I’m a sex educator who identifies as sex-positive, queer, and religious. I was baptized Episcopalian and attended church every Sunday until I was 18. My family was always affirming, and my church community never shamed me for my sexuality. My friends and I would gossip after church choir practice about our crushes and sexual interests of all genders. It wasn’t until I left home for college that I even encountered the idea that some people view sexual orientation and religious identity as mutually exclusive.
When my assigned roommates asked if I was a Christian, I responded, “Yeah sure, I used to go to church.” But I quickly realized their conservative evangelical views were very different from the affirming culture I was used to. They continued inviting me to their dorm bible study while making side comments like, “It’s not a sin to be gay, but it is a sin to act on gay feelings.” I was lucky to have never had a closet before and I refused to go into one, so I just declined the invitations, stuck to small talk, and looked for more affirming folks through the Gender Equity and Pride Centers on campus.
I drifted away from spiritual belief for about a year, but when I had a personal traumatic experience as a sophomore, I decided to take up my freshman year roommate’s offer to attend bible study. I wasn’t sure who to be angry with for my trauma because, at that point, I wasn’t sure if I even believed in God. But I knew I needed somewhere to figure out my beliefs.
I had never been to a bible study before, but I immediately felt comfortable with the 10 girls from my dorm snacking in their pajamas. While they discussed a specific passage the leaders had picked out, I zoned out and journaled about my own experiences and thoughts instead. Just like taking care of myself emotionally and physically is important, I discovered that figuring out spirituality on my own terms during my healing process was a vital piece of self-care.
I attended bible study only on the weeks I felt I needed a spiritual connection, and the girls I bonded with most from the group also attended sporadically. Like me, they were skeptical about this particular brand of evangelical Christianity as The Only Truth, and they were also more openly supportive about my bisexuality. Overall, the group was open to me voicing critical questions about the Bible which gave me space to build connection to my own spirituality.
At one meeting, one of our group leaders, an older student, asked if anyone would like to join her at a Queer Faith and Spirituality dialogue. The Gender Equity Center on campus facilitated these meet-ups, providing a safe space for queer people to sort out their own beliefs separate from shaming spaces. The leader, myself, and two other girls attended, and I was impressed when the other girls listened respectfully while queer folks in the room opened up. Feeling empowered, I voiced my experience about the spiritually abusive comments I endured from some Christian students at the school and how that shame did not align with my beliefs or my identities. It seemed to me that a lot of the attendees were seeking both spiritual community and not just acceptance, but affirmation of their gender and sexual orientation. The facilitators offered to link interested students up with off-campus faith communities, like local Unitarian churches.
On the other hand, I’ve noticed not all queer folks are as accepting of these intersecting identities. One time a queer co-worker of mine told me, “Queer faith and spirituality sounds like an oxymoron.” Sometimes I feel more closeted in queer spaces about my religious identity than I do about my sexuality in religious spaces. What worked for me was finding queer spaces, like these meet-ups, that affirmed my spirituality rather than faith-based communities that merely tolerated my bisexuality.
Oddly enough, I’ve been able to use my faith and religious beliefs to inform my profession as a comprehensive high school sex educator. I learned a lot from the girls in my Bible study about their personal choice to remain abstinent until marriage. Now I know how to respectfully present controversial topics to a whole room with varying values around sex. My goal is to give everyone the same affirming information about sex, sexuality, and identity so that everyone can be affirming toward other experiences than their own.
I don’t share my queer or religious identities outright as an educator, but I use the messages of compassion, love, and inclusivity from my beliefs to promote that there are so many different ways to have a body, have sex, and have a relationship. Ultimately, I want these youth to have the skills to think critically about their identities and values, like I was able to do through my Bible study journaling.
Everyone’s experience is different, and I absolutely support anyone’s decision to avoid a religious community after experiencing spiritual abuse for their identities. What helped me was redefining what I believed in a way that affirmed who I am. Someone’s spirituality (their understanding of the larger forces in the universe) and their sexuality (their desire for connection) don’t have to be mutually exclusive.