I can still recall the moment with a pang in my heart. Of course when it happened, my reaction could more accurately have been described as confusion. Pride month is supposed to be all happy glitter and rainbows, right? Unfortunately, not always. At that particular NYC PRIDE event, a parade marcher had spit on me, pointed at my clergy collar, and muttered, “How can you support those bad priests?”
As I tried to explain that I was not Catholic, nor did being Catholic necessarily mean supporting unethical or harmful actions, he walked off. Since then, each year I don obnoxious rainbow tie-dye pants in an attempt to “balance” my collar and outwardly signal my queerness.
Sex & Spiritual Traditions
Feeling safe expressing one’s sexual identity in spiritual or religious contexts can be challenging any day of the year. Throughout the history of all religions—not just Christianity as is often assumed—we find drastically different treatments of queerness, from inclusive to downright hostile. Sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and sexual misconduct by leaders in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish organizations haven’t helped matters either. These stories are projected onto all clergy members en masse, while the work of inclusive, ethical leaders is rarely reported.
Indeed, the historical tension between the world’s spiritual traditions and sex persists. How we respond to this friction varies. “Some queer people have addressed the questions posed about them by producing an array of very helpful sources that seek to change minds about ‘what the Bible says’ about homosexuality,” offers Cody Sanders in Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow. “Others accepted the terms of the debate and, quite understandably, needed to distance themselves from the sources of scrutiny that threatened to sap every ounce of emotional and spiritual life from them.”
Challenges of Being Queer & Spiritual
So, it’s really not surprising many queer folx are more likely to identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. If you received messages that who you are is not okay and don’t see others like you in a spiritual community, why bother?
In addition, being both queer and religious can be risky, especially if you feel called to spiritual leadership. For far too long, gay clergy hid their sexual identities for fear of being outed right out of their denominations or leadership positions. Yet, an increasing number of “out and proud” people are working to turn the tide, affirming that sexuality is part of the spiritual path and that diversity is divine.
Here are a few tips from today’s emerging queer clergy:
Tip 1: Acknowledge you can’t please everyone; leave some where they are.
“Once, while I was attending a funeral for a former partner’s mother, the minister, upon seeing me, felt called to make the entire message about how homosexuality is an abomination,” reflects Rev. Marshall Hammer, interfaith minister and co-host of the Wonder Queer podcast.
“He looked at me almost the whole time. The woman lying in a casket had been accepting of me and even loved me. Today, I believe the minister was doing what he truly thought he was supposed to do from God. And although I do not think we can condone hate speech like this, I do believe that sometimes it is necessary to leave people where they are, not using our hard-earned knowledge and energy to try to argue with someone like this,” they advised.
What to do instead? Rev. Marshall suggests, “Our work is much more useful in spreading a message of love, which will, in my hope, someday be the loudest message.”
Learning when to speak up and when to move on takes discernment. Podcasts like Wonder Queer, Queer Theology, and Out Loud can help you discover the creative ways people manage their emotions, actions, and activism.
Tip 2: Heal what needs to be healed.
Gay conversion therapy has been banned by laws
in twenty states and partially banned or pending in eight more. Yet, in almost half of U.S. states, it remains legal to try to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity using shaming or hypnosis, inducing vomiting, or delivering electric shocks. In religious communities, efforts usually incorporate “praying away the gay.”
“This implies gay is some external thing that can be exorcised away. These attempts most often lead to internalized feelings of guilt, shame, brokenness, unworthiness, and self-hatred,” explains Rev. Erika Allison, a queer interfaith minister and author of Gay the Pray Away: Healing Your Life, Love, and Relationships from the Harms of LGBT Conversion Therapy. “Once prayer has been used against you, my experience is that it becomes challenging to want to reclaim that practice. It’s such a painful feeling to know people are praying for you to be different than who you are.”
Rev. Erika suggests reclaiming weaponized prayer. “For me, it has helped to separate the practice from the people using it. If I can define prayer as a moment of presence with the divine within me, then I can see how no one is capable of touching or interfering with this connection. This insight empowers me to restore the sacredness of prayer and reclaim it as my own place of refuge rather than an imposed tool of misguided persecution.”
Healing from formal LGBT conversion attempts or expulsion from one’s religious community can be a long journey. Spiritual counseling with a queer clergy member, chaplain, or therapist as a traveling companion can be helpful.
Tip 3: Learn about queer theology (aka eat better cookies).
Some may ask, why do I need to reconcile with religion at all? Because rejecting something due to a bad experience means we might miss the beauty of other expressions of that religion to which we have not yet been exposed. It’s like refusing all cookies because you eat one or two that make you sick. I don’t mean to be irreverent in this snarky analogy, but complete dismissal is often what I see when it comes to religion. Rather than swearing off cookies, we may merely need to find the healthier, tastier ones to enjoy.
For people curious about the positive expressions of queerness within religious texts, one need only look to the thriving field referred to as queer theology.
“Queer theology is embodied, playful, irreverent, inspired, and life-giving. It is the opposite of a rote application of tradition-for-the-sake-of-tradition,” explains Julie Britton, a queer femme cisgender lesbian who grew up within the United Church of Christ, a liberal mainline Protestant tradition. “Queer theology empowers us to flip scripture on its head, to turn it inside out, and to listen for the voices whispering underneath and behind the words.”
Queer theologians lift up the diversity of sexuality and gender expressions that already exist in sacred texts. Start your exploration with one or more of the following:
- Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible by Robert Gross and Mona West
- From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ by P.S. Cheng
Other spiritual paths
- Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexual People of Faith by D.R. Kolodny
- The Essential Gay Mystics by Andrew Harvey
- Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith by Afdhere Jama
- Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas by R.P. Conner and D.H. Sparks
“Just because your religion betrayed you does not mean that Spirit has abandoned you,” says Julie Britton. “And just because you’ve rejected religion does not mean that you are now disconnected from God.”
Tip 4: Don’t stop seeking.
Just like finding our favorite cookie—or career, or life partner—finding the right spiritual home can be a meandering process.
“I visited many Christian churches looking for a spiritual home,” reveals interspiritual ministerial candidate Ashley Rose Blanchette. “I love Jesus, and I love Christian worship music, so I would church hop to join in praise. I was often met with ‘being welcomed’ until I identified my sexuality. I realized that being welcomed had its limitations, such as being excluded from leadership positions, being told I was a sinner (but still welcome), or hearing sermons that openly condemned homosexuality and politically opposed LGBTQ+ populations.”
So, Ashley Rose continued her search, eventually becoming part of what she calls a “radically inclusive ministry” where most of the staff and many of the congregants are LGBTQ+ identified. “We are a church that many who have church trauma come to in order to reconcile our relationship with spirituality/God, to be seen, and to be included.”
Her prior experience of exclusion revealed a silver lining as she stepped into her call to interfaith ministry. “As a queer person, I have the experience of being left out of spaces, condemned, othered, and harassed,” she explains. “This gives me a great perspective to see where other groups experience exclusion so that I can better be inclusive in my ministry and my spirituality in general.”
Admittedly, these tips are just a few thought starters. While communities may officially celebrate queerness just one month a year, there’s no reason not to infuse its essence all year long. How can you adapt a liturgy to include queer voices? Or a meditation circle? And how might we queer queerness itself, stretching Pride celebrations into exciting new directions each year? Case in point: In my interspecies community, we now celebrate Puurrrrrride in honor of the sexual diversity of the entire animal kingdom. Lesbian lions and intersex bears and polyamorous parrots, oh my!
Intrigued? For more on queer animals, check out Animal Pride.