With open arms

(Facing the challenge of gender and sexuality in the ecumenical context)

By: Michael David Dela Cruz Tan

Kakay Pamaran was only 14 years old when she realized she was attracted to other girls. But since she grew up appearing “normal”, and she was even part of the “in” crowd of the popular girls in her former school, she had to push away this attraction. “It couldn’t be (because I’m a lesbian),” she said she thought then. And so while “I had crushes with girls in my barkada (posse); they were so pretty”, Kakay said she did not do anything about it then. “It  was my earliest memory of my feeling that I was different… though I had to push that aside.”

Kakay’s decision not to acknowledge who she was then was particularly largely because “I came from a very conservative Christian family”, born into “extreme Protestantism”. “That’s where I learned of God’s love,” Kakay acknowledged, though as part of that family, she also had a hard time reconciling her Christian faith with her sexuality.

As if to “prove” that she’s not a lesbian, Kakay even tried to force herself to like men. “In fact, my one and only boyfriend… tiniis niya ‘yung pag-e-experimento ko (he had to put up with me experimenting). We tried for over eight months; hindi nga talaga nag-work, and so, ayun naghiwalay kami (it really didn’t work, so we broke up).”

This is why, for Kakay, coming out is important, even if “it is a very difficult process, a painful process” she said. “To undo and unlearn and re-learn many things that you have been taught.”

This is also why teaching churches to be accepting of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is just as important. Thinking back, Kakay said that in 2012, when she decided to enter the Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, she expected to encounter anti-LGBT teachings that she said would finally convince her “to turn myself straight”. But in the seminary, “I was accepted, even celebrated.” And this helped her see that LGBT people have a place in God’s table.

Kakay’s story is not exactly new, nor is it unique, as society as a whole – including ecumenical contexts – are finally starting to be more open to LGBT people.

ISSUES OF LGBT PEOPLE

In May 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released “Discrimination and Violence against Individuals Based on their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”, which reported on the issues besetting LGBT people. While there have been some initiatives taken since 2011 to reduce violence and discrimination toward LGBT people, at least 76 States still have laws that can be used to criminalize and harass people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression (SOGIE), including laws criminalizing consensual, adult same-sex relationships, as well as laws that restrict public discussion of sexual orientation supposedly in order to “protect minors” from information on so-called “non-traditional sexual relations”.

UN, in fact, reportedly continues to receive reports of physical and psychological abuses perpetrated against LGBT individuals. And although many violent and discriminatory acts committed against LGBT people remain undocumented due to poor data collection, it was estimated that from 2008 and 2014, there were 1,612 murders in  62 countries of transgender persons, which is equivalent to a killing every two days.

For the UN, sources of these abuses include religious people (particularly extremists), paramilitary groups, extreme nationalists, and even families and communities of LGBT people.

The Philippines does not fare any better.

On the one hand, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 showed that 73 percent of the Filipino respondents said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, with an even higher percentage (78%) of younger respondents in the 18–29 age group. This is even if this same survey also noted that the Philippines has “relatively high levels of religiosity”.

However – and on the other hand – LGBT Filipinos continue to be discriminated against, and there isn’t even a national law protecting their rights. Part of the problem here is religion, since – even if the 1987 Philippine Constitution states the separation of Church and State – the effects of religion on the treatment of LGBT Filipinos continue to be apparent. Over 80 percent of the Philippine population is Roman Catholic, an additional nine percent belong to Protestant churches, and another eight percent comprise non-Christian faiths. Church teachings, therefore, remain pervasive.

Church teachings on LGBT persons often focus on loving the sinner yet hating the sin. As such, many churches oppose efforts that could benefit the LGBT community, including recognition of homosexual acts, same-sex relationships and same-sex unions.

Unfortunately, documentation of LGBT discrimination influenced by religion continue to be scarce in the Philippines. But available anecdotes related to this still highlight the difficulties encountered by LGBT Filipinos because of religion. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, vehemently opposed the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill in both Houses of Congress. This is not helped by the fact that, in 2006 for instance, that the chairperson of the Committee on Human Rights of the House of Representatives was former Rep. Bienvenido Abante, a Baptist pastor, who was against the passage of an anti-discrimination law. There are also educational institutions owned by faith-based organizations that punish LGBT students and employees because of their SOGIE, often citing morality as reason for this.

 CREATING SPACE FOR DISCUSSIONS

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, United Methodist Church (UMC) deaconess and Program Unit Head of Ecumenical Education at the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), noted the significance of giving space to discuss gender and sexuality in the ecumenical context.

