Experts Talk Health and Religion at LGBT Forum

The fourth annual George Washington University forum focused on the intersection of health and religion in the LGBT community.

July 15, 2016

Fourth annual GW LGBT Health Forum

Panelists at the fourth annual GW LGBT Health Forum discussed the intersection of sex, religion and LGBT health. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

Shame and stigma from religious teachings that condemn homosexuality have seeped into every aspect of life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said Bishop Gene Robinson, the first priest in an openly gay relationship to be named a bishop in a major Christian denomination.

Mr. Robinson, of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, spoke at George Washington University’s fourth annual LGBT Health Forum on Wednesday. The LGBT Health Graduate Certificate Program event focused on the intersection of sex, religion and LGBT health.

Because of the church’s teachings, LGBT people are more likely to put off medical care and suffer from health problems, he said, and fearing discrimination and bias from medical professionals, LGBT people are less likely to go to a doctor for necessary medical care.

The writings of all Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—contain “texts of terror” that have been used to condemn LGBT people, he said. Those texts cause society to reject LGBT people, who often internalize that hate.

“It is shame that keeps us from seeking support from others when we do get sick, and it is shame that drives loneliness, isolation and depression,” Mr. Robinson said.

While gay marriage was affirmed by the Supreme Court last year, many Americans outside major metropolitan hubs are still hostile to the LGBT community. Like slave owners who pointed to scriptures to uphold the practice, opponents of gay marriage look to the Bible to sanction their anti-gay beliefs. White people taught slaves to study the scriptures with the idea it would affirm their interpretation, Mr. Robinson said.

“The problem was, they read them, and in that Bible they found the seeds of their own liberation,” he said.

God loves all people and nothing can change that. With God, a person can withstand almost anything, Mr. Robinson said.

“Don’t confuse the church with God,” he said. “God never gets it wrong. The church can and often does.”

Joining Mr. Robinson in the discussion were Beverly Little Thunder, a Lakota tribal elder, Rev. Cedric Harmon, executive director of Many Voices, and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

Ms. Little Thunder had several heterosexual marriages and five children before she came out as a lesbian. As a Lakota woman, she wanted to teach her children the traditions of her people. In 1985, she was refused entry to the annual Sundance ceremony in South Dakota because of her sexuality. Women like her, she was told, should be taken out and shot.

After the rejection, she started an annual Sundance ceremony for lesbian women who were not welcome in their homes and has led it for the past 27 years. It has become a safe haven for lesbian and transgender Two-Spirit women.

“I decided that no one, no one could ever tell me what I could not do around my spirituality,” Ms. Little Thunder said. “That spirituality came from here, inside of me. How can you take something that is in my heart?”

Mr. Harmon, an ordained Baptist, said medical care is often viewed as a risk factor and impediment by LGBT people. For transgender people specifically, he said, studies have shown that 19 percent have been refused care and 28 percent no longer seek care because of extreme discrimination.

“Trusted medical professionals are few and far between in too many of our communities,” Mr. Harmon said.

The shame and stigma involved in seeking medical care can result in LGBT people making poor health choices like turning to self medication, he said.

Following the keynote remarks, Richard Rosendall, president of Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., and a columnist for The Washington Blade, and Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at GW, joined the panel for a discussion and audience questions.

One question was how the church could transform from being a source of shame to a place of affirmation.

Mr. Robinson said it is harder for people to accept discrimination when they know someone in the LGBT community. Because of this, the church is hemorrhaging young people of faith.

“It’s just hard to say and think the things that you used to say and think when a face comes out of it rather than a stereotype,” he said.

Dr. Molock said when she talks in primarily African American churches, she finds common ground with anti-gay members by agreeing that everyone wants what is best for children. She doesn’t try to change anyone’s theology, she said.

“It’s easier for us to entry with, whatever your theology is around sexual orientation, the bottom line is that gay youth are at risk for a lot of things,” she said. “If we can stay together as a community and still love one another and disagree, that’s a true community.”