The Office of Equity and Diversity, Pride and Hillel organized a panel of speakers on Wednesday addressing the intersection of LGBTQ+ communities and faith communities. The speakers included Urooj Arshad, Warren Hall and Abby Stein who are queer members of Muslim, Catholic and Jewish communities respectively. Their testimonies included common themes of spirituality, finding ways that religion can open up to be more accepting and the need to find communities of people in similar situations.
Arshad discussed her multiple minority identities as a queer Muslim woman of color, “In these days, Muslims are pretty much hated, coming from the highest offices in this country. If you add the layer of LGBT, that adds such a complicated lens to that reality.”
Arshad said that she found LGBTQ+ communities in college when she came out but still struggled with her identity as a Muslim until she finally found other people who identified as gay and Muslim.
“It’s so sad that sometimes people are like, ‘if you’re LGBT, why do you care about Islamophobia,” said Arshad. “Being LGBT doesn’t protect us from experiencing Islamophobia in this country.”
She also described how LGBTQ+ Muslims are constantly pushing back against the idea that Islam is a religion inherently against homosexuality, especially after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016.
“Muslims are 1.6 billion people in the world. There is no way you can say that it is a monolithic religion,” explained Arshad.
Stein shared her background growing up in a closed Hasidic Jewish community in New York.
“It was a community that surprisingly managed to shelter themselves in New York City to the extent that most of us don’t speak English … They never have to interact with the outside world,” described Stein.
Stein also grew up with a strict religious education and segregation between men and women. Stein grew up not knowing that trans people like her even existed.
“I will be really happy when my former community starts hating LGBT people. Then I will know that I have accomplished some change that they at least recognize that we exist,” said Stein.
Stein left her Jewish community when she was 20 and expressed feeling like an immigrant without leaving the country; she barely spoke English and did not have sufficient education outside of religious Jewish studies. She eventually got her GED and went to Columbia University where, like Arshad, she found groups that supported LGBTQ+ students.
“I have a stronger cultural and spiritual … identity more than I have ever had and the biggest part of it is my trans and queer identity,” said Stein. “I would have never been able to explore spirituality the way that I have without having this identity.”
Despite common beliefs and stories that religion is against homosexuality, Stein, Arshad and Hall wanted students to see how individuals can identify as LGBTQ+ without giving up all aspects of their religion and spirituality.
“Some religions might have at least a facade of a very anti-LGBT or very non-progressive culture so to speak — or like you can’t be religious and be whatever. I’m telling you from experience that yes you can,” said Stein. “You might have to make it work but thankfully we live in a place and in a time when there’s a lot of communities with a lot of places that you can find support.”
The third panelist, Hall, was a Catholic priest for 27 years and the director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University where he was fired after coming out. Hall started his testimony talking about the difference between spirituality and religion.
“Spirituality is either our relationship with God or our discovery of God … religion, for me, is a mode in which you could [express] that.”
Hall claimed that despite the common belief that there is a disconnect between homosexuality and religion or spirituality, LGBTQ+ people are actually more spiritual than most.
“LGBTQ+ individuals go through more spiritual reflection and discernment than the average person. How could we not? From the very moment of experiencing the ‘I think I’m different’ feelings, come the questions related to our own creation and what that means about God’s love for us and our place in the world,” he said.
Hall also described the importance of unity through mind, body and spirit in Christianity and in the LGBTQ+ community. He explained that for many people, their mind, body and spirit did not line up until they came to terms with being gay or trans.
“Until I was able to understand that, I lived this disjointed self,” said Hall. “The goal of our own self discovery is to align our minds with our bodies and with our spirits and when we can do that we have serenity, we have peace.”
Many of the students at the event expressed similar feelings of trying to balance their gender identity or sexual orientation and their religious beliefs and upbringings.
Kate McSpedon, junior, said that she enjoyed hearing the similarities across the speakers’ stories in different faiths.
“There is a place for LGBTQ people in religion,” said McSpedon. “I liked the bigger emphasis on spirituality as opposed to following the confines of a religion."