My Spiritual Journey with Queerness and Home Church Drama

[Image description: Photo is of a set of New Interpreter’s Bible volumes.]

This is a speech I gave this evening at a local PFLAG meeting that overlaps a bit with my “Diversity is Chosen” Pride Sunday epistle. PFLAG is a support, education, and advocacy organization for LGBTQ people and our allies.

Most of the time, I count myself pretty lucky in the faith department. I grew up in a nurturing Christian community. It’s basically “the little brown church in the vale.” As a preacher’s kid (my mom is the pastor), I was fully integrated into the church family from infancy. For example, I was a baby shepherd in the Christmas pageant. When I was coming along, there was only one other child close to my age, and we both participated in Sunday School and worship. We sometimes took up the offering, lit the Advent candles, and sang songs. We both joined the choir in middle school, and guess what! We’re both still in the choir. 

I was fortunate. Unlike many of my LGBT peers in Divinity School, I didn’t feel like I had to ‘reconcile’ my faith with my queerness. I’ve never worried that I was going to hell because of my sexual orientation or gender identity. I thought for a while that I was going to hell for other reasons–I had a sort of crisis at age seven where I worried about not believing enough–after that, it was relatively smooth sailing. Nobody in the church ever told me that I couldn’t lead, nobody criticized me for not being feminine. 

The people in my church crossed the social and political spectrum. I watched women and men lead and nurture. When I started wearing suits and ties to church instead of dresses, nobody said anything negative. But growing up in that church, especially here in the rural South, was still complicated. We couldn’t talk about LGBTQ issues in the church for years. Everyone knew that some of the church folks had grown gay children, but nobody said much about it.

The church had a vocal fundamentalist faction that was kept in check by my mom’s declaration that they would not say anything hurtful to those parents. That declaration had a mixed impact. Conversation about the issue was almost nonexistent in her presence, so I didn’t hear much from the church about homosexuality either way. The only time I remember anyone saying something anti-gay was when she was away, when one member of that faction would substitute preach. 

And I loved those people too, and they loved me. One of them helped me to tie my paisley necktie the first time I wore a suit to Sunday school. But when the Presbyterian General Assembly decided to allow gay marriage in the church, they decided to leave. That tore our church apart. It was like losing aunts and uncles. At the time, I wasn’t ‘out’ to many people in the church. Only my parents, theatre colleagues, and college friends knew that I was bisexual. I had come to that understanding of myself around my junior year of high school. I wasn’t one of those people that ‘always knew’; I didn’t have a very strong sense of my sexuality in general until high school, when I started watching a whole bunch of movies in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Netflix

I didn’t start dating until age twenty, but my first partner happened to be a woman. I really wanted to bring her to church, to meet my family, but I knew that wouldn’t be safe and would create a difficult situation for my parents. The church got a lot safer for me when people left. I waited for the dust to settle, and then I came out to my Sunday school class before the service one day. It was awkward, though the reaction was neutral-to-positive. I said “I have an announcement to make, which is that I am bisexual, and if you don’t like it, it’s okay, I love you anyway.” I rushed through an explanation, assuring them “It doesn’t mean I’m promiscuous” even though inwardly I thought “Promiscuity isn’t a bad thing either.”

I wanted them to understand fully who I was. I didn’t want to be judged but made room for them to disagree without withdrawing my love from them. 

I’m not sure whether that was ‘grace’ on my part or an offer of compromise driven by a desire for the community not to split further. Either way, I got confirmed in the church. After college, when I did my interfaith service year, which happened to coincide with Trump’s election, I encountered non-affirming people who were unwilling to revisit their understanding of biblical scriptures. One of my own housemates confessed that she didn’t want to advocate for me as a queer person. She wanted to live and let live.

And you know what? My service year taught me that that’s not enough. If you, as a Christian, claim to love me but aren’t willing to reflect on your beliefs enough to hear me, I have to keep my distance from you. 

