To mark LGBT History Month this year we’re catching up with key people from the LGBT+ movement to discuss how LGBT+ and faith – two unlikely bedfellows – can actually dovetail with each other and help to shape a cohesive and progressive society. For this, our first interview in the series, we spoke to Makinder Chahal from Trade Sexual Health.
Makinder Chahal is currently working for an LGBT+ health charity based in Leicester called Trade Sexual Health as their South Asian LGBT Support & Health Promotion Worker. He was involved in NUS LGBT+ student activism from 2009 - 2012, where the LGBT society he was co-present of, Keele LGBT, won NUS LGBT Society of the Year in 2012. He still engages within LGBT+ activism as part of his work at Trade Sexual Health, especially working with people from a faith and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, raising awareness and educating around LGBT+ issues.
What is your experience as an LGBT+ person of faith?
I believe that faith is something that is very personal to individuals, so as for my experiences as an LGBT+ person of faith, it has been fairly positive. The faith that I was born into was Sikhism, and I still firmly believe in the key principle of Sikhism, which puts equality at the heart of all practices. However, the views and attitudes of some other people of Sikh faith are often not reflective of the key principle of equality, which I find disheartening, and more often than not, this view is often shaped by conservative cultural beliefs and values. I have found this even within the family setting, where I have begun to question family members, who are also Sikh, about their conflicting beliefs and values against those of the Sikh faith, to which none have ever been questioned on before.
I believe that this is because culture and faith are intertwined and can be very difficult to separate out, and often faith, as I’ve mentioned previously, is sometimes something that people are born into and may identify with just because they have been brought up within that faith, as opposed to wanting to be part of the faith. I am happy with being an LGBT+ person and of Sikh faith, but only because I keep my faith to myself, and also because I have met other LGBT+ people of Sikh faith, which gives me an opportunity to talk and reflect upon Sikhism with people like me.
How can we better represent LGBT+ students of faith at NUS?
NUS would be a great platform to bring together students of faith and empower them to makes changes within the diverse communities they are a part of, including LGBT+ students. By providing students with an engaging and interactive educational and empowering toolkit, which students unions and societies can access, can be the first step for representation. Also, representation would have to be across the board, from all liberation campaigns, as a collective approach to ensure that the true diversity of people of faith are visible.
What do you feel is the biggest barrier in the work that you do?
The biggest barrier I have found so far is rejection from faith groups and organisations which I have approached with the work that I currently do, with one of the main reasons being the denial of the existence of LGBT+ people of faith when talking with faith and community groups, which makes people feel that there is no need for the support.
What advice would you give LGBT+ people of faith?
First of all, remember that you are never alone. There are a number of LGBT+ faith groups for the major faiths in the UK, and often have a visible and accessible internet presence, as well as a regular meetings and socials in a variety of locations. Also remember that religious scripture can be interpreted in many different ways, so how one person interprets text may be very different to another person’s interpretation. This can often be selectively used to justify discrimination against LGBT people by some people.
What advice would you give LGBT+ student societies on how to better support LGBT+students of faith?
Coming from direct experience, I would highly encourage LGBT+ student societies to engage in conversation with their university’s chaplaincy service as a great starting point. Once these conversations have been had, it would hopefully open the door both ways, from people accessing chaplaincy services finding out about LGBT+ student societies and vice versa. Also, let people know that this has, or is going to, happen, and really raise the profile to empower LGBT students of faith to engage within society activities, whilst being mindful of people’s faith practices.
Another thing that LGBT+ student societies could try is organising joint events with faith societies with a common goal in mind. I would always advise that if any joint events are organised, that there is a mediator or independent facilitator to host the event, depending on the type of event which is being hosted.
Next week, we’ll be discussing LGBT+ and faith with another key figure in the movement. If you’d like to discuss your experiences in this area you can email Robbiie Young, NUS LGBT+ Officer (Open Place) on Rob.Young@nus.org.uk.
For more information on LGBT History Month 2016 visit www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk.