As a newcomer both to Singapore and to the lesbian scene here, I arrived for the evening with a lot of curiosity and no idea what to expect! In addition, the topic, "Faith and Me", is one I have not yet resolved for myself, and I was doubly intrigued how a group of women I had never met before would handle the subject matter.
The formal discussion part of the evening was preceded with a short debate on how we would all handle the "meat" of the matter. Sensibly, the consensus was that "respect" was the keyword – this element did remind me of feminist meetings of my earlier days, but it was probably wise to have it out there from the start.
Clearly the group was self-selecting, and we all cared about the potential links between religious beliefs/spirituality and homosexuality. However, even the definitions of religion and spirituality were marvellously varied – which made for a healthy discussion! The group of just over a dozen included women who were active Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Buddhists and free-thinkers, as well as non-practising all-of-the-above and one Jew, so a good selection.
Whilst the idea that gay people are less spiritual than the average person was almost dismissed out of hand, there was little real agreement about the level to which it was possible, or indeed necessary, to integrate one's beliefs with one's life choices. The final question posed by the coordinator was whether it was possible to be both happily gay and happily spiritual/religious. This is where it was clearly, and sadly, apparent that the majority of us have not yet managed to find that balance point on a permanent basis. But we do want to keep trying. There was a suggestion from the group that there might be space in Singapore for an inter-faith lesbian/gay group which could continue to explore how we CAN be true to our whole selves.
Overall, I felt this was both a thoughtful and thought-provoking topic, and the discussion was well-prepared and led.
And on a personal note, it was also great to think I had just met a dozen people I would quite happily share a drink and a debate with – so I went on to do exactly that with three of them after the event – thanks!
We were all from a variety of religious backgrounds: Various denominations of Christianity, from Catholic to evangelical (many lapsed), Hindu, Buddhist, one non-practicing Jew and many whom I felt with little religious history at all.
I think we all agreed that religion isn't necessarily the same as spirituality. Indeed, many of us thought our most spiritual moments were outside of religion. One woman, for example, said that when she was a child on the way to Easter services, her mother suddenly changed course and took her for a walk in the woods instead. To her, that was far more spiritual than a day in church.
Some of us expressed concern about talking to a religious leader, like a priest or monk, about being gay – partly because it's difficult to talk about sex with a religious authority and partly because of a fear of rejection. Another reason suggested was that when someone is confused about her sexuality, she generally seeks help from someone more likely to offer acceptance. To which, someone added that individual religious leaders may not be homophobic, but religions tend to have a reputation for homophobia.
One woman said that when, during confession, she told a priest that she was gay and presented the issue as a dilemma, he responded with what she felt was a standard Catholic response to a dilemma and suggested that she pray on the issue. There was also some discussion about the Buddhist view of sexual relations.
Religion and spirituality - what do the words mean to us and is there really a distinction?
Several people at the discussion agreed that there is a clear distinction between the two terms while for several others, they meant the same thing. Those who saw the distinction however also acknowledged that the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. For them, religion in general comprises structure (like a hierarchy of leaders), rules and a set of dogma which is formally endorsed by its leaders whereas spirituality tends to mean a more personal experience with a higher being and is less organised than religion.
Talking to my friends that night, I figured that religion is somewhat like a packaged tour while spirituality is free and easy without the help of guides or intermediaries to guide one along. As with travelling, one who travels with the herd might see only what everyone else sees while one who travels on her own might miss out on places unknown to her. (Where's the Lonely Planet guide to God?)