Negotiating Difference Through Everyday Encounters: The Case of Sexual Orientation and Religion and Belief Gill Valentine, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, ls2 9JT, uk. Email

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Negotiating Difference Through Everyday Encounters: The Case of Sexual Orientation and Religion and Belief
Gill Valentine, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK. Email:


Louise Waite, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK. Email:


This paper argues for geographers to be more attentive to the potentially competing values, interests, and rights of the equality strands (race, gender, disability, religion and belief, sexual orientation, age). We focus on two that are most commonly assumed to experience tensions: religion and belief and sexual orientation. Drawing on focus groups with heterosexual Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus and lesbian and gay people of faith we explore the attitudes of heterosexual people of faith towards homosexuality. These findings suggest that tensions should be emerging between these groups in public space. However, we then demonstrate that these anticipated conflicts are not emerging because of the strategies people employ for separating their beliefs from their everyday conduct. In such ways, our findings demonstrate how the ‘what is’ (i.e. personal experience) for both heterosexual and lesbian and gay people of faith is prioritised over theological or institutional perspectives of ‘what ought to be’.

Key words: Religion and belief, sexual orientation, encounter, intersectionality, equality

Negotiating Difference Through Everyday Encounters: The Case of Sexual Orientation and Religion and Belief

Since 1970s critical geographers have recognised the importance of ‘difference’ and have developed a body of research about the particular experiences of under-researched and marginalised groups such as: minority ethnic communities, lesbians and gay men, people with mental ill-health, children/older people, women, disabled people and people of religion/belief (e.g. Aitchison et al 2007; Bell and Binnie 2002; Dwyer 1999; Holloway 2003; Parr, Philo and Burns, 2004; Valentine and Sporton 2009). This work has focused on the specific experiences of each ‘equality strand’ (race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion/belief) in relation to the majority population, identifying the processes (institutional and individual) through which each group has experienced socio-spatial exclusion. Geographers have paid relatively little attention to possible commonalities in the experiences and processes of marginalisation across the equality strands, despite interesting work around the intersections of specific social identities (e.g. race and sexuality Peake 1993; religion and sexual orientation: Vanderbeck et al in press; see also Valentine in press).

