The religious affiliation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians: a report from the private lives survey.

Author:Couch, Murray


Interactions between organised religion in Australia and people who identify as other than heterosexual (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex) are most often represented, in public and academic discourse, as fraught. We take, as examples, a controversy concerning the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) in 2006, and the positioning of sexuality in recent writings on religion and politics in Australia. Headlines, such as the following, concerning UCA appeared in Australian newspapers in July 2006:

'Church rift widens over gay priests', The Advertiser, 14 July 2006 'Gay clergy split Uniting Church', The Age, 14 July 2006 'Rebel clerics split over gay clergy', The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 2006 'Church rebels split over gay priests', The Australian, 18 July 2006. These headlines reflect the popularly recognised relationship between sexuality and religious organisations as being uneasy. The events reported concerned a group of evangelicals within the UCA who objected to the church's national assembly deciding not to overturn a 2003 decision that gave regional presbyteries the right to appoint homosexuals to the ministry.

As well as internal denominational debates that are reported in newspapers, other publications in Australia have contained discussions of the changing influence of organised religion on political life. (1) Warhurst points to points to a paradox in the relationship between the Howard government and Church leaders, pivoting around issues including same-sex relationships.

In the traditional areas of personal morality the churches have generally supported government attempts to maintain the status quo, or at least to resist moves in alternative directions. This included not only opposition to euthanasia and abortion ... but also to same-sex marriages. ... Paradoxically, ... the relationship between the Howard government and most major Christian leaders has been strained to breaking point (emphasis added). (2) The most commonly used example of this frustrated criticism of Christian leadership is that from the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's Sir Thomas Playford Lecture, which included this attack:

Those clergy and theologians who have lost sight of the fundamentals have filled the vacuum with all manner of diversions. For some, social work has become the be all and end all. Environmental causes, feminist and gay agendas and indigenous rights provide constant grandstanding opportunities (emphasis added). (3) Whether in this paradoxical positioning, or in the internal deliberations of religious organisations, tension exists, and is commonly acknowledged, between religious forms and the position of people living their lives outside of the norms of the heterosexual. These tensions may continue to inflame, if, as Bates suggests in his account of homosexuality in Anglicanism, the issue of homosexuality has become the touchstone for the authority of the Bible for conservatives, and a way 'to unite their constituency in opposition to the shifting sands of belief and secular culture'. (4)

So, how do gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Australia position themselves in terms of religious affiliation?

In examining the religious affiliation of non-heterosexual Australians, it is important to note that they have experienced, side-by-side with other Australians, changes in the place of religion and religious affiliation in Australian cultural and political life. (5) The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), on the basis of the 2001 census, offers this commentary:

The proportion of all Australians stating an affiliation to some type of religion remained relatively stable from 1933 until 1971, at slightly less than 90%. This proportion dropped to 80% in 1976, then slowly declined to 73% in 2001. This gradual fall occurred against a backdrop of change in social values and attitudes, particularly since the late 1960s, and an accompanied secularisation of society in the last three decades of the 20th century. It was accompanied by a rising tendency among all Australians to state that they did not affiliate with any religion--particularly since the 1970s (7% in 1971 and 16% in 2001). (6) The slow decline in the reporting of religious affiliation continued in the 2006 census, and 18.7 percent reported 'no religion'. (7) Affiliation to a Christian religion was also at the lowest level, with 63.9 percent compared with 73.7 percent in 1991 (8). Bouma (9) cites four reasons for the change in religious affiliation that has been seen over time in the Australian general population. One, a global shift in the form of Christianity from a rational and verbal form to a more experiential feeling-orientated form; two, a global move toward secularisation; three, the impact of migration into Australia; and four, the global movement of religious ideas and the accompanying emergence of new religious groups and spiritualities.

The major academic work on religious affiliation in Australia, for example Bouma, (10) and Evans and Kelly, (11) has not addressed the issue of the religious affiliation of sexual minorities, although a recent, and major, study has been conducted of 2,269 gay, lesbian, and bisexual New Zealanders. (12) This study reports that, although 72.8 per cent of participants had been raised within a Christian denomination, only 14.8 per cent were currently practicing Christians. At the same time, the rate of people with 'no religion' at the time of the survey (72.9 per cent) was much higher than the rate of those (22.5 per cent) raised with no religious affiliation. It was also found that the proportion of those with a non-Christian religious affiliation (for example Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish) at the time of the survey (10.9 per cent) was higher than those raised in these religions (four per cent). Analysis of qualitative data included in this study suggests that the tension between being gay, lesbian or bisexual, and being raised in a Christian religion was the catalyst for participants to leave the church. Hendrickson has made the following summation:

In most cases the responses relate a history of difficulty with organised religion, and usually specifically Christianity. The experiences of respondents with religion almost universally expressed difficulties, disappointment, alienation from families. and social networks, and a lack of support from religious faiths. No respondents expressed an unreservedly positive view of religion. (13) There is a literature, for example...

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