People resisting progress towards rights for all have stolen the language of religion, warned Peter Purton of the Trades Union Congress. He was opening a conference on faith, homophobia, transphobia and human rights, held on Saturday 16 May at the Institute of Education in London.
Delegates from diverse organisations in different parts of the country – including trades unions, educational and faith groups – gathered to hear about developments in the struggle for equal rights and to discuss the way forward.
The conference was organised by Interfaith Alliance UK, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) and the TUC LGBT Committee, with support from some thirty other organisations.
There were strong views from the speakers and participants, lively debate and sobering moments, when those present were reminded of the plight of lesbians and gays in Iraq and news was received from Moscow of the break-up of a Pride event.
Even in Britain, hateful attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender (LGBT) people are sometimes aired, on football terraces but also in supposedly religious settings, as parish priest and newspaper columnist Giles Fraser described.
The government minister Maria Eagle, who is helping to take an Equality Bill through Parliament which will strengthen protection for people at risk of various kinds of discrimination, pointed out that the values of equality and social justice were held by many within as well as outside faith communities.
There has been much debate about the circumstances in which religious institutions can practice anything less than full equality. It was pointed out at the conference that these are intended to be strictly limited: a church will not be forced to have women priests, say, but cannot claim that everything it runs is outside the scope of anti-discrimination law.
Members of faith groups have a role in making the argument in their own communities for greater acceptance of LGBT people but in the meantime, the state has a duty to protect people from unfair treatment.
There were a range of workshops covering a wide range of issues in depth, a book-signing by novelist Michael Arditti, whose latest novel explores the world of religious extremism, and an afternoon plenary.
Scholarly presentations by Christian and Muslim theologians – Marilyn McCord Adams from the University of Oxford and Amanullah De Sondy from the University of Glasgow and Ithaca College, New York, offered thought-provoking views on why these religions had been misinterpreted in ways which have undermined respect for difference.
Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, spoke candidly about the human cost of being excluded and admitted that LGBT people had in the past not felt that their concerns were taken seriously enough. He expressed his own commitment and that of the Commission to striving for rights for all.
Participants pointed out that children are often cruelly bullied because of homophobia and transphobia and schools must do more to protect them. The need to educate young people in a way that promotes respect for diversity and human rights was underlined.
The human cost of injustice, the need to build broad alliances to combat it and the usefulness of different approaches, from tackling discrimination in law to creating space for discussion and cultural change, came across powerfully at the conference.
The discussions at the conference indicated that although there has been progress in recent years towards greater acceptance of LGBT people and their families, there is still some way to go and faith communities have a crucial part to play.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Kirk's General Assembly meets from 21 to 27 May and is being invited to rule on the appointment of openly gay minister the Rev Scott Rennie (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9450 ), who is being supported by the Aberdeen Presbytery and has been warmly welcomed by his congregation.
A range of Church of Scotland ministers have signed a petition calling for a ban on the appointment of gay clergy but many others in the Church are hoping that what his parishioners describe as Mr Rennie’s "valuable ministry” in Aberdeen can continue.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who has spoken out strongly against homophobia, will speak at the end of the Church of Scotland gathering (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9454 ).