Within the European public sphere there has been growing recognition of the parallel experiences of discrimination encountered by minority ethnic communities, lesbians and gay men, children/older people, women, disabled people and people of religion/belief, and the need therefore to equalise the rights of, and protections for, each equality group. For example, in 2007 the UK Government merged the three equality bodies responsible for race, disability and gender - Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission – to create a single equality body (the Equality and Human Rights Commission) that also incorporated for the first time responsibility for sexual orientation, religion/belief and age. A Single Equality Act to level up and standardise legal protection for all minority groups is currently progressing through the UK Parliament. These policy changes reflect the UK Government’s broader desire to promote human rights for all and to re-imagine a shared civic culture and notion of what it means to be a citizen, exemplified by the Community for Integration and Cohesion’s report (2007) on Our Shared Future. Within the European Union there has also been a recent adoption of two directives prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin; religion or belief; disability; age or sexual orientation which also mark an important step towards a new focus on, and mechanisms for, addressing shared sub-ordinations.
There is an implicit assumption underlying such legislation that these equality strands share common agendas and that their interests coincide because of their common experiences of exclusion and discrimination. Yet, competing rights claims including several high profile public events and legal cases in the UK and other European countries between different equality strands suggest that this is not always the case. For example, in 2008 a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in London refused to conduct civil partnership services for lesbians and gay men on the grounds that it contravened her orthodox Christian beliefs. She claimed that as a result of her stance over a period of time she experienced direct discrimination, indirect discrimination and harassment from colleagues which led her to take out an Employment Tribunal case against her employer, the Local Authority. The Tribunal highlighted the complexity of these issues when evidence was presented from gay employees about how they in turn felt like second class citizens because of the religious beliefs that she expressed which were perceived to be homophobic. In a second example that attracted widespread public coverage, a Muslim taxi driver refused to pick up a blind person accompanied by a guide dog on the grounds that his religion considered dogs to be unclean. He was fined for failing to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (Malik 2009). Such instances suggest that there is need for geographers to be more attentive to potential tensions between the values, interests, and rights of equality groups in everyday encounters. In this paper, we do so by focusing on a case study of the two equality strands that are commonly assumed to experience these tensions: sexual orientation and religion/belief (Vanderbeck et al in press; Yip 2005).
In addressing the relationship between these two strands this paper is more widely situated within the emerging field of geographies of encounter (e.g. Amin 2002; Bell 2007; Binnie et al 2006; Cook, Dwyer and Waite in press; Hemming in press; Iveson 2006 and 2007; Laurier and Philo 2006; Valentine 2008). This research is exploring the significance of contact – as a product of shared space -- in mediating difference. In a seminal monograph about prejudice, the psychologist Gordon Allport (1954) argued that personal, residential or occupational contact and the pursuit of common goals are often critical in challenging people’s prejudices. As such, he developed what has become known as the ‘contact hypothesis’ of prejudice reduction. While some geographers have argued that micro-scale everyday public encounters and interactions (e.g. mundane friendliness, low levels of sociability) represent a base-line democracy that might be developed (Laurier and Philo 2006; Thrift 2005); others are concerned that spatial proximity on its own is not enough to bring about social transformation (Amin 2002) and might actually breed defensiveness and the bounding of identities and communities (Young 1990). In this paper we examine the concept of “encounters” in two distinct ways. First, in section one of the paper, we conceptualise it in terms of the way that people of faith approach sexual orientation through the particular lens of religion/belief. In doing so, we are drawing on the concept of ‘encounter’ in a somewhat different way to the existing literature by exploring how particular identifications frame abstract understandings about who has the right to belong in the public sphere. Second, in section two of the paper we examine how individuals of religion and belief manage their personal encounters with lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people in everyday micro-publics. Here, we contribute to the geographies of encounter by drawing on the concept of intersectionality (for a geographical perspective see Valentine 2007) to reflect on the more complex ways in which these banal encounters in public space are approached and refracted through particular identifications. We further identify the strategies that people of faith/belief (both heterosexual and lesbian and gay) adopt to create and manage spaces of co-existence despite the potential for conflict between the equality strands of sexual orientation and religion and belief. In doing so, we therefore draw on, and implicitly contribute to, wider geographies of sexualities (Bell and Binnie 2002; Bell and Valentine 1995) and geographies of religion and belief (Dwyer 2009a, 2009b; Hemming in press; Hopkins 2007).
The argument presented in this paper is derived from a series of focus groups with people of faith drawn from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Christian traditions; as well as focus groups with lesbian and gay people of faith. The participants were differently positioned in relation to their own religious authorities, and the discussions also included reflections on the diversity of perspectives within each of the faith communities. The informants in the heterosexual faith focus groups were recruited from places of worship through key gatekeepers to include intentionally those from a spectrum of positions on this religious debate within each faith community. Those who participated in the lesbian and gay people of faith focus groups were recruited through snowballing from contacts established through LGBT support groups/organisations. The focus groups were also diverse in terms of the age, gender, ethnicity and class of participants. The discussions were held in a range of locations of the participants’ choice and lasted between one to two hours. These were recorded, transcribed and analysed using conventional social science techniques. Specifically, the coding stage included two levels of analysis: “in vivo” codes which drew upon terms used by the informants themselves and “constructed” codes which were developed by the research team. The codes from individual accounts were compared with each other to generate dominate and counter themes. All the names of people and places referred to in the extracts from these transcripts have been anonymised.
Belief: Framing of Belonging in the Public Sphere

The industrial era, which has been characterised by rationality, scientific knowledge, social hierarchies and tradition, is being challenged by a new modernity. In this phase the old certainties of traditional occupations are being replaced by recognition of the need for individuals to adapt to the de-standardisation of work and changing labour market conditions, by for example, re-training, and switching occupations. As such, individuals’ identities, and lifestyles are no longer so clearly related to their employment and family backgrounds. Traditional ideas and expectations about social relations are also being reworked. The pre-ordained path of school, paid work, courtship, marriage and parenthood is now less clearly marked. Rather, there has been a weakening of class ties, a decline in the reliance on authorities such as the church, and a de-coupling of some of the social behaviours and attitudes (e.g. in relation to having sex, having children etc.) that used to be attached to marriage and family life (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995; Giddens 1991). As Bauman (2002: xv) explains: “No more are human beings ‘born into’ their identities…Needing to become what one is is the hallmark of modern”.

With these changes has come the emergence of new social allegiances. Released from the constraints and social norms of tradition (e.g. religious authorities), individuals are now freer to choose between a range of options in the pursuit of their own happiness. It is a process that has been termed “individualisation” (Beck 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). The freedom that people are assumed to have to create “do-it-yourself-biographies” has notably been understood to provide more opportunities for lesbians and gay men to live the lifestyle of their choice. Law reforms (e.g. the change in the age of consent for gay men in the UK, and the extension of partnerships rights to lesbian and gay couples in a number of European states), and the growing public profile of lesbians and gay men (e.g. as a result of media, sporting and political celebrities coming out) in North America and Europe have contributed to creating a more liberal social climate in these societies. The development of social, support and political groups across a range of scales, and the emergence of an increasing number of commercial gay “scenes” have also provided a framework of allegiance for lesbians and gay men. As such, it is generally understood to be “easier” to be lesbian or gay in western societies now than at anytime in the past.
However, for those who remain embedded in the collective traditions of faith this social “normalisation” of LGBT lifestyles may be experienced in tension with orthodox religious teachings, notwithstanding theological debates about the interpretation of religious and sacred texts (Yip 2005) that are evident to varying degrees within each faith community (and which are explored later in the paper). These participants from heterosexual faith focus groups explain their perspectives:

Speaker 1: I think something is relatively clear you see in Islamic education, and nobody can change it you see. So homosexuality is one of the clear things, there is no different interpretations for this kind of action. So it can’t be changed … as a person who has faith as a Muslim, you can’t compromise your original education with the social fact [edit].

