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Saturday 11 April 2015

On a Different Conversation

Posted in: Our Communities
By Lexie Matheson - 26th February 2015

A Different Conversation
Mal Green, organiser
Paul Martin, Psychologist

Maya Newell, film maker
Efeso Collins, Pasifika leader
Rev Aliitasi Salesa, HOD Life and Faith, Wesley College

The queer communities have a history of engagement in ‘different conversations’ and I’ve engaged in more than my share. This one is seriously different, however, because this is between an organisation that has its kaupapa in Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity on one side of the divide and LGBTIQ families on the other – not necessarily bosom buddies in the recent, nor the far distant, past.

The day and a half workshop/forum was put together by Mal Green of Incedo, an organisation known as Youth for Christ in a previous incarnation. The Incedo website says ‘change, while sometimes painful, needs to be welcomed’ and they’re sure having an authoritative bash at it.

Further, ‘A Different Conversation’ is tagged as ‘a ministry forum on authenticity, pastoral care, biblical faithfulness, and same sex attraction’ and, while sincerely welcoming the invitation to attend and participate with my family I won’t deny I was more than a tad sceptical. In retrospect it felt like I was ‘sleeping with the enemy’ but Green also insists that ‘safe and respectful’ is the order of the day for all parties and so it proved to be. We were even given a sliver of paper with respectful ways to ask questions such as “begin with ‘I’m really curious about … ‘” and, while this initially seemed a bit silly, it certainly set the tone.

‘A Different Conversation’ is part of an ongoing series of discussions and, if the others are as positive and supportive as this one, they’ll all be great and extraordinary outcomes may be the consequence. Rather than attempting to change the hearts and minds of communities in one hit, ‘A Different Conversation’ aims to achieve this same result but one person at a time.

The Sapphire Room at Ponsonby Central is the venue, just a few metres from Ponsonby Road from where, occasionally, the sounds of the Auckland Pride Parade set up filtered through.

Maya Newell

The advertising promoted the event as an opportunity to ‘come together to listen to the multi-cultural voices of children with LGBTIQ parents’. Guests from Australia, we are told, will include Maya Newell, producer of a feature film ‘Gayby Baby’ and a television documentary ‘Growing up Gayby’, and Paul Martin, a highly respected, gay clinical psychologist who has worked with gaybies in his practice. Also featuring we are informed are The Reverend Ali'itasi Salesa and Fa'anana Efeso Collins whose job is to share a Samoan Christian perspective. Then it’s my team, and we’re described as ‘a transgender and lesbian wife and wife and their straight young son’ and we will, apparently, talk about our experiences.

The workshop began on the Friday evening. It was a low-key opening with Malcolm Green welcoming the 25 – 30 people present who were presented with a few ground rules regarding communication. Mal, the epitome of the ‘back room boy’ in that he habitually shuns the limelight, gave a brief introduction and handed over to MC Glenn. Glenn shared his mihi and, in turn, gave the floor to psychologist Paul Martin who outlined his own complex journey as the son of deeply religious parents, a young man who was same-sex attracted but who had been in seriously denial for much of his young life. His journey through, and out the other end, of the ex-gay movement was both fascinating and moving.

Following this was a showing of Maya Newell’s excellent 30 minute documentary ‘Growing up Gayby’ which featured interviews with a number of same sex parents and their children. It’s a charming doco which includes some very telling moments not the least of which is Newell’s forthright interview with Rev Fred Nile. Nile, a minister with the Congregational Church of Australia, has described homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’, calls homosexuality a ‘lifestyle choice that is immoral, unnatural and abnormal’ and is a long-time critic of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras which he describes as a ‘public parade of immorality and blasphemy’. Newell asks him about his family, and in particular his relationship with his father, and he is surprisingly frank. Newell, the child of lesbian mothers, she asks Nile his views on her situation and he surprisingly backs off, shamefaced, and says ‘well you have your opinions and I have mine’. It’s an excellent documentary and a great way to segue into the conversation about queer families.

