Bridging Worlds

What does it take to bridge two separate worlds? What does it take to cross a decades-old ideological divide? Compassion, love, respect, and dignity. A recognition of shared humanity. This was the premise of a dialogue session I attended and helped to organise on the 30th of July.

In May, Mathia Lee, myself, and a group of individuals came together to organise a dialogue between the faith and LBGT communities. We felt that there was a schism between both communities. We wanted to bridge this divide, to connect the members of both communities at the level of individuals and to allow both groups to understand each others’ perspectives. We wanted to show that both communities can converse peacefully and constructively, without fear of conflict, in spite of perceived sensitivities. After months of discussion, we finalised our plans.

Called ‘Deepening & Widening Interfaith’, it was a closed-door film screening followed by a discussion. The participants were granted the option of anonymity; they did not have to introduce themselves if they chose not to, and all audio and film recordings were expressly prohibited without prior consent. There were about ninety participants invited from a cross-section of society, with faith leaders and atheists, straight and non-heterosexual people.

The film was Ngiam Su-Lin’s ‘Women who Love Women: Conversations in Singapore‘. It is a documentary about three Singaporean lesbians, their lives, and the challenges they have faced. The film was intended to be the basis for discussion, allowing the audience to observe up close the problems faced by members of the LBGT community.

The discussion was an unconference run along a modified form of dotmocracy, guided by concepts from Open Space Technology and World Cafe. Prior to the film screening, participants were encouraged to post questions on a sheet of paper on a wall. Other participants who liked the questions and wanted to explore them would paste a sticker — a dot — on the question. The eight most popular questions were chosen for the discussion, and facilitated by the moderators, who established different discussion groups around the room. The participants headed to the discussion group of their choice, and conversation started to flow.

Two formal discussion periods followed the film. During each session, I circulated around the room, taking notes and talking to a few of the participants, before being swept into an informal discussion group. I felt that the discussions in the conversation spaces were held in the zone between intimate and distant, lively and subdued. Strangers told other strangers their life stories, their aspirations, their setbacks, their ideas, their frustrations, their thoughts, their ideas, their hopes, their dreams, in an environment of respect without fear. A participant I interviewed felt ‘encouraged to see so many people’ participating in the dialogue. Another thought that this event showed that ‘people genuinely want to talk about’ faith and LBGT-related issues.

When the second discussion period ended, the moderators gave a summary of the discussions of their answers. They are reproduced below, edited for clarity.

1. Why do people want to get married?

Marriage is important as a demonstration of commitment. This is especially pertinent in the LBGT community, as there is a perception that homosexual people cannot hold down a relationship. Marriage in a same-sex environment proves commitment in the face of intolerance, providing proof against the stereotype.

2. How do state laws affect the way you live?

State laws define safety and the rights and privileges of citizens. Laws associated with security grant the security agencies powers to protect the people and punish criminals. These laws allow people to feel safe, or might cause them to feel worried over perceived threats. Laws governing rights and responsibilities define what citizens and other inhabitants can do, most famously the application for flats in Singapore.

(Author’s note: Singaporeans need to form a family nucleus before they can apply for a flat. A ‘family nucleus’ is defined by parents with children, orphans with siblings, husband and wife, or an engaged couple.)

3. Why is societal acceptance important?

Social acceptance increases diversity. From the perspective of the LBGT community, a lack of social acceptance may lead to discrimination if and when members decide to come out. In a society without acceptance, minorities will be marginalised and experience pressure from society. Minority members of society will need critical mass and solidarity to stand up to this pressure, and society needs to recognise that all people are their own persons.

4. How do you know you’re in love?

It is difficult to pin down love. It could be a chemical reaction, a biological function, romantic feelings, or a combination. But fundamentally, it is a feeling that you want to be close to a person, and it is this feeling that ultimately defines love for the individual.