People love to uphold diversity and tolerance as these magical concepts that cure all ills, but my time in the church and in interfaith settings showed me that diversity is chosen. When most of the fundamentalists left my church, it lost diversity, and it lost the gifts that those people had given, especially in terms of music. And yet, it’s nice, as a queer person, not to be considered expendable. I’m not pleading with my family to care about my basic rights, and I’m not hiding my sexuality to seem more palatable to people who don’t care to learn. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the past few years–it’s okay to make things awkward. 

Of course, I still have to compromise and choose my battles as I move through the world; I have to talk about the Clobber Passages and dialogue with non-affirming Christians. That’s part of survival. But in my ministry and in my personal life, I really want to move beyond the basic premise that “It’s okay to be gay.” I don’t want the conversation to be “It’s okay to be gay if you get married and have a white picket fence because of this specific passage in Genesis about how man shouldn’t be alone.” 

I want Christian love and respect for the queer people who don’t want or can’t access the white picket fence, and that includes nonmonogamous queer people, and queer people of color, and queer people who have casual sex, and trans people who don’t “pass,” and queer people who are struggling to survive because they can’t or won’t hide. 

I want straight cisgender Christians to see us as people they can learn from, not just the ‘diversity’ on the margins of the church, but people whose wisdom is worth protecting. I want church families to see divinity in the “chosen families” created by queer people, many of whom don’t go to church or even believe in God. 

Queer people don’t have to look or act a certain way to be worth our time and investment. And I feel like I’m able to say that because I’m cisgender, white, and middle-class. I’m not risking being thrown out of my communities if I demand that people listen. I’m not worried that if I lose my faith community, I won’t have a safety net.

So I want to conclude this talk with gratitude to PFLAG for the warmth of this community, what a haven it is for me even when church is a mixed experience. I admire the work that the PFLAG allies especially have done to move through discomfort about homosexuality so that they could step up to welcome queer people into our community. And I also want to invite us all to keep growing, listening, and learning, so that we can serve, protect, and love each other even more. Amen.

Leadership is a Team Sport

[Image description: Photo is of two lounging cats. One looks at the camera, alert, while the other relaxes.]

Throughout high school, I never thought of myself as a leader. I was the quiet, nerdy artist who never could quite keep up with what was going on. I wasn’t often bullied, and I even experienced rare bursts of admiration when classmates watched me draw. But I didn’t think of myself as a leader, and I was not popular. (Cue “Popular” from Wicked.) 

During my ninth grade field trip, my teachers tried to push me into leadership by putting me in charge of the rest of the class for a team-building exercise. I stood on the ground while my classmates tried to shuffle their way across a low tightrope between two trees. My job was to tell them when to move, how, and where. 

The teachers kept adding restrictions. For example, I was the only one allowed to talk or move without direction. It did not go well. After tipping off the rope for the umpteenth time, my disgruntled classmates asked the teachers to replace me. The next attempt (with a different leader) went a little better, and the class eventually completed the challenge. Was a team built? Did I lead? Did we trust each other more after that? Not really. My teachers meant well in assigning me a directive role; they wanted me to rise to the occasion and gain confidence. Unfortunately, they didn’t set me up for success as a leader. As a ‘team,’ we were unequipped in several ways. 

First, the teachers ignored the dynamics of the class; we were all still hormonal, image-conscious teenagers. Some in the class, for better or for worse, had support and experience as leaders. I simply was not one of them. The teachers tried to impose a different dynamic without preparing us all to try it in good faith. 

Second, the teachers took away the tools I needed to communicate with the class and make good decisions. I could not read my classmates’ faces. Meanwhile, they were utterly dependent and unable to communicate with or support me. No wonder they got frustrated. 

Third, I lacked the desire to lead. Sure, that was related to shyness, perfectionism, and low self-esteem, but trying to force a shy perfectionist to lead confidently by putting them in a situation with no reason to feel confident tends to backfire. Ironically, as the only person allowed to move, I felt paralyzed. The resulting failure reinforced my belief that I wasn’t a leader. 

What could we have done differently in that situation? Any number of things might have helped. For example, we didn’t have to do that particular team-building exercise; we could’ve done the “human knot” game, where the team tries to untwist and very link does its part. 

