Making noise for #AntiBullyingWeek, #InterfaithWeek, #TDOR

THIS WEEK in England there is an interesting combination of commemorations – Anti-Bullying Week, Interfaith Week, and Trans* Awareness Week, culminating today in Trans* Day of Remembrance (TDOR).

I have been at four events in the past week to mark these campaigns:

  • ‘An All Embracing Faith’ – Keynote speech by Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall LGBT rights charity at Liverpool Cathedral last Friday
  • My first day as a Stonewall School Role Model, speaking at Manchester Grammar School
  • ‘Believing in LGBT young people’ conference for Interfaith Week at the LGBT Foundation in Manchester
  • A special service of remembrance to start Trans* Awareness Week and mark TDOR at Open Table, Liverpool’s monthly Christian service for the LGBT community, family and friends.

Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt speaking at Liverpool Cathedral

‘An All Embracing Faith’:

Ruth Hunt spoke at the Liverpool City Breakfast, a quarterly event at the city’s Anglican Cathedral to gather a cross-section of leaders from across the region to hear a nationally-recognised speaker – a person of faith and an expert in their field – present on a subject important to Merseyside.

Ruth became Chief Executive of Stonewall in August 2014, having led the charity’s policy, campaign and research work for three years, including its campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.

Since taking on the leadership, Ruth has committed to bringing Stonewall even deeper into communities, engaging with groups from different ethnicities, religions and geographies – both in the UK and abroad.

Her appointment has been controversial, both in LGBT and faith communities, as Ruth has spoken openly about her Catholic belief. She told Pink News:

As a practising Catholic myself I often feel isolation – incredulity from some LGBT people and scepticism from some people of faith. Stonewall will be working hard to show wider society that LGBT people of faith do exist and are part of faith communities. Too often it’s assumed we’re never on the same side. Stonewall are also very willing to support faith leaders and communities be more welcoming of LGBT people too.

She has also spearheaded Stonewall’s commitment to campaign for trans equality, following an extensive consultation with more than 700 trans people. The charity’s new motto is ‘Acceptance Without Exception’ – including the wider spectrum of the LGBT community, not just those who have benefited from legislative change over the last decade in the UK.

Ruth shared her perspective on inclusivity in public life, with an audience of around 45 LGBT, heterosexual and cisgender (non-trans*) people, from Anglican, Catholic and other faith traditions and no faith background.

She spoke of how Stonewall’s journey has mirrored other civil rights movements, and been polarised by highly emotive issues. The primary focus of its 26 year history has been campaigning for that legislative change – once that was achieved, the campaign could have faltered, but it found a renewed vision was needed. She believes an authentic relationship with her faith inevitably informs her approach to the leadership of this campaigning organisation as it adapts to the new landscape, to change hearts and minds and promote greater understanding of sexuality and gender diversity throughout public life.

Ruth described Stonewall’s approach to this process as ‘nudging, pragmatic, diplomatic, sitting alongside’ those who can make change happen. Stonewall is increasingly doing this with faith communities – for example, it recently produced a booklet called Christian Role Models, sharing stories from LGBT people around the world. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation in 2013 to help tackle homophobic bullying in Church of England schools, they are working with a coalition of LGBT Christians to make a representation to the CofE’s General Synod in 2016. Their aim is to ‘change the tenor of the debate (around religion, sexuality and gender identity) in constructive, respectful and meaningful ways’, particularly in the Anglican tradition, which has a history of diversity in theological opinion, but struggles to accept diversity on the issue of sexuality.

As an example of this tension, Ruth said that the Bishop of Liverpool had spoken in support of her speaking at this event after Liverpool Cathedral received objections to her presence and message. I was tweeting live from the event, so I shared this statement, tagging both Bishop Paul and Liverpool Cathedral. The bishop replied within a few moments, so I was able to share his message with those present:

Of her own faith journey, she said;

My faith is part of who I am – I’ve never seen it as incompatible with my sexual orientation.

which she recognises is not true for every LGBT person of faith. However, she added:

I found it harder to come out as Catholic than as gay, because at least I had the gay community backing me up.

She received hate mail after being appointed Stonewall’s CEO, including one comparing a Catholic leading an LGBT organisation with asking a Nazi to head a Jewish society.

Ruth was modest and humble in her approach, keen to make clear that she speaks from her experience as a person of faith, not as a theologian or spokesperson for the Church. But she recognised the privilege and responsibility of speaking on behalf of LGBT people, a ‘wounded community’ with a history of criminalisation, blame and shame for HIV, what Section 28 called ‘pretended families’, and lack of representation in, or deliberate exclusion from, public life. While many areas of public life have come a long way in addressing inequality, Ruth says there is an ongoing need to tackle this in faith communities.

There are times when Stonewall may not have got its pragmatic, diplomatic approach right, Ruth admitted. With hindsight, she said, when Stonewall began to look beyond campaigning for legislative change in 2008, that could have been a better time to commit to supporting trans* equality, as it became clear that its lack of support began to do more damage. Initially, the intention was not to compete with Press For Change, which focusses on trans* issues in law and the media, and to avoid appropriating the struggle and hard work of another community. Having learned from this experience, Ruth said, Stonewall’s aim is to amplify the voices of marginalised people, not to claim to be the voice. Following their consultation with 700 trans* people, they are now committed to trans* specific work, and making their existing resources trans* representative and inclusive, as well as supporting trans* people to campaign for a more equal and informed Gender Recognition Act.

