Some LGBTQ believers cling to beliefs that disown them

When queer students at Yeshiva University sued the school for discrimination in the spring of 2021, critics were quick to question why LGBTQ students would opt for an Orthodox Jewish university in the first place.

But for many LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, as for believers of other religions, their religious identities are as non-negotiable as their queer identities.

“Many people ask, why would someone who is gay stay orthodox? It’s like saying there’s a conflict in your family, why don’t you leave? Rachael Fried, a Yeshiva alumnus and executive director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), a nonprofit organization that supports Orthodox Jewish queer youth, told Religion News Service.

In churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as in families, religious texts and teachings are often cited to reject LGBTQ members, and many queer believers feel they have no choice but to leave. Many end up rejecting religion as a whole; others find meaning in the acceptance of faith communities. But some LGBTQ religious people are reconciling parts of themselves that the doctrines of their faith frame as incompatible, continuing to serve and worship even when officially deemed in violation of divine law or barred from leadership.


This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religious news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.


For Madeline Marlett, it was the Jesuits who first showed her that being a queer Catholic trans woman was possible.

Growing up in Texas, in a devout Catholic household of 10, Marlett told RNS that she prayed every night to wake up the next morning in a different body. Years later, as a student at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts, her body dysmorphia had not subsided.

“I was hoping this trans thing would go away, but through Holy Cross, the Jesuits showed me a different flavor of Catholicism. It was more about ‘God is love,’ less about ‘here are the rules,’” said Marlett, now 25 and living in Boston.

In a class called “Understanding Jesus,” Marlett said he first encountered the idea of ​​a radical Christ ministering to the marginalized. “That became my barometer as I unpacked what I believed in. Is this loving rule? That’s what helped me rebuild my sense of religion to include myself and the people around me.”

After graduating, she joined Dignity USA, a Catholic LGBTQ advocacy organization, changed her legal name, and began introducing herself as Madeline.

Jodi O’Brien, a professor of sociology at Seattle University, said many LGBTQ Christians have had the “aha” moment that Marlett had when she encountered stories of Jesus ministering to the marginalized.

“They rewrote themselves in the script of Christianity,” O’Brien said. “Instead of being the sinners, or the outcasts, they were the ones who most embodied the love of Christ.”

For some, seeking an accepted version of their faith means leaving institutional religion behind. For Randall Thacker, a Mormon and former president of Affirmation, a global organization that supports LGBTQ members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, separating God from the church was key.

“I would say I embrace my faith, but I don’t fully embrace the institution,” he told RNS. “That’s quite difficult in this kind of faith, where everything revolves around (the church).” Over the years, Thacker has learned to treasure the doctrines he loves while ridding himself of harmful teachings, a step that allows him to reclaim a faith that “seems like it’s in my DNA,” as he put it.

Jordan Jamil Ahmed, 31, takes a similar approach. “I think often organized religion, not just Islam, is often a way of expressing political power over people, whereas for me the idea of ​​faith is more innate or intuitive.”

Ahmed is a Shia Muslim who grew up in a multiracial and multiethnic household in central Ohio. After years of struggling with his gay and Muslim identities, Ahmed joined Boston’s Gay Muslims in 2020, eventually connecting with Union Square Halaqa, a group of marginalized Muslims who gather to study Islam.

“Halaqa is the first space where I really came to understand queer and Muslim together,” Ahmed said. The expansion of the divine, Ahmed believes, cannot be limited to the masculine-feminine binary. This expanded view of spirituality has also allowed them to experience God, they said, in everything from prayer to tarot cards to dancing in gay clubs.

But Ahmed’s spiritual fluidity, as much as his gender, has meant exile from some Muslim circles. “I have definitely built my community outside of traditional institutions. There are really no mosques where I feel comfortable.”

