church members approach addressing the underlying concerns?

The Roman Catholic Church
If a religion has some members who follow a literal interpretative tradition and others who only follow a historical-critical interpretative tradition, do you think it is possible for these two distinct approaches to find common ground? Where might that be?

Unitarian Universalism
The author makes reference to church members who want to bring their “whole selves” to their religious lives. What does it mean to have multiple identities? Is it possible to leave aside some aspects of yourself in one setting, and other aspects in another? What might the impact be on your emotional and spiritual health to leave aside parts of your identity in church, at school, at work or at the doctor’s office?

In reading about different religious and spiritual traditions and their wrestling with this particular issue, has anything shifted in how you think about your own religious or spiritual beliefs and practices? 

What recurring themes did you notice throughout the chapters? Why do you think these reappear?

Throughout the course of the book, the same texts were often quoted by followers of different religious perspectives. What differences or similarities did you see in how that scripture was interpreted or applied to LGBTQI engagement? Did you find any specific religious texts or statements in the book you would like to draw on when speaking with others about LGBTQI community members, coworkers, students or patients? Why do these passages or ideas appeal to you?

Since many writers emphasized that their traditions are not just anti-LGBTQI, but are also anti-sexual activity, how might traditions be affected by a more positive stance on non-harmful sexual activity? 

If you were able to join the perfect community, what would it look like?