In every community, but particularly in faith communities, Ruth argued that getting to know LGBT people minimises discrimination. The biggest shift she has observed is ‘the change in tone from hostile rejection to questioning discomfort’ in the Evangelical Christian movement in this country as LGBT people choose to engage with their faith tradition rather than walk away. She contrasted this with the increase of extreme views and laws in parts of Africa and eastern Europe, where there is evidence that some wealthy US evangelicals are investing money to support anti-LGBT legislation following the failure of the campaign against legislative change is America. Stonewall is working to challenge the rhetoric they preach that LGBT identities are a ‘Western import’ by amplifying the voices of people from those cultures, as the Christian Role Models booklet aims to do. She also expressed concern about the ‘vacillating messages’ from the Vatican about where it stands on LGBT issues, and particularly the conflation of understanding the diversity of sexual orientation with the Church’s issues around sexual abuse.

Reflecting on the complexity of the international situation, Ruth echoed concerns expressed by church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, that a split in the church would be most damaging to African LGBT Christians. She did not claim to have the solution, but she has committed herself, and Stonewall, to walking alongside LGBT people of faith, and seeking constructive, respectful and meaningful dialogue so that we can reduce discrimination through relationship.

The Liverpool City Breakfast organised received overwhelmingly positive feedback about Ruth’s presentation – let’s hope it inspires us to continue this conversation in our own communities.

You can watch a video of Ruth Hunt’s talk recorded by Bay TV Liverpool here (24 minutes):

Speaking as a Stonewall Role Model at Manchester Grammar School

Stonewall School Role Model:

Earlier this year I attended a training day at Stonewall HQ in London for prospective role models to share their stories in schools as part of the charity’s anti-bullying campaign. There were six of us, three trans* people (one ex-RAF, two serving firefighters), a young gay photographer, an older Jewish actress and life coach, and me, a gay Christian. It was an intense and fascinating day. We listened to each other’s stories and gave feedback on how to develop them. I have previously shared some of my story, not only on this blog, but also in schools with Diversity Role Models (DRM). I needed to work on it though, as DRM works with 2 or 3 role models in its sessions, whereas for Stonewall I would be the only speaker. Instead of the five minute slot I have had in a DRM session, I had 20 minutes to share and up to 20 minutes for questions and answers. Based on feedback from the training day, I added more about my school experience, the response I had from media coverage of my civil partnership (the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK), and how the monthly service for LGBT Christians that my partner and I run is growing.

Having delivered assemblies in secondary schools before, I was already skeptical that we would need 20 minutes for questions, as I have found older children more reluctant to speak up in front of a large group of their peers, especially about LGBT issues. Then when I found out that my first visit would be to an all boys school, to speak to two year groups at the same time (around 300 students), I was even more skeptical.

I am very pleased to say that the hospitality, openness and respect I experienced from students and staff at Manchester Grammar School proved me wrong. I spoke twice, to Years 9 & 10 (13-15 year olds), then 12 & 13 (16-18 year olds). Both groups engaged well and asked really insightful questions. Staff also shared feedback from the preparatory sessions they had done, including a question from one young person about how the school would respond if someone came out as trans* – a very important question for a single sex school! Staff also encouraged students to sign Stonewall’s No Bystanders anti-bullying campaign and pledge to speak out against all forms of bullying, but especially homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. Year 11 (15-16 year olds), were unavailable due to exam commitments, but they have asked me back to speak to them next year.

Although it is now an independent, fee paying school, it remains committed to diversity by providing a high proportion of bursaries to students from a range of backgrounds, and it reflects cultural and religious diversity by offering weekly assemblies from across the faith spectrum alongside a non-religious assembly, and boys may choose to attend any of these. They are also encouraged, and take the initiative, to contribute to assemblies – I met two boys who have spoken up about LGBT issues in their form and year groups, and staff empower them to do so; an inspiring example of what can be done to counteract a culture of bullying by raising awareness and celebrating difference.

Speaking at the LGBT Foundation for Interfaith Week

‘Believing in LGBT young people’:

Recognising the need for relationship and dialogue, an Anglican vicar approached the LGBT Foundation in Manchester to create a forum for sharing good practice and understanding between LGBT people and faith communities, for the benefit of young people who may find themselves in both.

Interfaith Week is a great opportunity to do this, as it seeks to:

  • draw new people into inter faith learning and cooperation;
  • celebrate diversity and commonality;
  • open new possibilities for partnership.

