I ducked as an offering plate whizzed past my head. Clad in a thick spirit robe and a rainbow stole draped over my narrow shoulders, I stood in a 2,500-seat sanctuary. I pastored an “open and affirmative” church, which is essentially religious jargon and says it welcomes and affirms queer people, which most churches forbid. I mean, they hired me, a queer minister, as their pastor.
And I had to face the consequences. A thick hate mail folder bulged in my filing cabinet. Sometimes the letters detailed what my flesh would smell like if I was burned in Hell; a couple contained death threats. But that didn’t disappoint. We activists wear such threats as a kind of twisted badge of honor. It wasn’t the external discrimination by preachers and politicians that made me resign. nope It was the internal, backstabbing, debilitating sexist and heterosexist microaggressions within a community that claimed to honor and support queer people.
For my own mental, spiritual and now physical health – these offering plates are heavy folks – I have decided to leave.
I felt like a failure. I dedicated my life to creative queer ministry. It was my calling. I studied that for eleven years. A bachelor’s degree in religion led to a seminar that paved the way for a PhD, in which I examined the role of feminist and queer bodies in world religions.
More than that, I felt like the Church had let me down. I knew most churches are not pro-queer. In fact, they were antagonistic, hateful, and exclusive. But I had hope in so-called “reconciling” ministries aimed at welcoming the LGBTQIA+ community. While there are many amazing queer ministries within myriad wisdom traditions, my experience has been that religion still needs to be translated through the lens of heteronormativity. I didn’t want to put up with these institutions, but wanted to completely rethink spirituality.
“Stay and fight,” some queer parishioners implored.
But I had fought bravely for 15 years, and these stained glass walls locked me in and turned me into a version of myself who was depressed, anxious, and sick. I didn’t want to live like this. And there was no way I wanted to raise my child in this world.
After almost 15 years as a pastor, I realized that institutional religion was toxic to queer women like me. So I set out with my wife and toddler to traverse the American countryside exploring the lives, legends and legacy of revolutionary queer women. My trip was that: In order for religion – any religion – to really affirm all people, we have to make spirituality queer.
Over the next decade, I pondered, programed, researched, painted, published books, and even gave courses on it Queer Spirituality. But it wasn’t until the anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in my home state of Florida that I realized exactly what it meant to be queer spiritual. With Don’t Say Gay, the law banning gender-based childcare, legislation allowing hospitals and doctors to refuse treatment to queer people on “religious grounds,” and the ban on books about us, I feel compelled to do so , back to top Queer Spirituality. For myself. And for my community.
Intentionally transgressive and subversive, queer spirituality means restoring, restoring and rethinking spirituality.
We begin recovery. Queer people have been condemned, banned, and excluded from so many institutional religions. These institutions have done real harm and caused incredible trauma. Whether it’s calling us abominations going to hell, funding our beheadings abroad, or throwing that sacrificial plate at my head, religion’s primary function in most queer people’s lives is to hurt. To Queer Spirituality means not only acknowledging that pain, but also preparing to recover from it. And religions need to repent and ask our forgiveness. The first step towards a queer spirituality is to recover from the ways religion has hurt us individually and collectively.
After recovery comes recovery. Queer people need to restore the forgotten and erased voices of queer saints hidden in the crevices of our cannons. This is what I did while researching across the country and recovering from pastoral trauma. As we flip through the layers of history—history told through the lens of pure supremacy—we find countless inspirational, bold, and faithful stories from queer saints from every major wisdom tradition. To queer our spirituality, we must uncover their stories and proclaim them with the passion of a preacher.
Whether it’s the woman-loving, status-quo-destroying Judith in Judaism or the episcopal saint Pauli Murray, queer people have led rituals, surrendered to Allah, prayed to Yahweh, preached on Jesus, meditated with Buddha, danced alongside Shiva, and led ours spirituality for thousands of years.
Once we recover from religious trauma, we can recover the forgotten stories of queer spiritual leaders.
Finally, the restoration leads to a new presentation. The uncovered stories of queer saints give us an opportunity to re-imagine what spirituality looks like. I think of the radical imagination of Buddhist trans people who, because of their gender flexibility, have imagined Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, as a trans icon.
Or how queer Catholics have envisioned Saints Perpetua and Felicity as the patron saints of same-sex marriage because they find in their journals records of their love and how they hugged and kissed each other while being stoned to death. Not simply martyrs of faith, but martyrs of “forbidden love”.
This reinterpretation is key. Since the Restoration of queer saints is based on the “model of reconciliation” I spoke of earlier, it highlights the stories of queer people within The religions of the world. But that is not enough.
For many queer people there is no recovery or reconciliation that can heal the trauma they have suffered. Whether it’s because of the fact that “homosexuality” is a crime in 67 different countries, and in several it’s a capital offense that can carry a literal death penalty because of Christian or Muslim extremism, or the fact that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) uses his Catholicism as the cudgel to urge the Los Angeles Dodgers to withdraw their invitation to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence celebration, the deep and enduring harm religion has inflicted on queer people can sometimes be neither forgiven nor reconciled.
But strange spirituality reintroduces something completely different than queer religion. The innate spirituality of Queer Folx creates alternative rituals where the club is our chapel, the rainbow flag and the virtues it represents, our sacred symbol, renaming ceremonies of our trans relatives, our baptism or mikveh, Pride our holiest of days and our chosen families, our denomination. Our meditation is liberation. Our prayer authenticity. If the early church father Irenaeus is right when he asserts, “The glory of God is the fully living human race,” then queer people are showing us whether there is a God or not, what it really means to live fully and authentically as ourselves .
As we celebrate Pride, I’ll share with you what I’m proud of based on my experience as a deceased queer minister. I’m proud of the radical imagination of the queer community. Whether it’s our loyalty to one another when the world is unfaithful to us, the spiritual authenticity of trans relatives living in their fullness, or Karamo reminding us all of our innate worth in Queer Eye, the queer community is coming out new to what it means to be spiritually human. That is Queer Spirituality. And no politician or preacher can take that anymore.
Rev Dr Angela Yarber is the award-winning author of five books featured in QSpirit’s Top LGBTQ Religion Books, including Queering the American Dream. She is co-host of a Queer Spirituality Membership Programleads Queer Spirituality Retreatsand hosting a free virtual event Queer Spirituality Summit on June 4, 2023.
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