Letizia Tomassone: “The path of Protestant churches from prejudice to full inclusion of LGBT people”

Presentation by Letizia Tomassone (President of the BMV Commission on “Faith and Homosexuality”) for “The ways of Love”, an International Conference towards pastoral care with homosexual and trans people (Rome, Italy, October 3, 2014)

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Our history begins in Agape[1], an ecumenical center where, during the summer of 1979, was going on a summer camp. One day came from Torino a man who asked for a place of dignity for gay and lesbians in the churches. The man, Ferruccio Castellano, was already in contact with the Catholic base communities, in particular with Franco Barbero. Agape invited him to open a new field of investigation, looking for a church of hospitality and communion.
They together started to question the churches about the blame and the exclusion of gay people; the where looking for acceptance, asking if there was a place for a gay believer in the church.
They sent a letter to one hundred twenty parish in Torino. We know the response of the Waldensian (protestant) church. The protestant pastoral team didn’t have a response, but a sort of classical thinking about the issue. But the letter was the way they started to see the life of people usually invisible in the church.
Such a powerful interpellation led to the organization of the first camp on faith and Omosexuality in Agape. Since then (1980) we had without interruption such a summer camp, that was later doubled by the lesbian’s camps.
These meetings are one of the deep source for a new vision on glbtq people in front of God. Sadly Castellano committed suicide shortly after. Like him, other people couldn’t endure the pressure of such a difficult and hidden life. I only want to mention here Beat(e), a Lutheran transgender from Napoli, a man in a female body.
Lies and masquerades do not transform the world. However the hiding is still part of the love experiences that are in the interstices of a pretended normality.
If there is no need to become visible, if it is possible to live in the invisibility of the interstices, from where can come the courage to speak about oneself? In a similar context, which overestimates the values of the traditional and heterosexual family, the Palestinian poet Habib exalts the courage of those lesbians who make visible their reality [2].
They are transforming the world. However, to tell about oneself, to live authentically, is something deeply destabilizing both for a lesbian and for the world. Our reality is constructed on lies and hiding, as Adrienne Rich argues,
“Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted’, for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us.
We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each others’ sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other. Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other”[3].

Eventually, the lie and the refutation become the “uniform” we wear in our private life too, even with ourselves. It is said that people came to the Ecumenical Centre of Agape, in the eighties, dressed in suit and tie, as in a masquerade of respectability, and then changed and appeared in the bright and joyful colors of their gay life for all the week of the meeting. This change of clothes, which was repeated at the end of the week, clearly expresses the need for concealment that existed in Italy at that time, especially for gays. But getting used to freedom makes freedom grow, and these weeks of liberty began to affect the ways of being of gays and lesbians outside of Agape. Was not the church’s vocation to be the place of freedom? The site of a banquet so well prepared that crumbs of freedom could fall even for those who were hiding under the tables for fear of being hunted? [4]
To tell about oneself is still one of many paths towards a world of wider authenticity and truth. But if the interstices and gaps are widening, the whole building is in danger of cracking. In fact, this is what we really want, that this building of heterosexual normativity should crack, as it is a building which conceals and delegitimizes every other experience of oneself and the world.

These were already longer after the riots of Stonewall, at the Greenwich Village of New York, in 1969. These demonstration against the violence of the police are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States. But it was a time of cultural and social revolution with big conflicts and repressions. When the repression is so hard we are in front of a subject capable to say himself and to understand his or her identity as a positive difference.

The practice of the churches, instead, was for a long time to mute the divergent subjects: gay, women, and in general every people who experienced a life that didn’t fit the dominant morality, in this case the morality of the bourgeois family. The voice and the engagement of gay, lesbian and transgender was so necessary to change the attitude and the theology of the churches. We already had invisible gay ministers in the protestant churches in Italy. To permit their visibility was necessary to create a wide community capable to share a new understanding of faith. Into the youth protestant movement started a group to mobilize the churches. The idea was not to create a group of lgbt people, but an open group, based on a free and fresh approach to sexuality as a gift of God, and as a changing dimension of life, depending on the desire and on relations. Sexuality as expression of one’s life and process like dynamic. On the other hand this kind of group was founded on a new comprehension of the “sin”: glbt people are not confronting a special sin that affect their identity, but the same sin, common to all humanity, the inability to love and respect each other.

Many groups of Christian gays, along twenty years, met at the Waldensian of Methodist churches. The participants were usually catholic without a place in their church. The ministry, in my view, was reciprocal: the protestant pastors (among them, myself) learned to read the bible from the perspective of someone who is demonized in there. Gay and lesbians heard a word of grace and recognition from God, with a warm welcome in the community of the children of God.

At that time we developed a critical attitude toward the Bible and we practiced the search of a word of life and acceptance. So we discovered that the sin of the Sodoma people was the loss of hospitality, not the homosexuality. The same loss of hospitality suffered by gay and lesbian in the church. This was a true reversal of the meaning of that biblical text, which helped to open new ways of understanding of the word of God.

After long discussions and some discrete situation in which same sex couple were participating in a prayer or blessing, the Waldensian Synod decided to open the possibility to have a blessing liturgy for same sex couples, in 2010. The same year also the Lutheran church in Italy took this decision. The Baptist church have another organization, based on local congregations, but such congregations are very open to gay believers. We have to mention that this church experienced a fracture in the communion when a gay man proposed himself for the baptism, in the Eighties. The community which stand for him in the light of the grace of God, is a vanguard for all of us.

The same risk of fracture in the communion is rising nowadays for a new situation in which the protestant churches in Italy are now involved: it’s the growth of migrant believers in our churches. We established a very important project to change the perspective and the liturgies of our churches, called “To be churches together”. According to this project we, Italian Protestants, welcome the transformation in our life of faith taken by people from others cultures and contexts, who want be church with us. Very often they are refugees or economical migrants who come from a strong evangelical context. Very often they have a traditional understanding of homosexuality as sin. So we are struggling to share a difficult discussion among us. Not to lose the attention on the difficult position of migrant people in a discriminatory frame as the Italian society and the Italian labor market. At the same time not to lose the richness of an inclusive church, in which gay and straight, men and women, consider sexuality as a gift and not an obstacle to relations with God and with each other.

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[1] International Academy rooted in the Waldensian Church in Italy, where I was director in the nineties.

[2] Samar Habib, “Reading the familiarity of the past: An Introduction to Medieval Arabic Literature on Female Homosexuality”, in: Samar Habib, Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality, 850-1780 A.D. (Teneo: New York 2009) 33-45

[3] Adrienne Rich, Segreti Silenzi Bugie. Il mondo comune delle donne (La Tartaruga: Milano 1982) 136-7. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (Norton & Company: 1979).

[4] Matthew 15, 25-28

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