Chicago Area Bahá'ís Attend LGBTQ Conference
By Yvor Stoakley and Charles Young
CHICAGO (April 6, 2013) – For Chicago attorney Judy El-Amin, and four of her fellow members of the Bahá'í community the goal was to learn a new language—how to speak about the Bahá'í Faith in a meaningful and respectful way to individuals who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, that their hearts might become attracted to the message of the Divine Prophet for this age. (Today those individuals commonly refer to themselves with the acronym "LGBTQ".)
"In January," remarked Judy, "I was contacted by a longtime friend of mine, Georgia, an advocate for the LGBTQ community. She told me that she was serving on a steering committee that was planning a social justice conference serving the black LGBTQ community." She said that the conference would be held in Chicago on the weekend commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 5 -7. "We are planning to have an interfaith panel," said Georgia, "and I would like you to be a member of the panel representing the Bahá'í Faith."
"My first thought," said Judy, "was that I had not heard her right because I was pretty sure that she knew the Bahá'í teachings' position regarding homosexual behavior. So I reminded her of that point just to make sure we were both on the same page." It turned out that Georgia understood the Bahá'í position on this issue but felt it would be informative to the LGBTQ community to include a Bahá'í on the panel especially given the Faith's strong position on the elimination of racism and all forms of prejudice.
Judy turned to her friend, Marianne Geula, who nurtured her into the Bahá'í community four years before through the study circle process, to figure out how to respond to Georgia. "I was a relatively new Bahá'í," says Judy, "and while my own spiritual journey and understanding of the Bahá'í teachings made me recognize this as a teaching opportunity, I did not feel prepared to serve on that panel as a representative of the Bahá'í Faith."
As God (or fate) would have it, Marianne had been researching questions of the Bahá'í teachings on homosexuality for a few years searching for a way to have more meaningful conversations around this issue within the Bahá'í community and with members and allies of the LGBTQ community. Marianne had been encouraged down this learning path by the Universal House of Justice messages calling for greater involvement in public discourse around the leading social issues of our day and encouragement for Bahá'ís to become deeply involved in community building wherever we reside. She had presented a talk on her research at Green Acre Bahá'í School and presented two very well-received workshops at the 2011 and 2012 Green Lake Bahá'í Conferences in Wisconsin. So in many ways Marianne was the perfect person to consult with and to serve on the interfaith panel at the LGBTQ social justice conference. The one problem was that by April, Marianne would be returning to China where she was employed as an English instructor. So Marianne suggested that Charles Young, a Bahá'í residing in suburban Hanover Park, IL be contacted and invited to serve on the interfaith panel.
It just so happened that a few months before her friend, Georgia, contacted her about this interfaith panel and the social justice conference, Judy had attended a workshop in Oak Park, another Chicago suburb, called "Community Building, Personal Growth & the New Jim Crow" led by Charles Young. Charles had initiated his "New Jim Crow workshops" last September inspired by two talks given by Ohio State University law professor and author Michelle Alexander at the August 2012 Green Lake Bahá'í Conference about her research into the hugely disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color in the United States over the past three decades largely fueled by the so-called "war on drugs". Charles, who embraced the Bahá'í Faith 43 years ago as a high school student in his native St. Mary's County, Maryland, has a long history of anti-racism work and training with his spouse of 25 years, Rita Starr.
In addition to being deeply moved by Michelle Alexander's presentations at Green Lake, Charles was also touched by Marianne Geula's Green Lake workshop on homosexuality and the Bahá'í Faith. He sought Marianne out the following week in Chicago and spent several hours talking to her one-on-one about her workshop presentation and research. Judy and Marianne contacted Charles, and explained to him the teaching opportunity offered by Georgia's, invitation. Charles seized on the opportunity, agreed to serve as the Bahá'í representative on the interfaith panel, and the three of them pulled together a small task force to deepen and consult on the challenge while Marianne was still in Chicago, before she returned to China in February. (She was in the States for a holiday break in her teaching schedule.)
Fast forward to Saturday, April 6, and five Bahá'ís are attending the "Bolder Than Out Social Justice Conference" held in the cafeteria of Provident Hospital near 51st Street and Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago. In addition to Charles and Judy, three other Bahá'ís are at the conference—Judy's husband, Ron Browne, and two former Green Lake Conference Planning Committee members, Erik Unterscheutz and Yvor Stoakley. Aside from Charles' participation on the interfaith panel, the Bahá'ís were largely there as observers but were freely welcomed to participate in the various discussions on LGBTQ and the arts, LGBTQ and economic empowerment, establishment of a community center that would provide a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community and other issues that preceded the interfaith panel. All five Bahá'ís had served on the task force preparing for this event. They had spent hours deepening on the Writings researched by Marianne. Charles had spent additional hours preparing himself to participate on the panel and field the questions that he thought might arise from his presentation.
|Judy El-Amin at Bolder Than Out Social Justice Conference, April 6, 2013 (Photo by Ron Browne)|
For the Bahá'ís it was a learning experience that they hope will contribute to further dialogue in the Bahá'í community around this sensitive contemporary issue in the United States. As more and more states enact legislation approving same sex marriages, as increasing numbers of public officials and social commentators identify themselves or reveal that they have close friends and family members who are LGBTQ, as more faith communities wrestle with their attitudes and policies towards the LGBTQ community, as more of our friends and colleagues and our children's friends and classmates struggle with the issue of homosexuality, Bahá'ís will be drawn more and more into the public discourse on these topics and increasing numbers of members in the Bahá'í community will personally toil over this issue. It is not enough for Bahá'ís to know "the letter of the Bahá'í law" on this issue, though that is clearly the starting point, but we must figure out how to talk about these issues, what language will best frame the Message of Bahá'u'lláh as it applies to the LGBTQ community and knit together hearts and souls.
In a letter dated January 3,2011, the Universal House of Justice states:
"The purpose of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh is the realization of the organic unity of the entire human race, and Bahá'ís are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Bahá'í is exhorted to be "an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression", and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated."
We must be better prepared to fulfill our individual and collective responsibility to reach out to the yearning hearts and souls of all of humanity and bring them to the healing and transformative waters of the Message of Bahá'u'lláh.
The changes we see in the customs and relationships of our society are not our number one concern, for the world order as we experience it is constantly shifting, first one way, then another. Rather, it is the hearts and souls of humanity, that we are called to introduce to the healing message of the Faith.
For those of us who were in attendance, an afternoon at the Bolder Than Out Social Justice Conference was an afternoon well spent.