Mahirap ikahon ang lalim at lawak ng karanasan ng sangkatauhan. Patuloy itong umiinog at kumikilos ng pasulong. Ang kasarian at seksawlidad ay isa sa mga bahagi ng sangkatauhan na patuloy na humahamon sa ating pananampalataya, at kung paano na tayo ay nakikisalamuha sa bawat isa. Ang issue ng LGBT ay isa lamang sa salik o elemento sa  loob ng buong usapin at kaganapan ng sekswalidad, sekswal na kapahayagan o expression,  sekswal na reprodiktibong karapatan at iba pa (It is difficult to put human sexuality in a box. It continues to evolve. Gender and sexuality are issues that continue to challenge us in our faith, and on how we deal with each other. The issue of LGBT is only an element when we talk about human sexuality, sexual expressions, and reproductive rights),” said Marquez-Caramanzana, adding that “mabilis ang diskurso ukol dito. Hindi pa man tayo nakakahakbang na mga taong simbahan, naiiwan na tayo agad (discourses on this are fast-paced. And we at churches have not even started discussing this, we’re already being left behind).”

Among the 10 member and associate member churches of NCCP, only the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (NCCP) openly expressed its support of the LGBT community. Through its “Let Grace Be Total” statement, it asserted that God’s grace is for everyone, no matter the SOGIE.

Jimarie Snap Mabanta of 3KP agreed with Marquez-Caramanzana, noting the erroneous way that people are made to approach the whole concept of gender and sexuality. “Never been talked about, touched, felt, and never understood,” Mabanta said. “Since birth, we were taught of the idea of masculinity and femininity, and that anything beyond or in between those concepts are considered wrong, a sin, a disease or a social menace. Seeing what’s beyond the conscript of societal boxes therefore inhibits people to express themselves as to what they truly feel, and as to what they truly are. As a young person, I see this prescribed ways of being of putting people into boxes of heteronormativity is a major factor for rampant gender discrimination against women and LGBT people.”

Mabanta added: “As a young person, we want to challenge this. And we want to join the rest of the ecumenical movement… It gives us high hope that sooner or later, all churches would be more affirming and nurturing to the people whose gender identification does not fall within the so-called socially-acceptable norms… That sooner or later, churches and other institutions would come in full circle from rejection and tolerance to full acceptance.”

INTERCONNECTED SOCIAL ISSUES

But for NCCP’s Marquez-Caramanzana, the issues of the LGBT community is not detached from other social social issues.

Malawak ang sakop nito at  nagsasaligwayang usapin at magkakarugtong. Ang iba’t ibang disiplina ay may iba-ibang sinasabi, sikolohiya, sosyolohiya at antropolohiya. Idagdag pa ang teolohohiya na minsan pang nagpapagulo. Katulad ng iba pang usapin ang kasarian at sekswalidad ay may aspetong pulitikal, sosyal at ekonomiya (The various disciplines have something to say about this – from psychology, sociology and anthropology. Add to that new technologies that may complicate this issue further. Talking about gender and sexuality has aspects that are political, social and economical),” Marquez-Caramanzana said. As such, “sa ganang akin, hindi maaring tingnan, unawain at analisahin ang  kasarian at sekswalidad na hiwalay sa pang araw-araw na buhay at karanasan at pakikibaka ng mga ordinaryong tao. Marapat itong unawain sa konteksto ng laganap na kahirapan, siklo ng karahasan, sa malalim na epekto ng ekonomikang globalisasyon (for me, gender and sexuality can not be considered, understood and analyzed as separate from the day-to-day life and experiences and struggles of other ordinary people. This should be considered in the context of confronting poverty, cycles of violence, of the effects of a globalized economy).”

Other social issues that too apparently touch on being LGBT include: contractualization that may be worsened by workplace discrimination due to the lack of institutional policies to protect LGBT workers; access to education, with educational institutions imposing policies that bar members of the LGBT community from studying; and the worsening HIV situation in the Philippines, particularly since members of the LGBT community are among the most affected populations.

As 3KP’s Mabanta stressed, “Gender and sexuality is a complex justice issue that encompasses the political, socio-economic and cultural landscape of our society.” And so, “with these realities, it is imperative that as a faithful community, we recognize the fact that we will not be free from the bondage of gender discrimination until and unless we address the class discrimination where the poor majority are oppressed and excluded by systems and policies that put prime to profit, power and the few ruling elite.”

Specifically when dealing with the LGBT community, “more than equality, our faith teaches us to fully accept these vulnerable people and give them space to be empowered so that they themselves can unshackle the oppression that deprives them to be productive people who can offer their talents, dynamism and strength and participate in a meaningful nation-building,” Mabanta said.

