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On Finding Pride While Having Faith: A Roundtable of Queer Believers

flickr / Raphael Perez Israeli Artist

‘I was in and out of the closet so much, people believed I’d found Narnia.’

Identities are important. They help us define who we are, and understand our place in the world. But sometimes, those very same identities exist as diametrically opposing forces within us; they are a juxtaposition that sends ripping cracks through our very idea of selfhood, leaving us confused, isolated, and bound in inner conflict.

And that’s how I felt for many, many years. Jewish. Lesbian. Lesbian. Jewish. I was both, and that made me feel like neither.

From one community I hear, “how can you be a part of a religion that hates your very existence?” while the other says, “how can you be a part of a group that G-d would not approve of?”

And so I’ve teetered on the edge of both worlds; finding pride in both my faith and my sexuality has been a long, arduous road to reconciliation.

At 13 I came out—for the first time—but at a fairly religious school (as you can expect) it was not accepted with open arms flung wide. I distinctly remember the moment it happened. During a history lesson, we had trailed into a dangerous discussion of homosexuality. The usual comments, slurs, and noises of disgust echoed around the room. I couldn’t take it. Years of anger, angst, and self-hatred burst forth and formed the words that blurted from my mouth: “I’m gay.”

What came next is a blur. But the moment those two words left my lips, my world changed.

Although there were those who stood by me, I had the usual mix of rejection, name-calling, and in one particularly unfortunate episode, a petition by some of my peers to get me expelled. Old Testament verses of corporal punishment were frequently quoted during discussions of my sexuality at school alongside other students and in the Synagogue with sermons; my fate of eternal damnation was certified, and attempts to save my soul through prayer were lovingly given.

But in truth, the harshest criticism, and the most vile disgust and hatred, came from none other than myself. Every night I would pray to G-d to make me straight, to make me like the way a boy’s hoodie smelled when he gave it to me if I was cold, to make me feel enticed by the way stubble rubbed against my cheek, to make me normal. I didn’t understand, why me.

If G-d loves all his children, why would he make me so detestable? I used to sit on the floor of my kitchen, tears flooding my face, feeling painfully torn in two directions. Knowing who you are is supposed to be a beautiful thing, a moment of epiphany and realization and calm.

But for me, knowing who I was was to be tormented.

Over the next four years, through deep conversations, debates, and determination, many came around and embraced my sexuality, including those who had previously shunned or questioned me; they loved the sinner despite the sin.

But for me to truly learn to love myself and accept my sexuality, it took far longer. I went along with the usual playground flirtations and games, the adolescent dance of sloppy kisses at parties, the dates over drinks and food 18 year-olds think is fancy. I was in and out of the closet so much that people believed I’d found Narnia.

Those around me just couldn’t understand; how I could be so vocal in asking for acceptance from others, but couldn’t find the same acceptance from within? In truth, until I was 19 (six years after I first came out, and 12 years from the time I first realized who I was), I couldn’t understand this internal dichotomy either.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment where I finally found my peace. It’s an amalgamated feeling of foggy memories of finally finding love—slipping my hand into my girlfriend’s felt right, not wrong—throwing handfuls of sweaty glitter onto Pride floats, and hours of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Seeing all the joy, beauty, and goodness people felt within themselves because of their sexuality, and not in spite of it, made me question what could be so awful about feeling the way I did.

I recognized that I didn’t have to make a choice anymore — my Judaism and my sexuality were equally valid aspects and wants of my heart. I suppose I finally believed the old adage that tells you to follow it.

I was in and out of the closet so much people believed I’d found Narnia. Click To Tweet

My story is not unique. It is one that plays out in churches, mosques, synagogues, and places of worship across the world. Coming out is never easy, but coming out within the context of religion adds another layer to the struggle. Individuals who are both religious and LGBT+ face the prospect of an entire community that they grew up with turning their backs on them, of being cast out and criticized.

Pride means something different to those who face these particular threats. So, I asked people who identify as both having faith and as LGBT+ to share their experiences, and what Pride means to them.

Rowan, 18, FTM, Christian

“I’ve received a lot of criticism — I’ve had people tell me that they ‘disagree’ with my identity. It just so happens that growing up in a Christian community meant that most of the people I came out to first were childhood friends I knew via the church. These people always made it very clear that their opinion of my identity didn’t affect how much they cared about me—even if it hurts—and that counts for something I suppose.

I never personally had any doubts that God loved me under justifications that He doesn’t make mistakes. If I’ve been made like this, it’s a path he wants me to take, and I can use my body in a way that honors Him through becoming the person He wants me to be . . .

But there was always the thought in the back of my mind that I was twisting the Bible’s words to make me feel better about my situation. Talking to other people who shared my faith—or at least who had a faith and so understood my experience—made it a lot easier for me to reconcile my sexual/gender identity without feeling guilty at all.

