Some time ago, I watched Fr James Martin, SJ offer critical points for LGBTQ+ ministry in the Catholic Church. In the video, his final point stressed the significance of international advocacy for abolishing repressive laws against LGBTQ+ citizens. Moreover, he stressed the importance of decriminalizing homosexuality as a vital way for the Church to advocate the pro-life cause.
This short video got me thinking!
The LGBTQ+ movement has come a long way since the Stonewall Riots, and more recent progress in their march towards civil rights includes the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that recognized same-sex marriage, and the 2015 Obergefell v Hodges decision in the US Supreme Court that made it legal across the nation. In addition, social acceptance of sexual minorities has increased rapidly over the past few decades.
Though the LGBTQ+ community in the West enjoys the fruits of this long and arduous legal journey, members across the globe still face extreme oppression and persecution. In fact, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that nearly 69 countries still have laws that criminalize same-sex relationships.
Think about that. In countries around the world, it is legal to profile, harass, and patrol gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens. All such government-sanctioned harassment toward its citizens is a gross form of injustice.
To say I empathize as a Black man is an understatement. Though our history and journey towards social, economic, and political justice is not entirely analogous, we share plenty of commonalities as a class of people despised and rejected by institutions and trampled on by systems of oppression and exploitation.
It is with this in mind that I think one of the biggest (yet most neglected) international pro-life issues that Catholics can get behind is upholding the human dignity of LGBTQ+ people across the globe.
Millions of men and women are under attack for living out their sexual orientation and gender expression. Though the Church has clear and infallible moral teachings on sexuality, conjugal acts, and marriage that can never be altered, these should not be a barrier for proclaiming the dignity of all human persons. We must speak (and act) out against the constant, looming assaults on the sacredness of LGBTQ+ lives, which are ever-present and reveal a lack of commitment to justice.
Last year in Indonesia, a 43-year-old trans woman was burned to death. According to police, the culprits did not intentionally intend on setting the victim on fire. With this incident, Andreas Harsono, a researcher with HRW, commented that this incident instantiates a larger issue of full-on violence towards members of the LGBTQ+ community.
I read this account and wondered how many lynchings and burnings of Black Americans during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era occurred under similar circumstances. Though we do not “know” the motives of culpable White Americans during that time, their deep-seated bias was clear in their embrace of state-sanctioned racial segregation. There is little need to discern their motives when terrorizing innocent Black Americans was the norm.
Similarly, if anti-trans beliefs are widespread in a country, it’s no surprise that a trans woman could be brutally murdered therein. The biases of a society foster these kinds of extremist attacks on human dignity.
In Egypt, as documented by HRW, LGBTQ+ persons are being entrapped through fake dating profiles, profiled, and eventually jailed after being "picked up on the street". The charges levied against them stem from a law combating prostitution. More than 90 arrests of this kind were made by Egyptian police in 2019. Though most of the defendants were cleared, the arrests made them vulnerable to further harassment. This is important because it demonstrates that law enforcement agencies are using biased profiling methods rooted in how a person displays their sexual identity.
In addition to acts of violence and physical intimidation, the rhetoric often used against LGBTQ+ members is also extremely dehumanizing. Countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia have leaders that vilify such citizens. In 2015, a Burmese government official proclaimed the following:
“The existence of gay men who assume they are women is unacceptable and therefore we are constantly seeing actions to have the gays detained at police stations, educate them, then hand them back to their parents.”
This notion of wrangling men and women and placing them in “education” centers is nothing more than conversion therapy—which is a flawed, unscientific, and dangerous pseudo-treatment approach.
Even more frightening are incidents like that in Iraq, where a political leader engaged in typical moral panic politics by labeling a segment of the population as a threat to public health. This type of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is heinous. In a world trying to make sense of a devastating global pandemic, blaming a fatal virus on innocent men and women is an obliterative setback to inclusion and acceptance—especially in a country that has a consistent anti-LGBTQ+ record.
So what are Catholics to do? The worst answer is to retreat and cower in the face of oppression. Remaining silent while millions of men and women live in crippling fear is not the solution. In addition, thumping the orthodoxy of our eternal teachings on marriage, sexuality, and sex is a reactionary tactic that serves to ostracize rather than aid.
When approaching the human rights issue of LGBTQ+ mistreatment, we need to affirm two principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the life and dignity of the human person, and radical solidarity.
Because we are all made in the image of God, our life has a sacred meaning. Without this, the other tenets of CST do not stand. If we see our brothers and sisters having their right to life illegally stripped, we should be in uproar at every instance. In the examples laid out above, men and women are being persecuted for simply living their life as they have decided.
Understanding that we are all God's children, united by various religions and cultural ties, is imperative. We cannot begin to move the pendulum of justice and basic human rights if we are divided by differences in faith and ignoring those that suffer. Solidarity calls us to recognize the interdependent nature of the one human family, and it should compel us to advocate for their total well-being.
I hope the Body of Christ prayerfully considers the beckoning cry of agony from LGBTQ+ members across the world. Coincidentally, with June will come Pride Month for the LGBTQ+ community, and at the same time, Catholics will globally honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The latter reveals the infinite love of Christ and his desire for communion with us, while the former celebrates human dignity and the breaking of the sexual minority stigma.
Christ’s heart—God’s heart—full of compassion and mercy, is being brought to bear in us believers as sharers of the divine nature. It is with this new heart, oriented towards love of neighbor, that we can embrace our role as peacemakers and reconcilers for the kingdom, and for all people.
Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.