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Why you might notice more religious groups at Pride celebrations this year

A national initiative called Faith for Pride wants religious groups and houses of worship that support LGBTQ rights to show up at Pride events this month.
Jason DeRose
A national initiative called Faith for Pride wants religious groups and houses of worship that support LGBTQ rights to show up at Pride events this month.

At the Pride Fest in Santa Monica, Calif., six houses of worship — five churches and a synagogue — had booths lined up all in a row.

The Episcopalians offered table bowling. The Lutherans offered temporary rainbow tattoos. A nondenominational church let anyone feeling lucky spin a wheel for prizes — ranging from coffee mugs featuring the Lamb of God holding a rainbow flag to a T-shirt emblazoned with Jesus wearing a rainbow crown of thorns.

The swag at Beth Chayim Chadashim's booth was pink plastic pens and stickers that read "Happy Pride!" above a rainbow Star of David.

Rabbi Jillian Cameron handed out those stickers and answered questions about service times and whether interfaith couples are welcome.

"I think it's really important," she said, "for us to be just as visible so that people know out in the world that loud voices saying horrible thing to our community are not the only religious voices out there."

Because those voices take their emotional toll, according to Cameron, even in a place as progressive as California. She remembers a trans person once coming to her nervously, wanting to talk about converting to Judaism.

"They were so convinced and sure that I was going to say no," Cameron recalled. "And when I said 'Of course, please come learn with me. Come be part of our community. Come figure it out with us.' They burst into tears because that was the first time someone said 'You can have both of these things.'

She added that an important message for her synagogue is, "You don't have to suppress a piece of you to exist."

It's no longer unusual to find a welcoming synagogue in many places around the U.S., but the same can't be said of every religious group.

Finding and making a spiritual home in the Black Pentecostal tradition

In South Los Angeles, Sammie Haynes arranges chairs and tables for Sunday services at Vision Church — a storefront Black Pentecostal congregation. For him, a relationship with God seemed impossible a few years ago, after he came out as gay.

"I wanted to be authentically myself," he said, "and when that happened I lost all of my friends and connections because, of course, the church frowned upon that."

For Haynes, it was a low time but he knew he wasn't alone.

"Most of our queer siblings have had challenges when it comes to the Black church and their faith experience," he said. "They have been vilified from the pulpit or ostracized or put out. Even some people put their children out of the house."

A few years after coming out, Haynes was visiting friends in Atlanta. They invited him to a church that specifically celebrated LGBTQ people.

"I was so amazed," he said, "to see pastors and trans people and gay people who were obviously gay and queer people all together worshiping and praising God."

It certainly wasn't the Black Pentecostal tradition in which he was raised.

"I just didn't' know a place like that existed," Haynes said, "and from there, I connected."

It was a connection that led to a change in vocation, from working in education to working for the church.

"I heard clear from God," he said. "I needed to create a space to encounter God no matter how you show up."

Now, Pastor Haynes is showing up for his community in South LA During this Pride Month, Haynes' calendar is full, from leading interfaith queer-friendly worship services to marching with his parishioners in Pride parades to hosting an LGBTQ block party in the parking lot next to his church.

For Haynes, the Biblical story that resonates most deeply with him right now is Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery.

"I'm excited for this month," he said, "to help somebody move from their Egypt to their Exodus. Because liberation is not only in the air for us at Vision Los Angeles. Liberation is in the air for the entire community."

Religions speak with multiple voices on LGBTQ issues

More pro-gay God-talk at Pride this year is no accident. It's a national initiative of the progressive Interfaith Alliance, involving Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others. It's called Faith for Pride, and it's meant, in part, to counter the message of anti-LGBTQ rights legislation in statehouses around the U.S.

"We are not going to let this happen to our LGBTQ siblings," said Interfaith Alliance president Paul Raushenbush, who is also a Baptist minister. "Not on our watch."

Beyond passing out swag and having fun at Pride events, he says it's a time to educate people about the laws being passed in states such as Florida, Texas, Idaho and elsewhere.

