Culture + Religion

Some of the attitudes against homosexuality are rooted in cultural beliefs. In countries where same-sex relationships are not accepted, lesbians and gay men are more likely to hide their sexuality and may even marry a person of the opposite sex. Where this is the case, many people within that culture will assume that lesbian and gay people do not exist. In countries where homosexuality is hidden in this way, the only lesbian and gay people who are visible are those in western countries. This can lead to the mistaken assumption that homosexuality is a product of western values.

Lack of visibility of LGBT people is exacerbated in countries where homosexual acts are illegal and may lead to imprisonment or even the death penalty. In these countries, homophobic acts against LGBT people are often acceptable and may even be perpetrated by people in powerful positions within that country. Where people are hiding their sexuality, there are no positive role models and those lesbian and gay people who are identified are perceived as criminals.

Parents from the BME community

Many parents experience difficulties in communicating with family and friends about their child's sexuality. We find that this may be especially true of parents who come from black and ethnic minority (BME) communities.

Some BME parents live in fear of their communities finding out that they have a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) child. They fear for their son or daughter's safety if it were to become common knowledge. They also fear that they themselves will be blamed and that the family might lose its standing in the community.

Even within the family, some parents are unable to talk to close family members - their siblings, their other children or even each other. This leaves parents isolated and afraid. There is no safe space in which they can ask questions or discuss things. Many need opportunities to explore their own beliefs because they come from countries where homosexuality is illegal, or because their religion teaches that it is a sin.

'Last Saturday evening there was a programme on television highlighting a visit by Stephen Amos to Jamaica to investigate the extent of homophobia on the island. It was very distressing and heartbreaking. I could not stop crying as I witnessed how scared gay people were about living in a society that wants to kill them'. A parent from Families Together London

The reality is that homosexuality exists within every human culture and is a natural part of human diversity. It is also to be found in the animal kingdom.

There are some parents who turn their children away when they find out that they are LGBT. This is true of white, BME and some Christian parents as well.

Families Together London write about their different experience...

"Black and Muslim parents do come to our meetings. For some, it has been the first time that they have been able to talk freely and to meet other parents. Those parents who have come to our meetings have shown enormous courage in remaining loyal to their children and accepting them as they are, some even in the face of opposition from their extended families. We have learned so much from them."

'We had a breakthrough with my mum at Christmas. Overcoming her obvious discomfort, she responded to my partner by calling her 'my daughter' in Hindi. I was walking on air. It's only happened once and we haven't discussed anything since I came out to her, so this was a huge gesture, but all I could do was give her a hug. She hasn't talked about the tape you sent me or responded to the offer of attending the group, but neither has she given the tape back to me or told me that I am no longer her daughter. I am very pleased and grateful that she is my mother. Hopefully, Mum will talk more'. A daughter

Religion

(with acknowledgements to Marjorie from Families Together London)

Many religions experience controversy over the matter of homosexuality. This might seem surprising since nearly all religions preach tolerance, kindness and respect for one another.

On the other hand, marriage to a person of the opposite sex is central to many religions and cultures and may make the concept of homosexual identities hard to accept.

This makes things very difficult for parents who find themselves unsupported by their faith when a child comes out. It is not uncommon in these circumstances for parents to change their place of worship or to leave their religion altogether...

At this time I found it very difficult to reconcile my churchgoing and...Christian beliefs with my growing understanding of the terrible prejudice and bigotry with which many gay people are treated. I wrote an article for the church magazine (with the agreement of the vicar), telling honestly about our son and our experiences. As he had gone to the Sunday school, the people there knew Mike. I was hoping simply to help people I regarded as my friends to understand a rather complex and hidden subject. How naive I was! Not one person mentioned the article to me.

'The silence was deafening.

'I severed all connection with the local church and eventually, religion of any description...

...I felt very strongly that I did not want to belong to any organisation that might think our son was an "abomination"'. Brenda Oakes, Co-founder of FFLAG

In the case of homosexuality, religion is, sadly, too often: '...a source of conflict rather than solace'
ChildLine casenotes, NSPCC website, 2010

However, there are clearly debates taking place within some religions, and, whilst the turbulence that this causes may be uncomfortable, it is reassuring to see that those discussions are taking place. Most of the major religions now have some followers who are working towards a more tolerant and respectful approach towards homosexuality.

Some religions now distinguish between homosexuality and homosexual acts, but are often unclear about what constitutes a 'homosexual act'. After all, heterosexual people participate in all sexual acts, (see section on Sex, Relationships and Family Life) and there is no sexual act which is specific to either lesbian or gay people.

In practice, this distinction does nothing to protect younger people who still experience homophobic bullying in school, even though they are not sexually active.

For some religions (for example, the Anglican faith) these debates are taking place across continents and are probably reflective of different cultural attitudes towards homosexuality as much as religious ones.

In the Sikh religon, for example, the central text, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, does not mention homosexuality, and none of the Gurus gave a view of homosexuality. However, according to SARBAT: 'Punjabi culture is extremely homophobic, and because almost all Sikhs are Punjabi in ethnicity, this can sometimes cause tensions to arise between gay Sikhs and their families as a whole.'

A recent study by Stonewall: 'Love Thy Neighbour: What people really think about homosexuality' (2008) has shown that many people of faith are accepting of lesbian and gay people and co-exist in harmony. Religious objections to lesbian and gay sexuality are more likely to be promoted by religious leaders, rather than followers. Sometimes the views of religious leaders views come over as homophobic, especially when reported in particular ways in the media. This can perpetuate hate crime and bullying.

Religious Homophobia

People of faith have every right to expect respect for their beliefs. People of faith also have the right to their religious views, but where anti-gay religious views are expressed in such a way that they cause distress to other people, then they can be described as homophobic. The fact that the views are coming from a religious perspective is in no way redeeming. Religious homophobia is no more justifiable or acceptable than the homophobia which occurs in the football stands or in the streets.

'The 'Big Question' on Sunday morning was discussing whether homosexuality should be celebrated, and one very vociferous woman was talking about how 'sinful' it was. I become so emotional when I hear this that if other people are with me they may guess about my son, and he is not yet ready to come out. My husband tells me that I need to be discreet, but I sometimes find it so difficult. I do hope that our sons will some day be able to stand up and feel proud.'
A parent from Families Together London

There are some parents who turn their children away when they find out that they are LGBT. This is true of some white parents and Christian parents as well.

Managing strong religious views about homosexuality

Everyone is entitled to their political, religious or moral beliefs. However, it would be wrong to express these views in ways that upset other people.

This is particularly true of those with pastoral or professional obligations.

Those who promote the idea that being lesbian or gay is a phase, for example, should note that increased suicide risk in young gay people is associated with being told that their feelings are transitory.
(Department of Health (2007) Reducing Health Inequalities for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans People (Briefing Papers 1-13). London: Department of Health).

The advice given to NHS employees by the General Medical Council, for example, offers this helpful guideline:

'...You must not express...your personal beliefs, including political, religious or moral beliefs, in ways that exploit (patients') vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.'

It is important to remember that, where religious views are expressed in ways that are perceived by the victim to be motivated by prejudice and hate, then this could be classified as hate crime. (See also: 'Guidance for Teachers and School Governors' under Education).

Religious texts

Our concept of lesbian and gay relationships today is likely to be very different indeed from the way things were understood in the past, which is why religious texts are not always helpful guides in these matters. People who have a point of view to uphold will sometimes 'cherry-pick' ancient writings for evidence to support their views. We actually have very little knowledge of how homosexuality was understood in past times. For example, whilst there are references to sex between men and male rape in the Bible, there is little reference to same-sex relationships. It can sometimes be helpful to compare religious texts with current practice. For example, some Muslim states punish homosexuality, but the Koran itself preaches tolerance and says nothing about punishment of lesbian and gay people.

Ancient texts such as the Torah, the Bible and the Qur'an are all affected by issues of both translation (from the original language) and interpretation (where there is some ambiguity about the actual meaning of certain passages).

For those who wish to study these issues further:

  • The LGCM (Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) has produced a short pamphlet called: 'Abomination? A short introduction to what the Bible says about same-sex relationships'
  • SARBAT provides a pamphlet entitled: 'Sikhism and Same Sex Relationships'
  • The 'Imaan' website has a section called: 'Islam and Sexuality FAQs'

Religion and human rights

Most religions were born out of an essential human goodness and respect for others which resonates with our society's emphasis on fairness and equality. These are the ideals that underpin the human rights movement. Despite their differences, there is one place where we might reasonably expect all religions to stand, and that is on the side of human rights.

Sometimes, however, there are situations where there are perceived to be conflicting rights, and we all need help in working out the best way to behave in these situations. Stonewall, (www.stonewall.org.uk) for example, provides guidance for employers on managing perceived tensions between sexual orientation and religion.

Catholic Links

The Soho Masses Pastoral Council is open to all Catholics, with an active fellowship of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Catholics, as well as their parents, families and friends.

This leaflet [PDF] was produced by the Marriage & Family Department of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales.

Acknowledgement

Content on this page is based on the work of Marjorie Smith of Families Together London, and is dedicated to her memory.