Written and spoken by SJ Muratori at the 2018 Interfaith Pride Service at the West Brattleboro Congregational Church
"Good morning everyone. Thank you so much for having me here. I was honored to receive the invitation from HB to speak with you today. I’m here at the Interfaith Pride Celebration to help tick off a few boxes, I think. 1) I am a queer lady. Bisexual or pansexual are also words I use to describe myself. 2) While I am cisgender, I have a genderqueer heart and have wondered if I was trans at various points in my life. 3) I am a person of multiple faiths and practices, kind of a catholic Zen witch. 4) I even have a Master of Divinity degree and have worked as a minister!
My goal this morning is two-part. One is to help straight religious people open their hearts and minds even more to open and affirming practices. Two is to help any queer folks in the congregation today feel a little less squirmy in religious spaces. I aim do this by telling a bit of my own story of being a queer person with religious proclivities. I grew up in a post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic church in a working class suburb of Cleveland. I learned a lot of awesome stuff about what it meant to be religious. I learned about social justice and lefty Jesuits in South America. I wanted to be a priest. So did my dad. But he left seminary when he realized he also wanted to have sex and be a dad. I left the Catholic church when I realized my female body was not welcome in a leadership role at the altar. I also realized my unexpressed bisexuality was not welcome—heck let’s be real—my sexuality itself wasn’t really welcome unless it was used in the service of procreation.
I share a bit of my own story because, as queer feminist theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid tells us in her book Indecent Theology, “The everyday lives of people always provide us with a starting point for a process of doing a contextual theology without exclusions, in this case without the exclusion of sexuality struggling in the midst of misery.”
So to the straight religious folks: I invite you to think about how your particular groups practice inclusivity on a regular basis, and how you can deepen that practice so queer, gender-nonconforming, and trans folks know we are welcome every day, and not just during Pride month.
To the queer and trans folk: I invite you to think about how we can love ourselves and each other more deeply, and continue to shed any of the shame we may have received from religious bodies, so that, when we want to, we can feel confident and even excited to partake in religious activities alone or in community.
In case you space out, need to run to the bathroom, or just can’t handle being in a church right now, here is my message: Sexuality isn’t necessarily sex. Sex isn’t bad. Gender and sex are different. Not everybody is either male or female. Some people are many genders at many times in their lives. That’s exciting and awesome. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and all the other non-straight, non-heteronormative, non-binary expressions of sexuality and gender are beautiful. We are not bad. We are not sinners. We are not wrong. Our bodies are our bodies and they are made of love. We are allowed to love who we want, how we want, using our chosen names and pronouns for our beautiful bodies and their exquisite parts. I believe that what most folks call “god” in the Abrahamic traditions is Love—a force of love flowing through us and calling us to love, love, and more love—and this force loves us! And when we touch each other, when we touch ourselves, when we love each other; love ourselves; we touch the god force; we love the god force; and it is good.
As you may imagine, as a weirdo queer lady from a working class suburb of Cleveland raised in a Roman Catholic household, I did not always believe this. I thought my body was gross and bad and smelly and full of sin, and that when I wanted to kiss girls or dress like a boy or delight in looking androgynous or touch my body or wonder if I was born in the wrong body, I felt so much shame. I felt abnormal and bad. I thought God was watching me and would punish me.
How did I get to this god is Love and We Are All Love business? Well, with a lot of therapy, 21 years of hard work in recovery where I was introduced to the concept of “God as I understand God,” a massive support system of queer folks and allies, and an amazing theological re/education at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. There I shed a lot of ideas of what people told me god was, and learned expansive and liberating conceptions of just what god could be!
Backing up a bit, at 16 I left church to worship god in the woods. At 19 I moved out west and did rituals at the edges of canyons. I never stopped believing in something, and it never stopped believing in me, but I sure did struggle with that shame and punishment theme. I have many scary stories of near-death, of me not knowing how to value my body because I had learned it wasn’t valuable, of me using substances to numb out the pain I felt. But something always lured me to Love, to Life, to Community. I wish I could say I found a queer community who loved me unconditionally, or an open and affirming hetero ally club, but I didn’t. My lesbian crew scoffed at my bisexuality and called me a fence-hopper. Well-intentioned straight people told me the reason I thought I was bi was because I was harmed as a child and I confused love with sex. In recovery I sat in meeting after meeting listening to people describe their concept of god or spirit or higher power in vastly different and inspired ways. Those experiences sparked a beautiful and difficult journey for me that led me to seminary where I learned about apophatic or negative theology—kind of a process of elimination where we start describing our god concept in terms of what it is NOT. E.g. not a white male with a beard in the sky who will punish me for my thoughts about Katie. Not a puppet-master with a Divine Plan. You get the picture.