RECONSIDERING CHURCH TEACHINGS

To include gender and sexuality in ecumenical discussions, Rev. Fr. JP Heath, Policy Advisor on HIV, Human Sexuality and Theology for the International Department of the Church of Sweden, stresses the need for sex-positive theology.

“We operate in a theological environment which is dictated by the teaching of St. Augustine in the third and fourth century. An environment which has moved away from creationist approach, which identifies the goodness of God’s creation and plunges us into the negativity of original sin. So everything is foreign. Everything is in need of redemption. Everything is inherently bad. And we might find a glimmer of good,” he said.

However, Fr. Heath added that the “negative attitude to who we are as human beings created in the image of God gives us all sorts of challenges in the way we face so many things… (including) in terms of gender and sexuality. You see, sexuality, isn’t celebrated. In no way sexuality is celebrated. Sexuality is something that happens mostly when the lights are switched off, when the sheets are pulled back, when our body parts are being caressed with and where we pretend that it is something for procreation. It’s never about pleasure.”

This is because “we are caught in the quagmire of St. Augustine’s original sin.”

For Fr. Heath, all of God’s creations are “very good”, and this needs to be emphasized. “With one exception when God created you and me, humanity, then God didn’t say it is good. God said: ‘It is very good’,” he said. “Everything is very good, and is to be celebrated.”

Fr. Heath also lamented – by quoting K. Renato Lings’ “Love Lost in Translation” – how “the text within scripture has been interpreted in different ways.” And so “in the process of translation, we brought gender inequality in it. Because it isn’t there in the Hebrew. But when we start unpacking it, we can find ways for looking for equality and the creation.”

Fr. Heath also backs Matthew Fox, who wrote “Original Blessing”, in countering negative theology. “How could the world be if instead of saying original sin, we started with ‘original blessing’? If we started by saying everything is good and through a lens of looking at the goodness of God’s creation, we start discerning where we are and how it is that we are able to start engaging with these themes, of gender and sexuality.”

Fr. Heath added: “If we are able to see our sexuality as this beautiful gift from God, then we are able to start discerning something of the glory  and wonder of God.”

For Fr. Heath, this is relevant in better dealing with the LGBT community because it starts with inclusion, instead of exclusion. This also deals with the gender binary, which often excludes the LGBT community.

“We are taught to look in the world in a two box binary. If you don’t fit in the male and female box, you’re out. Because that is how we define things. If you can’t fit in to what is comfortable for me to define you, then you’re out. You don’t fit. And so even when if we speak about people with sexual difference, we have to somehow fit in to these two boxes. And we want to say that we have men and women, and then we have men who think they’re women, and women who think they’re men… That beautiful diversity in which God creates us is not recognized and celebrated,” he said.

In the end, it’s all about respecting “this diversity of God’s creation,” Fr. Heath said. “When we are talking about gender, we are talking about human sexuality. It is our duty to step out of our own shoes, and just for a minute, try to do what’s almost impossible, step into God’s shoes, and look at the person in front of us, with the Creator’s eyes, and see (that) it is very good… And if we are able to look at each other, with God’s eyes in them, then we are in a place of beginning to understand how the church responds to each one of us. Because then, we become the loving presence of God in the world, and not the binary boxes that separates us.”

ONUS ON THE LGBT COMMUNITY

To help introduce sexuality and gender – particularly LGBT issues – in ecumenical discourses, members of the LGBT community may also need to step up.

Norma P. Dollaga of the United Methodist Church (UMC) – recalling a gay friend who belonged to the Iglesia Filipina Indpendiente (IFI) – said that she was led to believe that “ang bakla kailangang makibaka upang mapalaya niya ang sarili at ang sambayanan (a gay person should engage himself in the struggle in order to liberate himself and the people).”

Engagement in the struggle could mean participating in mass actions, human rights advocacy work, anti-corruption campaigns, relief and rehabilitation missions, justice and peace work, and environmental care and concerns.

This approach, Dollaga said, also helps non-LGBT people look at LGBT people in a different light. “Through (this) full participation in the work for justice and peace, a lot of us, both male and female, have been helped to re-mold ourselves in treating and understanding issues that gay people face.”

RC Gumban, an ordained deacon of the IFI, agreed with Dollaga, though he said that it’s a give-and-take relationship between the LGBT community and the society they belong to as a whole. “LGBT people have to be treated with integrity and with respect if you want them to be more responsible. Sometimes, dahil nga hindi na nabibigyan ng pansin, tinatawag na salot ng lipunan, madami po ang napapariwara (they are ignored, or are called as pests, and so they become that exactly). If you want more responsible LGBT people, we must start acknowledging them and treating them with respect and integrity,” he said.

