Discussing sexual diversity and religion with young people

In principle, many religions have a negative attitude towards homosexuality. Especially believers who want to follow the texts of the Bible and the Koran literally, condemn homosexuality on the basis of some texts. It can be difficult for atheists and for public institutions to deal with such convictions.

Broadly speaking, there are four ways to deal with religion-based convictions of homosexuality. The first two of these deal with the content of the conviction, the other two with its social consequences. At the end of the article I will briefly discuss a discussion with “fundamentalists”.

  1. Discussion of the interpretation of “sacred texts”
  2. Discussion of personal relationship with God
  3. Discussion about diversity
  4. Discussion of manners and respect

1. Discussion of interpretation of “sacred texts”

The first way is to discuss the reason for religious judgment while trying to show that the texts can be interpreted in other ways than harsh condemnations. With the Bible, this has been done by theologians and gay/lesbian theologians since the 1970s. This criticism points out that the story of Sodom, on which convictions are usually based, may be more about violations of hospitality or rape than about homosexuality. In addition, it is pointed out that “homosexuality” did not yet exist as a concept in ancient times. It is sometimes pointed out that the prohibitions of Paul, on which some people base their condemnation, are no longer obeyed by a large proportion of Christians today because they do not fit today. Why condemn homosexuality and not eat pork?
Similar criticism has recently also taken place about the Quran, see for example our page on the Quran. Discussing Quranic texts about homosexual behavior is more challenging than critically discussing the Bible, because a significant part of Muslims take the Quran literally and may consider a critical discussion of Quranic texts as blasphemy. The legal system of many Islamic countries is also based in part on the Quran.
There are several drawbacks to discussing religious convictions based on the religious texts. The most important is that facilitators, by coming up with “counterarguments”, immediately places themselves in an “opposition perspective”, which does not benefit a good dialogue. Second, one must be well aware of the religious arguments, texts and feelings in order to conduct this discussion properly. Third, the group in which the discussion takes place must be able and willing to have such a discussion. This is often not the case with fundamentalist believers (who take sacred texts literally).

2. Discussion of personal relationship with god

A second way of discussing religious condemnations of homosexuality is to focus on the personal relationships that the believers have with God. In this approach, one avoids entering into a confrontational discussion. LGBT people may come up with arguments such as: “God made everything and he is infallible. There are also homosexuals and so they are also part of God’s purpose”.
In the Bible there is a marked difference in tone between some chapters. For example, the conciliatory tone of the Sermon on the Mount is sometimes used to make it clear that everyone deserves to be accepted. Even in the stricter Quran, some people find arguments for this line of reasoning. An example is description of paradise, in which it is said that Muslims going to paradise can enjoy both beautiful male and female virgins.
This type of discussion is more manageable than the first, but it has its own limitations. In this case, too, the discussion facilitators must be well informed about religious movements and feelings. Discussing the personal relationship with God or Allah can only be convincing if the facilitators themselves are believers and experience a personal relationship with God in this way. Fundamentalists are often not approachable for a personal source with God if it is separate from “sacred” texts.

For atheist facilitators and representatives of public institutions, the way to discuss religious convictions of homosexuality it is advisable not to focus on texts or religious feelings, but on the consequences of discrimination.

3. Discussion about diversity

The mode of discussion that best leads to some form of tolerance or acceptance is to discuss sexual diversity in the broader context of diversity and pluriformity in general. In each society believers and atheists live next to each other. There are different faiths, philosophies, cultures and different generations. All these groups have different ideas about social status, romantic relationships, sexuality, gender and sexual orientation. How can we deal with this pluriformity without condemning each other? An in-depth discussion about this can result in a number of basic rules on how to be tolerant of each other and how to maintain respectful behavior.
Examples of such rules are: live and let live, respect each other’s privacy, combat bullying and discrimination, grant and respect equal rights. Such ground rules apply even if one does not feel very accepting personally: this is the difference between acceptance and tolerance. In a democratic society, mutual tolerance is a basic condition. Most religions also have tolerance as a basic value to which one can fall back. Although some people may say "tolerance" nowadays sounds arrogant and as a "minority right" granted from a dominant perspective, the UN definition of tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’’
s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human
(article 1 of the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, 1995).
A discussion about pluriformity can almost always be held, provided the facilitators adjust the level of the discussion to the group. With more advanced students, abstract terms like "pluriformity" and "tolerance" can be used, with lees advanced students. the language used should be more straightforward and even simplified, such as "homosexuality is normal".
Some young people may use "faith" as an argument for being intolerant. In the context of pluriformity, it is then useful to discuss with them - without going into texts - how their beliefs relate to diversity and tolerance in general and how they think about tolerance towards other groups. After all, once the slavery of black people was also based on the Bible, but we don’t hold this view any more.