I don’t feel like I need the bible to tell me I’m ok, but as someone with a mostly-Christian identity living in the U.S., it sure can help. It can especially help when there are so-called Christians espousing hatred and using “clobber passages” from the bible to denigrate the humanity of LGBTQ people. In the words of fellow Union grad, transgender pastor Shay Kearns, “Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that ‘by their fruits you will recognize’ whether a religious teaching is true or not.The fruits of anti-LGBTQ theology reveal its falseness: depression, despair, suicide, fractured families, loss of faith, bullying, harassment. The fruits of affirming theology testify to its rightness: a return to faith, a healing of relationships, and a vibrance and resurgence in church life.” While I don’t necessarily believe a resurgence in church life is a needed outcome in affirming theology, I want any of us queers, weirdos, and trans folks who feel called to attend a religious service of our choosing to feel not just safe, but WANTED by the community. I want us to feel ALLOWED to take aspects of traditions that move us and practice them without shame. I want us to find resources that can actively undo harm of exclusion theology so we can shed shame and truly feel PRIDE. While alone or in community, I want queer folks to never EVER associate god and religion and spirituality with shame or exclusion or oppression.
So how do we get there? There are tons of resources online and in libraries that can help religious organizations make their spaces safer and more attractive for us, from multi-gender bathrooms, to altering pronouns for god, to describing and illustrating families with two moms, ad infinitum. While many of us individuals may be psyched sometimes to answer questions about how to make your place good for us, please be careful to avoid tokenizing that “one gay guy in the choir” and do some research. Local groups like Green Mountain Crossroads have killer websites with lots of resources that can answer questions and point you in the right direction. Many churches have publications with explicit instructions on how to create open and affirming spaces that encompass intersectional identity groups. This work is ongoing. It’s personal, it’s political, it’s often painful, and it’s so very worth it. We should feel pride as spiritual people in creating safe and affirming spaces, and we should feel pride as queer and trans people who are loved and lovable."
This week’s Masterpiece Cake decision demonstrates why we must continue to invest directly in building the power of our LGBTQ communities and provides yet another reminder of why we cannot rely on the State and/or the Courts to be the (sole) source of our collective liberation.
As LGBTQ people living in rural areas and small towns, we know that there often is only one (if any) option: one hospital; one school; one hardware store; one diner; one general store; yes, even one bakery. And we likely have to travel some distance to access any of those resources! It is critically important in our small communities that every existing option for services of all kinds be open to us as LGBTQ people because while the ability to purchase a wedding cake may not be life or death* many other situations we face are.
We know that the prevailing analysis of the Masterpiece decision says it is a narrow ruling. To be sure, the main question of whether nondiscrimination laws will continue to be upheld was largely skirted. However, the door has been cracked open just a bit wider for those who would rather not see us continue to thrive. We reject the possibility that this decision could lead to a future where people are justified in denying our access to things like emergency medical care or calling us by our names in classrooms. We will continue standing together in the struggle for our collective liberation as LGBTQ folks have done before us for generations. The arc of history is long, friends, but we know that it bends toward justice.
- HB Lozito, executive director, Green Mountain Crossroads
by Naomi Ullian
Pride arrives in southern Vermont this year with a series of cultural events making visible the histories of our local queer communities.
Hosted by Green Mountain Crossroads in collaboration with Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) and Rockingham Arts & Museum Project, the festivities include the opening of the Andrew's Inn Oral History Project, Ain Gordon's Radicals in Miniature live performance, Cineslam -- Vermont’s LGBTQ shorts film festival, and an Andrew's Inn Dance Party.
The Andrew's Inn Oral History Project presents a cohesive narrative of a community space and LGBT disco located in Bellows Falls during the 1970s and 80s. Green Mountain Crossroads executive director HB Lozito will present audio and text from over 30 hours of interviews conducted in 2015 and 2016, accompanied by portraits by photographer Evie Lovett.
What's particularly important about this project, notes HB, is that queer histories are often lost, ignored, or invisibilized by dominant media and historians. While other students of history have investigated radical histories in southern Vermont, none of the information about the Andrew's Inn has been collected and made available in quite this way, not to mention celebrated by later generations through a queer historical lens.
