Commentary / Faith and religion

New challenge for gay activists: Accept religious allies

As a queer priest reflects on his 40-year journey toward gay liberation, he expresses amazement at how anti-religious the Western LGBT movement has become, excluding and devaluing the contributions of faithful allies.

‘Whose service is perfect freedom’

The Rev. Albert Ogle and the vestry (governing board) of St. Peter's, Lithgow, N.Y., in 2015.

The Rev. Albert Ogle and the vestry (governing board) of St. Peter’s, Lithgow, N.Y., in 2015.

Excerpts from a sermon at his parish, St. Peter’s, in Lithgow, N.Y., U.S.A., on July 2, 2017, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ordination

By the Rev. Albert Ogle

The Rev. Albert Ogle

The Rev. Albert Ogle

Within my first year as vicar here, an older lesbian couple came to me and wanted to be married in church. We had a beautiful service in our old wooden church and although it was the first ever same-gender marriage, no-one around here blinked an eyelid. I didn’t have to get permission from the bishop or my Vestry (Board). It was just like every other wedding and the normalcy of it all actually upset the couple because they wanted much more “hoopla” and headlines, but this was simply what St. Peter’s was now doing. They would treat LGBT folk in the same way as they had done with straight couples for centuries.

This normalcy was shocking and even disappointing to the couple who wrote me a long letter and were so upset they felt they needed to leave the parish. I thought, “How sad!” In all the ups and downs of ministry, I never expected something like this and for weeks, I just had this heavy stone in my stomach and could not figure out what had happened to upset these dear people. Here was a community that was fully embracing and supportive of their love and journey and the couple had simply missed the moment.

When we are no longer victimized

They eventually came around, but it was an interesting reminder that when we are no longer victimized, it is us who need to change our attitude and I was reminded that changing laws and attitudes does not necessarily bring a sense of freedom that we may expect. Sadly, there are lots of people who simply thrive on victimhood and their whole identity is based upon being “other”. How do we deal with change when we are no longer victims? Change is hard work and demands WE change. This change in the West is also a threat to many in the developing world.

Yet, the new world order I am describing (through a lens of Western secular liberal culture where religion is still dominated by traditional values) is seen as a threat, particularly in developing countries and their vast unquestioned religious industries.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We live in an age where fundamentalism, in its many forms, is a global business. It fuels ISIS as much as its grip helped to clinch the billions of dollars of arms deals between American and Saudi Arabia. Fundamentalism fuels the evangelical American prosperity gospel that has deep pockets in USAID paybacks for Presidential and party loyalty and makes it difficult for African LGBTI people to even think about the kind of societies they want to shape. These industries have much to lose if fundamentalism wanes. The cost of this madness is an unimaginable waste of gifts and human potential. It is like millions of stillborn vocations where people who are wanting to contribute to the well-being of the societies and support their families, simply cannot. It is as much a vocational issue as a human rights issue. Lost potential. A calling but the community who might benefit is deaf and unable to hear or see our contribution. …

Dark places in the road

I have two hopes from this sermon. One, that places where there appears to be little hope of change … these dark places on the road (I describe them as forks in the road where it looks as if we must choose to lose what we seem to love most and sacrifice all we know and love about who we are, epitomized in the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac) — these places will not appear so frightening to LGBT people as we move through the darkness and despair into the clarity, light and freedom.

Gay liberation that has largely been presented in Western terms over the last 50 years around the Stonewall mythology is not the freedom I am describing either. We have pink-washed American consumerism fornicating with an American rugged individualism and the offspring of this illicit relationship is the illusion of 21st century gay liberation. It is a dangerous illusion and many of us in the West who are critical of the evangelical exportation of prosperity gospel/family values bullshit that Africa and South America seems to believe (300,000 Prosperity Gospel churches in Africa alone, paying Rick Warren’s salary through sales of his prosperity gospel heresies).

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle poses in Uganda with the executive committee of the Good Samaritan Consortium, which works with the St. Paul's Foundation to remove obstacles to health care for LGBTI people there.

