The lesbian, gay, bi, and trans-rights charity Stonewall has enlisted faith role models to tackle the idea that religion and sexuality are mutually exclusive. Transgender activist Surat-Shaan Knan represents Judaism: “The biggest misconception [about Judaism] is that faith and LGBT identities are at odds with each other.”
Organized religion and sexuality haven’t always been the most comfortable bedfellows. And interpretations of religious texts, from the Bible to the Quran, have been used to argue that being LGBTQ is a sin. In some 74 countries around the world same-sex relationships are illegal, while the rights of trans people remain unprotected – with religion often a sticking point for progression.
To tackle the idea that having faith in a higher power and being queer are mutually exclusive, LGBT charity Stonewall launched its Faith Role Models programme which is supported by The MB Reckitt Trust. In February, the charity enlisted representatives across 36 religious communities – including from the Church of England, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism – to start conversations about LGBT equality and combat harmful myths that can tear apart families and even lead to imprisonment and death.
Surat-Shaan Knan works as LGBTQI project manager for Liberal Judaism, a faith-based UK charity. He grew up around the Mediterranean and now lives in London
When I grew up, although there were some notions of me being gender-variant, I was told by everyone that I was born a girl and that was that. I didn’t know the word ‘transgender’, even less so ‘trans Jew’. It would have sounded like an oxymoron. I did come out as gay or queer eventually, but this identity seemed rather mismatched. I came out as transmasculine quite late in life, after moving to the UK to join the Liberal Jewish Movement over a decade ago. My faith actually really helped me to come to terms with my identity, and I feel blessed to be part of such a progressive faith community.
How did you expect people to react when you came out? and how did the reality compare?
I had been out as genderqueer for many years, and being a campaigner I was used to getting all sorts of reactions, positive and negative. So I didn’t really think about it too much to be honest. I was prepared that not everybody in my family and among my circle of friends may equally embrace my transitioning. Yes, it was a bit scary but at the same time I felt excited to finally being able to become “myself”.
Most people were totally fine with me being trans, and some not so much. Some just needed a bit more time and space to understand and learn, and that’s OK. Ultimately, they realised I wasn’t becoming a different person. They saw me being happier and that made all the difference.
What is the biggest misconception about your faith and identifying as LGBT?
The biggest misconception is that faith and LGBT identities are at odds with each other. There’s the idea in the perhaps more conservative Jewish communities that gender variance and same sex attraction is some sort of modern, secular trend and thus LGBT people in Judaism are not “real”. The truth is that LGBT people have been part of this world since creation. It’s time to recognise and celebrate our contribution to the Jewish community and society at large.