Religion can be dangerous.
At least according to Bishop Gene Robinson, who was elected as the first out Episcopal bishop in 2003, at this year’s LGBT Health Forum at George Washington University.
More than 100 people came out Wednesday night to listen and ask questions to a panel of experts on the relationship between LGBT people and religion at the university’s Morton Auditorium at 21st and H streets.
Dr. Stephen Forssell is the lead organizer of the forum and is the founder of G.W.’s Graduate Program in LGBT Health Policy and Practice.
“Religion has the power to uplift, heal, sustain and empower, or diminish and marginalize,” Forssell said in a statement about the conference.
“It is not enough to pull drowning people from a raging stream,” Robinson said. “You have to walk back up stream and see who’s throwing them into the river in the first place.”
Robinson believes that most of the time it is the Christian church and other religious institutions that have been “throwing people in the river.”
Like most of the speakers, Beverly Little Thunder’s relationship to Christianity is complicated.
Little Thunder, a two-spirit (a Native American word for gender non-conforming), lesbian, Lakota elder, founded an all-women’s Sundance, called Kunsi Keya Tamakoce.
She said that while she finds many passages in the Bible to be loving, she cannot forget that it was the church that played a large role in the destruction of Native-American culture.
She spoke of how missionaries came to her ancestors’ tribal lands and set up churches. One of the first things they did was to translate the Bible into Lakota.
“They wanted to make sure we understood who their god was and how we were supposed to be,” Little Thunder said.
She said the Lakota were forced to reject all they had been taught.
Dr. Sherry Molock, an associate professor and researcher in psychology at G.W. and an ordained minister, said that the most important thing one can do to bolster LGBT health is to focus on children.
“One of the reasons why (my researchers and I) focus our interventions on youth is because … particularly in African-American churches, people love kids,” Molock said. “Whatever your theology is around sexual orientation, the bottom line is that gay youth are at risk for a lot of things.”
All the speakers admitted the Abrahamic religions are among the largest contributors to homophobia in the United States.
“Religion is at the center of the stigma condemnation and shame heaped upon the LGBT people,” Robinson said.
He said that in the texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam there are passages that depict the terror used to condemn LGBT people.
“Up until that point some 250 years ago, being gay, lesbian, transgender, two-spirit, was a normal part of being,” Little Thunder said. “Children who had the strength and ability to do what men did, even if they were girls, did that. Men who would prefer to do beadwork and skin hides and sit with the women, they could do that.”
All of that changed, she said, once missionaries informed Lakota families that what they were doing went against “god’s will.”
The conference tackled religion and LGBT health from both a theological and empirical standpoint, with many of the speakers citing numerical facts.
Robinson cited a study conducted by the Williams Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles that found LGB people suffer mental and physical health disparities.
Reverend Cedric Harmon, an ordained pastor in Washington, who is affiliated with the National Baptist and Missionary Baptist Churches and is the executive director of Many Voices, a Black church movement that works supports gay and transgender rights, cited a report conducted in 2011 by the LGBTQ Task Force entitled “Injustice at Every Turn.”
The report stated that 48 percent of trans people delay or avoid necessary medical care because they cannot afford it. Another 19 percent have been refused care. And still another 28 percent have faced such extreme discrimination that they no longer seek medical care even when sick or injured.
There was a general consensus among the speakers that issues like family rejection, stigma around non-conforming gender expression, minority and underserved population stresses, like prejudice and discrimination, also greatly affect health.