Prior to going through my own coming out journey, and for the better part of a decade, I traveled with other LGBT people striving to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation.
And there was one sacred question that brought about feelings of existential dread. After hearing decades of Anti-LGBT sermons and Anti-LGBT bible studies and overtly Anti-LGBT faith communities’ people were wrestling with one question, so raw, so personal, so deep, so tender—
From their innermost sanctuaries, they were crying out, “Jesus, do you love me?”
I would sit across the table in coffee shops, in church offices, and I would see the despair in people’s eyes. I would hear the tremble in their voice as they began to tip-toe and circle around this sacred question. They were ashamed for even asking the question. But they stood at the precipice of an abyss looking over as the voice of a loving God competed with other voices rattling about in their heads telling them explicitly that God did not love them. They heard these voices on a loop. Like a broken record, these voices played over and over in their heads. Often it’s the loudest voice that becomes the most compelling to us. And these voices crowd out the gentle voice of the divine, a voice that called out, “Be still. And know that I am God. Be still. Know that you are beloved.” This is the state in which I received many a fellow spiritual traveler.
I don’t know if anyone is familiar with the 80s classic children’s show, “Care Bears,” but I would fantasize about something. It will probably strike you as ridiculous but just hang with me. I would fantasize about ripping open my clergy collar, or ripping open my suit like Clark Kent in Superman, and locking this person in my gaze for a “Care Bear Stare.”
I would fantasize about a supernatural transfer in which the laws of physics, energy, the Holy Spirit, Love, (however you refer to the deepest spiritual mysteries in your life) where the deepest places in me were calling out to and communicating with the deepest places in the person sitting across from me. I would fantasize about using mental telepathy to target the hurting places and say, “It’s not true. Those awful voices in your head which presume to speak for God, they’re not true. None of them.” I would fantasize about the truth of God’s light and love being received by the person across from me via osmosis.
I was never arrogant enough to see myself as “source of God’s love,” but I was more than happy to be a “way station,” a place where God’s love was passing through–I was more than happy to be one of those cracked bells that Leonard Cohen sang about so poetically. The kind of bell that had enough cracks of her own to let the light come filtering in, and subsequently the kind of bell with enough cracks of her own to let the light go ringing back out when I was shaken. I would fantasize that via these energetic properties people would be transmuted and healed as the poisons and toxins of deadly theology were overridden, swallowed whole, and then transformed into something altogether lovely and more beautiful. My only role in all of this—really—was to show up and bear witness to someone else’s life.
So of all the questions I entertained in my own coming out process, “Does Jesus Love me?” was never one of them. Though I transgress theological categories of “conservative/progressive,” — in this one area, my level of certitude rivals that of any religious fundamentalist. I’m not sure about much, but I’m sure about this.
Yes, Jesus loves you. The Bible tells you so.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
In this, we find a Love supreme, and a theology supreme. If that’s not your starting point, to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in anything else you might have to say. So I never asked the question whether Jesus loved me, because it never would have occurred to me to ask that.
By the time I came out, I also had enough experience with faith communities to have changed my theological beliefs a few times, to have been rejected by some faith communities, and received by others. I had violated the norms of some communities when I said I wanted to be a lady pastor, and had survived all of these things with my faith identity intact.
However, in coming out, I did wager my self worth as a queer person on some identity questions.
Am I queer enough to be accepted as a 100% bonafide queer woman by the LGBT community?
How will I know when I’m queer enough?
What will this nebulous thing called “queer enough” actually feel like? What’s the identity marker? How will I know I’ve arrived?
Is it when I finally have my first same sex partner?
Is it when that same sex relationship has passed a specific milestone–1 year, 2 years
Is it when that same sex partner moves in with me signifying a significant long term relationship?
Is it when other queer people start referring to me as a queer woman?
Is it when I feel included and start getting invited to more queer events with other queer women?
It is when other queer leaders perceive me also as a queer leader, and whatever other roles I might hold, the roles of queer colleague and queer peer have solidified and come to the forefront as primary roles?
All of these things mattered to me a lot more than they really should have. I was looking for external validation of my identity, instead of living from the wellspring of my own deep center and bringing my own identity into a room. There are a lot of reasons that I was stuck on these identity questions.
