I remember the scene in my head like it was yesterday. I walked up to a stranger, looked her in the eye and said, “I am here to be seen.” Her response was, “And I see you.” Then I proceeded to approach several other people in the room – one at a time, repeating the same phrase and receiving the same response. This was one of the interactive exercises I participated in on my first day of seminary. By the time the exercise was over, the room was buzzing with joy and excitement.
When the faculty asked my classmates what the experience felt like, the majority of us expressed more comfort telling someone, “I see you”, rather than exposing ourselves and having the courage to admit, “I am here to be seen.” It never occurred to me that a significant number of us had experienced times in our lives when other people did not acknowledge some part of our identity or we felt judged or unsafe in expressing our whole selves.
I was reminded of this when I had the honor of facilitating a powerful discussion at CONNECT’S Interfaith Roundtable on March 19th. Human sexuality educator and religious scholar, Michael Elam, M.Div, delivered a very moving and thoughtful presentation, “Unpacking the text of Sodom and Gomorrah: A SGL/BT Theological Reflection.” He stressed the need to go deeper when we are reading Biblical scripture and encouraged us to examine passages related to sexuality through the additional lenses of sociology, psychology and sexology.
One of the most intriguing parts of the evening was when Michael shared his journey of becoming a Gatekeeper. He learned about the role of Gatekeepers in the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso through world renown African Shaman, Malidoma Some’. According to Michael and other men I have spoken with over the last few years, Malidoma describes Gatekeepers from his Dagara village as men and women who have a special function in society as healers and controlling the gateways to other spiritual realms. They also are typically what people in the modern world would label as lesbian or gay.
This information was new to many people in the room. Often when the subject of homosexuality arises, I have heard some of my African American sisters and brothers voice opinions that same sex attraction or expressions of same gender love is not natural for people of African descent. Or they believe “the problem” was introduced through colonization and enslavement. Myself and other Black sexuality education professionals and scholars know this is a myth. So it is refreshing when the opportunity arises to hear African people speak openly to define their own experience and culture.
In a September 1993 interview Malidoma stated, “At least among the Dagara people, gender has very little to do with anatomy. It is purely energetic… My knowledge of indigenous medicine and ritual comes from Gatekeepers. It’s hard for me to take this position that gay people are the negative breed of society. In a society that is profoundly dysfunctional, what happens is that peoples’ life purposes are taken away and what is left is this kind of sexual orientation which in turn, is disturbing the very society that created it.”
To deny the humanity of another human being or a group of people is one of the most harmful acts we continuously commit. It still amazes me the lengths people will go to in using religion to justify oppression or discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender, gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. Yet I seldom get discouraged because of moments I have in spaces like CONNECT.
CONNECT’s Interfaith Roundtable reminded me of those times I was challenged in seminary and ended up growing and expanding my heart as a result of the experience. Michael spoke to a room of people who represented religious and spiritual paths of Christianity, Interfaith, Gatekeeper, Orisa-Ifa and unknown. We were social justice advocates, teachers, clergy and more. We were mostly people of color coming from various walks of life and belief systems.
Towards the end of the evening tears were flowing and someone expressed seeing Michael in a way they never had before. When we all stood up to hold hands and conclude our time together, I knew something shifted for almost everyone in the room. I believe Michael’s work will encourage others to face the challenge of having open and honest dialogue about religion and LGBTQ people in their families and faith communities. In the end, love is all there is. And that night, love, compassion and unity won. Imagine that!
Photo courtesy of the author.