It’s been an eventful month for the gay rights movement. Last Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review rulings overturning bans on same-sex marriage in five states—meaning 30 states will likely soon allow same-sex marriage. Then, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of DC’s largest Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel, came out in a heartfelt letter to his congregation. This week, two days after National Coming Out Day, the Vatican softened its stance on same-sex unions, calling on pastors to recognize “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.” Moment spoke with Sharon Groves, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith program, on the history of gay rights in religious communities and the new challenges those communities are now facing.—Rachel E. Gross
For the communities you work with, what is the significance of this latest Supreme Court decision?
It means is that religious communities are going to have to wrestle with relationship recognition in ways they never have before. We’ve seen some encouraging signs of the time. In Utah, for instance, the Mormon church has been fervently antagonistic and really bankrolled the Prop 8 campaign. They’ve been a real problem in this arena. But recently, there was an article in the Salt Lake City Tribune in which leading apostle Dallin H. Oaks said: We’re going to approach this with civility. Nobody should be persecuted for sexual orientation. That may seem small, saying we can be civil with our adversaries. Nonetheless, there was a resignation that this is happening, we are not going to be a thorn in the side. It’s an opening for conversation.
Oaks is only part of a larger shift in how religious communities consider gay rights. What has the change been from your perspective, and what challenges remain?
People for the most part no longer believe that LGBT people are just misadjusted heterosexual people, and that they can change with therapy. Across the board, conservative communities now recognize that gender identity is a real thing. Now people are dealing with the question: What do we do with these relationships?
What we see happening—and you see this often in Catholicism—is a separation between people who act on their orientation and people who are celibate. They’re saying we don’t think homosexuality is sinful, we don’t have a problem with you being gay—but you have to be celibate. That puts LGBT people in an untenable box. There are plenty of gay people who have chosen a celibate life, but those people are not everyone.
In God and The Gay Christian, Matthew Vines makes the argument that celibacy in the bible is always held up as a higher calling, and it’s always a choice. When you make the case that gay people have to be celibate, you’re essentially breaking from this biblical tradition. Given what the bible says about celibacy, what options are you really making open to same-sex people? What kind of life are you subscribing for your brothers and sisters?
How has the Jewish community been involved in the gay rights movement?
I’ve been working at this job for nearly a decade. When I started, the cornerstone of our work was often with progressive Protestant communities and then Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish communities. These are the communities which have historically been able to make the case that their faith calls them to support the full dignity and worth of LGBT people.
While the Conservative movement has been less energetically supportive than, say, the Reform movement, in the past decade they’ve really done some soul-searching. In 2006, the Conservative movement opened its doors to allowing, at least in some cases, for same-sex marriages. They also opened their seminaries to LGBT people, allowing rabbis to be ordained in the Conservative movement. We helped push that conversation along.
Where the work really is in the Jewish community now is in the Orthodox community. We haven’t really touched the ultra-Orthodox community. But we have had some inroads in conversations with Modern Orthodox.
Recently, HRC has shifted its focus to conservative communities, which may soon include Orthodox Judaism. What are some of the particular challenges you face in breaking into these tricky/more traditional communities?
It may not be what you think. We’ve done a lot of work lately with more conservative Christian groups, and almost across the board when we reach out to people the first response is fear. People are scared to have the meeting. There is an anxiety that they’re going to be labeled as bigots, or hateful, or they’re going to be pushed into a theology that they’re not ready for. There’s a fear of transformation—but also just a fear that they’re going to be seen as not okay.
Plus, the theology is tough. We try really hard not to move into that space too quickly. We have to be careful not to tell people that their faith is bad and that they just need to give it up. There’s so much that’s rich and powerful at the core of religious traditions. The work is excavating that and presenting that language so people don’t feel like they can either love people or their faith, and that there’s nothing in between.
This week, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of DC’s largest Conservative synagogue came out to his congregation in a heartfelt letter. What was the significance of this development?
What we’ve seen before is often a conservative Christian clergy member who gets caught and then had to go through this shaming ritual. That is not what this was. This story is not a story of shame. This is somebody who actively made a decision to come out, and even looked for guidance in scripture. In his letter to his congregation, he quotes the Talmud that “any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar.” There’s a sense of having grounded this in a deep religious reflection, going back to sacred texts. That’s powerful.
Are you starting to see more spiritual leaders come out?
I haven’t seen many people in his position who have come out, but I imagine we will. What we have seen is people coming out as supportive. Remember that in the deepest conservative pockets of our religions it still can be a very scary thing just to come forward as an ally, let alone as a gay person. In North Carolina a Christian pastor recently came out as supportive, and the response he got was overwhelmingly positive. We’re seeing that over and over again.
What (Rabbi Steinlauf) did sets the stage. So many people think they have to make a choice: I’m going to be a religious person or I’m going to be an LGBT person. This offers young people an opportunity to see that they can be a rabbi in a conservative tradition and be a gay person. That’s enormous.