-Lack of bisexual representation in LGBT communities that I was a part of.
-Lack of Bi visibility in these same LGBT communities.
-Lack of a support system in place in these LGBT communities. I didn’t have many queer friends. I did have a few, but I had been a pastor to queer people. I had been a straight ally collaborator on LGBT initiatives.
I didn’t have queer friends without all that history who saw me first and foremost as their queer friend. I didn’t have the person you tap on the shoulder and say, “Hey man, I’m really struggling, can we have a cup of coffee and chat?” I had been so very close to a community for so many years, but I hadn’t actually been a tangible part of that community. My new identity was competing with long established identities.
Frankly as someone who had functioned as a pastor to the queer community these folks shouldn’t have expected me to flip the script, reverse roles, and now expect that they needed to become my personal caretaker. That’s a lesson in boundaries 101. But in addition to LGBT communities that I already knew and queer people that I already knew, I really didn’t know where else to turn? Or where else to go? I needed new spaces and new people to let me grow into a new and different role.
I had a hyper sensitivity to underlying dynamics that I was experiencing. Things that I noticed and others probably didn’t notice. Some of this was heightened in my head. And some of this was very real.
As a pastor, when I meet other pastors, there is a spark of connection that occurs between us immediately. We immediately fall into a rhythm and start talking. We are familiar to each other.
As someone who works for the govt/military, whenever I meet someone else who works for the military, there’s an effortless conversation that begins. We quickly lose ourselves in shared experience and shared conversation.
As I roamed around LGBT spaces as a newly minted bisexual, frankly, those things were not happening for me. That spark of connection was absent. The sense of familiarity. The subtle but deeply felt things that reinforce your real belonging to a group.
Those things did start to change when I had a long term same sex partner, and they really started to change when she moved in with me. It was easier for people to see me. Every time I walked into a room with partner on my arm, I broadcast my “not straight” status. And while some people find that level of visibility unnerving or vulnerable (at least in queer spaces) this felt like such welcome relief to me. I felt seen in new ways. There’s no doubt that I projected a different level of confidence because of it and that is part of the reason that people started responding to me differently than they had before. I had a symbol of belonging. All the myriad of sexual identity gatekeeping questions could be answered by simply pointing to the woman next to me. It was a really good feeling. Nobody was asking me anymore how long I’d been out, or how many women I’d been with. No one was asking me to establish my narrative timeline. All questioners were silenced by a simple, “this is my partner.”
This is symptomatic of underlying biphobia that still exists in LGBT communities. Women in same sex relationships get treated differently in many LGBT spaces than bisexual women in relationships with men or bisexual women who are single. This is not true everywhere, but it is unequivocally and observably true in many many places. But for my own part, it was also deeply symptomatic of my own lengthy battle with internalized biphobia. By far the most biphobic person in my life was me. Not everyone else. By far the person engaged in comparison, judgment, and negative self talk was me. I was enough. I belonged 30 seconds after I uttered the word bisexual in my heart–regardless of my personal circumstances. Regardless of how other people responded. And if I could teleport back in time, I would tackle me and whisper into my own ear–you are Bisexual for no other reason than because you say you are. I would stubbornly whisper it over and over again until I began to believe future me.
My response to being a new “B”/newbie in the queer community wasn’t necessarily a healthy one, but it is in fact a common response when someone is new to any kind of community or group. People need time and space to live into identity in order to become confident in their sense of identity.
It’s common when people first come into a faith community to ask questions about belonging to the community. What are the boundaries? What are the rules? Am I following the rules? Am I doing this whole thing right? Am I one of you? Am I accepted? In fact, there are identity reinforcing social rituals: baptism, communion, confirmation, public confession of faith that signify social status as belonging. And the slightest challenge or threat to this new identity can feel absolutely overwhelming. Especially at the tender beginning.