The teachers could have asked for volunteers in the first place (I was not ready to be singled out for that particular activity). 

When we learned what the challenge was, we could have come up with a strategy or even divided leadership so that people on the ground and on the rope could observe what was happening and make recommendations. 

I could have paused the activity and asked for communication and suggestions, or I could have said “I’m not equipped for this; we need to let someone else have a turn.” 

My classmates could have handled their frustration better, perhaps stating their feelings and asking what I needed instead of just complaining to the teachers. 

The teachers could have made time for us to debrief after the activity, figure out why it was so hard, assure us that it was okay, and get input on what to try for next time. 

Shoulda coulda woulda. But thinking through what could have helped us then reminds me that ‘leadership’ is a team sport; no one ‘leads’ in a vacuum. 

I’ve had several less unpleasant opportunities to lead since that demoralizing experience. Joining Girl Scouts as a highschooler gave me opportunities to lead in a more conducive setting (yep, I joined Girl Scouts after most people drop out). 

I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses as a leader with help from friends and mentors; in my senior year of college, one of my college professors said I exemplified “leading from the middle.” With the benefit of experience, that ill-fated highschool exercise has provided a way for me to reflect on how I can set myself, my friends, my teammates, and my partners up for success.

In some cases, I am the designated leader and make firm decisions in that role. Even then, I need the support and input of others and the resilience to acknowledge when something doesn’t work. Most of the time, I share leadership with others on my team and support other leaders as we work to build the dynamics we want, protect our communities, and create spaces for growth and refuge. Leadership is not a one-person show. Instead, leadership is a matter of process and relationship, a team sport in which we all participate. 

My First Munch

[Image description: Photo is of a gray tee-shirt with a red raised fist design and white block lettering that says “Introverts Unite…Occasionally in small groups for very limited periods of time”]

I attended my first munch in August of 2018, right after divinity school orientation ended. #Priorities. A munch is a public get-together of kinky people, usually at a restaurant. No whips or chains there, just people chatting over food. Especially for new people, munches are a great way to connect with the local kink community, make friends, and find safe play partners. 

I was quite nervous before I went, changing clothes three times–it was a true Lizzie McGuire montage–before settling on a skinny jean-combat boot-jacket ensemble. I had read that I should “dress for success.” 

Fortunately, my Uber driver didn’t ask why I was taking a twenty-minute drive to this particular IHOP when another IHOP was much closer. Feeling like a detective, I told the restaurant manager that I was looking for “the group in the back.” I found them, a merry bunch with black clothes and colorful hair. 

They made room for me but didn’t engage much at first. Starting to feel like a statue, I mustered the courage to say “I’m an introvert; please talk to me!” Miraculously, they did. We chatted about kink and ate pancakes. I felt a thrill as I told them I was in divinity school and wanted to work on the issue of sexual shame in Christianity. Everyone was friendly. 

After the munch, we carpooled to the local sex-positive dungeon. On the way, I learned that for some people, the appeal of kink isn’t sexual at all–some just like the rush of impact or the opportunity to relax into a different role for a while. 

In the play space, I met three or four white guys with scruff and glasses over the course of the night. It’s a little embarrassing to say, but in the dark, they looked so similar that I didn’t realize they were all different people at first. To this day, I’m still not sure exactly how many dudes I talked with as I sat on that leather sofa, though one of them eventually became a friend and play partner. 

Of course, even in the low light, the house bootblack noticed how scuffed my boots were. A little sheepishly, I climbed into the bootblack chair. I chatted with her shyly while she cleaned and conditioned my boots–they were too dry at that point to be polished! I have since learned how to take better care of my boots. It is now one of my sub’s tasks. 

I watched the play with scientific interest, somewhat overwhelmed by the effort to watch multiple scenes unfold simultaneously. It was easier to focus on one at a time. In one memorable scene with two women, the top (the sensation-giver) kicked and hit the bottom (the player receiving the sensation) with wooden spoons and spatulas. They both smiled and giggled the whole time. At the end of the scene, the bottom slid down the wall, laughing uncontrollably as the experience washed over her.