It’s worth noting that, on the day of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Fred Nile always prays for rain. As Newell told us this, the skies opened and it absolutely bucketed down while less than a block away the final touches were added to Auckland’s Pride Parade. It was as though we’d channelled Nile and he was here to rain on our wee tootle down Ponsonby Road but, in years to come, I suspect history will remind us that rain was the very least of Auckland Pride’s 2015 concerns.

I have to say that a feature of both days was the excellent food and the ample opportunity to talk, meet new people and share the kai.

Saturday opened with the same brief karakia used the previous evening and, even as a non-Christian, I found the use of the words chosen to be most appropriate for the occasion. Paul Martin expanded on his talk from the previous evening and included much that was helpful about his practice, his work at the interface of LGBTIQ and people of faith and his relationship with his evangelical (and rather delightful) mother. There was much talk about research, what’s good and what’s not, and I was enormously impressed by Martin’s capacity to engage with the difficult issues – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of them.

Next up were the Matheson family in a Q&A forum chaired by Glenn who asked the questions which traversed my transitional journey, how our family came to be and what it was like to be us in a world that isn’t always welcoming. There was plenty of laughter, anecdotes and Finn was fantastic. He was asked a few curly questions and I was especially proud of the way he responded. It was a great opportunity for a 12 year old boy from a church school to talk about how his world intersects with the more conventional family units. Cushla was pretty crash hot too.

After lunch Rev Aliitasi Salesa, Superintending Chaplain at the W.H. Smith Memorial Chapel at Wesley College gave us a Samoan perspective and was followed by Fa’anana Efeso Collins. Self-described on his Twitter account as ‘Chairman of the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board, father, husband, lecturer, PhD candidate, blogger, political commentator, youth worker, mentor, believer’ he is, of course, much more than that. I’ve known Efeso since his days as student president at the University of Auckland and have always been seriously impressed by his integrity, intelligence and great good humour. He was accompanied by his lovely wife Fia, and their gorgeous young daughter who quite stole the show.

Both Aliitasi and Efeso were clearly of the opinion that palagi culture, with its emphasis on same-sex marriage, an acceptance of homosexual relationships and equality in general, is moving way too fast for traditional Samoan society and the ways in which Samoan communities address such thoughtful issues. They spoke of the ‘time of darkness’ before the missionaries brought the bible to Samoa and emphasised the importance of Christianity in Samoan communities. It was especially interesting to hear Efeso talk of the hierarchies within communities and of who can speak when and about what. He spoke of his taking the lead in communicating his community’s opposition to marriage equality when this ‘might or might not be what I myself think.’ I was immensely impressed with the manner in which Samoan communities struggle with complex scriptural issues at a leadership and political level but, at grass roots, they manage to look after the young folk anyway. This disconnect between generic community attitudes and personal practice isn’t unusual and I came away with a deep respect for the work of both of these fine people.

The workshop wound up with a few words from the MC, a couple of the guests spoke briefly, more kai was shared, tea drunk and ongoing korero engaged in. It was a strangely satisfying couple of days which, while the ‘conversation’ didn’t change the world, it did put human faces to a vexed issue and allowed for a civil exchange of experiences that I personally valued greatly. At one point I was asked ‘what do you see as the greatest barrier to quality engagement between our communities?’ I expected a bit of a slap when I replied ‘your book!’ but instead I was greeted with laughter and more than a few understanding nods.

The conversation is, as I said, ongoing and continues in Hamilton later this year. For now, though, further seeds have been sown in the garden of understanding and for that I am incredibly grateful.

I’ll end with a comment made by someone who attended an earlier ‘conversation’. This person wrote: ‘you probably won't walk away thinking, "It's all so simple now!" But if past experience is any guide, this will go a long way toward building understanding and empathy with people who have grown up same-sex attracted in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. We suggest that this is a necessary starting point for resolving any of our other questions in a Christlike way. If the topic seems wearying or draining, it is worth remembering that same-sex oriented Christians, to whom we have a duty of care, never get a day off from these questions.’

Amen to that!

Lexie Matheson - 26th February 2015

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