"What we see is that queer people need to be the historians and tellers of our own stories," say HB, "Because often nobody else will do it."
Visibility, HB points out can create more structures of safety for marginalized folks, and many local folks have purposely avoided telling the stories of the Andrew's Inn and other queer aspects of local history from the 1950s through the 1980s.
HB first met Ain Gordon in January of 2015 at a day-long meeting on art and social practice in the local community hosted by VPL.
Long interested in oral histories as an accessible medium for artistic and social justice engagement, HB found they shared an emergent working style with Ain, himself a queer history researcher and performance artist, and with the support of VPL director Sara Coffey they discovered shared fertile ground and myriad ideas for incubation and inspiration -- oral histories, queer experiences, art and social practice, and the involvement of extant local communities.
Gordon's multimedia work stems from detailed archival research of hidden histories of LGBTQ communities in the United States, including a recent work at the Philadelphia Historical Society on Dr. Anonymous, the mask-wearing individual who approached the American Psychiatric Association in the 1972 in order to lobby for the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In the fall of 2015, VPL and GMC collaborated with Marlboro College in offering a class for students on radical social movements in southern Vermont from 1960s-1980s. HB and Ain to taught alongside theater and performance professor Brenda Foley and American Studies professor Kate Ratcliff in covering topical social movements -- including the local women's movement, RFD magazine, and the genesis and development of local Radical Faerie sanctuaries -- as well as instruction in the ethical and technical practices of collective oral histories.
In addition to teaching, Ain and HB conducted research trips to interview local folks who had participated in rural queer community building, experiences including not only the Andrew's Inn but also Packer's Corner, Total Loss Farm, and the Liberation New Service. They learned details including that Ann Stokes, who donated the land currently open to the public as Madame Sherri Forest, was also an investor in the Andrew’s Inn.
The story of Andrew’s Inn and contemporary resurrection of its history is a story of general waves of queer habitation and vitality in southern Vermont. "Now, I have a lot of queer friends who are older than me," notes HB, "But I know that's not true for lots of younger queer people. The intergenerational nature of this project is really special."
Something that younger queer people in this rural area may note from learning the histories of Andrew’s Inn is the current lack of spaces that prioritize queer community-- no gay bars, no brick-and-mortar community or event spaces. This dearth became especially evident after the shootings in Orlando in 2016. Although drinking establishments might not necessarily be our top priority -- it might not be true that "we don't need gay bars any more." While GMC hosts queer pop-up spaces and events by collaborating with justice-focused spaces like The Root, the executive director of GMC thinks the local community would benefit from a permanent queer-dedicated community space, a space offering safety, refuge, and home.
"We still need spaces for queer people, places like Andrew’s Inn which prioritized safety and cultural space for queer people, and really where all people could come and explore identity, examine life through a queer lens, where folks can come think about and perform gender in the ways they want to," says HB.
Andrew’s Inn itself existed as much more than a disco party and bucolic country retreat. Musicians and performance artists debuted work on the stage, co-counseling and substance abuse counseling groups ran out of the basement, and lasting friendships and community organizing were born. The queer community in southern Vermont became vibrant, not only drawing folks from far-away cities like Montreal, Boston, and New York, but also establishing and supporting strong networks for local gay and lesbian community. At certain points, this vibrancy felt sufficiently threatening to homophobic community members that Andrew’s Inn experienced broken windows, bomb threats, requests that local officials do something about "those people," and marches of folks chanting "get the faggots out of town."
This oral history project is only the first iteration of this research, and HB happily acknowledges its place in Green Mountain Crossroads’ political, social, and cultural trajectory. "This project directly expresses our mission of building community, visibility, knowledge, and power of rural LGBTQ people," they emphasize. "Collecting and creating cohesive accounts of our histories helps build collective memory and a location for our current communities to build upon, to continue to carve out space for ourselves. Queers have lived here, do live here, and movement work does and has happened here."
It's important for us to remember, they add, that queer people are not outsiders to rural community, but that we've always been here, and that being active and engaged often comes the processes of waking up, an experience catalyzed for many by moving through the world as queer.
Only six of over a dozen interviews will be presented at the upcoming opening of the Andrew’s Inn Oral History Project, and more interviews are lined up for this coming summer. HB encourages folks to get in touch if they have stories to share, acknowledging that there are so many more artifacts, stories, and lessons to convey. Audio clips will be available on the GMC website, along with Evie Lovett's portraits, and future tours of the projects at libraries and rural New England community centers are in the works.
