Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Friday at the 2012 Creating Change Conference

Pro-LGBT clergy stoles on display at the
National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change
On Friday, January 27th, I volunteered at the 2012 National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change in Baltimore, MD. Hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the conference draws thousands of attendees from across the country each year to explore LGBT issues. The 2012 Creating Change Conference sported several high-profile speakers, such as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Rea Carey.

The Hilton Baltimore was brimming with a sea of LGBT people and allies, young and old, racially diverse, and religiously varied. In one wing of the hotel, the Practice Spirit, Do Justice initiative hung rows of pro-LGBT clergy stoles to demonstrate how members of the faith community support LGBT rights. One room was designated as an art lounge, where visitors could draw, paint, or contribute to a collective art piece stretched across a table. Hospitality lounges devoted to youth, health, and other topics offered relaxation and refreshments.

Collaborative art piece in
the art lounge
The exhibitor hall was lined with tables from dozens of organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Truth Wins Out, NARAL, and Out at Work. The presence of faith groups such as Lutherans Concerned and Bangor Theological Seminary were a reminder that affirming Christians support the LGBT community. Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse oversaw a table loaded with books for sale on gender, sexuality, and LGBT issues.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the workshop schedule offered several sessions on Religious Right issues, which is what drew me to the conference. In exchange for several hours of volunteer work, I received free admission into the Friday workshops. I'd like to focus on two particular workshops on liberating responses to religious homophobia.

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The first, "Language Matters: Why We Should Stop Saying 'Abomination' and 'Sodomy,'" was led by Jay Michaelson, associate editor of Religion Dispatches and author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Michaelson discussed Biblical words and passages that anti-gay fundamentalists have used to brand homosexuality as a sin.

Anti-gay discourse from the far right almost always focuses on male homosexuality, he observed, thereby erasing female same-sex eroticism. Whether this is an attempt to erase women's sexuality, or a result of far right men's fears of allegedly "feminine" men, he could not say. The far right avoids describing gays with the word "homosexuality," which is clinical and suggests a condition or identity, in favor of morally charged words such as "abomination" and "sodomy," Michaelson added.

One of the most common Biblical passages used to disparage homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22, which warns men not to lie with men because it is an "abomination." The passage appears in the context of Levitical laws concerning cleanliness and purity. Michaelson argues that the Hebrew word toevah, usually translated as "abomination," refers to a culturally relative taboo that sets boundaries between groups. Toevah does not necessarily denote a universally unnatural act in the same way that the word "abomination" does. Toevah is used 103 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in reference to idolatry or "foreign worship" (avodah zara). Deuteronomy 18:9-12, Deuteronomy 7:25-26, and Ezekiel 8:1-18 are three examples in which toevah is used to denote foreign religious practices. Also, Deuteronomy 23:18, which forbids cultic prostitution among Israelites of both sexes, suggests that the Levitical ban on male-on-male intercourse may have been a ban on a particular idolatrous religious practice. In short, Michaelson indicated that the interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 as a blanket ban on homosexuality is a simplistic and highly problematic reading of the text.

Michaelson went on to discuss the homophobic use of the Biblical Sodom story and the epithet "sodomite" to disparage gays. In Genesis 19:1-13, angels from God lodge with Lot in the city of Sodom. When the men of Sodom learn of the angel's presence, they surrounded Lot's house and demanded sex with the angels. Lot refused, offering his virgin daughters to the mob instead. The angels then blinded all the Sodomite men and warned Lot that they were about to destroy the city, urging him to flee with his family. (For a discussion of why the Sodom story is implausible, check out this post at the Wise Fool's blog.)

Michaelson argued that the Sodom story is not about homosexuality; rather, male-on-male sexual activity is the instrument of the story, not its focus. To assume that the Sodom story is about homosexuality would be like saying that a story about an axe-murderer is about an axe, he said. Rather, he argued that the Sodom story is about hospitality. The three chapters surrounding the Sodom story, he noted, also focus on hospitality or the lack thereof, thereby putting the Sodom story in a wider context. Hospitality was an important value in Biblical times, and the text emphasizes Lot's hospitality to the angels while depicting the Sodomites as violently inhospitable. The threat of male-on-male rape was an act of dominance and humiliation, meant to show the Sodomite's lack of hospitality to outsiders. Michaelson mused on reclaiming the "sin of Sodom" and "sodomy" from anti-gay figures, using these terms instead to condemn those who oppress and despise foreigners.

(2/11/12 UPDATE: Rob Tisinai at Box Turtle Bulletin reclaims the "sin of sodom" to mean arrogance and neglecting those in need.)