The Rev. Albert Ogle during a visit to Uganda to meet with the executive committee of the Good Samaritan Consortium, which worked with the St. Paul’s Foundation, which Ogle founded, to remove obstacles to health care for LGBTI people there.

Yet, we are as guilty as exporting a false gospel to Africa, in this gay liberation package that is not sustainable in Africa or anywhere else. It is not about true freedom. I think this is where religious and secular gay liberationists disagree on the future of our movement, especially in the larger developing communities at this critically dark fork in the road.

As Trump turns off all the American funding supporting the gay human rights activist industry, a different kind of faith and value system will fill the vacuum. African, Asian and South American leadership in the LGBTI communities should not see this as a negative problem but an opportunity to move forward into a different paradigm and movement than say in the past decade.

Anti-religious LGBTI activism

The Rev. Albert Ogle and his stole (Photo courtesy of Albert Ogle)

The Rev. Albert Ogle and his stole, which illustrates the various stages of his ministry. (Photo courtesy of Albert Ogle)

The second thing I hope for on this 40th anniversary of my journey is that secular organizations in the LGBTI movement will recognize the contribution religion and religious leaders have had on our journey to true freedom and make room for us and others at the table. I am amazed how religio-xenophobic the Western LGBT movement has become in such a short time and the contribution of individuals and organizations in the religious sector is still undervalued and denied.

One recent example comes to mind when I joined a conference call organized by The Williams Institute, based in Los Angeles. The conference call was themed “The Place of LGBTI folk in the Sustainable Development Goals.” A Swedish researcher presented a background on how this internationally agreed agenda might include us. It was a well thought out presentation and, as I have been following this strategy here in New York through the work of many NGO’s at the United Nations, I was familiar with most of the information.

Not once in the presentation was the role of religious leaders or organizations mentioned. In places like Africa, where 40% of healthcare development is provided by religious networks and driven by powerful religious values, many of which are good and inclusive, how could a respected academic body like the Williams Institute allow for such oversight?

Bryan Choong in 2012

Bryan Choong in 2012

Not everyone is so blind. I respected Bryan Choong coming all the way from Singapore in 2012 when St Paul’s Foundation and other faith-based organizations invited 26 activists to be part of the International AIDS Conference in Washington DC. Bryan admitted to the selection committee that he did not share in any faith tradition but he came to be among us to learn more about the role religion can play in shaping public policy and mobilizing people.

We selected him to be able to come, because he knew religion plays so much, even in opposition to our movements, and he wanted to expand his knowledge and understanding of how to deal with this as a reality, both as a positive force for good, and a way of understanding all assaults of our enemies. When my angry lesbian couple I cited earlier (who were recently married by me, an ordained Anglican priest in a very conservative Republican stronghold and traditional Episcopal church) realized that for 30 years, our issue had been debated and fought over by 3 million Episcopalians, eventually ending in a very negative and financially costly divorce and split in our churches, their understanding changed.

They realized how much OUR issue has cost the church who now stand with us. To take a stand for our freedom demanded enormous sacrifice and struggle and commitment from countless straight allies. It was a very ugly and hard-fought battle, so that my wonderful lesbian couple could simply walk arm and arm up the aisle of St. Peter’s church in Lithgow and no-one batted an eyelid. This is simply what we now do.

Next, is there a place at the table for this kind of advocacy and normalcy? I realize after reflection on my own journey this week, that St. Peter’s represents a place of hope and light to churches and countries still dominated by religious fundamentalism, as we see in places like Northern Ireland and Uganda.

Things change and the change is dependent upon people simply showing up and showing what they want to contribute to the greater whole — .service to benefit the whole society, not just the rainbow piece of it. The downfall of any movement comes about when we forget our own story and, through his collective amnesia, we then begin to believe our own bullshit.

This is an interesting and dark fork in the road for our movement — a movement that I and many religious LGBTI people and our ally friends helped to create. We have a responsibility to communicate more clearly what that was like for us and trust those who take up the mantles and stoles of the future to accept the things they can change, wisely, recognize the things they will not be able to change (but others undoubtedly will) and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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