Originally published in the Naked Ptarmigan February, 2007
There was only one seat left at the coffee shop when I sat down with my laptop, and I soon realized that the young man next to me was a local priest – someone I’ve seen from time to time but never actually met. I don’t know if he knows who I am, or knows that I’m gay, or if he cares. So I opened up the laptop and typed ‘Naked Ptarmigan – Sex.’
I then deleted the word sex, feeling irritated that I was too embarrassed to write about sex sitting next to a pastor I didn’t quite know. Which is exactly the point. The vast majority of messages we get from ‘church’ or ‘religion’ about sex, and more specifically about sex as it pertains to those of us who don’t fit heterosexual norms, are overwhelmingly negative, of the ‘You’re going straight to hell’ variety with words like ‘abomination’ thrown in for fun. At best, we’re told not to talk about it because it makes others uncomfortable.
When I came out publicly at the church I served, one member asked me why I had to tell them, when they already knew and essentially were comfortable pretending they didn’t know. And that is probably the message I struggle with the most, hearing over and over again that I’m ‘a problem to be dealt with,’ causing trouble in the church, an ‘issue.’
While I have always believed that my capacity for loving women is part of the Spirit’s design for me, part of my gift, I realize how rarely that truth is reinforced. When I have heard that message proclaimed explicitly in a religious setting, it inevitably brings tears to my eyes. Like the card I received from a member of my congregation – she wrote, “…I know this: Love should always be celebrated … May God bless you both.”
I have stacks of books that remind me of the many, many ways one can interpret scripture, and of the many gifts we queer folk share. But my favorite, without question, is Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church by L. William Countryman and M.R. Ritley (Morehouse Publishing:Harrisburg,PA, 2001). In her chapter ‘A People Defined by Desire,’ Ritley writes this:
“Think about this: we are not a minority defined by our race, national origin, religion, or economic bracket. We are a people defined by our desires. To put it in a more Christian way, we are defined by our loves. I recollect a hymn whose refrain is “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Well, we too know who we are by our loves. And there is something profoundly right about that. To be a woman defined by her desires, to be a man defined by his love, and to be faithful to those desires and that love, even in the face of everything that society and the church have done to us, is nothing short of awesome. It is something that we have to offer others, a self-acknowledgment and self-affirmation that the rest of this church needs as desperately as we do (p. 26-27).
We are a people defined by our desires, willing to take risks and to be vulnerable for the sake of our love, our commitments, in a way few people who fit heterosexual norms easily understand. Ritley continues that we are also a living reminder that “creation itself is rooted in God’s desire, and that human beings, who are the image and likeness of God, are sexual beings who reflect God’s passion and love (p. 27).” Our loving, our desire, and yes, even our sex, can reflect God’s passion and love.
Like anyone else on the planet, we’re certainly capable of unhealthy, destructive relationships. That has nothing to do with the gender of the people we love, with whom we make love. And often I suspect we do a better job of communicating, of working at our relationships, because we’ve had to as a survival skill in this culture that tries to pretend we’re not here.
Our loving will threaten some people. It will threaten what they’ve understood to be ‘normal,’ or unchanging. It breaks down walls that people take for granted, and forces them to really look at what they believe and why. It makes life messy, not so clear-cut. But for others, our loving is a non-issue, and even a breath of fresh air. We are living, breathing, loving examples that life happens ‘outside the box’ in remarkable, creative, surprising ways.
Life is messy. So is sex. And that comes as a disappointment to many, but I can’t think of anything truly creative and valuable that ever happened without messiness in the process. Child birth, delicious food, thought-provoking art – it all requires some messiness in the process. So some people will get uncomfortable, including us, at times. But never doubt that our loving, our desire, is fabulous, and enriches the universe.
A final word from M.R. Ritley:
“…it is about speaking the radical word of the gospel, which is about God’s outrageous desire to include every variety of person we can think of, and then create more. The living church, like creation itself, is not as tidy as we think it ought to be. It is messily alive, and continually leaks out at the edges. That is probably the way God wanted it to be. Being alive is not about being a well-functioning machine, any more than being a church is about simply being an organization. Being the church is about a force as strong as that which shook the disciples on the day of Pentecost, a roaring wind and a thunder of flaming spirit, a power that shakes us to the core and sends us out to change the world. It is about desire. It is about love. (p. 29).”
Never forget. It is about desire. It is about love.
About me: Susan is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, serving as a hospital chaplain, and has mostly gotten used to being the “lesbian poster child” in her church. She finds the Sacred all kinds of places — in the mountains, in church, at a hospital bedside, in the midst of a heartfelt conversation, running along the coastal trail, in music that makes her cry and stories that make her laugh.