Monday, June 21, 2010

Familial Choices

I love my family. I look forward to our big, drama-infused Filipino-American parties and the smaller visits around them. Yet I confess to anticipating stress and feeling a little dread.

As with any other family, we tend to fall back into our places and roles which can be very different from the person we have become. Among many Asian families, lesbian and gay family members who are not outrightly shunned are present but they often remain in the shadows, expected not to talk about their realities and loves.

Growing up during the 1970s and 1980s, I always noticed the unmarried auntie or uncle of other clans who took care of ailing elders, children and the shared household. Needless to say, not all were necessarily gay but as a boy who had yet to understand and embrace his difference, I did get the message that queer family members stay in the margins. I understood that the price for keeping a seat at the very far end of the table is silence and the unquestioned support of those who do not bring shame and produce progeny.

No one present at our matriarch’s 90th birthday celebration over the weekend would think for a second that I have become one of those subservient uncles shuffling in the background. In the obligatory slide montage presented during the formal reception, a picture of me and my husband was flashed along with family photos of other cousins. My better half, an Episcopal priest, was wrangled by my conservative Catholic aunts into saying a blessing before the dinner. We both hammed it up on the dance floor with other grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I am very fortunate to have a family that allows me to be who I am. But I first made the choice to come out and be proud of my difference. Then it took many years for most everyone to come to terms with who I am. Although my husband has been woven into our familial fabric, there are those who still have not mentioned much less congratulated us on our recent marriage. While I do not doubt their affection for us, I know that some would readily vote against equality, thanks to their unquestioned adherence to Catholicism. I am aware that some would rather we don’t flaunt our gay “lifestyle” much as they do their heterosexual one.

The thing is, I refuse to fall into the traditional place and role relegated to queer family members. As I wrote my mom years ago, I knew that she knew I was gay but if she’d rather not talk about it, then I would respect her choice. However, she should realize that while our exchanges would be polite, they would be superficial. She would miss a major part of my life. Thankfully, she chose to take me for who I am. So have my surviving grandparent, aunts, uncles and cousins.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why I go to church

Originally posted on the Washington Blade

Among those of us who attend religious services, finding a faith community that is truly welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and all queer people is crucial.

We’ve been hurt emotionally, psychologically and, at times, physically because of the beliefs of religious leaders and their followers. Religious beliefs that breed fear, ignorance, delusion and hubris. How many of us have been separated from our families and communities — by choice or otherwise — because of man-made dogma?

Some of us decide to sever ties with the faith tradition we grew up with and become followers of another religion, such as Christians who are now Buddhists. Others stay with the same tradition but shift allegiance to a denomination that embraces LGBT people, such as Roman Catholics who become Episcopalians. A few cling to what they know with the hope that they will change the system, even though their tradition deems queer folk abominations and is not likely to abandon its discriminatory practices anytime soon.

I grew up Roman Catholic but am now an Episcopalian. The transition was easy. The worship and trappings are similar — except that the Episcopal Church truly welcomes me and “my kind.” We can actually serve as priests and be elevated as bishops, not just read the lessons or assist male priests. Women can head the entire church. The leader of the Episcopal Church is a mother and a scientist. Best of all, I don’t need to leave my brains at the door. We are encouraged to seek the divine in scripture, tradition and reason.

At the end of the day, though, the main reason I go to my church, the stone building near the National Zoo, is the sense of belonging and community that I and other members feel. It is a diverse community that includes straight, gay, bi and trans people; blacks, Latinos and Asians; birth and adopted families; and pretty much anyone who chooses to become part of the family.

This family was well represented at last weekend’s Capital Pride celebration where straight parishioners proudly marched during the parade and staffed our booth, where parents brought their children, and where twenty-somethings stood by retirees.

I can never know with certainty what God thinks, how she wants the world to be, or even if she exists. But I know firsthand of the love, joy and fellowship of a bunch of diverse and very human believers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon

Saturday, June 12, 2010

From the mouths of babes

At a gathering last night, I somehow found myself eating at the kid's table (kitchen bar actually). One of the neighbor's kids asked my friend's eight year old girl, nodding at my direction, "Who's that?"

Scout grinned and answered, "that's Erwin from church."

"I don't know him," said Alex, feigning indifference.

"Oh, he's married to Father John." Scout's face betrayed how much she relished sharing that bit of information.

Alex's eyes widened and she started giggling.

"Is there anything wrong with that?" I teased.

"No, no," Alex protested, "I have a friend who has two mommies ... but you're boys!"

"So what?" Scout jumped in. "If two girls can get married, why not two boys?"

"But they're boys!" Alex rebutted. She was about to say more when her three year old brother started screaming for chips.

Living in Northwest D.C. and knowing their parents, I was not fazed by this exchange. But I am curious why Alex thinks it is okay for two girls to marry but not for two boys. Perhaps she doesn't know a kid with two daddies? Maybe it's conditioning? Who knows!

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

The Global Fight for Equality

The Anglican Bishop of West Buganda, Christopher Senyonjo, is currently in the United States telling the stories of LGBT Ugandans. Bishop Senyonjo has been excommunicated by his church for the comfort and succor he provides persecuted countrywomen and men.

Earlier this week, the religious leader was at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in the District, to discuss what was billed as “the Global Fight for LGBT Rights” with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.

Although Bishop Senyonjo spoke mainly about the plight of Ugandan gay and trans people, their experience is shared by queer folk all over the continent where 38 out of 54 countries criminalize homosexuality.

The bishop also discussed the impetus behind Uganda’s anti-LGBT legislation which prompted a global outcry – the interference of American religious conservatives, the battle for African souls by Christianity and Islam, and Africa’s fraught history and relationship with the West.

Bishop Senyonjo suggested some actions which can help alleviate the suffering of LGBT Africans. Aside from continued advocacy, he believes that education is crucial to changing minds and hearts and addressing rampant homophobia and transphobia which plague the region. The bishop spoke mainly about educating future religious leaders – young male seminarians – about queer realities and issues. This makes sense considering the immense sway religion and superstition have on the masses.

In my opinion however, in order for education to be a viable and long-lasting solution, it should not be limited to future clergy men. More importantly, education should not be couched in religious terms. While religious beliefs can provide meaning and comfort for many people, the fact remains that these same belief systems lead to division and way to often lethal acts against one’s neighbor. An educational system which improves literacy, encourages critical thought, and promotes humanistic and universal values for all Africans should be the goal.

But Africa, like the rest of the developing world, is beset with so many challenges: poverty, hunger, inequity, political instability and corruption - the combined legacy of colonialism and imperialism. Any solution, including an answer to LGBT marginalization and persecution, has to be systemic.

Bishops Senyonjo and Robinson’s conversation, while inspiring, did not address larger issues. Moreover, they did not mention the complicity of their own leader, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the global Anglican Communion, in the continued witch hunt of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Africans. Williams has long chosen to side with conservative bishops and elements of the church for the sake of organizational unity. He was late and tepid in condemning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law.

Nonetheless, Bishop Senyonjo has done much, not only for Ugandan and African LGBTs, but for the global fight for human rights and equality. And for that, we are very grateful.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon

Image from Walking with Integrity