I do feel proud of both of my identities, kind of more so because I have both identities—like, there’s often stereotypes of people with a faith/religion hating queer people and queer people in return being intolerant of faith groups, and it’s nice to think that I can be open minded on both sides.

Pride should be a celebration of inclusivity and tolerance, so it would be unfair of me or anyone else to allow my faith to prevent me from enjoying it.”

Brian, 21, Bisexual, Christian:

“The most rejection I’ve faced has been from my parents, and the Afrikaans church that they’re a part of. My parents don’t accept my sexuality; they say that they pray for me to stop being gay every day and refuse to be a part of my life with my partner.

Religion to some people is something very beautiful, but to others it is something very harmful. Because I have understood what it means to be rejected by a religion, I find Pride is a concept that means a lot to me; it means I’m saying I’m not going to let any institution tell me that what I am isn’t okay. I take pride in the fact that me and others share in a large experience of rejection. Religion for me informs my pride.

Religion has meant that people aren’t willing to consider what it actually means to be gay, and for a lot of religious communities being gay is not accepted and it’s a fairly common experience amongst LGBT+ globally that they find it difficult to come out or they’re completely rejected by their community. For me and those people, Pride means something powerful: I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my chosen family.”

Qaisar, 30, Queer, Muslim:

“Pride is not only the opposite of shame; it’s the opposite of invisibility, erasure, and silence. To be a queer Muslim during Pride month is about voraciously affirming one’s own existence against a backdrop of religiously-motivated homophobia, and against the virulent Islamophobia and racism that underlines many Western queer spaces and movements.

Online and in the books of bearded Saudi-funded clerics, you can find a million ways to spell out your hell-bound journey. But my own experience in real life has been remarkably serene; I am lucky to have a family that for the most part—though with difficulty—has accepted my sexual orientation, and have further found allies within my own community networks. Granted, there have been plenty of friendly and unfriendly debates on the reconciliation between faith and sexual orientation or gender identity, but oftentimes I have found being Muslim in queer spaces a greater challenge than the reverse.

Pride is not only the opposite of shame; it’s the opposite of invisibility, erasure, and silence. Click To Tweet

Firstly, that the history of Islam and the Muslim world — the orientalist geography of the term notwithstanding — is replete with orientations and identities wholly alien to modern heteronormative ideals, and queer life has found expressions in Islamic cultures from Persia, to Morocco, to India and Indonesia.

Secondly, I have found like-minded Muslims from across the LGBTQI+ spectrum with whom to build affirming community groups, discussion circles, and prayer spaces, and in doing so, shatter the false fantasy shared by Islamic conservatives and LGBT secularists; you can’t be gay and Muslim.”

Masha, 24, Bisexual, Roman Catholic:

“I grew up in Russia, where the majority of believers belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. However, my family background is partly Polish and Lithuanian, therefore, at the age of 9, I was christened into the Roman Catholic Church and had been a member since. This period covers most of my experience growing up, as well as exploring my sexuality and coming to peace with it.

I slowly realized that I may not be totally heterosexual around the age of 15. As I was a devoted Catholic, I had a mini-breakdown a couple months before my Confirmation, but had no one to talk about it with at the Church or in my family. I went to confession and asked forgiveness for kissing a girl—among other things—skipping class and smoking a cigarette.

Finally, a little while later, at one of the services during the homily, a priest said, “one should not come to the confession if they are not truly sorry about their sins, and shouldn’t come to the communion unless they have committed something extremely bad.” Personally, I didn’t feel particularly bad about loving another person and although I knew it was a sin, I did not feel it was extremely bad; in all other parts of my life I acted like an “OK” Christian.

In a way, Pride for me is to know who I am, and not be ashamed of it. With Christian morals, it is also important to me to be a good, kind, and forgiving person. I believe that, no matter what, the way you treat people is always more meaningful than who you are attracted to. I am always glad to see religious organizations and charities taking part in Pride marches and I feel that in general, we as humanity are moving in the right direction.”

As a community, we’ve all faced rejection, isolation, and the external, internal, and eternal struggle of finding acceptance from others and from ourselves. But, as the above stories show, despite the darkness there are glimmers and bright glares of hope, acceptance, and love to be found and to be proud about. Watching this year’s Pride celebrations around the world, I think I finally understand what that word means.

In the Talmud, the sacred text of Judaism, there is a story of Hillel, a sage scholar said to be associated with the holy book’s development—one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He came across a gentile who demanded that the entire Talmud be explained to him while standing on one foot. Hillel simply replied:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”

Love, kindness, and social justice are the beating heart of the Jewish faith, and of many other religions; these virtues should be given freely no matter how a person identifies. We are all deserving subjects of the Lord’s love.

I’m Jewish, and I’m a lesbian. I can be both. I am both. I will always be both. The internal divisions have healed, even if the scars are still there — and I endeavor to live a life that G-d would be proud of.