IN OCTOBER 2014, the UK Government announced £2 million funding for charities offering creative ideas to stamp out homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying in schools.
In March 2015, eight organisations received a share of the fund, including the children’s charity Barnardo’s, for its plan ‘to provide face-to-face support for victims of HBT bullying and training for staff with a focus on cultural issues in schools in Leeds and Wakefield.’
After a year of consultation and development, what emerged was the Faith Toolkit, a resource to give schools and local communities the tools to effectively address HBT bullying, and support young people. it includes views from all the major religions, as well as an information pack with background to the issue, advice sheets and personal stories from the LGBTQ community.
Late last year I responded to a request for contributions to the Toolkit, and as a result I was invited to attend the launch of the Toolkit in Leeds in February, which was LGBT History Month on the theme of religion, belief and philosophy.
At the launch event, the project coordinators explained their understanding that
Faith is an integral part of who we are, but it should not be an impediment to who we want to be.
To reach as many people from diverse faith communities as possible, they have chosen to focus on the core values that faith traditions have in common, rather than the fine detail of doctrine and dogma which divides them. Instead of focussing on the so called ‘clobber texts’ which some people of faith believe are opposed to homosexual behaviour in Christian, Jewish and Islamic scripture, for example, they have chosen as their foundation The Golden Rule, an ethical principle common to many spiritual and religious traditions, perhaps best known in the phrase
Treat others as you would like to be treated.
This feels like an important shift in focus to enable constructive dialogue and engagement with contentious issues around sexuality and gender identity. If we want to be heard, understood, and respected, we need to offer the same to those from whom we are different or with whom we disagree, otherwise we remain stuck, defending our position against someone we may dehumanise because they are ‘not one of us’.
Unfortunately the launch event fell on the same day as Stonewall’s first multi-faith seminar, at which I was speaking and taking part in a panel discussion, so I was unable to stay for the whole event. However, I recorded a 5 minute video message in support of the project, which you can see here (Apologies for the quality – my laptop camera and microphone failed and to meet the deadline I had to hastily arrange a substitute which was not as clear).
And here is my contribution to the Toolkit, in response to three questions:
What does your faith say about ideas such as tolerance, respect, diversity?
I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official record of Roman Catholic teaching, published in 1992, it says:
(Homosexual persons…) must be accepted with respect, compassion,
and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard
should be avoided. [Catechism para 2358]
Sometimes, some members of the church, especially those in authority, seem to be unaware of this, or have forgotten it in the language they use to speak about lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. I have found it helpful to remember this, and to tell other people about this, so that we can challenge those who do not show respect, compassion and sensitivity.
In a reflection on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales wrote:
We are pilgrims together on a journey towards peace and justice.
This makes it clear that we have not always and everywhere got it right, but we have work to do to make our world a more peaceful, fair and just place for all people. The Bible teaches that I am a ‘beloved child of God’ (1 John 3:2), ‘made in God’s image’ (James 3:9), and so is everyone else, so each of us must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31) and ‘do for others what you want them to do for you’ (Luke 6:31).
So just as I want to be respected, so I need to show respect for everyone else.
What does your faith tell people about children and young people and protecting them from any form of bullying including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying?
The Catholic Church views education as vital to forming and developing the whole person, not just the mind. It teaches that
Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons [Catechism para 2222]
Children should also obey the reasonable directions of their teachers and all to whom their parents have entrusted them. [Catechism para 2217].
The Roman Catholic bishops of Scotland wrote in 2000:
The Catholic Church clearly teaches the inalienable dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God. Every human person has the right to be free from bigotry, intolerance and fear. Every human person has the right to live his or her life in peace, irrespective of race, religion, colour, gender or sexual orientation. We condemn unreservedly violence or bullying perpetrated for whatever reason.
However, it is not always put into practice. Research by the LGBT rights charity Stonewall in 2012 showed that 36% of teachers in faith schools did not challenge homophobic language, compared to 26% in other schools. There has been an improvement for pupils in faith schools feeling able to report homophobic bullying though – in 2012 there was no difference between faith schools and other schools in this area, whereas in 2007, pupils who attended faith schools were 23% less likely to report bullying than those at other schools (Stonewall, The School Report, 2007 & 2012).
Have you had any experiences that you would like others to hear about relating to sexuality and faith or homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying? This could be a negative experience or a positive one, for example, has faith helped you to tackle this form of bullying or have others in your faith community supported you to tackle this?
For the last ten years, I ran a youth group for LGBT young people aged 13-25 in Liverpool. When I was a student at a Roman Catholic school in the 1980s, I would not have believed that this could ever happen. I felt I was different from other boys but didn’t know why. I didn’t feel good about myself most of the time. Around age 14, I had a crush on a friend – I didn’t think much of myself, but I thought he was great. I thought I wanted to be like him, but I got jealous when he spent time with other friends. Other boys bullied me because they thought I was gay, but I had never said I was – I hadn’t admitted it to myself. At university I knew there was a group for LGBT students but I wouldn’t go because I had a negative stereotype of gay people and I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’. I felt ashamed. I had a crush on a classmate, but this time I thought it was a strong desire to help him through a tough time, to take care of him. I still couldn’t accept what it really was – I had fallen in love.
Because of my upbringing in an Irish Catholic family, I thought it wasn’t ok to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Some Christians believe that all sex outside marriage and having children is unnatural so it is forbidden. I became very involved with the church and got half way through training to become a priest. Catholic priests make a promise to be celibate (not to marry or have children). I thought I would probably never marry so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents. Then I saw a film about a priest who falls in love with another man. I thought it was beautiful and moving and it helped me to accept my feelings. I used to feel unhappy and depressed; sometimes I wished I didn’t exist. My mum used to say ‘You can tell us anything’ but I didn’t believe her.
After I left the training to become a priest, I decided to tell my parents that I’m gay. My dad said ‘God still loves you.’ This was the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. Mum said ‘I won’t tell anyone about your problem.’ I told her that being gay was not the problem – being unable to talk about it and be myself was. I got involved with the youth group for LGBT young people so they don’t have to go through some of what I did when I was a teenager.
Over time, my parents could see I was happier being myself. Knowing my parents accepted me made it easier to accept myself. I felt more loved, and loveable. When I found a partner they were very welcoming to him. In 2012, after four years together, we celebrated our relationship with a civil partnership service. As our faith is still important to us, we arranged to have a blessing in a church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like most straight couples sign the register during a church wedding. We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, and we made news headlines. We wrote our own service – it was very moving. I have no doubt that we received a blessing on our relationship on that day, and continue to do so, as we now run a monthly service for LGBT people, family and friends at an Anglican church in Liverpool.