In short, Michaelson's workshop stressed the importance of a nuanced interpretation of scripture, especially when homophobic figures are (mis)quoting scripture to disparage gays.

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Another workshop, "When Anti-Gay Protesters Come to Campus," was led by Blaise Liffick and Alanna Berger of Silent Witness Peacekeepers, an organization performs peacekeeping duties at LGBT events in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley region (see here). The workshop discussed non-confrontational responses to anti-gay protesters on college campuses, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.

The presentation began with a photo of two young men at a college campus, with one man shouting at the other. Liffick explained that the calm man was an anti-gay protester, and the shouting man was an onlooker -- a situation that one does not want to happen. When anti-gay protesters arrive on campus, an effective response must be non-confrontational and nonviolent. Otherwise, the situation can potentially deteriorate into violence, Liffick explained.

Organized responses to anti-gay protesters should respect everyone's rights (including the protesters' right to free speech) while encouraging indifference to the protesters' presence. Pro-LGBT voices should respect the protesters as human beings, but should also make their opposition to anti-gay protesters clear. In doing so, they show support for LGBT students who might be emotionally hurt by the anti-gay protesters, and who may have already been marginalized by society. Liffick provided examples of positive pro-LGBT responses to anti-gay protesters, such as vigils, poetry projects, teach-ins, and West Chester University's Project Lemonade.

Silent Witness Peacekeepers is one such response to anti-gay protesters at LGBT events. The organization has trained over a thousand volunteers to form "human spiritual firewalls" between anti-gay protesters and LGBT event attendees, thereby ensuring that the LGBT community has safe, peaceful gatherings. Liffick described the Kingian principles of non-violence that undergird Silent Witness, including nonviolence as a way of life, avoiding internal violence of the spirit, and striving toward "beloved community."

The workshop shed light on some of the anti-gay protesters who have demonstrated against Susquehanna Valley LGBT events, including Repent America, Life & Liberty Ministries, and Luke 10:2 Ministries. Anti-gay protesters are intentionally confrontational, Liffick said, often using tactics to evoke negative emotional responses in bystanders. These tactics include "fire and brimstone" preaching, verbal attacks on bystander's age or appearance, and the use of shills. Liffick described shills who are planted in campus audiences, shouting angrily at the anti-gay protesters (with whom they're in league) in order to rile up a taciturn crowd of onlookers.

The workshop offered suggestions for creating pro-LGBT peacekeeping groups on campus, with advice on creating an identity, communication, collaboration, recruiting, and training. In short, the workshop taught students and campus administrators about effective responses to anti-gay protesters, as well as ethical principles that should guide these responses. These lessons were coupled with practical advice for creating pro-LGBT peacekeeping groups and avoiding the emotional traps set by anti-gay protesters.

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The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force deserves a warm thank you for hosting the 2012 Creating Change Conference, as do the conference's many supporters. Kudos are also due to presenters who put together excellent workshops, such as Jay Michaelson and Silent Witness Peacekeepers. Thank you!

For additional news on the 2012 Creating Change Conference, visit the following links.

WBAL: LGBT Rights Advocates Gather In Baltimore

Baltimore Sun: O'Malley tells gay conference he backs their cause

The Root: Ben Jealous: LGBT and Civil Rights Groups Must Work Together

Edge Boston: Carey: Activists to Play "Offense and Defense" on Marriage in 2012

American Independent: At LGBT conference leaders warn against too much focus on marriage over other issues


  1. Sounds like a wonderful and productive conference! What a contrast to the anti-LGBT hate rhetoric. Must have been a nice break for you, Ahab. Nice reporting.

  2. Cognitive Dissenter -- Thanks. It was heartwarming to see so much support for LGBT equality.

  3. Good job Ahab. I have read extensively on the biblical references to "homosexuality" What you reference is entirely correct. Liviticus refers to cultic prostitution and should not be extended to loving committed relationships. They were part of purity codes addressed only to the Jewish community. Sodom and G. are not used to defend anti-gay stances any more because it is universally seen as referring to hospitality and violence rather than homosexuality (a term by the way that was not cointed until the 18th or 19th century) The only other references are in Corinthians by Paul and they are by the majority of exegetes considered "not authentic Pauline writings but rather later writings by someone who followed him. It seems that the small section in question actually looks to be a later addition to the text as well, suggesting that it was later added by some unknown redactor.

  4. Sherry -- It was a thought-provoking workshop. You would have enjoyed Michaelson's talk.


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