I’ve had people approach me in tears because a pastor or a church made them feel unwelcome, and I sympathize. A lot of my work with people is to help them realize that pastors and churches don’t get to dictate their faith. They do. And even further, pastors and churches aren’t responsible for cultivating your spirituality. You are. You join faith community for encouragement but it’s not the job of any community to be all things to you. Some people may be so wounded by the church and so triggered by this statement that they can’t follow along with me. But I mean this as the ultimate form of empowerment. A bad church. A bad pastor. None of these things get to stop you from cultivating a rich life of faith. And there is so much freedom in claiming this for yourself.
But in saying this I recognize my own incredibly privileged position, and there’ s a point to it. This is pretty easy for me to say. I have taken ownership of my spiritual identity. But I am also someone with a degree in religion from an Ivy League institution that affirmed to me that I am not just a christian but a “professional christian.” I’m also someone who has been ordained as a pastor. Again, that’s a marker of belonging. I’m also someone who has participated in faith community for my whole life. Faith groups can’t get rid of me even if they want to. I’m someone who has received a million different explicit/implicit cues of belonging to spiritual community. I have a lifetime of having this facet of my identity (my spiritual identity) affirmed and reinforced. And that positive reinforcement has been enough to help me weather and withstand a handful of challenges to my spiritual identity. If a particular person doesn’t think I’m Christian–Too bad. So sad. I don’t care. If a particular church doesn’t like me–Too bad. So sad. I don’t care.
But most people don’t have this in relation to spiritual community. And the journey to internalize and take ownership of your identity (any identity) is a really heroic one and it takes a lot of support from friends/peers. Likewise, coming into the queer community, I did not have this same frame of reference. And many communities whether they know it or not are focused on privileged white gays and lesbians and people of any other category have a different experience coming into that community. Now it could be that someone who isn’t bisexual finds their way to a bisexual support group and feels that same “out-of-placeness.”
The longer you journey with an identity (any identity) the more that identity becomes internalized and you put your own stamp on it. You become more willing to flex and bend and work with and adjust the identity so that you can uniquely wear it as you own. You become confident enough to start breaking some of the rules if you need to do that in order to hold on to your identity. You become confident enough in your identity to start withstanding conflict. You become confident enough to tolerate counter narratives without being threatened. You become confident enough to start pushing back and asserting your identity when people challenge you. And final bonus–you become confident enough to quit pushing back and to give the gift of simply holding space when people are challenging your identity.
This is true of faith community. This is also true of what happens to people when they come into a queer community. Again, this is a heroes journey.
The first layer of questions most of us ask are related to “essential being.” Who am I? Who am I to myself? How do I understand myself?
The second layer of questions most of us ask are related to “essential belonging.” Who am I to everyone else? How do I present myself to the world? Where do I fit in this great big world? What community/group/affinity do I claim and what community claims me back as one of their own? Where do I belong?
In my own sexual orientation journey, I got really hung up on the 2nd layer questions about belonging.
So if any of you are asking “belonging” questions about faith identity, professional identity, sexual identity, be kind to yourself. Be gentle with your own vulnerability. From my pastoral heart to yours—You belong❤️. You belong right here. For all that you already are. For all that you aspire to become. For all of your uncertainty. For all of your certainties. For the journey you’ve already had to get to this very point. For the journey that still sits ahead of you. For all the identity work you’ve completed. For all the identity work that awaits another day. You belong right here. L,G,B,T,Q,I,A —single/married/coupled/monogamous/non-monogamous—whatever your unique situation– You belong.
Now for real, picture me pulling aside my clergy collar, and sending you affirmation via my best care bear stare. Don’t be ashamed if you find this comforting. You’re not too cool for school. You’re not too tough. You’re not above this. You’re not too prideful to receive this. Pile in close. Let Go and Let (name the divine entity of your choice) shower you with love and grace and all manner of good things..Let yourself receive this gift of affirmation. Let it soak deep in your bones and claim you. Let affirmation whisper gently, “You belong. You belong. You belong.”< img class=”alignnone wp-image-748″ src=”https://birevgal.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/0824c057d48d60d33f8559918f0422ba-care-bears-cartoon-fun.jpg” alt=”0824c057d48d60d33f8559918f0422ba–care-bears-cartoon-fun” width=”736″ height=”554″><<<<
more time. You belong.