Speaker 2: Yeah I mean I agree with you in Islam it is forbidden, homosexuality is forbidden, just like drinking, drinking is forbidden and it can never change, you know… That’s why homosexuality … I mean we can say something but religion will never change…(Muslim focus group)

[O]ur religious beliefs are such that the whole idea of homosexuality is barred. Now, we as a reform congregation are a bit more liberal in that respect, but the truly Orthodox Jews would condemn homosexuality, absolutely without question, you know, that’s the end of it. It’s wrong and that’s no discussion (Jewish focus group).

In the old testament God smites a city for practising sexual immorality, so it’s up to gay people to stop, otherwise God’s going to smite them (Christian focus group).
In articulating these positions the respondents commonly drew on traditional discourses about human nature, and the theological normativity of heterosexuality justified on the basis of a theory of gender complementarity (Sollis 2000: 105), as the foundation of the family and the bedrock upon which society is built. This respondent from a heterosexual faith focus group explains:

Without the couple, no rituals can be done, that is our fundamental requirement. So all this thing about the homosexuality and the lesbian, it’s not right, because everybody knows that for the furtherment of the life, so the reproduction, you need a male and female. This sort of lesbian relationship and homo relationships, it is just going to lead you towards something which you are not going to get anything other than the pain at the end of the day. With that relationship you will not have any offspring (Hindu focus group).

Homosexuality was therefore represented in the heterosexual faith focus groups as “unnatural”, transgressing a religious duty to procreate, and as a threat to the fabric of society because of its assumed connection with promiscuity and the dismantling of marriage. In this sense, sex is still understood by faith communities to be a functional practice, solely for reproduction, rather than about pleasure. In contrast, within secular society sexuality has become conceptualized in terms of expressions of intimacy and self-realisation, losing its connection with traditional ethical frameworks and wider responsibilities to produce the next generation (Giddens 1992). In such ways, the heterosexual faith focus groups justified their negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Here, one focus group contrasted its “rational” and theologically justified position towards lesbians and gay men, with the more generalised and unjustified prejudice members had witnessed white British secular people direct towards lesbian and gay people.
For the Muslim focus group in particular, homosexuality was commonly located as a “western” disease that is threatening their religiously prescribed natural order. Indeed, this process through which people of faith are perceived to be seduced by secular western culture has been dubbed “westoxication” (Yip 2004: 341). In order to avoid compromising their religious belief several of the Muslim respondents described their spatial strategies to avoid contact with LGBT people, thus enabling them to align their belief with their conduct. In the most extreme example one respondent described changing his job to avoid having to work in an office with an openly gay colleague and a few other respondents gave similar or hypothetical examples of where they would self-exclude themselves from a particular space in order to avoid potential conflicts

But when I came to England and, you know, for six months I worked as a receptionist in the hairdressers and after two months I found the guy which is my, like my friend, and he is homosexual, he is gay. And you know, I had very good relations with this friend, as a friend. But after I found he is gay, it was very you know, hard for me to act as a friend again and talk with him, you know, again (Muslim focus group).

Say for example my family and I are on holiday for example, I have two young daughters as well at a very impressionable age again, eleven and thirteen, and if we were staying in a hotel room together as a family and there were two gay men booking in right next door to me, I would feel the need to move (Muslim focus group).
For heterosexual parents of faith the ability to protect their children from exposure to homosexuality is compromised however by various media that infiltrate the home. Mica Nava (2006) describes this import of “difference” into the private sphere in positive terms as “domestic cosmopolitanism”. Yet, as this extract from the Muslim focus group demonstrates parents’ inability to bound their beliefs is read in more negative terms:

Speaker 1: You sometimes see women kissing on the television and you think it’s too late to turn it off, the children have seen it. It’s even promoted in some of the adverts, very subtly, but you can see it, it’s there. It’s there, it’s a reality, and the conflict there is how do you protect your children from this, and for me it’s you have to talk to them in very simple language and tell them what Islam stands for and how we see it, and how it’s wrong as far as you’re concerned [Edit – later the group returned to the same theme].

Speaker 2: Yeah I would prefer to maintain some distance, but that doesn’t mean that I have prejudice against these people. It’s just morally unacceptable as a person, as a Muslim. Do you feel that?

