It’s Pride month. A month for celebrating a community that, faced with much oppression, has fought and continues to fight to gain to gain dignity and belonging. When we say “gay” or “queer” and “religion,” certainly negative impressions come to mind for many. And not without justification. Conservative religious leaders often oppose LGBTQ rights which continues today with the horrible recent news of some of the world’s harshest laws enacted in Uganda.
One principal we try to hold to at Encounter is to refrain from using broad brushes. When we paint entire communities or ways of life in one way, we inevitably erase certain people and their stories. Stereotyping communities by saying all Muslims are X, all police are Y, or all religions are Z leads us to become less curious and less informed about the people around us. By definition, blanket statements are almost always wrong. If we give space for nuance, we find complex, interesting people and with that, we find compassion.
To mark Pride, I wanted to share with you the stories of four remarkable and religious people who are also queer. Two are Christian and two are Muslim. And there’s some reading suggestions too if you would like a book to curl up with either during Pride month or after.
Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, Canadian activist. Photo credit: Marc Lostracco (Bitpicture from Toronto, Canada), Wikipedia.org, CC BY-SA 2.0
Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes
Growing up in Bath, Nova Scotia in the 1950s, Hawkes says he knew early on he was different but that he had no language to help him understand it. He felt called to ministry but avoided it due to his hidden homosexuality. When he discovered the Metropolitan Community Churches and their pro-LGBTQ ethos, he realized he had been looking for exactly that. He moved to Toronto, joined the MCC and, after pursuing degrees, became the MCC’s pastor.
Hawkes became one of the country’s most vocal advocates for gay rights. In 2001, he challenged existing Canadian law by publicly marrying two same-sex couples (he performed the ceremony while wearing a bullet proof vest). The ensuing court battles were pivotal for shifting the laws and for creating pressure on the Liberal government to enact policy changes.
Today, Hawkes leads Rainbow Faith and Freedom, an organization fighting religious-based discrimination against LGBTI individuals worldwide. He is an Order of Canada recipient. His life shows how faith leaders not uncommonly play leading roles in social justice fights from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to the fight for LGBTQ rights in Canada.
Samra Habib, Pakistani Canadian photographer, writer and activist. Photo credit: screenshot from social media account of author www.instagram.com/samra.habib.
Samra Habib’s book We Have Always Been Here won the 2020 Canada Reads competition. Her memoir tracks the many border crossings that have shaped Habib’s life. She came as an immigrant to Canada. She is a racial minority, a sexual minority, and belongs to a minority sect in Islam which is heavily persecuted in Pakistan (her family’s country of origin). Habib fit in no boxes finding many in her Muslim community unaccepting of her sexuality and many in the LGBTQ community unaccepting of her religious identity. Her book shows a person of incredible strength and courage.
Dr. Cheri DiNovo, a queer minister, politician and activist. Photo credit: Spencer hm – Wikipedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Dr Cheri DiNovo
I wrote about Di Novo before. She is a friend of Encounter and speaks to some of our groups. Cheri’s life is astonishing. She has at different times been homeless, a drug user and seller, an entrepreneur, wealthy, a widow, an atheist, a Christian convert, a minister and an MPP. (How can that possibly describe one person?) In government, she passed more LGBTQ-friendly legislation than anyone in Canadian history showing that, as with Hawkes, religious leaders can lead the fight for minority rights. You can read her incredible story in her memoir The Queer Evangelist. Unlike the others in this list, I am familiar with DiNovo personally and I have been struck by how she pulls off the difficult combination of being tough-as-nails and yet driven by love and a heart of deep warmth.
Lamya H.’s memoir cover of Hijab Butch Blues. Photo credit: screenshot from Amazon.ca
Lamya’s story differs somewhat from the three above. Her memoir, Hijab Butch Blues also, to my eyes, reads differently from the books above in its rawness and vulnerability as she lets us see the pain from the exclusion and hiding that have marked much of her life. She remains in the closet to her family abroad, feeling that their cultural and social context gives them no peers or framing that would help them process and understand Lamya’s sexuality.
Her memoir also stood out because she brings us with her when she turns so frequently to her faith to find ways to cope with the struggles she faces. She recounts stories of various Muslim (and Biblical) prophets and how wrestling with their stories helps her to navigate her own. A tremendously honest book and a privileged look into someone’s life that might be very different from your own.
These four people are just a few examples of how religion and queer identities often intersect and how religious communities can be excluding and oppressive or sources of strength, community, and activism.
If you’re interested in supporting LGBTQ rights, consider supporting Brent Hawkes’ Rainbow Faith and Freedom organization (linked to above). I enthusiastically endorse all the books I mentioned. I always find reading first person accounts of struggles and reconciliations, especially with respect to religion, very powerful. They can disrupt my own preconceived notions in favour of more compassionate views and reinforce the idea that we are all more alike than we may understand. If you have a book suggestion about the LGBTQ+ community and religion, I’d love to hear it.
Happy Pride month.