This is adapted from a sermon preached by Kaitlin Bardswich, a member of The United Church of Canada, and a former employee at the General Council Office. She shares about her 18-month travel adventure, doing freelance journalism, and interviews with United Church partners around the world. It was originally published on her blog, and sections appeared in Verge magazine.
I’d like to begin by painting a scene for you.
It’s early afternoon in Gaza City on December 3, 2015.
I’m accompanied by two Muslim employees of a Christian NGO working in the Strip, the Near East Council of Churches.
Sitting in the back of a white van as it cruises through the narrow streets, a bullet hole in the windshield a stark reminder of the last war, I’m desperately trying to get my cell phone to connect to an Israeli service provider so that I can set my blog to “private” and not risk outing myself as a lesbian while I’m there.
It’s been an interesting day and I only crossed the border a few hours earlier.
This journey into Gaza was one of many incredible experiences I’ve had over the last couple of years. I’ve recently returned from a year and a half of travelling the world, starting in Pakistan and ending in Colombia, taking in parts of South Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America along the way.
While I interviewed human rights activists working for peace, gender equality, indigenous rights, and food security, among others, my theme across every country was LGBTQ rights. I interviewed lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer people around the world, as well as their straight allies. It was a privilege to get a glimpse into the lives of these people who face real struggles that I can only imagine.
I interviewed Xulhaz Mannon, an LGBTQ activist in Bangladesh, in May last year, along with two other activists.
We met in his apartment in Dhaka, where he lived with his parents. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, he served us tea and cookies as his cat walked from lap to lap.
We spoke about the ongoing persecution the LGBTQ community faced in Bangladesh, as well as the ongoing killing of secular bloggers. At the time, there was a rumour that there was a list of gay rights activists to be killed circulating in extremist circles.
“I asked if my name was there,” Xulhaz told me with a laugh. “If there is a list, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
He then said, “These people, I always say, if they came to me and talked to me I would have a chance to explain, this is why I do this. But they will not do that. They will just come and kill you.”
Unfortunately, Xulhaz was right.
Less than a year later, on April 25, 2016, Xulhaz and fellow LGBTQ activist Mahbub Tonoy were killed in that same apartment — hacked to death by at least five machete-wielding intruders.
Ansar al-Islam, a Bangladeshi affiliate of al-Qaeda, later claimed responsibility.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the LGBT community in the country quickly went underground.
I’ve interviewed dozens of LGBT people in my travels, across the continents. After a while, the stories they told became unsurprising in their similarity.
They talked about growing up and thinking they were the only gay person in the world, about hiding their sexuality from their families, and about getting kicked out of their home when they did come out. They’ve had to worry about things like blackmail, sexual assault, police harassment, mob violence, jail time, and even death.
Why is this? One of the reasons I chose to focus on LGBTQ rights throughout my 18-month adventure was because this facet of a person’s identity is the one thing that unites the world in hatred and discrimination.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you can find at least one person in every nation on Earth with a prejudice against LGBTQ people, ranging from believing we don’t have the same rights as straight people when it comes to marriage, to believing that we don’t deserve to live.
Yet, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. God made us just as we are – there is nothing wrong with any part of our identity.
God does not differentiate between his children. As Paul writes, there is neither Jew not Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female. No one is better than another; no one worse. We are all one, with equal rights.
Following that logic, there is neither straight nor gay. Neither trans nor cis gender.
I see Jesus as a radical rebel of his time. He didn’t accept the status quo, or what religious and political leaders decreed as right. He ate and drank with those with identities that were considered sub-human. The prostitutes and the tax collectors. Probably the LGBTQ community as well, since we existed then as we did before then and as we do now.
This concept of identity was one that I really struggled with while I was travelling. It was the first time in my life that I felt the need to hide any aspect of my identity. While I came out a bit later in life, in my mid-twenties, I’ve never felt the need to be closeted.
But when I was travelling in certain countries, “playing it straight” was a smart if not protective move. Some of these countries had laws making homosexual acts illegal, while in others it was still a taboo and dangerous topic.
I’ve had some people tell me that this shouldn’t bother me, needing to be closeted, that my sexuality does not define me, and that I don’t have to go around proclaiming that I’m gay.
But the funny thing is, it’s usually straight people who tell me that. And they don’t always realize that, while it’s true I don’t need to proclaim my sexuality wherever I go, when I’m travelling in homophobic countries – where the punishment of being who I am is jail, harassment, or even death – it’s still horrible to have to constantly deny a part of who I am.
No one wants to be invisible – we want to be seen for who we truly are.
That can all be really difficult to live with, day to day, if you think about it too much.
But of course, that’s nothing compared to what the local LGBTQ communities live with in many of these countries.
While I love being able to experience so many new cultures and meet many interesting people, there are times when I reach a point of feeling completely and emotionally exhausted with having to pretend I’m straight.
It’s not the pretending to be straight specifically that is tiring, but the pretending to be something that I’m not. And knowing that if I didn’t do that, my experiences would likely be much different.
Being so exhausted by this near constant pretending has made me realize two very important things: I have immense privilege in that I can (1) pass as straight and (2) that I usually don’t have to.
Last August in Cork, Ireland, I got my first tattoo. I have the Gaelic word samhlaigh, which means “imagine,” tattooed on my foot. It’s mainly for my grandmother, who would exclaim “Imagine!” whenever she heard something interesting or exciting. But it’s also partly to celebrate the fact that I can now legally get married in both countries where I hold citizenship – Ireland and Canada. (Imagine!)
And perhaps, subconsciously, this declaration tattooed onto my often exposed skin is my way of claiming my entire identity, no matter where I travel.
I only wish it didn’t have to be so cryptic, for me or for anyone.