I am writing as a member of a group of people who are often hidden and ignored in conversations about the relationship between LGBTI+ rights and ‘religious freedom’. For I am an openly transgender female Anglican priest, in duly regarded paid and active service in my religious community. Like other LGBTI+ people I experience the same needs for freedom and opportunity to love and serve. Yet I, and others like me (some whom have to hide publicly), also have to cope with being caught in the crossfire between certain types of LGBTI+ activism and reactionary Christian calls for greater ‘religious protection’. Often this debate is conducted without any reference to people like myself and measures are proposed which do not help our freedom or livelihoods. In writing, it is therefore my hope that the current Religious Freedom Review may pay proper attention to us and ensure that nothing is proposed which makes our often marginalised situation more problematic...
My principal call is for no extra privileges to be accorded to religious bodies to enable discrimination against LGBTI+ people. We already have enough barriers against us in religious communities and time and space should rather be given to all of us to work through contentious issues without the enabling of further restrictions. The recent postal survey was extremely trying for us, exaggerating divisions, and making constructive engagement difficult. A cooling off period would thus be extremely welcome, even if some grounds are found for some minor changes. For the reality is that, whilst good law can make good fences, further barriers will exacerbate the unnecessary walls which press us in and threaten to divide our wider society further. This is not in the interest either of the nation or its religious communities.
For many years I have been active in inter-faith and social justice matters, seeking maximum religious freedom of expression and building understanding. Like other LGBTI+ Christians, I also recognise the need for religious communities to have appropriate autonomy of decision-making in essential matters of faith and order. However, what has been asked for recently by those associated with the postal survey ‘no’ camp is not an extension of religious freedom but a shoring up of unhealthy religious privilege. For LGBTI+ people already face many challenges in Australia’s religious communities. We do not need further difficulties placed upon us, enabled by the Australian Government. This would be a betrayal of us and an illegitimate use of State power. The State has a duty to hold the ring but also a responsibility to protect the marginalised from oppression. If this were a matter of race or colour, there would be no debate about firming up religious exclusions from anti-discrimination policy. It is thus one thing for religious bodies to be free to select those they consider fit for specifically religious duties. However it is quite another for them to be able to discriminate against LGBTI+ people in employment, housing provision, and other goods and services. Where we work in religious schools, welfare agencies and other capacities, we should be fully supported by the law, where we carry out the specific responsibilities required of us. Schools, welfare agencies and other religious entities supported by Federal or State funds should comply with the law in these respects or have funding withdrawn. We should also be protected from excesses of ‘hate-speech’ and misrepresentation of our lives, faith and motives.
The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse has sadly demonstrated the damage that occurs to human lives where religious, and other, bodies, are not fully encouraged to cohere with agreed community standards of power, transparency and accountability. In contrast, extra powers of discrimination allowed to religious bodies risks sanctifying bigotry and creating ghettoes of irrationality and irresponsible behaviour. For the truth is that religious communities are not fixed entities but living bodies which are potentially highly adaptable, as seen in the changing patterns of order and morality in the history of all the great religions. Rather than freezing religious development, imprisoning LGBTI+ people within the current status quo, Australian Government should therefore be enabling pastoral interchange between polarising sections of the broad community. In the UK, a striking example is how the Church of England has worked with Stonewall and other LGBTI+ voices, to develop coherent and effective school policies to address homophobia and transphobia (see Valuing All God’s Children document, https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/Valuing%20All%20God%27s%20Children%27s%20Report_0.pdf). This does not involve ‘betraying’ any official received religious teaching. Instead it is an example of how other-than-legislative approaches to current pastoral controversies may be more constructive. This builds understanding and dialogue across the various communities in our nation, instead of creating forms of religiously-based apartheid and deepening resentments.
The reality is that there is no simplistic division between LGBTI+ and religious interests in Australia. Rather, as the postal survey responses showed, religious and secularist people have a great diversity of attitudes and approaches. Of course there will be flashpoints. However, we already have enough law and experience of handling them. The real divisions on these issues exist within our different religious and secular communities not between them. Government and law which recognises this will help best, especially in supporting those of us caught between falsely conceived battle-lines.
LGBTI+ religious people are great gifts to both religious communities and the wider nation. Please do not therefore lock us up because of false ideological conflicts. For, as one my fellow Anglican priests comments in a recent book (Found Out, by Alison Webster, DLT 2017) in words so many other honest ministers of religion will echo:
'My conclusion is that the church loves vanilla heterosexuality but those who seem to perform it have never actually performed it. People disclose extraordinary things to me as their parish priest and I can tell you that appearances are deceptive... The narrow vanilla understanding of human beings covers layers of silence. Trans, gay, all hidden for the sake of the institution... It is psychologically pernicious.'
Help us build genuine expansive freedom for everyone. Do not condemn us to further ‘soul violence’.
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: