Twenty years old. I’m curled up in a ball on the floor in the Intervarsity Student Office, a hole in the wall in the basement of my campus student union building. The carpet smells like spilled coffee and dust and musty dampness. I’ve been crying for so long that my stomach hurts. Martyrs and Thieves by Jennifer Knapp has been playing on repeat and I am praying the Psalms. Psalm 22, again and again and again. My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
Twenty-two. I’m sitting in the personal office of the campus minister. He has a lot of degrees hanging on his walls, looming over me, a huge oak desk sitting in between us. He’s cheerful, chipper. He’s telling me his theory of homosexuality. “I think it’s sin,” he confides, “but I’m more concerned with the identity aspect of it. Homosexuals seem to identify more as Gay than as Christians, and we’re supposed to find our identities in Jesus, you know? I feel like we’re really on the same wavelength here, Laura.” He hands me a pamphlet that he wrote about gay theology and gives me a hug when I leave.
Twenty-four. We’re sitting on Adirondack chairs, out in the sun, watching folks hang laundry in the windy early spring, smelling damp earth from last night’s rain. “You’re attracted to women because you’ve never fully identified as a woman,” my mentor muses from his mug of tea. “To be whole in Christ, you’ll have to recover that sense of femininity. Perhaps it will help to meditate on Paul’s call to women towards gentleness. Perhaps that will help you recover yourself as primarily woman in God’s eyes.”
Twenty-five. I’m pacing back and forth in the carpeted hallway, landline phone pressed up against my ear gathering sweat. The house is heavy and dark on top of me – brown panelling, brown shag carpet, pine table and pine chairs. I keep thinking she’s hung up on me, but the silence collects until finally “I don’t think we can be friends if you’re gay.”
I want to tell you about what it’s like to grow up loving Jesus more than anything else in the world ever.
And then falling in love with a girl in college.
What that’s like is very, very strange.
And then stranger still, falling in love with a boy in seminary.
Even more confusing. Even more complicated.
I am not good with ambiguity. I was raised a fundamentalist and maybe will always be one. I constantly pray for clarity. But clarity is the last thing you are clinging to that you must let go of, Mother Theresa whispers. Instead, I will pray that you trust God.¹
This is a story about being queer.
This is mostly a story about learning to trust God.
Sixteen. I’m rehearsing Olivia’s line’s in the shower, scrubbing calloused heels with men’s body wash. “I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth…” It’s my first time playing a female part after years of Dromio and Shylock and Bottom. Olivia’s lines feel awkward and clunky, and I think I’m speaking in a faux-European accent. Rinsing the shampoo out of my hair and feeling estranged from my body, from Olivia’s body, from women’s bodies. How do women’s bodies move? I stare at my legs and wonder if they are woman’s legs. At play practice later that day I’m frustrated. “Jen, how do I be a girl?” She snickers. “Laura, you are a girl.”
Eleven. Curled up on mossy boulders in the woods with my best friend, planning out an elaborate “make-believe” story. Light filters through ancient oak trees and reflects off costume jewelry and my bulky glasses. My best friend is telling me about her “character,” who has long golden hair, violet eyes, and goes by Emmeline. My “character” still gets explained, but we know who he is. We decided long ago in make-believe that I get to “Be the Boy.” He’s sarcastic, ironic, and probably troubled but ultimately heroic. His name is almost definitely Jack. It feels comfy, like a worn pair of jeans that slip on and fit perfectly right out of the wash. I slide into my maleness easily, my alter-ego that I didn’t fully appreciated until the adult world told me that I was stuck as Woman, and that Woman meant a whole list of things that I wasn’t good at, and didn’t even know how to perform adequately enough to fool anyone.
I still wish that there were days when I could wake up and “Be The Boy.” Especially in ministry. Most especially in ministry.
Fifteen. Sitting on a foggy hill at a summer camp in rural Maine, reading the Psalms and listening to God. God feels close, and I don’t know about the monks and mystics so I am still not sure if that’s ok or if that’s “real.” I feel like God has been waiting to tell me something for months, and sitting in my grubby, oversized jeans, bare feet digging into the pebbly dirt, I finally stop dodging and let Him talk. I’m not exactly sure I understand Him when He does talk. Is it go? Is it come? It’s something. But I say yes. I’m a girl, so I don’t know what the “yes” means or what it means to be “called.” I decide to interpret the yes as being a missionary, because what else do women do when they’re called to ministry? I listen to the loons on the lake, and I resolve to memorize the book of Philippians to prepare myself if I’m ever imprisoned for my faith in a foreign country.
