October 8, 2009 by Alex Patchin McNeill
Now that my blog and I have made-up, I’d like to share some of what I’ve been up to in the nearly 5 months since my last post. One of my favorite experiences this summer was speaking on a panel at the Campus Progress national conference called “Keeping the Faith: Moving religious communities from tolerance to advocacy on LGBT issues.” I am continually grateful that more and more youth-focused secular organizations are adding a faith component to their programming, and are specifically addressing LGBT issues within that realm. You would be hard pressed to find a queer person who grew up in the United States that has not had to contend in some way with how one religion or another regards his or her sexuality. I’ve met agnostic and atheist queers who still believe the Bible condemns their sexuality or gender presentation. I’ve met staunchly progressive activists who even sometimes wonder if what the Right Wing has said about their ‘lifestyle’ is true. I think that as a result we, progressive religious queers, have gotten really squeamish about bringing up religion at all in the interest of not triggering those to whom religion has not been kind. As I’ve mentioned before, I have decided to put an end to that squeamishness and continually ‘out’ myself as both queer and a person of faith.
Anyhow, the panel was a great experience and really confirmed a lot of things I’ve been thinking about my call to this work, but that’s another post. To listen to audio of the panel click here. However, I geekily transcribed some of my comments to remember what exactly I said and I will post some highlights below. It is always interesting to see on the page what you said out loud and on the spot. For the session the moderator posed a question for each of the panelists to answer in turn and then at the end there was a QnA with the audience.
1. Most people believe that to be a person of faith you must be extremely sexually conservative — how can we deal with the false assumption that to be queer is to be anti faith and vice versa?
Because there are so many issues of being ordained as a queer person, I think a lot of times you have to put your sexuality as an afterthought. “I really want to be ordained but I happen to be queer” I think a lot of people play into that role to get through their various ordination committees. In my ordination process I spoke about my girlfriend…but for me to even talk about having a girlfriend was really something that my committee had never even thought about before, not just because I was gay. My liaison on the committee said “oh I don’t think we even know, of the straight people, (which was everyone but me), how many people have a partner at all.” To think about other people particularly within the ministry as having a sexuality was not something they were prepared to think about even for heterosexuals. So I think that by and large there is such a need to be more vocal that the fact that you can be a minister, you can be a person of faith, and be sex positive. The need to talk about it with others is key to debunking that myth. Because it’s not going to happen until we have more conversations about it. So if you shock a room full of older white men about that, then that’s what happens and eventually they get over it and self-reflect and think about how they might be hiding parts of their identity as well. That’s how we can bring everyone together around it.
2. Many faith groups are tolerant of queer people, as long as they are not running at us with bats they could be considered tolerant. Is tolerance really a good thing, or is it thanking people for not killing us. Should we be striving towards tolerance w/in faith communities at all?
I think that tolerance is a window, it’s hard to dialogue with folks who outright hate you and if their minds are closed, I don’t know if there is so much you can do in that moment except to find common ground somewhere, “let’s talk about something else.” And then if you’re still in the room with me, we don’t have to talk about this right now, we know it’s happening, it’s the elephant in the room if it has to be that, but I think that many people have been moved from tolerance or even just a little bit of ignorance into more accepting places and more advocacy roles. To dismiss tolerance as something that is of lesser importance is to not do tolerance justice, in the sense that it does start us places and it is really important in a lot of ways. But ultimately the goal is justice, and more than justice the goal is to create a culture where queer people are integrated into a religious space and to also shift that religious space in a way.
3. In trying to move faith organizations to the left on queer issues is marriage the issue to talk about, is that the most effective way to have this discussion? And if not how can we get beyond marriage and to potentially more important issues of queer justice that might have a broader impact among diverse faith organizations?
My answer to that is in terms of marriage equality….which communities are we trying to shift, do we want churches to get on board to advocate for marriage equality? Is our issue a secular one in terms of shifting policy on that struggle? Or is it an internalized one and what we really want is cultural change within religious institutions? If so, I think that marriage equality is not the way to get that. That’s for me that is what I am interested in working on and what I do. Because I think that legal battles for queer equality if that’s what we’re striving for, those will still not happen until you have this cultural shift into a queer understanding of… allowing for difference even at the most basic, allowing for people to have different choices than the proscribed ones. So I think that for me the issue that is central to achieving that is the focus of this panel, shifting faith communities into that queer space and melding those two identities such that it’s not shocking, and yet changing it in some way. In the sense that every one is changed, queer folks, heterosexual folks and the individual religious spaces are changed. And that’s the movement that I’m advocating.
QnA from the Audience:
I find that with most of the members of my family or community, their argument is “we understand that you want us to tolerate and accept you, but you won’t accept that we’re going to have a problem or that we can’t agree with your lifestyle.” Is there a middle ground?
How I understand your question is… for those of us who have family members who do think that our queerness is abhorrent because of the faith that they’ve grown up with… I mean half of my family is very southern Baptist and they don’t even think that women should be ministers so for me to go to divinity school was a big leap. They never asked me to pray at family meals and didn’t really recognize it, let alone the queer piece. So I think that to be with folks like that who we care about very much requires a certain amount of tenderness and understanding that sometimes the process is really long. It took me 18 years to be able to say that I was queer, and it might take them 18 years for them to say “that’s ok.” I’ve been with people whose parents who at one point kicked them out of the house and now are coming for Thanksgiving. There is a certain amount of pushing them to say “hey I’m gonna keep calling, I’m gonna keep coming by, I’m gonna keep being me, but at the same I recognize that I wanna get you out of this place, but it’s going to take a while” To be with them takes a certain amount of grace and tenderness and that’s completely understandable. You know we go out and fight the big fight for queer equality and we go home to some of our more conservative family members and say, “I still love you.” I think that is really important.
Thanks for making it to the end of this post. I love the way that answering tough questions publicly pushes you to really think on your feet and sometimes surprise yourself. I had no idea how I was going to answer these questions before the event, and in particular the question from the audience participant. The experience on the panel reminded me how important it is to keep telling folks that queerness and faith aren’t antithetical. It reminded me that this is my calling, and I’m so grateful to get to speak up for it.