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Off camera, the serious side to Gay Pride events

NCR Staff

While most of the world’s news reports on World Pride 2000 have focused on predictable street theater -- drag queens, right-wing protests and dueling barbs emanating from Vatican officials and gay rights activists -- the more intriguing aspects of this first-ever global gay pride festival have taken place in relative quiet inside a Roman hotel.

There, past a substantial police cordon outside, a series of lectures and panel discussions have provided insight into the civil and religious forces shaping the lives of gays and lesbians around the world. For observers used to thinking of “gay pride” as an American phenomenon, the July 1-9 World Pride gathering has given the movement a distinctly international stamp.

The event has also surfaced some of the tensions within Roman Catholicism over homosexuality as a handful of Catholic speakers have voiced gay-friendly views at odds with criticism streaming out of the Vatican. A July 3 session on religion and homosexuality, including gays and lesbians representing Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other traditions in addition to Christianity, ended with a call for religious institutions to “respect, honor and celebrate gifts of sexual diversity.” (See text at http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm )

In the most dramatic expression of Catholic disapproval, Pope John Paul II asked the controversial French Bishop Jacques Gaillot to withdraw at the last minute as the keynote speaker for that July 3 session. Gaillot honored the request, but made himself available to the media.

Sponsored by a variety of gay and human rights groups, the World Pride festival has been in the works for three years. Initially it enjoyed the support of civic authorities in Rome. In recent months, however, the Vatican has pressured the city to either postpone the event or curtail it, charging that it is inappropriate to hold a gay pride festival in the middle of the church’s Jubilee year.

The city eventually decided the event could go forward, but withdrew official sponsorship and funding.

Inside Rome’s Hotel Cicerone, where most sessions have been held, polemics have largely given way to sober discussion of human rights and religious dimensions to lesbian and gay experience.

William Hernandez, who heads El Salvador’s lone support network for gays and lesbians, told an opening news conference about harassment in his country. Some 28 homosexuals have been killed since 1998, Hernandez said, with only two cases investigated by the police. In both cases, the investigations were prompted by special circumstances. In one, the murder took place in front of a police officer; in the other, the victim was a U.S. citizen.

Marco DePonte of Italy’s Amnesty International chapter cited such experiences to argue that gay rights are a matter of basic human rights.

Based on discussions here, this perspective may challenge some commonly held notions in the gay community. For example, Surina Khan, a Pakistani and president of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said she rejects arguments that “reparative therapy” is a hoax. “Reparative therapy” refers to efforts to reverse one’s homosexual orientation through a combination of psychotherapy and spiritual direction.

“I’ve met people who say that Jesus is more important to them than their sexuality, and I think we have to respect that,” she said. “It is possible to be an ex-gay. In a human rights context, everyone has the right to claim and define their own sexuality.”

Several presenters challenged the widely held belief that pressure for acceptance of homosexuality is a cultural export of morally relativistic Western nations. Nelson Ng of Hong Kong, for example, told the group that China has a long tradition of tolerance for diversity in sexual practice.

“If you ask me, what is my sexual orientation, I say it’s like hunger -- sometimes I eat rice and sometimes I eat noodles,” Ng said to laughter in the hall. “If I’m really hungry, I eat both. In the traditional Chinese understanding, sexuality is just like hunger, a matter of appetite.”

Ng said that attitudes changed after British colonialism in the 19th century, when the Chinese picked up a strong taboo on same-sex relations from the colonial ruling class. He called for the development of a post-colonial theology of sexuality in Asia.

Ng’s point was echoed by Sandhya, an activist based in New Delhi, India, who noted that many conservative Indian critics of gay rights regard homosexuality as a “Western disease.”

“But there are references to gay and lesbian experiences in Indian folktales and songs reaching back centuries,” Sandhya said. “What we imported from the West was not homosexuality but homophobia.”

Anissa Helie, an Algerian who runs the International Solidarity Network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws from her home in England, said the West actually supports far-right groups opposed to gay rights in the Islamic world. “In the so-called free West, Khomeni lived in France before he came back to Iran,” she said, “and the CIA funded the Taliban in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, both Iran and Afghanistan today sentence gays to death.”

Nevertheless, Helie said that movements of support for gays and lesbians are slowly emerging in Islamic nations.

Despite the multicultural tone of the conference, the proximity of St. Peter’s has meant that the relationship between the gay rights movement and Catholicism is never far from the surface at World Pride.

American Frank DeBernardo, head of the Washington, D.C.-based New Ways Ministry, told the conference it is possible to be both a faithful Catholic and pro-gay. “We need to ask the Vatican, of what are you afraid? Why can’t rational dialogue take the place of oppressive silence?” DeBernardo said.

New Ways Ministry is an outreach group for gay and lesbian Catholics founded by Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent and School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick. The Vatican barred both of them a year ago from pastoral work with gays and more recently barred them from discussing their case (NCR, June 16).

A progressive Italian priest, Franco Barbaro of Turin, has been the only Catholic cleric to address the group. He said he was not a homosexual, but he wanted to express solidarity.

“The Vatican’s obsessions come from those who have become diseased with dogma. A culture of orthodoxy breeds rabid people,” Barbaro said.

As NCR went to press, the major flashpoint of World Pride week was expected to come July 8, when organizers have vowed to lead a march to Rome’s Coliseum in defiance of civic authorities who have asked them to follow another route. Deborah Oakley Melvin, a San Francisco-based activist and chief organizer for World Pride, told NCR that some 60 members of the European Parliament would lead the procession, which is expected to draw 300,000 people.

At the same time, the streets of Rome will be filled with 200,000 Polish pilgrims here for a special benediction by John Paul II. Far-right forces have promised a confrontation. Many are carrying banners in the streets reading “Gays at the Coliseum? With lions inside!”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000