Speaker 3: Well this is what I’m saying. It’s in your home already. It’s on the TV…

It’s on the internet. You can shut your eyes to it, but it’s there (Muslim focus group).
The other heterosexual faith focus groups were concerned more generally with the perceived visibility and recognition of LGBT rights relative to faith communities in the public domain and the flow of resources which they anticipate to follow from this. Here, the participants drew on narratives of injustice to argue that lesbians and gay men were less deserving of recognition or resources – either for numerical or moral reasons – than faith communities.

The simple thing is, right, what percentage, right, of the population in UK, these homosexuals and lesbians are? …how are they getting so [much] publicity of their rights, while the rights of the other people who don’t encourage or don’t like that type of thing are also not being heard? [edit] Well you see I mean we… we’re Hindus, right yeah, we are very… well I would say peace-loving people. And as far as the rights are concerned, I mean nobody has said anything in the last 50 years or so right, but I mean now it is the Hindus are raising their heads, okay, because they are not getting the same type of recognition, right, as the other communities has got …cos it’s the press and the human rights people, they publicise it too much, you know. Look at the percentage how many gays and lesbians, how much coverage they take in the media (Hindu focus group).

Although extreme examples of withdrawal from contact with LGBT people were only described within the Muslim focus group (see above), the other faith groups argued for their right to express their religious beliefs about homosexuality in public and to be entitled to conduct themselves accordingly. Indeed, there is some evidence of LGBT people of faith encountering such hostility in their religious communities that they are forced to abandon their faith (Mahaffy 1996). Some of the heterosexual faith focus groups articulated a concern however that sexual orientation equality legislation – as well as a perceived wider culture of “political correctness” -- may compromise the freedom of speech of people of religion and belief. In turn, it was suggested that this may close down dialogue between faith and non faith communities, and within faith communities, so breeding lack of understanding and intolerance.

I’m not suggesting that you should encourage people to be violent or to discriminate but you should be able to discuss and to condemn them [lesbians and gay men] in words if that’s what you want to do. I’m not saying you have to condemn it, you understand. If you want to condemn somebody, you should be in a position to do it without fear of the law jumping on you (Jewish focus group).

Speaker 1:…what defines incitement to hatred? I suspect someone will have a go at preaching about what he understands the bible to say, and you know, half of that we might be cheering saying yes go on, bring them down, and half the people might be saying yes but… And I think it’s that grey area’s going to be quite difficult

Speaker 2: And it strikes me that if the law stops the church having the public dialogue about this issue that it needs to have, then actually it’s counterproductive, because if we’re not allowed… people can’t have a go at us for saying certain things, and then not allow us to say those certain things in order to have a good honest dialogue and debate so that we can understand more of what it means to promote the Christian faith and what it’s trying to say. If the law actually stops that honest debate happening, then sometimes it’s clear in that case that’s not honest debate (Christian focus group).

In sum, in this section we have demonstrated how many heterosexual people of faith understand homosexuality to be “unnatural”, and an implicit threat to the religious duty to procreate and consequently the fabric of society. Other points of tension between the faith and sexual orientation equality strands include a concern by members of some faith communities about the perceived recognition and rights afforded to sexual minorities, and a perceived threat to their freedom to express openly their views about homosexuality in public space. These findings imply that given the incompatibility of the values of heterosexual people of faith/belief and LGBT people at the abstract level, tensions should be emerging between these groups in public space. It is to this reality of everyday encounters between individuals from these equality strands that we turn in the next section.
Encounters in Public Space: Everyday Strategies for Co-Existence

Participants from all four religions each described their own faiths in terms of compassion, humanity and forgiveness and thus justified their willingness to engage in civil encounters with lesbians and gay men in everyday public spaces in terms of -- to use Christian language -- as “love the sinner, hate the sin” (i.e. individuals’ sexual orientations were accepted as long as they remain an identity rather than a practice). This could be interpreted as an essentialist understanding of identity in that sexual orientation was implicitly represented in such comments as something innate and fixed (a view echoed and justified by LGBT Christians who argue that their sexuality is God-given e.g. Horn et al 2005). In contrast sexual practices are understood to be chosen and therefore “sinful”. Representing sexual identity in essentialist terms as fixed and therefore forgiven was also anticipated as an explanation for, and strategy to avoid, rejecting a child or other family who might hypothetically come out as gay. Indeed, several of the heterosexual faith focus groups gave examples of cases in which a member of the faith community (or their relative) had come out. This had initially been met with a hostile response, which then softened into mild gossip before ultimately over gaining tacit acceptance of their place within the community.