To learn more and participate in the performances and festivities June 15-17, please visit www.greenmountaincrossroads.org
-by Naomi Ullian-
When the rain let up and a balmy spring day offered gusty breezes and fresh sun, I wandered over to Guilford, VT, to visit with farmers Justin Nye and Amy Frost of Circle Mountain Farm about the upcoming Earth Gay Vermont! celebration that they will be co-hosting with Green Mountain Crossroads on May 21st.
The event's third year at Circle Mountain, the farmers expressed the hope that folks will come out to celebrate local food systems and queer-run agriculture whether or not participants are excited or able to help with whatever work projects will be happening.
"If you don't want to work, or can't, just come hang out and be part of the crew," says Amy.
In past years, projects have included making big compost piles and fertilizing the hoophouse tomatoes.
"Part of what I love about this partnership is that I never know what exactly it is that we'll be doing!" says GMC executive director HB Lozito. "I trust Amy & Justin to come up with the projects knowing that they'll find a magic combination between what needs to get done on the farm and what will be fun for a big group."
Kneeling in the dirt rows as I helped to harvest the tender spinach, Amy and Justin weighed in on the subjects of queerness, farming, land stewardship, and how to build queer rural community.
In considering what it meant to be queer and farmers in this rural community, Amy and Justin agreed that "the queer community has been really supportive of us as farmers, and it feels good to provide food for other queer people that we maybe share experiences with."
Work projects such as the event at Earth Gay is one way that queer people can build relationships in rural areas, where geography, the economy, and small populations can make it feel hard to connect. Some of our longest friendships, we all agreed, have ignited while doing work -- setting out tasks, accomplishing goals, and building together.
"Its pretty empowering to get shit done together," observes Amy. In rural areas, Amy notes, it’s especially important to prioritize connection, and working together and feeding each other is fundamentally a rural value that queers can get down with.
Farming and the production of food is one way that queer folks are often able to connect to their bodies, to invest and build confidence and care in their physical capacities in a world that often encouraged everyone and especially queer people to dissociate or feel alienated from their bodies, desires, and genders.
HB notes about Earth Gay, "There is a personal sustainability piece around using our bodies together to do good work. So often as LGBTQ people we feel alienated from our bodies. I find for myself that getting outside and having a positive experience accomplishing physical tasks together as a group with other LGBTQ folks and allies helps me reconnect to my own body and what it is capable of. "
In the labors of farming, the body becomes a hard-working participant along with microbes and chickens and brassicas, and many folks who farm find power, agency, and peacefulness in choosing work that allows them to show up as themselves, to accomplish tasks that provide for their community, and to find the quiet and realness and sanity that comes from working with your hands.
"Earth Gay is one of the times during the year that we dig in (ha) to what environmental justice, food access, sustainability, and community organizing look like in our rural community," says HB. "We know that climate change will increasingly affect us, and that one way to build powerful, resilient communities is to support local farms and farmers."
Farmers serve as intermediaries between human communities and the plant and animal worlds. By choosing small-scale and sustainable cultivation practices, farmers both help humans meet needs for nourishment as well as steward the land and protect it from degradation. Many queer individuals and communities challenge and embody subversion of the binary or dualistic perspectives which capitalism thrives on. Interacting with land through a queer lens can help farmers to challenge the way that monocropping and agribusiness objectify the land as a non-living entity that exists solely for human benefit and disposal. The experience of land stewardship through sustainable agriculture puts queer farmers and participants in sustainable food ways at a political opportunity to protect land from binary extractive relationships with human communities, and queer farmers can serve to lead the interventions and disruption of the capitalist relationship humans have developed with farmland, instead encouraging human communities to understand the collaboration with the many moving and sentient beings -- animals, plants, fungi, minerals -- that join forces to produce food that humans can gratefully benefit from.
Farming, queers understand, is about relationships, and tending to them.
Amy and Justin say, of Circle Mountain Farm, that they also hope for the farm to feel like a refuge or retreat, a place folks can come to recharge and feel safe.
Even in small liberal towns, farming can feel dominated by hetero and cisgender family units, rendering less visible the hardworking LGBTQ folks growing food for rural communities. Says HB, "Especially in a state like Vermont that projects a strong agricultural history and future, we are saying, ‘LGBTQ people are, and have always been, a part of the strong ag traditions and future here in our state’."