Gay activist conference in Minn. has faith focus

Published 8:43 am Tuesday, February 1, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — Whenever Nicole Garcia visited gay-friendly churches with large numbers of Hispanic people in the congregation, she would check the brochures and other materials geared toward gay churchgoers and their families and usually find a common theme.

“Typically what I’d see are materials written for white families and translated into Spanish,” said Garcia, a Denver-based transgender activist who works with several gay-friendly faith groups. “That’s appreciated, but you have to understand that you’re talking about a totally different set of issues in many cases.”

On Wednesday, Garcia and several hundred other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists who work within multiple faith communities will gather in Minneapolis as part of the much larger National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual conference. Garcia will lead a Latino working group, one of several such groups aimed at a greater diversity in gay religious activism — an arena that convention co-organizer the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel said “has been largely defined by white folks.”

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In recent years, gay activists have won some major battles within several traditionally white, middle-class denominations. Both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church now allow openly gay clergy, and several other Protestant denominations have been moving in that direction.

Those denominations are far from completely white. But in many cases, other denominations and faiths more closely associated with communities of color, such as Islam, haven’t changed at the same pace.

“I’d say Islam is, in a best-case scenario, maybe 40 to 50 years behind where some of the Protestant denominations are today,” said Faisal Alam, a gay Muslim man from Atlanta who in 1998 founded Al-Fatiha, an activist group for gay Muslims. “In most Muslim communities, it’s just not even on the radar screen.”

Alam is a keynote speaker at the Minneapolis conference.

Garcia, who belongs to an ELCA church, said she believes people of color tend to belong to more conservative denominations, creating a challenge for gay people who want to live openly while continuing to practice their faith.

Earnest Simpkins, a black gay activist who grew up in a Pentecostal congregation, said he realized his homosexuality from an early age but had been taught in church that such feelings were sinful and needed to be denied. In recent years, Simpkins — who recently moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts for a job at a center for gay youth — said he has found it difficult to get fellow gay activists to address issues of faith.

“It’s a problem that’s been faced by most gays who believe — talking about that with other gay people, you often hit a brick wall because so many of us had religion used against us at some point in our life and so we build these walls against it,” said Simpkins, who will lead a working group at the conference for black activists.

That dynamic can be compounded for people who already feel marginalized coming from minority backgrounds, Simpkins said. “It’s a double whammy,” he said.

The faith focus at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force convention, which begins Wednesday, is new for the activist group. Organizers expect several thousand activists at the four-day convention, with sessions not just on faith organizing but a number of other political and social concerns.

Sue Hyde, the convention’s lead organizer, said the group decided to deal more directly with faith issues to counter religious activists on the other side of issues including efforts to legalize gay marriage.