If I might just explain a bit about the Orthodox position…obviously they don’t deny the existence of people with inclinations, what they do deny is their right to openly practice it and basically you practice it. So the Orthodox position is that if you’re born a homosexual, then you have to stay solo [edit] well obviously that’s an official position but all people have seen. So if you transgress something, it doesn’t mean that you can transgress in everything else. In that sense there is a possibility of turning blind eye as long as you don’t advertise it (Jewish focus group).
It wasn’t until I started working for my boss that I realised he was gay. So one of my other colleagues, he is gay as well, and I didn’t know until he told me. And you then have to question yourself as a human being as well, that on a moral level it’s unacceptable to you because religion and society teach you that it’s wrong, yes, but when you see a person in front of you that has done no wrong to you, you can’t help but think things because of your own moral beliefs. But on the other hand you’ve got to think they’ve done nothing wrong to you, so you can’t judge them because of, you know, their sexuality (Muslim focus group).
We treat them [lesbians and gay men] like a human being. Our theory is…there are two different things. One [the] person who is committing the crime, and the crime. We hate the crime, we never hate the person who’s committing the crime. You see, that’s the difference. We hate the crime, we hate the act of the crime, but [the] person who has committed the crime, we don’t hate it. But we will forgive them because forgiveness is the main achievement of human life, we try to forgive. But at the same time we don’t foster or encourage that sort of attitude [i.e. homosexuality] (Hindu focus group).
In effect, these informants describe adopting different bounding practices to separate their belief about homosexuality (i.e. as an abstract practice viewed solely through the lens of their faith) from their conduct when they actually encounter individual lesbians or gay men in person (Malik 2009). In this sense, the heterosexual faith focus group respondents described respecting individuals regardless of their sexual orientation; and lesbian and gay people of faith reported being treated positively as individuals despite their faith communities’ wider intolerance of homosexuality. This suggests that contrary to recent work on geographies of encounter – embracing diverse writings about cosmopolitanism, urban citizenship and activism (e.g. Amin 2002; Binnie et al 2006; Laurier and Philo 2006) which have drawn on contact theory to suggest that everyday banal encounters will erode people’s more deeply held prejudices, the positive conduct of heterosexual people of faith towards individual lesbians and gay men does not change their attitudes towards this group as a whole; nor their religious belief about homosexuality and sexual morality more broadly.

I guess I’ve had a couple of… not within my own Methodist kind of group I guess, but in other instances where I’ve been talking to people who have very strong views on their own religion, whether it be Catholic or Church of England, [Unclear – 00:44:19] case I’m thinking of. They said some outrageous things about homosexuals knowing that I’m gay, but not relating it to me. So they’ve made sweeping statements about gay people. And then when I said ‘oh is that really what you think of me then?’ They’ve said ‘Oh no, no, of course we don’t mean you’. So there seems to be a kind of disjuncture quite often between the people that they know and who might be gay, and then kind of what they think of gay people in general (lesbian and gay mixed faith focus group).

This metaphorical bounding of belief from conduct was furthered by an imagining of sexuality as a privatized practice that is only evident in spaces such as the home, in contrast to geographical understandings of sexuality and the production of public space (Bell and Binnie 2002; Valentine 1993). This “privatised” understanding of sexual orientation facilitated some faith communities to be able to “turn a blind eye” towards individuals within their own communities who may be lesbian or gay on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. For example, Hekma (2002) has argued that some imams have not considered homosexuality a problem if it is practised in private.

Speaker 1: Islam says that you go ahead and do whatever you want to do in your own private life, that is your privacy right, that, you know, it’s about we are not allowed to, you know, come in and have a judgement on what you do behind closed doors. And yet it must be restricted from being very open in public, that is a no-go area, and there are very strict laws against that, that in public they should be really, you know, this is not acceptable [edit].

Speaker 2: That’s a kind of classic kind of phrase. As a person I like my boss, he’s fine. As a person I like his partner, he’s a nice person. But sometimes sitting in a meeting and your thought goes to them being gay, you personally think ‘urgh I don’t like it’…and then you have to think, come on, pull yourself together, you’re in a meeting, he’s your boss, you’re here on a professional basis. He’s not doing anything in front of you, it’s not your business what he does …My interaction is more on a professional basis, what he does in his private life is not affecting me…it’s just like if I took a particular brand of rice, he chooses a different brand of rice (Muslim focus group).
In framing their everyday civil encounters in public space the heterosexual faith focus group participants drew on the changing socio-legal landscape (e.g. Crockett and Voas 2003) to rationalise their personal conduct towards lesbian and gay people despite their personal religious beliefs and the hegemonic institutional positions of their faith communities. In particular, the decriminalisation of homosexuality was argued to have led to a greater acceptance of lesbian and gay people in society as a whole.

Speaker 1: We’ve just all become more liberal in society. So it’s just another thing, we’re more liberal now.

Speaker 2: I think it’s the fact also that it’s no longer a criminal offence. I think that has made an enormous difference.

Speaker 1: Really helped, decriminalisation you know (Jewish focus group).

