Four prominent pro-LGBT religious figures were lauded as pioneers and garnered two standing ovations at a panel discussion called "Is Religion Getting Us to LGBTQ Equality?" Thursday in Los Angeles.
Hosted by the Lavender Effect, a nonprofit that aims to create an interactive LGBT museum, the panel featured Rabbi Denise Eger, founder and rabbi of Congregtion Kol Ami, an LGBT-affirming Reform synagogue in West Hollywood; Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church; Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, a nonprofit that fights religious oppression of LGBT people; and Ani Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. Moderated by author Lee Wind, the panel was held at Founders Metropolitan Community Church -- the flagship congregation of the denomination founded by Perry.
"It's been an incredible journey," said Perry, recalling the first meeting of MCC, when a dozen people (including one straight couple) gathered in his living room in 1968. MCC was founded as a Christian denomination and a special outreach to LGBT people. Perry noted that, in the wake of California's FAIR Education Act (which requires the state's schools to teach the historical contributions of LGBT people), he is being interviewed for the state's textbooks. He's also done a video interview for the Lavender Effect's Oral History Project.
The panelists fielded questions from Wind and then from the audience about advocating for LGBT equality both from within religious movements and from the outside.
Mel White noted that most Christian denominations, except for some of the most conservative entities, have LGBT advocacy groups. While some LGBT people work for equality from within, he said, others have given up on religion and work for change in other ways.
"I think it calls for all of these," said White, who praised Pope Francis as "wonderful" but called the Catholic Church's characterization of LGBT people as intrinsically disordered as a "doctrinal wall that Francis is walking around ... who knows, he may bring it down."
Despite that hopeful note, White styled himself as a pessimist, contrasting himself with Perry's self-proclaimed optimism -- at least when it comes to debating the biblical "clobber passages" often used to justify anti-LGBT sentiment. He said that people are changed by knowing someone who is LGBT, not swayed by discussions about the Bible. He's wary of debating verses, he said, and will demur from a debate saying, "You're confusing me with someone who cares what you think about Leviticus."
"Forget the biblical stuff and be an LGBT person who is proud," he advised. "Let them know who you really are."
Perry, in contrast, said he's still happy to enter the fray.
"I love to quote Scripture," he said. "I go toe-to-toe with them still to this day."
Eger criticized the way that religious texts are often interpreted in "a very literal fashion."
"Bring your critical, insightful mind to whatever text you're reading," Eger said. "Do not check your mind at the door."
Panelists also talked about U.S. evangelists spending big bucks to influence the religious climate overseas and the importance of fighting oppression beyond LGBT rights.
"We as a movement must be working with people of color; we must be working on poverty issues; we must be working against war," Eger said.
Both Eger and Zonneveld talked about the importance of being one's authentic self.
"Hiding your identity is really not the way to live your life," Zonneveld said. Zonneveld, who is straight, said that as a musician she was at one time a closeted Muslim. In 2012 she shared her story in an It Gets Better video: