Being Out as An Interfaith Activist

By Prerna Abbi

This is the 1st in a 2-part series on the intersection of LGBT and interfaith issues. 

The March on Washington is an event I often lift up as one of my favorite examples of the historical legacy of interfaith cooperation in America. On the surface, that seems like an obvious choice given the varying religious and nonreligious backgrounds of the people involved.

Personally, I like the example of the March on Washington because it gives me a chance to talk about Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the event, parlaying his story directly into my own story of why I care so deeply about interfaith cooperation. That’s because my faith isn’t my strongest draw to interfaith work.

Years before the March on Washington, Rustin introduced Martin Luther King to the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Revolution. As a first generation American born to Indian immigrants in this country, seeing the impact of my heritage on my current civic landscape is a powerful one.

But more importantly than that, I like talking about the March on Washington because it allows me to acknowledge that Rustin was a gay man, and in turn to acknowledge my own queer identity. Just as important as it is for me to share my faith perspective in my interfaith work, being a queer interfaith leader is something I also wear on my sleeve.

In my experience, it’s the relationships that are built that make interfaith work such a powerful vehicle for tackling social justice issues. Those meaningful relationships cannot take place in an environment where we don’t talk about our identities. Sharing the realities of who we are is essential to building the mutual respect and trust that exemplifies outstanding interfaith cooperation.

One of the most powerful interfaith experiences of my life was working alongside an Evangelical Christian woman, Kay. I didn’t share her religious beliefs – in fact I thought that many of them were wrong or untrue.  But I also knew that she was a valuable partner in the work I was trying to accomplish and that we are both able to multiply our personal impact through working together. My relationship with Kay, born out of our shared passion for tackling an issue in our community, allowed us to form a deep mutual respect for each other despite our differences. I wasn’t drawing my inspiration from the Bible like she was, but knowing what motivated Kay strengthened my trust in her commitment to our work. 

Likewise, it was important for Kay to understand what brought me to our work. Personally, my motivations didn’t come from a religious text or prophet. They came from a sense of civic duty as a proud American. They came from my mother, who taught me to treat all lives with dignity and respect. And they came from my lived experience as a queer woman of color, which gave me the compassion and empathy to fight for the rights of the underrepresented. 

In a world where we see so many examples of people being cut down because they are somehow different from the norm, I came to interfaith work because I saw it as an avenue for partnership in progress across lines of difference, and that doesn’t stop with religious and nonreligious identity. My queerness makes me the interfaith leader that I am.  

Prerna Abbi is the Alumni Relations Manager at Interfaith Youth Core  where she supports alumni leaders’ personal and professional work to grow interfaith cooperation. As a Secular Hindu, Prerna is driven to make space for all identities and hopes to be a voice for finding common ground with those who don’t fit neatly into check boxes.