Watching their joyful play reminded me that I didn’t have to play a certain way to be kinky (nor did I need to act like a movie dominatrix). I’ve been back to the play space and to munches several times since then. When I’m feeling awkward, I remember that I can always wave the introvert flag, and someone will welcome me.

Fireworks

[Image description: Photo is of distant exploding orange and gold fireworks.]

Picture me at age four. It’s the fourth of July. I’m at an Independence Day celebration at the local megachurch. I’ve been so excited to see the fireworks. But when I actually see them, loud and bright and technicolor, I’m terrified. When I look up, they’re so close that it feels as if they’re coming down on me like fiery rain. After a few minutes trying to tolerate it, I cut and run, bolting across the field to my dad’s car. And my dad? He’s running with me, not after me. He isn’t mad at me for being scared. After that, we admire the fireworks from a distance. 


Even now, over two decades later, I prefer to keep my distance from fireworks and sparklers. They’re beautiful, but when I’m too close, my fear of injury and sense of “overwhelm” make me unable to enjoy their beauty. I stand a little farther back from them than most people. And that’s okay. In my life, there are shows, events, relationship styles, people, and activities that I prefer to admire from afar. That’s the best way for me to enjoy them. It doesn’t make me a coward. It doesn’t mean that I don’t respect those who choose differently–quite the contrary. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never change my mind. It does mean that I know what I need right now (like when I needed to get away from those fireworks right then). And it feels good to know that the caring people in my life respect that.

An Epistle on Theatre and Kink

[Image description: Photo is of a slender white person wearing a cream-colored winter coat, dark gray button-down shirt, long, fuzzy white scarf, and fitted dark brown boots standing on the edge of a wooden stage.]

I’ve been a theatre kid since about age ten. Cast as a “merchant/servant” in a summer youth production of Aladdin, I caught the theatre bug (or rather, it caught me). I’d thought when I signed up that I would want to work behind the scenes on set design. Instead, I suddenly craved the spotlight. Eager for more “work,” I made a diagram of the ‘palace’ floor for my personal use and thought intently about my purpose in the story. Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t study Stanislavsky.  

I milked my one line for all it was worth. “There would be peace in the marketplace if they would just lock him up!,” I snarled and tutted as a merchant in Act I, later transforming into a meek and gormless palace servant for Act II. It felt glorious to get a larger role in the next summer production, but even in that first, tiny role, I had carved out a space in fantasy that made me feel integral to making Aladdin’s story ‘work.’ 

Unlike me, the characters I played knew exactly where they belonged in the world, and they lived in that satisfaction. I, their storyteller, lived in their satisfaction second-hand. I started to find a role in the local theatre community too, clicking with fellow actors in ways that I never had with my classmates. I felt a sense of belonging in being among creative people working toward a common goal. No longer just the shy art girl, I was an actor–and I could be anything I chose. 

Over the years, I acted in several other shows and attempted tech work. I discovered that I was funny. I also discovered (during an Edgar Allan Poe-themed production) that I could be very creepy and unsettling when I wanted to be. 

The final curtain was always bittersweet. I wanted the magic to last just a little bit longer. I remember keeping the heavy makeup on as long as possible (yes, even the Poe makeup–I’m sure I frightened some locals during that cast party). Acting became about more than attention; acting was a retreat. It helped me feel safe to try new things, even silly and embarrassing things. It demanded that I be embarrassed, proud, menacing, hapless, and fierce, over and over. Theatre gave me space to be all those things without losing my place in the community.

Now, every character that I have ever played lives in my mind, but I am more than the sum of them. And that mysterious extra bit that’s just me? That’s what I bring to my kink life. It doesn’t surprise me that many kinksters are also theatre people. The craft, the thrill, the freedom to “play pretend” and explore without losing the respect of peers–kink makes room for all these precious things. Kink gives me experiences that even theatre couldn’t. But I wouldn’t be comfortable in kink if not for my time with theatre, and theatre is special to me too. 

