I grew up in church. I’m of that post-WWII Baby Boomer era when just about everyone went to church. My parents didn’t, but they thought that we kids should, so one of them took us to church and dropped us off and then picked us up afterwards. They — especially Mom — said that it was optional (but we knew that it pretty much wasn’t). We went to the Presbyterian church because the lady up the street invited us to go there, and she had taken us for awhile until they moved away. My family was pretty much poor, but she drove a beautiful gray 1953 Cadillac that I loved riding in. I guess that’s the foundation of my theology.
I took church and religion and God and Jesus seriously as a kid. The pastor invited me to use his office — his “study” — and I got to sit alone in this wonderful book-smelling semi-dark room and explore his library. I don’t remember when this was, because I always went to Sunday school and I always went to worship. It’s just one of those vague memories without a particular framing. But I got to read and look at his religious art books and feel the Spirit.
How’s that for growing up queer?
Then life happened. Yeah, high school and all that in the late 1960’s. War, foment, assassinations. No wonder we took drugs. And all the while a feeling that I was …different — a feeling without a name.
My plan was to go to college, then seminary, and then to become a minister. I’d never met a minister who was woman at that time, but that didn’t matter: I felt God’s strong call.
But first, a break. I left high school to go on the road for awhile. I hitchhiked around and worked here-and-there and saw the country and looked for myself, trying to figure out that …difference. I went off to college having not figured it out, my plan delayed but still intact. As a matter of fact, I went to Sonoma State, only about 30 miles from San Francisco Theological Seminary.
And then… I fell in love. I’d dated a little, but it was always pretty much like going out with a friend or even a brother, with no special attraction or sexual feeling. But when I fell in love — and it was with a woman — all of a sudden, there was that zing! and I knew what that …difference had been about all along.
Sonoma State in the early 1970s was a relatively easy place to be queer — at least for lesbians. But when I came out to my parents, it wasn’t so easy. My mom — who hadn’t been a churchgoer through my childhood — went to the pastor of the church. I now believe that it was his ignorance due to they times, but in essence he tried to counsel me to be straight. Not in that evil, go-to-ex-gay-therapy kind of way, but in that heterosexual assumption kind of way. But despite my new queerness, I knew that I had finally found myself, so I knew that his suggestion was absurd.
I didn’t see my parents for the next three years. I didn’t see the inside of a church for the next twenty years.
Well, needless to say, I didn’t go to seminary. After almost nine years in my coming out relationship, I was single again. I moved to San Francisco. This was in the early 1980s. I had a well-paying, dress-up corporate job by day; I was a wild party dyke riding a motorcycle by nights and weekends. And my best friend was a gay man. There was lots that was great about life at that time, but there was a newly-emerging reality: AIDS (even though it was an unnamed mystery disease at that time). We watched as it began to decimate the community around us. We saw it move into the circle of our friends. At that time AIDS was quick and it was deadly. So I got involved in meal delivery and hand-holding projects. But it wasn’t enough.
My best friend had also gone to church as a kid. He also hadn’t been in a church in many years. He too felt the void. So we decided that we would go to church together. After all, MCC San Francisco was only a few blocks from where I lived. But just thinking of it dredged up the old pain. So we talked about it but didn’t go. Finally, we decided this was the week. He came by and we walked up the street, only to find a sign on the door: “We’ve all gone to Sacramento. Come back next week!” So instead we went to brunch — a queer religious ritual in itself. The next week, when we approached the church, I read the sign out front: this time it said: “Preaching this week is Janie Spahr.”
For me this was a coming home. Janie was a Presbyterian minister. She had been on the staff of MCC-SF, but was then the director of Ministry of Light, an LGBT ministry in Marin.
I attended MCC for awhile, but it was never quite right. But what I loved about being there is the way that MCC does communion. First of all, it’s every week. Also, it isn’t just a little mumbo-jumbo say-the-magic-words and pass-the-plates ritual. Communion at MCC is a deep sacrament, a holy experience, which includes prayer and reconciliation. It’s a queer experiencing of connecting with the Christ.
[Fast forward again]
Another girl in my church youth group also felt …different. When I fell in love I came out to her. She was then married to a man and living in Ohio. Ten years after I came out, she came out; and, coming out and falling in love, she wanted me to meet her partner. They came up to San Francisco to visit me. I would see her, and them, and sometimes just her partner over the next number of years. It was a nice friendship.
And then my friend died. She went into rehab for alcoholism, but when they did the medical intake they transferred her to the hospital — and it was too late. I came to Southern California for her memorial service. During the process of mourning her death, her partner who had also become my friend and I fell in love. I returned to San Francisco, but it was only three months until we knew that we wanted to be together forever.
Melinda wanted to go to church. The church where I had grown up was close by; this was where her partner’s memorial service had been held. The pastor had told Melinda that it was a More Light church (Presbyterian for open and affirming, LGBT inclusive). After a couple of weeks we had the pastor over for tea and cookies, and then we joined the church.
In 2008 when we had the opportunity, Melinda and I got married. We’d never had a public ceremony of any kind, but we knew that we wanted to share this occasion with our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers. We knew that it was more than a legality, but a Christian marriage as well — and we wanted it to be in our church. Our then-pastor officiated at the service, and we had around 30 ordained clergy and numerous elders attend. We had witnesses, and we were a witness.
So what is all this? It’s my crazy hodgepodge of a story. It wasn’t the post that I’d intended to write, but the one that ended up writing itself. Words. God. Words describing my life, a queer life inseparable from my experience of God. Me telling my own story for myself. No apologies.
And as we sang in my youth group all those years ago:
God likes me just the way I am.
I turned out just right.
But I’ll sing it again in case I forget,
And strange as it seems, I might.
Queer Theology Synchroblog info and links to other posts can be found here.