Sixteen. I am uncomfortably crouched on an overturned bucket on a cement floor, a dozen middle schoolers in a circle around me, holding my first ever handwritten message on Ecclesiastes 4:12. I have never preached before. I think I’m going to barf. My hands are shaking and I am having trouble breathing. I start reading. And while I preach, I look up at the girls and I suddenly know how delighted God is with every one of them, how delighted God is with me, and how much I am in the right place, at the right time. I am so happy. I don’t remember ever being that happy before. Afterwards, my mentor pulls me aside. You have a gift. You should consider some type of ministry that involves public speaking. Too bad I’m not a boy. Too bad I can’t be a preacher.
It all weaves in and out. Me: being a girl and not always being comfortable with what that means. Me: sometimes falling in love with women and sometimes falling in love with men. Me: sanctified by Jesus Christ and called to preach and pastor and minister. It feels impossible to talk about one identity without talking about the other one. They don’t separate, or stay in their lane. They’re all somehow connected.
There’s never just “our story.” There’s always how we tell our story. What parts of our story we leave out. The things we remember, the things we forget.
I’m sad that when I tell the story of being queer, I don’t remember holding hands on the beach or first kisses or going on giggly first dates or staying up until 1am whispering on the phone, even though all of that happened. I remember how much it hurt to be so afraid. I remember how it felt to be so ashamed.
I remember how my most essential identity as Beloved of Christ and called by God felt like an impossible identity to hold with my queerness. And how I wasn’t surprised, because I was kind of used to assuming that something about me had to go in order to follow Jesus – after all, if I was being called to ministry, than my “womanness” was a problem. My identities never seemed to fit.
It always felt like being all that at once meant something had to go.
Thinking about “coming out” always made me anxious. Why even come out as queer? Sometimes I date men! Sometimes I date women! Who even cares??
Lots of people care, and they care a lot, it turns out.
I think a lot about my campus minister’s well-intentioned speech about how The Gays “find their identity” in their sexuality instead of Christ. I’ve heard lots of versions of that speech in the last ten years – always men chastising women for thinking too much about being a woman, always straight folk telling gay folk to stop thinking too much about being gay, always white folk telling black folk to stop “making it all about race.” Always straight, white men telling the rest of us that if only we could stop thinking about our peripheral identities, then we could be free to be identified entirely in Christ. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that forgetting about your social identity is a kind of gift. A privilege.
Because it’s real hard not to think about queer identity when queerness stops you from being welcomed as a member of a community. It’s real hard not to think about gender identity when femaleness prevents you from using your spiritual gifts in the broader Church. It’s real hard not to think about queer identity when someone will use it against you if you aren’t careful. Or even if you are.
I want “coming out” to be irrelevant because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, and that I could be first and foremost a child of God through faith. I wish that my body itself wasn’t a radical statement when I stand up to preach an innocuous sermon about “trusting Jesus.” I wish I could be a “neutral human” (a man who’s straight, I guess), and since I can’t be neutral, I settle for trying to forget that I’m not.
But every time I forget, someone reminds me. You remind me that I’m a woman. You remind me that I’m queer. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a well-meaning friend. Sometimes it’s coffee with a pastor. Sometimes it’s an encounter with someone who tells me I’m a whore who’s going to hell, and that Jesus has rejected me because I’m gay.
I would love to spend all of my brain space remembering that I am, at the beginning and end of time, Jesus Christ’s.
But y’all don’t let us do that, do you? You don’t let us forget, and then you blame us for remembering.
But mostly, I’m not coming out for you. I’m coming out for me.
Coming out means saying, out loud, in public, that I believe that Jesus made me exactly right, and there were no mistakes. Coming out means taking a breath from endless exegetical work (so much exegesis) endless book reading (so many books), endless examining of the Greek and Hebrew, endless essay writing about Women in Scripture and Homosexuality in Scripture, and finally believing that I am OK, and I am loved, and I am enough. Coming out means believing that Jesus isn’t bothered that I can’t really do all the tasks that the legalistic Church and the legalistic Culture expect “women” to do. Coming out means believing that Jesus isn’t even slightly concerned that I fell in love with a girl, and then fell in love with a boy, and that it was only ever confusing to me and to the Church and to the World, but never, ever confusing to Him.
At the end of the day, I’m someone who has always felt a little bit awkward as a girl, and a little bit in love with all kinds of people. And at the very end of the day, this is exactly the person that Jesus looked at, and smiled at, and whispered “Mine” over.
Hey, team. Laura Jean, queer lady minister, checking in.
It’s good to be here.