It’s been a couple of years since I was last in a production; my current schedule just doesn’t allow for the weeks of consistent commitment that theatre requires. I miss it. I take what I learned from acting into my activism, my kinky relationships, my friendships, and my work. These things all belong in my life. And when I have time for a show? I’m auditioning.

Diversity is Chosen – Pride Sunday Thoughts

[Image description: Cover illustration from picture book A Church for All, showing a dark-skinned pastor blessing a congregation of people of all races and genders. Rainbow banners and welcome signs are displayed on the walls.]

CW: Minor mention of church bigotry

I woke too early this morning. Dragged myself to Sunday School with wet hair. Struggled to warm up my voice while we sang the first hymn. I love my home church. It is pretty much “the little brown church in the vale.” I hop right back into the choir when I visit (of course, the fact that my mom is the pastor has something to do with that).

The members of that church are my family, and I wouldn’t trade them. When I’m sleepy, church can feel like a chore, but seeing queer friends visit (and noting today that almost half the adults sitting in the congregation have grown LGBTQ children whom they affirm) reminded me of why my church community is so valuable, how it’s so freely yet painstakingly built. 

In my conservative Southern hometown, my little church is becoming a place of haven for LGBTQ people and our families. A couple of years ago, I felt safe enough to come out as bisexual to my Sunday school class (mostly middle-aged adults) because I just wanted them to know who I was. More on that story later. It wasn’t always this welcoming a place. 

When I was a child, nobody talked about queerness in my church community. The only occasion when I remember anything being said about homosexuality was one Sunday when an older male church member, substitute preaching while my mom was away, listed homosexuality as a sin during the regular Prayer of Confession. In a sense, my mom limited the conversation around queerness, not because she disapproved but because a fundamentalist segment of the congregation always overwhelmed the discussion with bigoted views. Saying “We’re not going to talk about it” was the lesser evil. 

What eventually broke the silence was a 2014 PC(USA) General Assembly ruling that allowed same-gender couples to marry in the churches. You see, in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), big changes are made by a national governing body and ratified by Presbyteries. As we say in the Presbyterian Church, “We do it decently and in order.” 

This constitutional change tore my home church apart. More accurately, most of the fundamentalist faction broke off and joined other churches. They perceived a church that was more welcoming to me as less welcoming to them. For a church our size (fewer than fifty members), it was a significant loss. We were sad to lose them–it was like losing aunts and uncles–but their absence made room for needed change in the community. It also allowed me to be open about who I was without feeling like I would be causing trouble for my parents. We lost a bit of our theological diversity to evangelicalism but created space for people like me to participate more fully (after coming out, I felt confident enough to get confirmed). 

Today, I was reminded once again that ‘diversity’ is chosen. It usually doesn’t just happen; the kind of diversity that appears in a church community depends on the values and consistent work of the people involved. What a refreshing feeling it is not to be made expendable in the name of theological diversity, not to have to shrink for the comfort of people who think I’m hell-bound. Can someone who isn’t ‘affirming’ be part of this community? Sure. But I’m not expected to hide who I am to make them comfortable. 

With its steady welcome, my church community is becoming more sexuality and gender-diverse, and its children are being raised to understand that they are loved and have something of value to share regardless of how ‘normal’ or ‘different’ they are. When one of my grandfriends makes a Pride month announcement, when my mom gives thanks for LGBTQ people in the Thanksgiving Prayer, even when a little boy in the congregation gets to be an angel in the Christmas pageant (yes, that is actually an issue for some people), I can tell that my little church is doing the work.

We’re all still learning, but we’re working together to build a community that welcomes everyone who wants to participate. If that offends our fundamentalist siblings enough that they leave, then it’s a loss for everyone, but it won’t stop us–and it won’t stop me–from building and celebrating our community. 

That’s what gets me out of bed early in the morning (to drag myself to Sunday school with wet hair). I have the opportunity to be a full member of a church that works to reflect the love of God more fully each day, and I won’t squander it. 

Be of good courage,

Fox (she/her/hers)

PS–For Christians (especially faith leaders) looking for ways to help folks to see the beauty of a church with people of all ages, races, genders, abilities, etc., I recommend the award-winning picture book A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman and Laurie Fournier.