5. How do you feel if you’re asked to change?

It feels threatening. This is especially so in the case of evangelism. Some evangelists give the impression that they are not as interested as the ideas behind the religion so much as the emotions associated with the practice of that religion, and approach others on that basis. This increases the sense of threat, as it feels that the evangelist is trying to directly change the person.

6. How do you relate to someone in your family who is different from you?

There are many challenges here. The individual should decide how important acceptance and reconciliation is for herself. The heart of the question is whether people seen as different have the sanity and integrity to be themselves, and how the family will act at important social events. But if the family can accept its members, it will provide support against societal pressures.

7. How do your religious beliefs affect the way you live and vice versa?

A person’s beliefs tend to influence how they live more than the other way round. Beliefs can be interpreted as a positive perception of the world, and people live their lives based on how they see the world and what they believe is right and wrong.

8. How do you love the sinner but hate the sin?

This is an important Christian concept relating to sexual morality. It entails respecting and understanding the person who may have committed a sin, while abstaining from and dissuading others from sin. This is further complicated by Christian notions of love, which include restraining a person from sinning and therefore harming himself. However, notions of ‘sin’ and permissible actions have been changing throughout the years, such as interracial marriage and alcohol consumption, and what may be seen as sinful now may not be so in the future.

After the event, the participants dispersed. Some of them went on to continue their discussions elsewhere in nearby cafeterias and food courts.

Initial feedback suggested that the discussion was a success. Several participants said that they had gained insights into how people struggle with their faiths and sexualities. Some mentioned that they were able to freely share their personal experiences with others, and they would continue to share their insights with people from other communities. A few parents who attended said that they learned how other people live their lives and express their sexuality.

I wish I could say the event was a complete success. Other feedback indicated that there was insufficient time for a fuller and deeper discussion, with some participants not having the chance to speak. Also, organisation and logistics could have been tightened and clarified before and during the event.

Selene Cheng, one of the participants who agreed to be named, felt that this film screening was essentially preaching to the converted. She believed that most of the participants were either members of the LBGT community or people with liberal religious inclinations, or both, which means a lack of diversity of opinion. She also felt that the discussion was too mild. She participated in the discussion on loving the sinner and hating the sin, and felt that it did not adequately address the issue at hand.

I felt that she had a valid point about preaching to the converted. Virtually all of the people whom I spoke to fell into the LBGT or liberal believer categories. I also felt that the discussion should have covered more controversial issues that lie at the heart of the tension between the faith and LBGT communities. I would have liked to see questions about why certain religions view non-heterosexuality as contrary to doctrine, how regular members of the LBGT community truly sees the religious community and vice versa, and why there is perceived tension between groups. Most of all, I wanted to see a question about how to reconcile faith and sexuality, which is the pink elephant in the room everyone can see but is not talking about.

Still, an event like this is participant-driven. Statistically speaking, the people most likely to attend an event like this are members of the LBGT community, liberal theists, open-minded liberals, or a combination. Since the questions have to come from the participants, it’s not anybody’s fault that nobody came up with a question I had wanted to see, or that not enough approved of that question to make it on the top eight questions. In addition, our main objective was to enable people from different segments of society to come together and discuss a matter of national importance, and to connect at the personal level. I think the organisers succeeded on this count, though they could have done better.

I hope this is not a one-off event. The mainstream media probably would not drive a discussion on faith and LBGT issues for the time being — reporters from the press unanimously rejected invitations to cover this particular film screening. People are not asking the questions that need to be answered. People are still afraid to speak out and be and present themselves. While this film screening is a step forward, it is but a single step.

I hope that this is the start of a trend towards dialogue and engagement, that other people will this idea and go forward with it. I would like to see similar events in the future, with the faith communities engaging with the LBGT community in a respectful dialogue to address common concerns. I would like to see ordinary people unafraid to air their views, knowing that they will not be judged for their faiths, their politics, or their loves. One day, I hope to see a bridge between both worlds, a bridge built on faith, on respect, on equality, and on love, built by the hands of those who live in both and all worlds.

One day.