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Opportunities and challenges: the intersection of faith and human rights of LGBTI+ persons. Wilton Park, September 7-9, 2016.
I was privileged to participate in this international event, held at the Sussex stately home Wiston House, which is the principal location of Wilton Park. An executive agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wilton Park is named after its original location. Established in 1945 from engagement with German prisoners of war, it enabled former enemies to become friends and allies, and that remains a key focus. The extraordinary staff team is committed to facilitating dialogue and conversations. A report is published afterwards but there are no other specific outcomes: those will depend on the participants as they return to their various spheres and causes. Consultations like this promote networking, cross-cultural exchange and learning. For this event the rainbow flag flew brightly from one of the turrets throughout our 48 hour stay.
The setting of the house, nestled in the South Downs, is stunning, the catering wonderful, and the property’s gracious reception rooms are crammed with history. Large and rambling, the house is also full of nooks and crannies where I got lost more than once. As I’ve reflected on this event I’ve come to see this ancient house itself as emblematic of the incredible range of topics we covered and the diversity and expertise of the participants. All Wilton Park events are ‘off the record’ and participants are encouraged to speak in a personal capacity, not as representatives of their governments or organisations. All discussion is covered by the Wilton Park Protocol, which is basically the Chatham House Rule: one can say what was said but not who said it, or who was present, unless you have their permission. Surprised to find myself there I understand that I was one of several late invitations, as sadly some people were unable travel. One reason for inviting me was probably to ensure a good quota of trans people. Feedback on the 2014 event, ‘Promoting the human rights of LGBT persons: next steps for international institutions and civil society’ had included the request for greater diversity of participants.
We were a large group of people – 65 participants from 30 countries or organisations – which meant that not everyone could be seated round the table at plenary sessions. Those in the second row in one session were encouraged to come forward and sit at the table at the next one. Almost everyone said something in these plenaries, but a few did not, and at the end the rapporteur invited us to think why that was, and why the voices that were first to speak were usually white males. Even in a gathering like this, where everyone was committed to equality, patriarchy and privilege were operating, and it was important to hear that named.
One reason I’ve drawn the analogy between the ancient house where we met, and the conference programme, is that both take time to assimilate. Each session was like entering one of the vast reception rooms – both have their unique character, with many interesting details to take in. Seven of the sessions took place round the table, but there was also a highly interactive world café, where we could each explore three key topics in facilitated small groups, and on the final morning we worked in teams to consider obstacles, what needs to change, and to make recommendations. That team session was the heart of it for me, and our team had symbolically penetrated far into the building as we were working in the Director’s vast office on the first floor, overlooking trees with the Downs beyond. In our immediate sights, by contrast, were the numerous faith injustices experienced by LGBTI+ people, but we were seeking ways to overcome them and to discover the steps and stages that would help us to reach that vision of equality for which we long.
I’m now going to roam around the various ‘rooms’ through which, metaphorically, we wandered during the event. In the first ‘room’ we explored the main challenges and current opportunities to promote and engender LGBTI+ rights in the context of faith. One of the things that ‘caught my eye’ there was the need for changes in theological formation to sensitise those in training for religious leadership to the lives of LGBTI+ people. In the next ‘room’ we looked outwards at tensions between faith, national legislation and international frameworks, and how they might be balanced. Illustrations included the successful campaigning by Muslim trans women to change oppressive laws, and the exporting of right wing religious ideology to nations were there was previously no hostility to LGBTI+ people.
The following day we moved into a ‘room’ containing some familiar features. The title was ‘layers and levers’, and we looked at networks and alliances. As we know, there need be no inconsistency between being a person of faith and one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The necessity for a change of tone in the exchanges between those who differ in their interpretation of sacred texts stood out in this ‘room’, and the Church of England’s aim to model ‘good disagreement’ was mentioned. Unexpected alliances were also described, while the Church of England’s contribution to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in the 1950s and 60s was mentioned, in the hope of inspiring similar efforts today in the Anglican Communion to end criminalisation, which affects 77 jurisdictions, including 39 Commonwealth countries.
Every ‘room’ in the event had several stories to tell, but one in particular was devoted to narratives that could reframe the debate, with examples from cultures and traditions that were often resistant to change. One way forward was to encourage people to become even truer to their religious identities, as compassion is often foundational. I could have lingered a long time in this ‘room’, but in all the ‘rooms’ we were invited to think about the ways in which language often divides people, and to find new modes of expression that promote communication across ideological divides.
In the final ‘room’ tiredness overtook me and I slept for a few minutes, but not before I’d heard about a creative project that lovingly challenges the extreme religious right. It must take enormous faith and courage to do that. These qualities were also apparent when I sat with individuals who told me their stories, and there was ample time to do that in the programme.
Our struggles for inclusion within religious communities here in England sound relatively minor compared to the injustices people encounter in other parts of the world, and yet the participants I met remain incredibly cheerful and resilient as they work to demonstrate the integration of spirituality and sexuality or gender identity. They are truly inspirational but may well need resources and support from those of us who live in more privileged parts of the world. That was one of the main points I took away with me.