Tyler Lefevor, a counselor and psychologist, found that queer believers can face exclusion within and outside of religious contexts. In a study published by the American Psychological Association this year, Lefevor and his co-author found that more than half of LGBTQ Mormons who responded to a survey said they lacked belonging to their faith community, to the LGBTQ+ community. or both.

The struggle to belong is what drives LGBTQ believers to create explicitly queer religious spaces like Affirmation, JQY or Dignity USA, Lefevor said. “Many of these communities provide some of the theological tools that queer religious people need to stay within these conservative congregations. They are a group of people who understand what it is like to constantly explain yourself to people on both sides.”

Groups often go beyond theology. During the Yeshiva standoff, JQY stepped in to fund Pride Alliance, Yeshiva’s student club, after the university refused. It also hosts a weekly drop-in center in Times Square, where LGBTQ youth get free pizza, connect with social workers and have game nights.

Sergio Guzmán, who belongs to the San Fernando Valley chapter of Dignity USA, was encouraged by their participation to take what he calls a “Hell no, I’m not going” stance toward the Catholic faith he loves.

After years of being in and out of the church, Henry Abuto, a celibate gay Christian, found his way into the Side B community, a loose network of Christians who embrace queer identity but believe that God designed sex for marriage between a man and a woman. Abuto, who attends a nondenominational church in Fort Worth, Texas, chose celibacy eight years ago as the best way to stay true to himself and his faith. Like many on Side B, he has since been called a sinner for being gay and hated for choosing celibacy.

In 2018, Abuto stumbled across Revoice, an annual B-Side conference. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by people whose journeys mirrored his own. “Without that community, my walk wouldn’t be as flourishing as it is,” said Abuto, who is now a Revoice staffer.

Not all people reconcile their faith and their weirdness. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that nearly half (48%) of LGBTQ people have no religious affiliation, more than double the proportion among the general public (20%). A third of religious LGBTQ people reported a conflict between their sexual orientation or gender identity and their beliefs.

Eric Rodriguez, an associate professor of psychology at City University of New York who has studied LGBTQ identity issues for decades, said faithful LGBTQ people may reject their religious identity, attempt to eradicate or suppress their queer identity, compartmentalize both identities, or integrate them.

“The people who did better were those who identified as embedded or those who identified as secular,” he said. “That’s regardless of whether you’re talking about someone with a Christian, Jewish or Islamic background.”

The issue of belonging is complicated by the wide range of attitudes towards LGBTQ inclusion, even when one faith is not affirmative on paper. In the Catholic catechism, homosexual acts are called “inherently disordered,” but in 2019 the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Catholics said they supported same-sex marriage. In 2017, Pew reported that 52% of American Muslims said that society should accept homosexuality.

“It’s the guys in the funny robes and hats who have the problem,” as Guzmán put it.

Jeff Chu, author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America,” said that the affirmative and non-affirmative labels are too simplistic. Chu married her husband in the Reformed Church in America and is an ordained elder there, but her ordination process, which for most people takes three years, dragged on for six because of the denomination’s broader debate over LGBTQ inclusion.

“Simply saying ‘non-affirming denomination’ does a disservice to the reality on the ground, which is the truth that we are individuals, couples and congregations struggling on a very complicated political and social terrain.”

Natalie Drew, a trans woman, never expected to land in a Christian Reformed Church congregation. The CRC, a close cousin of the RCA, codified its opposition to gay sex at the denominational level this summer. But Drew doesn’t pick churches based on whether they’re in the affirmative.

“I don’t want to belong just because they have an official policy. I want to feel like I belong because people treat me like I’m really family. It could have happened in many places. It just happened at the CRC church,” Drew said.

In light of denominational opposition, Drew’s church, like many others, is rethinking its future in the CRC. Drew said that she is not part of those conversations and that she doesn’t mind being. She loves the church’s commitment to ancient creeds and social justice work, and what ultimately matters is that she, her wife and her children are made welcome.

“For LGBTQIA people who are struggling right now, there are churches,” he told RNS. “You don’t have to give up your faith to be who you are.”

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