Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

In the recent Interfaith Pride Panel hosted by the Edinburgh Coexistence Initiative, faith leaders discussed scriptural, pastoral, and political avenues to shaping LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces. In these trying times of isolation and within the context of debates surrounding the two-year anniversary of the Government’s LGBT Action Plan, their conversation was an inspirational illustration of intersectional solidarity. 

Scripturally, the religious leaders agreed that their actions must remain rooted within their faiths. They offered several fascinating approaches to interpreting and re-interpreting their religious texts. Anil Bhanot, the founding Director of Hindu Council UK, distinguished spiritual laws from societal laws. He shared the abundance of sexualities and gender identities represented in the Hindu tradition and explained that even though societal legal texts like the Manu-smitri may treat them as an “offence”, the “emphasis of faith really is not so much on physical gender and more about your connection to God.”  

Drawing on his leading role in writing and compiling LGBTQ+ inclusive liturgy, Rabbi Mark Solomon, the Interfaith Consultant for Liberal Judaism and honorary rabbi of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, suggested that the societal laws themselves could be re-interpreted, outlining two additional approaches to interpreting scripture. The first approach situates the Torah historically, interpreting it “as being written by human beings, by our distant ancestors, who were striving in their culture and in their time to understand the will of God, but who didn’t always get it right from our perspective.” The second approach interprets Jewish law as a figurative abstraction. For example, “in ancient societies, the conception of homosexuality [was of] an inherently unequal and often abusive relationship. […] Many people nowadays have adopted that line, that the distinction isn’t between heterosexual and homosexual – it’s between equal relationships and inherently unequal or abusive relationships.” 

Although the panellists agreed that it is important to give weight to religious texts in ensuring LGBTQ+ inclusion, it was made clear that such inclusion is meaningless if it is not accompanied by pastoral embracement. Adam Hussain, whose work explores the intersection of queer Muslim studies, spirituality, and performative art, shared the ways in which his personal experiences of artistic expression within religious spaces allowed him to struggle through the “negotiation of many fragments of identity” and eventually find his voice. Creating these open spiritual spaces in places of worship, however, can be challenging when institutional support is not forthcoming. Reverend Canon Cedric Blakey, the former Vice-Provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Glasgow, explained that even where the support of religious establishments is lacking, religious leaders should spearhead the process of communal inclusion within their congregations. Each congregant needs personal support to affirm their feelings that “this is my church, this is my faith, this is my organisation.”  

The panellists showed that in addition to ensuring LGBTQ+ inclusion within their communities through re-interpreting scripture and establishing communal support, they feel a responsibility to act for broader change. Senior Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner, a President of the Council of Christians and Jews, emphasised the importance of such allyship and cooperation across religious movements. However, she warned of a tendency of interfaith circles to use nebulous language that is not reflected in concrete actions. “If you want to fight this fight from a religious point of view,” she emphasised, “first know your texts and be willing to argue them. Then find your allies and – together – impact.” 

In this spirit, Jayne Ozanne, a Member of the Government’s LGBT Advisory Panel, underlined the importance of faith leaders campaigning for the legal rights of LGBTQ+ members of their communities. The Ozanne Foundation, which she directs, has recently appointed an Inter-Religious Advisory Board of nine faith leaders to tackle discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identities within their communities and campaign nationally to outlaw ‘conversion therapy’. 

Drawing on years of pastoral and political experience, the panellists each chose to emphasise a different route to LGBTQ+ inclusion: from religious scripture to communal support to political activism. Whether we choose to focus on one of these angles or take a more multifaceted approach, it is clear that this critical conversation must continue both within and between our communities.