Almost two years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying the United Church’s then-Moderator Gary Paterson and his husband Tim Stevenson on a two-week visit to Colombia and Cuba. Part of what we did was to respond to United Church partners who said they were ready to engage us in dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity.
During the first two weeks of November, I retraced our steps and heard some stories of the impact of that visit—and took some new steps as well.
All that happened before these visits was important:
- the process of change in the United Church that led to its stance in favour of inclusion in 1988 and more recent work on equal marriage and full inclusion of trans people
- development of Gender Justice and Partnership Guidelines in 1998, and
- production in 2010 of Moving Toward Full Inclusion (and its Spanish translation in 2014), a resource for dialogue with partners on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Debate on human sexuality continues in many other churches around the world, and slowly, space is won.
In Bogotá, one of the outcomes of our previous visit is the creation of an ecumenical group on LGBTI inclusion called Jesús Arcoiris (Rainbow Jesus). The group includes people from as many as 17 different Christian traditions. Their regular meetings open space for long-delayed conversations and strengthen the voices of LGBTI people who chose to remain in their churches. Meetings are hosted by the Latin American Centre for Popular Communication (CEPALC).
During my visit to CEPALC on Nov. 9, I joined a 90-minutes panel discussion on its internet-based “Encuentro Radio” program. Together with Félix Posadas, Amparo Beltrán and Yesid Fernández—and people who called in—we were able to decipher LGBTTIQQ2SA, examine biblical texts, and join debates over current issues like peace, human rights, same-sex marriage and adoption.
In Medellín, I had been invited to lead about 20 leaders of the Colombian Methodist Church (ICM) in a two-day workshop on inclusion. For several years, the church has had a non-discrimination policy that protects sexual minorities, but the sense among leaders is it that it would be better to have a more positive, welcoming position.
The group reflected the church: a diversity of ethnicities from all parts of the country; a handful of “out” (and very articulate) gay men and one lesbian; several pastors and lay leaders; two top-notch theologians; and two or three people who were very new to the conversation but motivated to be there because of friendships or family relationships.
Using the Bible to interpret the Bible
After working to decode the LGBTTIQQ2SA alphabet, adding human faces and stories, examining the Biblical texts (“using the Bible to interpret the Bible,” as Gary suggested last year), and talking about human rights (protection for minorities against the whims of the majority), we achieved consensus on next steps: a report to the bishop and ICM board, and plans for two regional forums next year. I will stay in touch with the conversation.
Days earlier in Cuba, I continued conversations with all of the partners, and with a LGBTI group in Matanzas called Abriendo Brechas (Opening Spaces). The group has recently decided to affiliate itself with the Metropolitan Community Church.
In that conversation and in others, it became more apparent to me that trans people struggle for inclusion. (Not that we’re much further ahead in Canada, however.) Trans people, particularly trans women, find themselves ostracized during early adolescence, frequently leaving school and ending up working as prostitutes in the tourist zones (like Varadero, just a few kilometres east of Matanzas).
CENESEX (the National Centre for Sexuality Studies, led by Mariela Castro), together with LGBTI organizations, work to address issues of equality and inclusion, but social stigma remains high in Cuba and Canada. Just in February, Canada’s Senate gutted a law that would have extended human rights protection to trans people.
In Cárdenas, I had a long talk with Alberto Abreu Arcía, a gay Afro-Cuban who is a writer and academic. His memories of the pre-mid-80s time of repression of LGBTI people is sharp. That repression has ended, and a sort of “official space” has opened through the leadership of CENESEX.
But at the grassroots, particularly in inter-actions with local police, LGBTI people are still blocked from meeting each other. “If we hang out in parks, it’s because there is no other open space,” Alberto said.
Our conversation ranged widely through current events and literature (the books of novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who left Cuba in the Mariel boats in 1980 and died from AIDS-related causes in New York 10 years later) and film (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate). “These are specific representations of gay life in Cuba that are well-known outside Cuba” but, in Alberto’s view, “do not represent the variety of life in diverse currents, identities and classes.”
He maintains a blog, Afromodernidades, that he uses to explore themes of identity and power. When necessary, he also denounces specific abuses, such as a violent attack against a young man (“gay, ugly and poor,” it was said of the victim) in Cárdenas, and the harassment by police in Varadero of gay people in public parks. He spoke of the opening of a disco in Havana that at first seemed like a new gay space, but quickly revealed itself to be an elite space closed to the poor and to most Afro-Cubans.
Work is also needed (not just in Cuba) to examine power and the fault lines within and among the various groups lumped together under the alphabetic LGBTI: gender, race, class, and incomprehension by many ‘LGB’ of the ‘T’ (trans) and the ‘I’ (intersex).
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