What I Said at the White House

I was invited to be part of a forum on global human rights for LGBT persons on Tuesday. Short talks were presented by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Ambassador Susan Rice. Later we were invited to the Vice President’s home, where he shared some additional comments. It was clear that the White House has a strong commitment to human rights for LGBT persons, especially in a world where people are routinely killed, beaten, tortured, arrested, threatened, excluded from employment, driven into secrecy, and imprisoned for being gay.
It was an honor to participate on a panel with such distinguished colleagues and such skilled moderation.
One of the ideas I shared in the panel was this:There is a huge personal cost for religious leaders to change their position on LBGT equality. And there is a huge personal cost for LGBT people when religious leaders won’t change. For those reasons, I recommended we find ways to encourage religious leaders to move incrementally along a spectrum with four spaces.

1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality in the name of God and religion.

Many leaders in certain parts of the world are still in Zone 1.
Many religious conservatives (Evangelicals and Catholics in the US) are in Zone 2. That’s where I began thirty or forty years ago.
Many are moving into Zone 3. They still stigmatize – for example, by welcoming gay people as members but not as leaders, or by allowing civil unions but opposing gay marriage. But they try to reduce the scope and strength of stigmatization.
More and more are moving into Zone 4.
Many people are unaware of Zone 4. They think the only way for people to become less bigoted and more compassionate is to become less religious and more secular. But that approach is fraught with unintended consequences.
It’s important, I told those present, to speak to those in each group with sensitivity to their situation and to help them take the step they are capable of taking. It’s not simply a choice of inhabiting Zone 1 or 4, and it’s not wise to treat Zone 2 or 3 people as if they were “homophobic” in the same way as Zone 1 people are.
The fact is that there are many people in the middle, and they are moving – often in the right direction, and often at great cost. Many lack sufficient courage to take the next step and need moral encouragement, sometimes actual physical protection, to do so.

It won’t suffice to only let people in Zone 1 and 2 speak in the name of God and religion. It won’t suffice to offer persuasion based on “secular” legal grounds alone. It won’t suffice to forego persuasion and only rely on pressure (via money, aid, etc.), because pressure without persuasion is experienced as oppression.

More of us need to make a bold and clear moral case for Zone 4 so that religious leaders can move towards it with a clear conscience and in good faith.
I may share more about the gathering soon. Stay tuned. For those interested, so much depends on finding new, liberating ways of reading the sacred texts that have so often been quoted to stigmatize LGBT people. My new book attempts to model one such new and liberating way of reading the Bible. You can read more here.