The aims of this event were to enable participants to:

  • be aware of the above average health inequalities LGBT people face in the UK today
  • understand spiritual needs of LGBT people
  • gain insight into the wellbeing of LGBT young people
  • encourage young people to be positive about faith and belief issues.
  • help faith communities support younger LGBT people

LGBT Foundation has produced a resource celebrating LGBT people of faith called ‘Faithbook’, as well as working with local faith groups and hosting events such as  the bi-annual celebration for the LGBT community at Manchester Cathedral. They also contributed to the development and launch of Spectrum of Spirituality, an LGBT interfaith partnership which began in April 2010 to plan a celebration for Liverpool’s first official Pride festival, and has grown to include several events a year as well as the annual Pride event. It has also been on a similar journey to Stonewall, as it changed from calling itself the Lesbian and Gay Foundation to its current, more diverse and inclusive, name in August 2014.

Andrew Gilliver, Community Involvement Manager at the LGBT Foundation, presented research on inequalities faced by LGBT young people, particularly from the Youth Chances survey of 7000 16-25 year olds, which found that LGBT young people feel substantially less accepted in their local community than their heterosexual, non-trans counterparts particularly in religious organisations and sport.

Other speakers included:

  • Hayley Matthews, a trustee of the LGBT Foundation and rector of an inclusive Church of England parish in Manchester, who is in a same-sex relationship and has a family of adopted children. She spoke beautifully of the need to practise unconditional hospitality to build relationships and resilience with young people. She also gave this interview to the Foundation for Interfaith Week in 2011.
  • Jawad Mahboob, Health & Wellbeing Co-ordinator at the LGBT Foundation, who spoke passionately and movingly of his experiences as a young gay Muslim – he described feeling ‘like a plate shattered into a thousand pieces’ after people he trusted in his faith community, and the LGBT community, took advantage of his vulnerability when he came out to them.
  • Tara Hewitt, an Equality & Diversity Advisor for an NHS Trust who shared her experience as a trans* bisexual woman who converted to Catholicism
  • Bob & Mandy Stoner, former Biblical fundamentalists who set up a support group for parents of LGBT young people after their child came out as trans*

I spoke about ‘A person-centred approach to young people and faith’, based on my experience of working with the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group for ten years. Person centred theory was created by Carl Rogers, who began training for Christian ministry but gave this up for a career in psychology. He became one of the most influential figures in 20th Century psychology. His approach is based on three core conditions:

  1. We are congruent (genuine) with the young person.
  2. We provide young people with unconditional positive regard (non-judgment).
  3. We show empathy to the young person

which he believed promotes greater self-acceptance and empowers a person to make healthy changes.

This is good practice for everyone, but particularly LGBT young people, who are more likely to experience:

  • greater internalised prejudice and shame
  • difficulty trusting someone from a different or no faith background
  • greater isolation, through feeling judged by those they are taught to respect
  • greater fear and risk of losing close relationships.

After I presented on this theme to a group of counsellors on World Mental Health Day this year, one came to me and said

I’m a Christian, and when I practice person centred counselling I find it is the most profound spiritual practice.

The three core conditions can be summed up as unconditional love, which is an expression of the divine in every major faith tradition.

I also shared the advice I once heard in a presentation by Imaan, the LGBT Muslim group, that we should not counsel LGBT young people to come out, especially in conservative religious and cultural contexts, as this may put them at risk of homelessness or other harm. It is better to help a young person build their resilience, friendships and support networks, and perhaps work towards independent living, which will enable them to make healthy, informed choices about how they share their identity when the time is right and safe enough.

I hope this event inspires others to have conversations like this in their own communities, especially as February 2016 is LGBT History Month, with the theme of Religion & Belief – this would be a great opportunity for similar events to happen across the country. I aim to bring colleagues together to have one in Liverpool – watch this space!

The communion table at the Open Table TDOR service, 15th November 2015

Trans* Awareness Week:

This campaign originated with Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), when people all over the world remember those who have been killed as a result of transphobia. TDOR started in 1999 with a memorial event to remember Rita Hester, who was murdered on November 28th, 1998 in Boston, USA.  Rita Hester’s murder – like most anti-transgender murder cases worldwide – remains unsolved.

TDOR has become an annual event which has grown in reach and profile across the world. This year, at TDOR vigils around the globe, 271 people were remembered – and that is just the names we know of, as not every state records the true gender identity of victims or transphobia as a hate crime motive. Following the recognition that the best way to tackle prejudice is to raise awareness, trans* and LGBT organisations have developed a week of activities in advance of TDOR in the hope that next year, the number of those to be remembered is fewer.

In Liverpool a number of events were planned, including a meeting for the trans* community with the Lord Mayor at the Town Hall, where the trans* flag to be flown at half mast. The Museum of Liverpool opened a permanent exhibition on the life of trans* model April Ashley, following the success of a temporary exhibition which ran for 17 months and attracted 930,000 visitors. This was followed by a reception at a nearby university building and a candle-lit vigil in the gardens behind the iconic St George’s Hall on Lime Street.

We began the week with a special service of remembrance as part of Open Table, the monthly Christian service for the LGBT community in Liverpool. Around 40 people attended, both LGBT people and allies, to remember those who have died and commit to raising awareness to challenge the roots of prejudice which lead to such violence.

You can download a copy of the TDOR service booklet here.

If you are unaware of the reason why TDOR is needed, you may find it helpful to watch this video:

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