Pride Voices presents several tones of the rainbow

Six people discussed their experiences and lives as members of the LGBT community worldwide

Prague Pride Week continued with Pride Voices, one of the bigger events leading up to the Aug. 13 Pride Parade. This year, six people shared their quite different experiences as members of the LGBT community. The opening and closing speakers made nice bookends for the evening that filled the cinema hall at the French Institute. Two representatives of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charitable group that uses flamboyant versions of nuns' habits, opened the evening by discussing their origins and outreach work, while the end had a trans priest who after a long personal and spiritual journey was ordained by the North American Old Catholic Church.

Between those two very different approaches to religion there were speakers who related their experiences in China, Egypt and then-Czechoslovakia.

The most high-profile of the speakers was Omar Sharif Jr, who was also at the opening concert of the festival and who will be grand marshal of the parade. He is the grandson of the famous actor of the same name, and was a celebrity in his own right and even a model at one point in Egypt.

He explained his difficult decision to come out of the closet in 2012, a time when Egypt was in transition during the Arab Spring, and it looked like there was a chance to create a more tolerant society. He said that it was important to try to get LGBT issues discussed while a political transition was taking place, or there might not be another opportunity for a long time. As events turned out, though, the situation in Egypt changed rapidly, and the pendulum swung back. He found he could not return home, not even for his grandfather's funeral.

He came out by giving an interview to LGBT magazine The Advocate, and after that received death threats and hate mail. Among those though, were a few messages of thanks from LGBT people and their families for him being a role model.

Growing up in Egypt, even in a privileged family, he felt isolated by having to hide who he was. He found some comfort in Hollywood films and TV shows that occasionally included characters he could identify with.

He said, though, his family loved him unconditionally and his grandfather when asked in interviews after he came out refused to condemn him. Omar Sharif, the actor, died in 2015.

After coming out, Omar Sharif Jr took three years before appearing on a talk show that was seen in the Arab world. He took the time to consider his message and how it could have the most positive effect for the still largely silent LGBT community in the Middle East.

A speaker from China, Jacob Huang, discussed the idea of equality and equal protection in a country where LGBT rights do not exist as a concept, at least not on an official level. Huang is the founder of the Chinese NGO Aibai, which supports LGBT community in China.

He talked about conformity in Chinese society. As a young boy he enjoyed dancing, but was told that he could not do it as it was something girls did. He pointed out that even left handed people were forced to use their right hands, so as not to be different.

He has found a little fame by becoming an advocate for LGBT rights, and has had his photo taken with celebrities such as Sir Ian McKellen. What is more important to him is meeting less famous LGBT members who have found a benefit from his efforts.

While the situation for the LGBT community is not good in China, Huang said he finds some hope in the younger generation, which has some awareness of the issue. He also said the situation was better in cities like Shanghai than it was in the stricter capital, Beijing.

The situation is much better in the Czech Republic, but still not perfect. Hana Kulhánková, a Czech LGBT activist and founder of various LGBT organizations, pointed out that she has very limited rights to take care of her daughter because the current law only recognizes the rights of the birth mother. She has drafted a legal document along with her partner, but she would have more protection of her parental rights if an official legal framework existed.

She was born in communist Czechoslovakia and has seen large changes in attitude, especially since 1989.

Her parents, however, were initially not very receptive when she came out of the closet. They were surprised, even though she was working for Mezipatra, and LGBT film festival. After a while, though, they came around and now people in her home village are also receptive to her, her partner and her child, she said.

Two members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which started in 1979 in San Francisco, Sister Vish (aka Vicious Power Hungry Bitch) and Sister Roma, explained that the group was among the first to address the HIV issue with safe sex education in the early 1980s. The group also does outreach to homeless people and provides other community services. They also have a campy fun side, with efforts like Project Nunway, and Easter competition for the hunkiest Jesus and even bingo games.

The original nuns' habits came from a real convent in Iowa, and were lent for a stage production but never returned.

The costumes make the group highly visible, which helps them to get their message of safer sex, non-discrimination and self-acceptance out. A recent issue the group has been fighting is the right to use aliases and assumed names on social media sites like Facebook. Many members of the drag community use stage names, and trans people also often do not identify with the names that appear on legal documents like birth certificates. The sisters have been heading up the #MyNameIs campaign and have helped to get new guidelines on Facebook that allow the use of assumed names that LGBT members and others chose to be identified with.

The final speaker was Shannon Kearns, the first trans priest. He was ordained in 2013 by the Old Catholic church.

He also gave his own interpretation of the life of Jesus, whom he described as a refugee fighting for marginalized people on the fringes of society and fighting against a repressive political system by using nonviolent means.

Kearns' journey was not an easy one. He had been raised in traditional Christianity, and once he began to question the widely promoted interpretation of the Bible his faith fell like a house of cards.

He also discussed the image of trans people, as most stories of people either denying who they are or accepting it ended in misery. He cited the film Boys Don't Cry, which was based on a true story. He emphasized that trans people can create a different ending for themselves. “We are the authors of our own stories,” he said.

He also said that he was proud of his body because he built it himself, and that his faith keeps him queer and his queerness keeps him faithful.

He describes himself now as a “freelance priest,” as he tries to make himself available to the wider LGBT community for weddings, funerals and other times when his services are needed. He also is involved with the website QueerTheology.com, which helps people to reconcile being LGBT and a person of faith.

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