Gumban himself claimed experiencing discrimination even from their churchgoers, so that – he said – there was a time when he just put up with the “pains and sufferings”, even trying to conform to the expectations of the community. For instance, he had girlfriends he was not attracted to, just so he could show everyone that “I am man.” And so for him, liberation should happen both within the LGBT community, for LGBT people to accept themselves; and in society in general, for it to treat LGBT people better.

“If culture shapes people, (then) people should re-shape culture,” Gumban said.

ONGOING EFFORT

That much remains to be done does without saying to mainstream sexuality and gender in ecumenical context.

For instance, considering that only UCCP has a publicly known pro-LGBT position among the member and associate member churches of NCCP, more similar statements may be necessary to highlight inclusion. For 43-year-old Michael, “the reality is, more LGBT people are not comfortable going to church because most of the mainstream churches are still saying that we are going to hell.”

This is also an issue in dealing with HIV, considering that many gay and bi men are infected with HIV at a younger age. And in his experience as an HIV activist, Michael said that “when these young gay and bi men come out, they all thought that their lives will be pariwara na lang sila (wasted). I just want to say that the church should come out (in support of LGBT people) immediately. Because many LGBT youth are looking for answers, and I think the church should do something about it.”

Fr. Heath, meanwhile, stressed the need to further the education particularly on the youth on sexuality and gender.  “When you give the children the information they need to not only love themselves as uniquely and wonderfully created by God, but you also give them the information they need to make good and informed decisions for themselves. They act responsively,” he said.

On education, though, UMC’s Dollaga thinks that it is not only the youth that needs to be educated. “Together with the adults, we will learn together… What would you pass on to children if the adults are also in need of educating?”

Fr. Edoy Ruazol of IFI added that educating is also needed since “‘yung church kasi, hindi niya din alam (they don’t know) how to really deal with the issue.”

And here, organizing may prove beneficial.

“I encourage people… to come into the open and challenge the church to talk to them. Magkaroon ng isang discussion, congress or kung ano man, para lang makapag-usap. And tell the church on how to approach this issue. Kasi times are changing. And ang institutional church would always be status quo. Lagi ‘yang backward. So you are there, we are here, and we must challenge the church na magbukas for the clergy and priest alike to come into the open and receive those people na iba ‘yung kasarian. Pag-usapan natin ‘yun lahat (Let’s have a discussion, congress or whatever just so we can tackle this. And tell the church how to approach this issue. Because times are changing. And the institutional church will always uphold the status quo. It’s always backward. So you are there, we are here, and we must challenge the church to open up to the clergy and priest alike to come into the open and receive those people with diverse sexualities. Let’s talk about all these),” Ruazol said.

STAYING OPTIMISTIC

UCCP’s “Let Grace Be Total” statement in support of the LGBT community was developed “in consideration of the fact or in recognition of the fact that among us are people who are different. Alam naming na may mga taong naiiba (We know that there are different kinds of people). May mga (There are) gays and lesbians within and among us. And how are we going to treat them? They are Christians, they are part of the church. And so that’s why the discussion started,” said Bishop Jesse Suarez.

But Bishop Suarez is first to admit that “even as we have issued a statement on LGBT, hindi naman totally resolved ang buong simbahan (not everyone in the church support it). In fact, many of our young people have misunderstood that LGBT statement also as an endorsement of policy, which it is not. We must admit that we have not reached that level of discussion yet. We have no policy yet. By issuing the LGBT statement, we are not endorsing the same sex marriage… yet. I am not sure if we will come to that, but it’s a different issue.”

Bishop Suarez is, nonetheless, happy to say that while “it may still be difficult for our members to fully embrace even the LGBT statement that we have issued as a church,” this very statement did not come from the bishops but from UCCP’s Faith and Order Committee. When it was presented to the General Assembly, it was overwhelmingly voted by a majority. So albeit limited, UCCP has – at least – taken the first small step, even as “we have a lot more to do on education, consciousness raising, conscientization of our own members and even our own leaders in the church.”

At UTS where lesbian Pastor Kakay earned her Master’s degree, inclusion of LGBT issues in discourses is also gaining ground. “I am also here to tell you that it will get better. That you will ease into it. Your discomfort around it will wither away. For as long as you keep to it. For as long as we engage each other,” said Kakay, adding that it is an ongoing effort to introduce positive change. “We engage in the work of transformation. It is an everyday thing. You don’t get transformed once. You get transformed every day.”