For the purposes of this post I’m going to be looking at this from the context of faith communities based on my own observations as a woman who is transsexual and lesbian, discussions with others who are at different points on the gender and orientation spectrum, and information I’ve read and absorbed over time. Another important point is that when it comes to welcoming and acceptance the impression and feelings of the people being welcomed needs to be looked at. It is difficult for a community to evaluate itself, especially when the ones doing the evaluating have been in the community for a long period of time. This post is not about a specific community, but rather an overall view of a number of communities both Christian and non-Christian.
I often hear various communities and groups talk about not only being accepting, but also being inclusive of various people and particularly being inclusive of gays and lesbians. Many people in these communities see themselves as being accepting and inclusive, but when one looks at the situation in more detail how they see themselves isn’t necessarily the reality experienced by the people who are supposedly accepted and included. When this disparity of thought and experience is pointed out the first response on the part of the community is often defensive, “of course we’re inclusive and accepting, see, we say so in our welcoming statement!”
Tolerance of others is when the person or group is allowed to be in a community or space, but there is a strong pressure to not bring attention to themselves. In my own context as a woman who is transsexual this means that while I may be allowed to be in a space, even identify as part of a community, there is an expectation, usually unspoken, that I am not to talk about my experience of being transsexual.
Acceptance is when people are accepted into the community and are allowed to express who they are and discuss their experiences. A same sex couple is able to be comfortable enough in the setting to express their affection for one another. A person who is transitioning, or who does not meet society’s expectations of how one ought to present as male or female can be themselves and present as they feel like on a specific day. A person, such as myself, who has transitioned can feel comfortable being open about their past and to discuss it in some contexts of the community.
Being inclusive means that a community is not only accepting of the diversity of the community, but publicly acknowledges that people are welcome in the community and that there is programming and / or content that is explicitly inclusive. This is probably the largest hurdle for a community. It is also important for me to point out that inclusion goes beyond one group of marginalized people. It means being inclusive of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, LGBT* / Queer people, people on the ASD spectrum, people with disabilities of various sorts, victims of abuse, sexual violence, as well as those who have been abusers or in the criminal justice system. Discussion of inclusion of various groups must, by definition, look at the needs of each group as well as the community, especially when it comes to issues of abuse, victims and perpetrators. Again, for the purposes of this post I am looking specifically at it from the LGBT* / queer / trans* perspective.
Practically, what does this all mean?
The first step when looking at this as a community is to take a critical look at what is actually happening in the community, and who is participating in the community and what message publications, web site and other communications send. Are there people who are openly gay, lesbian or bisexual? Of those, how often do they attend events with their partner, if they have one, or a date and are open about being with their partner / date? What reactions do they face when they walk through the door with their partner? If they are new to the community will the reaction of existing members of the community to a same sex couple be such as to make them feel unwelcome? Are people going to openly question the gender of someone if they don’t meet the expectations of male and female presentations and behaviour? For those seeking a community to be part of are they going to see themselves represented on the web site, Facebook page and in other materials? If the community has an openly gay / lesbian / trans / queer person as clergy (priest, rabbi, pastor etc) is this reflected in materials or is it kept quiet? Is there an explicit statement of acceptance of various groups? Is there an explicit inclusivity policy?
By answering these questions in an open and honest manner, ideally by asking those people who can give an honest answer, a picture of where the community is on the path from tolerance to acceptance to inclusion. In addition, someone who is seeking a community will be asking these questions internally, if not explicitly or consciously. The answers to these questions will be central to whether or not a person feels like they will be, or are, accepted for who they are in the community.
Once the questions around acceptance are addressed it is then possible to take it to the next step and look at inclusion. For faith communities one resource for looking at how inclusive it is for LGBT* people is the Garrigan Checklist. Sean Neil-Barron shared this with me and it has some of my own contributions included in it. There will likely be other questions that come up when discussing these topics with members of the community. It is also highly probable that there will be people who have problems with moving forward towards being an accepting and inclusive community.
So, what is to be done with people who are struggling with the issue of inclusion for LGBT* people? Pushing them aside and ignoring them completely would be a form of exclusion and not inclusive. One way of dealing with these people is to be open to discussions with them. Give them an appropriate space to talk about and discuss their concerns and struggles. During these discussions it is important to have clear expectations and boundaries to keep the discussion respectful, be open to listening. In addition it is important to normalize the presence of LGBT* people in the community and to not hide it. When things are familiar they become less frightening and go from being ‘the other’ to being a facet of the community.
Is this an easy process for a community? In the majority of communities it will not be an easy process. Think of your own life and how difficult it is to look at one’s own shortcomings and prejudices. Now multiply that and amplify that in a community. It is often necessary to have an outside facilitator assist with these discussions.
How inclusive are your communities and what steps are being taken to ensure that your communities are moving towards being inclusive?