Simon Petitjean: “I Am a Trans Man of Faith”

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Simon Petitjean: “I Am a Trans Man of Faith”

Connecting his personal and professional journey of faith, senior advocacy manager at the Global Interfaith Network brings together religion and LGBT* human rights at the United Nations

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Unsplash/Kevin Bosc

Oct 20, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog

I am a trans man of faith, Franco-British, and part of Geneva’s English-speaking Lutheran Community. I grew up in an atheist home. My parents had me baptized Anglican, following my mum’s religion of origin. It was therefore more out of cultural norms than religious belief. So I didn’t grow up in any church community but I remember fostering a relationship with God from an early age, in my early teenage years. I remember praying to God “to not make me queer.” That was the time I thought God loved us conditionally. 

It was in my early twenties, during my studies at Oxford, that I began to attend church regularly. Yet, I always struggled with something missing for me. I realized years later that I missed church being open to both vocal feminism and LGBT* visibility and friendliness. I became part of and left various religious communities, and my own faith, as I was struggling to find myself and my place in this world. But I kept going, engaging in conversations with close family members and friends who were themselves spiritual. And for the past four years, my work for the Global Interfaith Network (GIN) has enabled me to further nourish this deeply personal aspect of my identity. It has been an incredible journey, one of deep healing and discovery. I have found the space to express my own faith, feel more whole and come out of this closet in a way. 

“For a very long time, I so wanted to take the already paved road, until I realized I needed to stop fighting my own self, and embrace the road less travelled.” - Simon Petitjean

As part of my role at GIN, I lead the organization’s advocacy work at the UN on reclaiming family, faith, culture and traditional values in high-level political fora. This is a deeply complex issue. Until now faith-based voices have been deeply conservative on LGBT* and women’s rights. There are some very powerful forces at play in those spaces who separate religion and LGBT human rights and even set them in opposition to one another. Yet, what we have seen over the years is that there has been a call for an inclusive faith-based voice at the UN. 

Working with our members and partners, we are advocating for a different take on religion and aim to reconcile stories of gender, sexuality and being of faith. We run side events at the UN and issue official statements, based on our members’ local expertise. We have run regional seminars around the world including in Southern Africa, in South-East Asia and Latin America, inviting theologians, researchers and activists to talk about the reality of families, cultures, and traditions in their regional context as well as organize inclusive readings of religious texts from different faith backgrounds. This year, we will be running for more (virtual) seminars in the Pacific, Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East/North Africa regions. 

How can we reconcile stories of gender, sexuality and being of faith?

These are some of the key approaches which we have identified throughout our work and interviews with religious leaders who have done work on faith, sexuality and gender for many years:

Persistence: In order to develop good relationships with religious leaders and to engage on such complex issues as gender and sexuality, you need time and persistence. We are talking about dialogue with people who are willing to at least be in the same room and show some level of cordiality. You might experience rejection and downfall before reaching a stage where you can engage another religious leader on such matters.

Telling Your Story

Telling Stories: Tell personal stories closer to one’s heart and understanding.

Authentic self: Show up as yourself and speak from the heart to reveal your honest and true self in order to foster genuine and long-term relationships.

Visibility: As a LGBT leader of faith telling your story, be visible in the public eye.

Building Common Grounds 

Common Grounds: Engage in informal ways, share moments over coffee time for example, and slowly go towards deeper conversation on faith, gender and sexuality.

Shared humanity and differences: Hear other people’s experiences and perspectives; listen to people’s stories with respect and openness. 

Build key partnerships: Start small; build key relationships with friendly people first, and slowly, open up the circle with religious dialogue partners.

Parallels between other human rights abuses: There are many intersections between discrimination and violence against different minority groups. Draw on these connections in your dialogues with religious leaders.

Last, Not Least…

Supportive process / enabling environment: Make sure to have background support during such long-term processes to remain hopeful and confident.

When I began my career in international policy, I wanted to make policy more relevant to people’s actual lived realities. The experiences I have gathered, working for the EU, UNESCO as well as in Cambodia and Tanzania, as well as my own personal journey of acceptance, have prepared me for my work today.

Believing that dialogue needed to take place in a formal setting, I, for a very long time, undervalued the importance of small, informal moments. Meeting religious leaders from different faith traditions and regions of the world who work on religious dialogue about gender and sexuality changed that. They taught me of the need for humility, patience, a listening ear, a kind heart, and the willingness to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. 

Having seen the growth of the Global Interfaith Network over the past four years and how individuals and organizations are becoming more and more responsive to our work makes me very optimistic for the future. 

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Simon Petitjean works for the Global Interfaith Network which is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was a board member of the French LGBT organization, SOS homophobie, and has worked with the European Commission, UNESCO and OECD. 


As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.