Seeking LGBTQ+ inclusion in religious communities

LGBTQ+ PEOPLE SHARE THEIR EXPERIENCES LIVING AS QUEER CHRISTIANS.

By Katelyn Thomson

Forty-eight-year-old Nicole Cueva grew up in a non-denominational Christian family who shared the belief that, as a woman, the right way to live was to marry a man and have children. Nicole says she grew up not knowing who she was, feeling forced to hide her true self from everyone, including herself. “I was very depressed; I hid everything about myself because if I couldn’t be this one thing, nothing else really mattered. I had to put on a face for everybody,” says Nicole. “When you’re in it, you don’t realize it. You just figure this is life, and you’ve got to deal with it.” It wasn’t until Nicole came out at 34 that she truly began to discover who she was.

Transcript: I just thought there was something wrong with me. Like, why is everybody else talking about the opposite sex, but I don’t feel that same thing? So, you just live life. I had a high school girlfriend, met a man right outside of high school, and told him about myself, and he agreed that as long as I loved him, that we would do life together. And I said that I loved him, and we used marriage as a “cure,” right? So, our faith was Christianity, and we knew that if we did all the right things, I would eventually be cured. Fast forward 16 years, and I wasn’t cured. And, you know, that was after actively participating in life and just wanting all the things that typical family, you know, you want a family, all that stuff. And we just kept going through that, and eventually, it got to the point where it was just too tough, and we split. But, I would say that because growing up, I didn’t have any kind of – there was nothing that showed me that it was normal. Everything more said that there was something wrong with you if you felt this way.

Fourteen years later, Nicole has gone on a journey of loving herself for who she is and says she has created a loving and accepting space for her three children to feel comfortable with exploring their sexuality, gender and religious identities. Now, Nicole is writing a book about her experiences with the hope of educating other people and helping people and families who may be going through the same things she did. “There’s a lot of hurting people that just need to know that it’s OK … it’s OK to ask the questions,” says Nicole. “If anything, I want people to know that there are people out there who understand and are there for you.”

Nicole’s life experience shows the ups and downs of a queer person’s life with the added pressure of merging that identity with religion, a confusing, isolating and sometimes traumatizing journey towards acceptance and love. The experiences of LGBTQ+ people are so varied from person to person. Not everybody’s journey is the same; some have found loving and welcoming communities within their churches, while some have been forced to leave their home communities due to homophobia and exclusion.

Religious inclusive spaces can create safe environments for queer people to figure out who they are with guidance and acceptance from others who might have gone through the same things. These relationships and community provide individuals with a sense that they’re not alone after possibly being rejected by their home churches. Places like Generous Space Ministries, based out of Mississauga, Ont., are trying to change this experience for queer people searching for accepting and inclusive faith-based spaces by providing churches, communities and individuals with the support and resources they need on their journey to acceptance. Becca Sawyer works as a director of community for Ontario with Generous Space. Becca describes her work as being at the intersections of faith, gender and sexuality to build a community. Becca views her work as a chance to bring people together and normalize queer religious experiences.

Transcript: I think one of the reoccurring things I hear in my work because I get to talk to a lot of LGBTQ+ folks who are just at the start of this process or at any point in their journey … but a lot of times, what I hear is, “I really thought I was the only person, like, I really thought I was the only one who was a Christian, wanted to be part of my faith community and then realized that I was queer, and I thought I was the only one trying to make that work because I was told my whole life that you can’t be gay and a Christian, or trans and a Christian, and I wanted to make both work, and I just thought I was the only one. And then I found out that that’s not true and there’s all these other people.” And the confidence that can give someone, that they are not alone. To continue the work of processing for themselves of what this identity is that they might be uncovering or what it means for them, or what faith means for them or just to – just having a safe place where people go, “Nope, you’re not alone, you’re not weird, that’s definitely not out of the ordinary,” can just give people a sigh of relief a bit, to just like take a step back, of, “Oh, OK. I’m OK, this is OK.”

When a person is alone, it can be harder to move through the process of healing when all you can think about is that you’re the only one, and you’re alone in the struggle. The opportunity to normalize the struggles of bringing together queerness and religious identity is a unique experience given to a person when they connect with a community of people, like at Generous Space. “I think that’s a really big gift that we can give each other, to just help each other take a breath and not feel that pressure or not feel alone,” Becca says.
Brian Murphy had the same vision in mind when he started Queer Theology with co-founder Father Shay. After being involved in social justice groups and queer Christian groups, they both noticed something was missing from the conversations they were having with others in these spaces.

Transcript: The conversation was very much like focused around, “Is it OK to be gay? Is it OK to be trans?” A lot of that was, like, the leading conversations at progressive Christian festivals, like Wild Goose, were like straight people talking about us or the conversations at, what was then the Gay Christian Network now Q Christian Fellowship, was again very much focused on like side A versus side B, so we were, like, there’s just more to this. Like, queerness is awesome and has enriched our lives and our faith, and we want to be talking about that, and no one else is doing it, so I guess why not just start doing it? We’ve seen the really powerful effects in our own lives, and the people that we sort of have come in contact with casually, that when you can really integrate your spirituality, your sexuality, your gender, amazing stuff can happen when you heal from that, and the way to get healthy is not by getting stuck in those conversations around, “Is it OK to be LGBTQ and Christian?” So, we just started what we knew was necessary and knew was healthy but didn’t get anywhere else.