"We need to organize," he said. "We need to specifically fight back against these bills. And we need to rally religious communities and a religious voice to say 'no.'"

According to Raushenbush, the group's agenda is political, but it's also a personal message queer people need to hear.

"Don't feel like you have this choice between your sexuality or your gender and your religious tradition," he said. "There are people out there who love you who respect you who will welcome you and will help you thrive."

LGBTQ rights: Part of a larger human rights agenda

Muslims for Progressive Values is one of more than 100 religious organizations across the country that have signed on as co-sponsors of Faith for Pride.

The organization has chapters in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each chapter is hosting its own activities, including sending contingents to Pride marches, throwing henna parties for same-sex couples, and leading education sessions for local Muslim communities.

Ani Zonneveld is founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values.

"Nothing is going to change within the Islam," she said, "and also outside Muslim society until we really provide the educational content, the alternative interpretation of Islam."

She knows some people will hear the word "Islam" and immediately think of conservative, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, such as the recent position statement signed by more than 150 prominent imams and religious scholars.

That statement reads, in part, "By a decree from God, sexual relations are permitted within the bounds of marriage, and marriage can only occur between a man and a woman."

To Zonneveld, those sorts of messages contravene the spirit of Islam. "One that really goes back to the Koran," she said, "and how it really advocates for those who are oppressed."

Zonneveld had long been an advocate for human rights in Muslims countries, but she did not start to take on LGBTQ rights until 2008.

Although the California Supreme Court ruled early that year that same-sex marriage was a right guaranteed by the state constitution, voters later passed Proposition 8. That ballot measure amended the state constitution and eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry.

It was a watershed moment for Zonneveld. "As a human rights defender," she said, "I felt if I was going to talk about human rights, I should not be selective about whose human rights."

So she added work for LGBTQ rights to the agenda of Muslims for Progressive Values.

"What I really just hope, simply, is for people to become more inclusive and loving and compassionate," Zonneveld said. "It's really that simple."

Progressive people of faith are organizing "for such a time as this"

One of the groups heavily involved in Faith for Pride is the Los Angeles Queer Interfaith Clergy Council, which serves as an umbrella organization for LGBTQ-affirming congregations in the region.

One of the group's organizers is Rev. Pat Langlois, pastor of the North Hollywood congregation MCC United Church of Christ in the Valley.

She views people of faith advocating for LGBTQ rights as existential, both for queer people in general and for her understanding of Christianity specifically.

"It amplifies the voices of faith that are so vital right now," Langlois said, "because faith has been hijacked."

Hijacked, she believes, by those using the Bible and what she describes as misguided understandings of religious liberty to roll back decades of progress for LGBTQ rights.

Langlois is especially concerned about the many states passing or considering bills that criminalize gender affirming care for transgender children. Those who believe such medical care should be illegal often interpret the Bible's creations stories as affirming that God created two immutable sexes, male and female.

Langlois is heartened, though, by religious activists on the other side of the debate. She's also inspired by a moment in the book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, when Queen Esther is asked not to remain silent about deadly, oppressive laws but rather advocate for the lives of the Jews: "You have come to your royal position for such a time as this." (Esther 4:14)

Langlois says now is the moment for people of faith who favor LBGTQ rights to stand up and speak out. "You know," Langlois says, "We have come to a point where truly for such a time as this, and nobody can sit on the sideline."

It's a message present among the houses of worship represented at Santa Monica Pride and a message that Pride attendee Rin Kahla said she heard as she visited booths and picked up swag.

She's come and gone from congregations over the years, sometimes because they were less welcoming of LGBTQ people than they claimed to be. But she found herself enormously encouraged as she saw so many people of faith standing beneath signs that read "Happy Pride!"

"Whether it's being Jewish or Protestant or Pentecostal or Catholic, to believe in something greater than ourselves seems to me to be important," Kahla said as she gestured to the six booths representing local houses of worship. "This is the representation that says we have to stop being afraid."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
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