Take Me to Church: Should The LGBTQ+ Community Boycott Religious Tourism?

Take Me to Church: Should The LGBTQ+ Community Boycott Religious Tourism?

For most people, a city break isn’t complete without ogling a towering religious megalith or two, but how often do you stop to consider where your entry fee is going and what happens outside of visiting hours? In a world where religion continues to be used to suppress LGBTQ+ civil rights, do flying visits pose moral dilemmas for well-meaning global citizens?

don’t have to be religious to find churches impressive. For
me, it starts with that first whiff of liturgical incense, like a
pungent whisper of humanity’s past, present and future. In that
moment, it’s easy to leave your personal hang-ups at the door, to
lose yourself among the gold-flecked domes, like heavenly
reservoirs on Earth; to empathise with stained-glass depictions of
human endeavour – pain, suffering and joy, emblazoned by sunlight –
and to marvel at the sheer magnificence that can be produced by the
harmonious efforts of humankind.

As a gay man, I guess you might say I’m preternaturally disposed
to religion’s campy drama, but given many sects’ stance on LGBTQ+ civil rights, should we, gays and our
straight allies, give our oppressors the green light by bolstering
their monuments with our pink money? Is it moral to boycott sites
of religious interest, or do we risk broadening the ideological
gulf between LGBTQ+ people and our adversaries. Is it a little bit,
well, extremist? These are all questions that I’ve swilled in my
mind during this exceptionally long period of travel

Beautiful though churches often are, I’ve always found their
prettiness disarming. Case in point: St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican
City. The stand-out memory from my first and only trip to the
epicentre of Catholicism isn’t Michelangelo’s iconic Pieta statue,
Bernini’s swirling Baldacchino or St Peter’s tomb, but the
poverty-stricken beggars, who clung like barnacles to the
city-state’s towering walls, arms outstretched.

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

In my experience, some of the world’s most zhuzhed up religious
monuments – La Sagrada Família, the Hagia Sophia and the Duomo de
Milano, to name three – are oases of wealth surrounded by poverty,
yet demand a fee (sorry, a charitable donation) to enter.

Like most Zoomers, I’d consider myself a savvy consumer, as
likely to investigate the ingredients on a packet of Wotsits as I
am the corporate overlords who govern the high street, and that I’m
sensitive to the political implications of how and where I spend my
time and custom. Stop me if I’m wrong, but I bet you’ve never
questioned where that “compulsory donation” is going, or what the
impact might be on people further down the line.

So, where exactly is the money going?

Well, in the case of the Holy See, the central governing body of
the Roman Catholic Church, income from tourism and donations is
invested in stocks, bonds and real estate, the profits from which
are ultimately reinvested in the church. But all is not as innocent
as it seems. By funnelling funds through international tax havens –
and cutting a few unsavoury deals along the way – The Vatican has
built a property portfolio worth £500m. Last year, as little as 10
per cent of the donations given to The Vatican City actually went
directly towards charitable work, according to a report published
by the Wall Street Journal.

Who knows how much money might have slipped through the cracks along the way?

Thanks to a complex web of offshore accounts and under-the-radar
investment funds, scandals besiege The Vatican. My personal
favourite has to be the time it was disclosed that millions of
euros in donations had been diverted into a “global fund” used to
finance Hollywood films, including Men in Black:
International and Rocketman, the god-forsakenly steamy Elton John
biopic. Not to be crass, but lol.

Who knows how many millions might have slipped through the
cracks along the way? I’m oversimplifying, but the life cycle of
your €20 entry fee – into an offshore account, before sidling into
an investment fund, slinging its way back to The Vatican and,
finally, to you in the form of homphobic headlines – might not be
all that holy.

It’s worth doing some research before tapping to pay. As the
Hagia Sophia slowly transitions into a mosque at the behest of an
increasingly theocratic government, pause to think what your pocket
money might be financing. Even in the UK, until recently the entry fee to York Minster
was lining the pockets of Archbishop John Sentamu – a long-time
opponent of marriage equality.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

These marvellous old buildings aren’t just popular because
they’re pretty. Often, they are religious linchpins and what’s
proclaimed from the pews, outside of tourist visiting hours,

A decade might have passed, but I still remember taking an
ideological battering from an exceptionally mouthy teacher at
school. Religious education was his Thing, though he dabbled in
biology (name a more toxic duo, I’ll wait) and he was clearly as
confused by same-sex relationships as the gormless adolescent boys
to whom he was preaching.

“God made us to do [sic] this,” he garbled, using his thumb and
index finger to create a hole in one hand, while penetrating it
with a finger on his other. “Not this,” he continued, prodding his
swollen digits together in a pantomime of male same-sex
intercourse. For context, this was an all-boys grammar school.
Somehow I passed biology with top marks, but a decade later the
weight of me and my classmates’ silent complicity still hangs

It stands to reason that beautiful monuments might not be as virtuous as they seem

It stands to reason that beautiful monuments might not be as
virtuous as they seem. From a young age we’re taught not to judge a
book by its cover. It’s fared me well in London’s gay community,
where billboard-ready veneers usually disguise deep-seated sadness.
The numbers speak for themselves. Over half of LGBTQ+ people in the
UK suffered from depression last year (double the national
average), while one in eight attempted suicide. Though the
tentacles of shame are manifold, religion’s stranglehold is
exceptionally tight.

In the Chechen Republic, gay shame is so pervasive that families
are being urged to kill their children – often after long periods
of torture in government prisons. Consider Brexit a mess? Be
thankful we don’t have a “Kill The Gays” bill, as is the case in
sunny Uganda. Across the world, pseudo-psychiatrists are assuaging
the disgust of disappointed parents and defying genetic research by
whisking children away to gay conversion camps. The common thread?
An unwavering, tunnel-visioned faith in religion.

A Catholic Church in Kampala, Uganda

Call me a snowflake, but as I’ve grown up and found my own path
in life, previously gleaming churches have become tarnished.

Part of the charm of travelling is being an outsider; uprooting
yourself from the fabric of your homeland and floating through a
land of unfamiliar ways and customs. Part of your strength as a
traveller is your purchasing power. Don’t get me wrong. Few things
inspire awe like a crumbly, millenia-old edifice and, if I pass a
particularly delectable church on my upcoming trip to Provence, I
might just pop in and catch a sniff of that heavenly Frankincense,
but to separate religion from commerce is naive.

Nobody would like to think of themselves as a thoughtless
traveller, but now, in a post-lockdown world where grab-and-go
weekends are becoming replaced by more meaningful trips, is there a
case to be made against religious tourism? Perhaps it’s time those
of us used to tiptoeing around these hallowed halls, gay and
straight alike, take a stand.

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