4. Discussion of manners and respect

For some groups it is too difficult to discuss tolerance in the context of diversity. This may be especially the case in groups of young people who think rather stereotypically in terms of "right" and "wrong" and have difficulty to see nuance. Often such young people do not live in a context of security. Young people who live in a school or neighborhood where mutual respect and good manners are not customary, sometimes only respect the right of the strongest and oppose anything that deviates from stereotypical expectations in their group. In such cases, one could focus on the basic condition for tolerance: manners in general. In group discussions, students could set joint ground rules for group behavior and agree on a friendly to mutually correct each other when interaction becomes uncomfortable. This is not a high-brow non-discrimination curriculum, but basic agreement on friendly group interaction can go a long way to create safety for all in the group, which is where basic skill learning starts.
While friendly interaction in their own group is the most basic need, it is important to also make it explicitly clear that such general respect extends to LGBT people. Although it may sound weird to middle class adults, for many young people it is not at all self-evident that LGBT people also deserve respect . Dutch research on "gay-bashers" (young people who beat up homosexuals) showed that young people who were arrested for this crime were very surprised that the police disapproved of the abuse of LGB people. The lesson we can learn from this is that explicit role-modelling of tolerance towards LGBT people by adults and especially by moral authorities such as religious foremen, police and teachers can have a huge impact on young people.
In group discussions it can also be useful to say that no religion advocates violence or intimidation against LGBT people (although some individual dignitaries may do so).


In the text above I have paid particular attention to the didactic way in which educators can deal with young people’s convictions of sexual and gender diversity. I would like to conclude with some general comments on the most resistant among young people. In this article I have occasionally spoken, rather bluntly, about "fundamentalists" and described them as people who take "sacred" texts literally and may therefore not be open to discussion. I would like to qualify this comment here.
Firstly, we must realize that the image many people have of sexual and gender diversity is still limited and often distorted. This applies not only to Muslims or strict Christians, but also to the population in general. When discussing sexual and gender diversity it is therefore of great importance to examine what images young people have of sexuality and gender and what these views are based on. Where necessary, this image formation must be corrected. If the image is based only on distorted media images of on images of the more extravagant parts of LGBT Festivals and Prides, it is important to put things into perspective and explain the wide diversity in LGBTIQ+ lifestyles. If you are dealing with young people or adults from certain cultures, they may not know the word "homosexuality" in their native language. In some cultures there are words for homosexual behavior, but often they are negative and derogatory terms, and sometimes these terms are synonymous or associated with pedosexuality and rape. It goes without saying that such misunderstandings must be corrected.
Secondly, in discussions about sexual and gender diversity, it is important for educators to respect the opinion of others, even if their opinion seems oversimplified, judgmental, intolerant or harsh. For good educators, it is essential to cultivate an intense curiosity for the world and feelings of young people.
A harsh and intolerant attitude can arise from different starting points. Sometimes young people are simply not well informed about their own faith and they simply adopt things that their parents, imams, pastors or religious authorities tell them. Many people derive their sense of security and self-esteem from messages from parents and religious leaders. Teens often find themselves in a turbulent time in their lives, and they may feel their sense of security is under threat when they don’t conform to stereotypical expectations of gender and sexuality. As a result, they may feel a need for clear guidelines about what is good and what is bad. A sharp condemnation of deviant behavior can be part of this need for security.
Fighting, or denying forms of diversity that feel threatening because they are too far removed from our own experience and expectations, is a natural mechanism that everyone is familiar with. After all, everyone’s tolerance can be maintained only to a certain limit. This limit will be reached more quickly in some adults and some young people. Whatever strategy you use to engage in a discussion about sexual and gender diversity with teenagers or adults, it is important to be open to their ideas and backgrounds, identify where insecurity is at play, and have an open and respectful discussion about it.

Peter Dankmeijer (original 29 December 2003; translation and adaptation of 7 December 2020)