For the Christian and Jewish focus groups The Civil Partnership Act was regarded as having had a very positive impact on the acceptance of gay people within their faith communities, endorsing former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claim that civil partnerships have a “civilising effect” on society. It was argued that civil partnerships demonstrated that gay people can live by the same religious principles as heterosexuals in particular by embodying the importance of commitment and monogamy. Moreover, civil partnership ceremonies also create a ritual which enables lesbian and gay relationships to be legitimated as well as providing a framework – that of “family”, a central pillar of both religions --through which they can be understood and accepted by the Christian and Jewish faith communities. In this sense the informants’ perspective chime with Thatcher’s (2003) argument for a new theology of intimacy that recognises that same-sex and unmarried heterosexual relationships have “religious” characteristics in that they can be communal partnership or covenants between two people based on love and for the benefit of children/society.

A friend of mine took forever coming out to her parents…and they finally decided to have a civil partnership last year…And it was really interesting because actually that solidified the family and made it much more acceptable… I mean I think my friend’s mother made some joke about, you know, you’re the best daughter-in-law a woman could ask for. And this civil partnership was turned into, in effect, a wedding, by the mother. And I think it was very interesting cos it was a way for her to relate to the relationship, through the kind of understandings that she had about what a relationship was about. Now, in terms of sexual practice and so on, I think what it also does is it kind of in a way it hides the sexual practice, because that’s what marriage does, you know. If people are married then you’re not thinking about them in the same way… And I was just trying to think about things like civil partnerships…allowing particular individuals and groups of individuals to relate to homosexuality in ways that they understand and they can identify with (Jewish focus group).

Speaker 1: …Like civil partnerships, since we can’t get married in the eyes of God, it really is the next best thing. And it’s just like getting married and going to the registry office. And I think that makes society a bit more accepting cos it’s just like having a normal wedding, which is good.

Speaker 2: …I think almost undoubtedly it will make it more normal, as you were saying, and therefore it can be absorbed by a congregation... I mean by and large congregations have grown to accept cohabitation of people, without asking too many questions, and I think that will largely become the case for people who are in long-term and gay relationships.

Speaker 3: Yeah, I definitely think it’s that. But not just that, it’s like well my family are Christians so I suppose they held the like the ideals that you should be… Like my Dad for instance is very, very strong on like being faithful…they’ve basically given me like those values of being faithful and settling down with like a long-term partner. (lesbian and gay mixed faith focus group).

In this sense, the informants’ experiences in their faith communities evidence Allport’s (1954/1979) claim that laws can be socialising agents that can have profound affects on social attitudes. He argued that attitudes have to shift to a certain degree to enable legislation to be passed but “when the initial work has been done, then the legislation in turn becomes educative. The masses of people do not become converts in advance rather they are converted by the fait accompli…They allow themselves to be re-educated by the new norms that prevail” (Allport 1954/1979: 471).

All the heterosexual faith focus groups, with the exception of the Muslim group, argued that interpretations of faith needed to evolve with social change in the public sphere. For some informants, wider social changes have been reflected in the liberalisation of their faith communities where individual participants described examples where LGB members who had come out had been accepted within their own communities of practice, despite the formal institutional positions of the religion. For others, socio-legal changes in the public sphere allowed them to reconcile their religion’s negative stance on homosexuality and their own more accepting personal conduct towards lesbian and gay people in everyday spaces.

[T]he church generally seems to be quite against homosexuality, but then practically how that works itself out depends on your community of people… I don’t know if these are the right words, but the synods or the Church of England groups of leaders meeting, it’s about whether we should accept gay people, homosexuals, in ministry or whether they are allowed to be practising and all of those issues. And then there’s the issue of do we [our local church] accept that a gay or lesbian person can be a practising Christian and can those issues be held in line together. I would say within the group of my friends or people I trust and know, there will be very much an acceptance of that, but on varying levels of what that actually means, how it works itself out (Christian focus group)

The heterosexual faith focus group participants also acknowledged that wider social transformations in the public sphere were being reflected in the ways that some faith communities were approaching religious texts/scripture: which are commonly the basis of teaching on sexual morality.

Speaker 3: And I think the point that the scripture, the point that actually scripture is central to our tradition and to our community, but it’s just how we approach that and how we continue to approach it. And obviously the way that the world changes, affects how we read any text and why should the bible be any different from that (Christian focus group).

But what I’ve always found interesting in wider debates, where people use the bible as, you know, ways of kind of targeting anger or prejudice against gay people, is that they forget all the bits about forgiveness and they forget all the bits about acceptance and they forget all the bits about how Jesus actually broke many social taboos by mixing with people he wasn’t supposed to mix with, and all that kind of side of the bible gets lost. And yet we focus on a handful of kind of scriptures which are the kind of hell,

bit (lesbian and gay Christian focus group)

