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Three Myths about Religious and LGBT Identities…and How to Dispel Them

Rev. Mark E. Fowler, Managing Director of Programs, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and Jean-Marie Navetta, Director of Equality & Diversity Partnerships, PFLAG National/Straight for Equality

Religious and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) identities are often considered to be in conflict. We hear stories from around the world about ways in which these two identities stand in opposition to each other. In reality, however, there is much more common ground between these identities than most people realize. Here are three myths about religious and LGBT identities…and the truth behind them.

Myth #1: People can’t be both religious and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Fact: Religious and LGBT identities are so often portrayed as contradictory, meaning that people often assume someone cannot identify as both religious and LGBT (or an ally of someone who is LGBT) at the same time. Data suggests, however, that many people who are LGBT also identify as religious – and those numbers are on the rise.

In 2013 the Pew Research Center found that 52% of LGBT adults have a formal religious affiliation. And in May 2015, the data was even more enlightening.
Pew found that 48% of LGB Americans now identify as Christian – up from 42% in 2013. Interestingly, the rise of Christian LGB Americans happens at the same time that reports show a decrease in the percentage of Americans overall who identify as Christian—in 2007 over 78% of Americans identified as Christian, compared to just over 70% of Americans today.

There is also a higher percentage of LGB Americans (11%) who belong to a non-Christian faith such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, than the percentage of Americans overall (6%) who belong to a non-Christian faith.
This new data suggests that not only can people be LGBT as well as religious, but that LGBT religious Americans are making up an increasingly large proportion of the United States’ overall religious population.

Myth #2: Religious individuals and/or communities oppose marriage equality.
Fact: Religious beliefs are often cited as the reason why individuals or communities oppose marriage equality. While conflicts between religious beliefs and marriage equality do exist for some people, they certainly do not for all. Research by the Public Religious Research Institute shows that:

  • 52% of Catholics support same-sex marriage
  • 62% of white mainline Protestants support same-sex marriage
  • 27% of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage
  • 83% of Jewish Americans support same-sex marriage

Additionally, a number of religious congregations now support same-sex marriage as well. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, recently amended its definition of marriage to read “Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Previously, marriage was defined as a commitment between a man and a woman.

Other religious communities that sanction same-sex marriage include Reform and Conservative Judaism, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches, and the United Church of Christ. In addition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church allows each congregation’s minister to choose whether to marry same-sex couples, and the Episcopal Church will sanction same-sex unions although not same-sex marriage.

These examples show that while some conflicts between same-sex marriage and religion do exist, there certainly is not a blanket opposition to marriage equality on the part of religious individuals or communities. In fact, the recent popular vote to legalize marriage equality in Ireland – one of the most Catholic nations on the globe – serves as a bright example of how far reality is from assumption on the issue.

Myth #3: Companies have to choose between supporting religious or LGBT inclusion.

Fact: Since LGBT and religious identities are so often portrayed as conflicting, some companies may believe that they need to choose between LGBTs or people of faith in their Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. Nothing is further from the truth. The fact is that companies can (and often do) create an inclusive environment for people from a whole range of identities, including religion and sexual orientation/gender identity. No choice necessary.

First of all, it is important for companies to realize that people who do not yet support legislation aimed at protecting LGBTs can still be allies for LGBT employees in the workplace. What someone believes about a topic outside of the workplace (whether or not that belief is inspired by religion) does not prevent that person from behaving inclusively. In reality, it is the connections that people often make at work that starts to help them see common ground and become more supportive – on both sides of the conversation.

It is important to always clarify that companies do not have the right to regulate or try to change what their employees believe about LGBT equality or any other topic. However, they can require employees to behave in ways that are respectful and inclusive of all employees from any sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious background.

Companies should also keep in mind that people can be (and often are) both LGBT and religious. Policies that infringe on the rights of one group may also infringe on the rights of the other, since these groups are not mutually exclusive.
This overlap can allow companies to use the resources they already have in place to build cooperation around religious and LGBT inclusion in the workplace. For example, if a company has an LGBT employee resource group as well as one that is interfaith or religion-specific, the two ERGs can work together on programming around identifying and debunking stereotypes. It is also important for companies to have clear guidelines around the creation and management of their ERGs to ensure that no group is created specifically to oppose another.
Finally, companies can create policies that are inclusive of LGBT as well as religious identities. For example, inclusive dress code policies can benefit religious employees who want to wear religious attire like a cross or hijab, and can also benefit transgender employees who want to wear clothing that is in accordance with their gender identity.

This discussion has been around for a long time, but we’re looking at it in new – and often exciting – ways. Greater efforts around inclusion overall, the larger acceptance of people who are LGBT, and the visibility for more religious identities have made the discussion necessary and important. The work that Tanenbaum and PFLAG National (through its Straight for Equality project) are doing with organizations to reframe understanding, refresh the conversation, and help determine organizations’ shared path forward has offered unique ways to shape what this path is going to look like. It isn’t just cutting-edge – this is the heart of inclusion.

The end of the either/or approach and vast assumptions is here, and the question is on the table: How are you going to lead this change in your organization?

 



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