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