Notably, contemporary processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation are increasingly empowering individuals over institutions in terms of self-directed hermeneutics, highlighting the situatedness and fluidity of texts. Within the Christian faith individual and collective alternative readings of the bible are emerging which emphasise the believer’s right to chose how they practice their faith (Yip 2005). McFayden (2000:59) characterises this as a process through which “the empirical “what is” (based on personal experience) is prioritised over the theological “what ought to be (institutional perspective)”. Yip (2005) further suggests that this LGBT affirming theology supports the neosecularization thesis in which secularisation is not taken to mean the demise of religion. Instead, it is argued that the declining significance of religious authorities in contemporary western society, in parallel with the rise of individualisation, is producing an increasing diversity of religious practices (which might be manifest in different ways in different spaces).
Despite the fact that lesbian and gay sexuality has been transhistorically present in the Arab world (Massad 2002) Islamic sexual theology is less developed than within Christianity and LGBT Muslims have less established support networks than are available to LGBT Christians (Yip 2005). Publications are beginning to emerge that challenge traditional heteropatriachal interpretations of Islamic texts and which particularly draw on feminist critiques of Islam (e.g. Ahmed 1993; Ali 2006). Some Imams have also started to question what sexual practices are forbidden and how strictly these are regulated (for example according to Nahas 2001: the dominant reading of the Qur’an that homosexuality is a sin does not include lesbianism and may only refer to anal sex between men in public). However, for the Muslim focus group, in contrast to the Christian focus group participants, there was a stronger sense that ideally the meanings of the Qu’ran should not change. As members of a minority religion in the UK they described anxieties about how to reconcile their belief in the immutability of the Qu’ran with the realities of living in a secular, multi-cultural society which mean they would inevitably have to compromise their practices/conduct in everyday space (e.g. to comply with UK equality laws) notwithstanding their personal beliefs.

Speaker 1: I mean we can say religion will never change and they will never change, but they do, change happens around us in society and how do we cope with that in a Muslim society? [edit]

Speaker 3: Talking about this as a Muslim…when you are living in other cultures, you have to respect them. Here you can see gays or lesbians in British society. You have to respect them. But when you are talking about also as a…Muslim, we are a limited group, we have different situation and different attitudes. So we can live with other cultures, in some cases you can compromise, but you can’t do the same thing in Muslim societies. Something might be you see justified or you see in British society in different ways, but in Muslim society, drinking, homosexuality, nobody can you see change it.

Speaker 5: So even though we are against these as Muslims but we are living Britain. So we have to just accept those views in promoting homosexuals (Muslim focus group).

I mean you can’t line these people up and, you know, put them in front of a firing squad and say just because they have a particular inclination to something, you know, they don’t have the right to live or whatever. You have to accept it and then you have to think of a way, okay we all want to live with these people, cos they’re good human beings, so what’s the way forward, what is the compromise part. And I believe that Islam has always suggested that you work towards moderation and work towards compromise, never go to extremes, because extremes in itself is self-destructive for the whole society (Muslim focus group).
In contrast to the monotheistic Muslim and Christian traditions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings. Rather, it is characterised by individualised rather than communal forms of worship in which personal deity offerings are made to an image or icon either in the temple or at home. As such, the Hindu focus group did not see religious leaders and/or texts as having a significant a role to play in shaping individuals’ interpretations of the faith and personal religious conduct. Instead, they regard their deities as the arbiter of each individual’s life choices.

Speaker 1: The thing is, everybody has got the right to live his life in his own way, right yeah, so if it’s somebody lesbian or homosexual, right, it’s entirely up to him. But as far as the Hindu religion is concerned, right, there won’t be any restriction for him or her coming to the temple [Edit]

Speaker 2: [W]e are a very god fearing people, Hindus, so we leave those things up to the god, that if he wants to punish them, you know, he will punish. [edit shortly after]. So we Hindus believe right that whatever you do, whatever anything you do good in your present life, you will be rewarded in your next. Right. Anything you do bad, you might suffer over here, but you will have to pay for it in the next life

Speaker 3: Hindus, we believe, you know, we have a belief, you know, it’s there is some reason why it’s there, you know, why someone is gay because we believe in previous lives and future lives. So they must have hurt someone in their previous life (Hindu focus group).

For the Muslim, Hindu and Jewish informants their own experiences of racism/anti-semitism tempered their attitudes towards lesbians and gay men. All three focus groups recognised the unacceptability of prejudice and discrimination towards any minority group and the fundamental importance of the concept of human rights. Likewise, younger members of all of the focus groups also shared recognition of the rights of lesbians and gay men to be protected by the law reflecting wider differences in generational social attitudes. Some mothers in both the Christian and Muslim focus groups also expressed empathy towards lesbians and gay men, articulating gendered ideologies of motherhood and care/compassion. In this sense, it is evident that encounters in public space are always approached through the lens of our intersecting multiple identities, an understanding that is missing from existing geographies of encounters (e.g. Laurier and Philo 2006; Thrift 2005). These complex intersectional realities contrast with the way that the informants framed their abstract understandings of homosexuality solely through the lens of their particular religious identifications in the previous section of the paper.