Brian says Queer Theology was created to provide accessible community and support online, no matter where in the world they were located. “Hopefully, [the online community] will, like, lead you to connections in your offline life, but I know that an online sense of community has been really life-giving and sustaining for a lot of folks, and that has also equipped them to be more comfortable to go find that community in person and offline,” says Brian. “And sort of see representations of themselves in other people who are further along in their journey they might not be able to find in their town.” Brian grew up with an accepting family and community and continued to be surrounded by queer communities throughout college and his adult life in California and New York. Brian says he believes in the power and strength that can be found when you connect with other queer people, regardless of religious beliefs. It can be hard for queer individuals in small towns or conservative communities to seek out queer spaces, and they might not know where to start or might not want to be outed in their community.

Transcript: We invite people to, rather than try to squeeze their queerness into the conservative faith system that they’ve sort of always known, to say, like, “What can I learn about myself, about what I know about God, about community, about other people, using queerness as an entrance? And what else needs to change?” And to not be afraid to pull on the fraying thread. And when you do that, that all sort of comes apart and that’s OK and that you will be able to build back a faith that is both more uniquely yours but also something that you’re powerfully choosing and also something that you can be confident can withstand all of your questions and that there’s room for all of those questions and the doubts and that’s part of building a meaningful spiritual practice.

Generous Space Ministries and Queer Theology are glowing positive examples of the ways that religious queer individuals have come together to create their own spaces and community. Outside of these types of queer-focused church spaces, many other churches have begun a journey towards inclusivity and acceptance. With the help of organizations like Generous Space, churches are receiving the assistance they need to create truly accepting spaces for queer people. Nicole Cueva says that she’s been inspired by the evolution she’s seen in churches and religious groups since she was growing up. “Just the fact that there are groups now that accept a faith-based, gay, queer individual, it really allows the person to dig into their faith without having that overlying, ‘Oh my god, there’s something wrong with me’ feeling. It’s a whole different world, a world that I didn’t even know existed,” says Nicole. “But, I’ve seen my kids, two of them are queer, be able to not shy away from God and now that he accepts them exactly how they are because that’s how they were made.”

LGBTQ+ people need these safe spaces to go through this journey as a result of a large history of harm and trauma between religious and queer communities. Statistics from David Deschamps and Bennet Singer’s text LGBTQ Stats show that, as of 2017, there were 6,623 Christian churches in America that identify as “LGBT-affirming,” which means that they would welcome and accept LBGTQ+ people and treat them just as any other person attending the church. Despite the clear progress that has been made, there’s still a lot of work to be done. There are still churches and conservative religious communities that don’t accept LGBTQ+ individuals. This type of exclusion and homophobia continues the cycle of trauma present in the history of the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and religious groups.

The ways that these cycles of trauma continue are not always as obvious as direct rejection or exclusion of individuals; trauma and harm can come in micro-aggressions or conditional acceptance. Conditional acceptance is something that many queer people experience, according to Becca Sawyer. In her work, Becca has heard stories from many of the people she works with about how they weren’t turned away from churches completely but weren’t fully accepted either. “Lots of people talk about it as kind of a bait and switch,” says Becca. “It’s a betrayal to feel like you belonged to a community that loved you and allowed you to serve and then to find out that they really only wanted you to serve and to not actually bring your whole self there or share your opinions or share what was happening in your life.”

Transcript: So, I think a lot of what we talk about around Generous Space and what we advocate for when we talk to churches or organizations is how important clarity is and how important it is to state your position clearly. And if that is that you are not affirming or if that is that you are discerning right now and you don’t know where you land, just make that public and make that known so that queer folks can make the informed decision for themselves about if this is a community that is going to be safe for them. Because there are some queer folks that I know that feel like they don’t need to belong to a fully affirming church, they can go to a church that might not perform a same-sex wedding but will allow them to be on worship team or whatever. But it’s because they know that, and they know the people, and they’ve chosen to make those decisions having all their options before them. It’s not something that’s surprise sprung on them afterwards. So that’s something we really advocate for is just queer folks deserve to know where you’re at and so make that known as, like, step one.

Nicole Cueva also experienced this multiple times throughout her journey, not being able to express her true self in these spaces that called themselves affirming. “I’ve been to churches that will accept me as I am, but they’re not going to let me live it, and you’re not going to be able to be involved in church until you say or sign a paper that says you can’t live what you are,” says Nicole. “You’re OK, you can be here, but you can’t live what you are. And that is very hurtful and again very damaging to the person.”

Even though there has been an obvious progression in the number of queer-affirming churches and the creation of queer-focused religious spaces and communities, all communities need to come together to support queer people on their journeys. Whether that journey is to find a religious queer-affirming space or leaving their religion and finding community elsewhere, all any person needs is love and a supportive community. Being a strong ally for the LGBTQ+ people around you can be hard to start; Buffer’s article 50+ Resources For LGBTQIA Allies provides a list of resources to start this work easily.  Queer Theology also has an extensive library of resources for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies, including this article on finding churches that are safe for LGBTQ+ individuals.