[I]n a western country, do we as Muslims have a problem with, you know, the Government trying to stop racial hatred against lesbians and gay men. I don’t have an issue with that because to me, to judge somebody because of their sexuality is the same as judging them because of their colour (Muslim focus group).

Speaker 2: You see the thing is right, we’re talking about human rights, we are talking about freedom of speech, right. I mean it’s a good thing to have human rights, freedom of speech, right.

Speaker 6: You have to think about people’s rights in terms of not discriminating, you have to think about it, you cannot not think about it, or somebody is killing somebody because of their sexuality or something (Hindu focus group)

Speaker 1: Of course gays should be protected at the same time [as faith groups]. It was in the same way that racism and ethnic minorities are, because they’re in a similar situation I think.

Speaker 2: Absolutely, yes.

Speaker 3: Cos they are a minority. (Jewish focus group)
All the heterosexual faith focus group participants were concerned that in wider society there is commonly a monolithic view of each faith. They felt this was damaging, and failed to reflect the diversity of opinions within every faith community. Moreover, it is apparent that different communities of practice within each faith may respond differently to lesbian and gay members depending on the response of local faith leader. For example, the Jewish focus group recognised that it might be possible to hold civil partnership ceremonies within some communities depending on the personal stance of the rabbi. In this sense, despite the theological stance of global religious institutions, individuals can play an important role in shaping the approach of localised faith communities to everyday encounters.
For lesbian and gay people of faith the complexity of their communities’ positions in relation to homosexuality means that they are able to adopt various strategies to carve out space for themselves. Our focus groups with lesbian and gay people of faith -- echoing the findings of previous empirical research (Yip 2000, 2003; Wilcox 2002) -- suggests that the most common practices include: seeking out more accepting or liberal faith communities; avoiding institutional religious spaces through privatised practices of worship; or remaining in their communities and attempting to achieve change from the inside. In doing so, lesbian and gay people of faith in effect prioritise their personal experiences of faith over institutional religion and religious authority structures. For them their sexuality is inseparable from their spirituality because they believe it to be divinely created: a part and parcel of their being (see also, Horn et al 2005).

Speaker 1: I’ve avoided certain areas that I’ve thought I wouldn’t be accepted in. Like the Christian Union, I’ve never joined because I’ve assumed and understood that I wouldn’t be welcome there as a gay Christian. I’m sure there’s other denominations and other groups where I probably wouldn’t be welcomed. So I’ve avoided them and I’ve been quite fortunate that I’ve found lots of places, enough to sustain my faith, but I’m sure lots of Christians don’t [edit] (lesbian and gay mixed faith focus group).

Speaker 1: [I]f I’m just on my own and I’m praying to God, then I can often get a lot more out of that than actually actively participating in going to Church, because sometimes I just feel sort of… I do feel different when I’m there and I just think maybe, you know, there are other ways, other more effective ways for certain people [i.e. LGBT] to have a relationship with God, that doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, going to a specific place, doing a specific thing. I just find that it’s easier to do my own thing in terms of a relationship with God and live by having Christian values, but not necessarily actively going to church

Speaker 2: You have to develop like your own personal relationship with God…I had issues with the churches and the sort of the way that they structure themselves, because they kind of set themselves up for arguments, particularly the Anglican Church. Yeah but my personal faith is definitely clear and strong, and ultimately that’s all that matters I think (lesbian and gay Christian faith group).

At the same time, lesbian and gay faith focus group respondents also described encountering hostile reactions (dubbed religiophoia) from some elements of the secular LGBT community who are critical of the way that religion and religious institutions underpin a heteronormative social order (Wilcox 2006). They handle these encounters in the same way that they respond to homophobia from faith communities by either withdrawing from hostile LGBT spaces in order not to compromise their religious belief, or by creating their own space within this community too in order to maintain a sense of a holistic identity.

I’ve had gays sort of almost laughing at me in a way as if to say sort of thinking I’m naïve to be following in faith, that a lot of people would say oh but god hates you, because you’re gay, what are you doing sort of thing. That’s… it’s more from lay people that I’ve had a kind of prejudice than from straight Christians… Especially gay and lesbian people who haven’t had like an upbringing which has involved like the church or religion. I find they’re just like [i.e. they say] ‘god hates gays’. I’m like well it’s not that simple really (Christian lesbian and gay focus group).

In this sense, the strategies individual lesbian and gay people of faith have developed to assert their right to belong in their particular faith communities, despite their religions’ institutional positions about homosexuality, further demonstrate the complex intersectional realities of everyday co-existence, in contrast to the more abstract tensions in the public sphere between the equality strands of religion and belief and sexual orientation. It is this focus on intersectionality – how encounters are approached and refracted through complex individual identities – to explain how contact works in practice that is the distinctive contribution of this paper to the geographies of encounter literature: an argument elaborated on in the conclusion.

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