I have talked about the intersection of queerness and spirituality in my life so much, for so many years but it is very different today than it was six months ago. As I was driving over I thought, "I used to do that all the time but I don’t do that all the time anymore." And that intersection is the reason I don’t do it all the time anymore.
I grew up going to Sunday school with the Evangelical Friends, the fundamentalist wing of the Quaker church. My parents weren’t church people but they took us to Sunday school and I loved the community. I felt like I belonged there, until I became a teenager and then I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere. As I look back, I think part of it was spirituality and part of it was queerness. And neither thing was really popular, neither thing was really culturally acceptable. And by the time I had graduated high school, I had chosen to fall in love with Jesus where it was safe, you know? And make my life in the Church. That seemed safe. I knew I wanted to have children. This was the early 1980s and I was very much in touch with faith and spirituality and God. So I went to seminary really young, after teaching for just a year.
I remember standing in McDonalds. I was 24, 25. I was in seminary. We had a January course on spirituality and we had been inundated with all kinds of sexuality. I was realizing that not only was it politically OK to be gay but maybe spirituality it was too, and maybe I don’t have to make that choice. And I was standing there in McDonalds, in between all the classes, realizing that the feeling I had for this classmate of mine, this female classmate, was attraction. And I panicked. I panicked! Because I knew if I went with that, I would never be a minister. Though the United Church of Christ ordained gay people in 1972 and on, you could only be ordained if you have a call and you can’t have a call if you’re openly lesbian, at least, not in the 1980s. It’s different today, a little bit, [although] I thought it was more different than it is.
I was ordained in the United Church of Christ as a minister in 1989. In that same year, I married a man who was a good friend of mine and is the father of my children. I kind of knew it was the wrong thing to do but there you are. I buried the feelings again. And I felt an affinity for queerness, but a relief that it wasn’t my story, because you had to pick in those days. You had to pick between God and queerness. You couldn’t have both. You had to pick between ‘church’ and ‘gay.’ They didn’t go together.
I had babies and accepted a call to ministry in a church in Michigan, and then southern Michigan, and then we moved to St. Louis. And then the babies were children in school. And I was an ally.
I was an ally. I was very active on speaking out on behalf of inclusion. Our church was the first suburban mainline church to take a stand in inclusion of LGBT [people]. Remember when there was this Amendment Two thing? It was a constitutional amendment in the state of Missouri to define marriage as between a man and a woman, so as to prevent people being married in other states from being recognized here in Missouri. It was hateful and mean and it was the first of its kind. It was like Missouri was kind of a test state for how that would go.
And I remember Jeff Wunrow, [the executive director of the state’s LGBT-advocacy group, PROMO], gathered local clergy together and said: “Look, this is a justice issue.” And we said: ‘You’re right. We’re with you on this. We’ll fight it.” It was mostly rabbis, and I made some really good friends that summer. And we spoke and we rallied and we canvassed. It was just stunning to watch how, despite what was obvious about justice, despite what seemed obvious to us, it landslided. Like 75% of Missourians [voted for that change].
In my personal life just a year before that, I realized that I was in love with one of [my female friends]. And it was one of those cold shower moments when you see something that you’ve been hiding from for years and you can’t hide from it anymore. So there it was: I’m not just an advocate, I am fighting for my life. I’m not just an ally, this is me we are talking about. But as clear as it was, in that moment, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I had a life, and I had a husband, and I had children and I had a church and I had a public image, and I had… you know.
So the intersection between spirituality and queerness was that you have to choose. And I chose spirituality, even then. Gosh, it sounds funny to look back and see all that. I mean, how can you hide from yourself for that long?
Part of my story is I did it by drinking. I know that’s not an uncommon thing. It’s a pretty destructive thing, so I just drank more and drank more. After that moment that I realized I was in love with the friend, a whole bunch of things happened and I couldn’t tell you which thing happened in what order. I stopped drinking, came out, moved out, and then I realized I was an alcoholic.
All these things kind of coalesced in my life and shifted things so that the last five years have been this incredible odyssey of losing to gain, you know? Everything I thought was precious left, and in its place something even better grew. So it’s been profound.
I began to find spirituality around 12 Steps tables that allowed me to be in touch with the sacred and gay at the same time. And I think that was really the first time that had happened. I wasn’t judged, I was just, "Hi, I’m Katy. I’m an alcoholic" or "Hi, I’m Katy. I have a screwed up family." And it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter to anybody around the tables.
I had a sponsor one time that said, “Have you taken this to prayer? You need to pray about this.” I had been a minister for, I don’t know, 20 years by then. And I said, “I don’t know how to pray.” I know how to write prayers. I have a website where I have tons of written prayers. I write prayers all the time, but I don’t know how to be quiet and in touch with the sacred. It’s a totally different thing, and I had to learn that. I had to learn that. So, I did.
The Sunday after Easter three years ago, I stepped up in the pulpit to start the service and I looked out and there was this woman there. And I’d been out for a couple years, and I was single. And she was hot, she was hot! And she was not my type, I mean she had this dyed streak in her hair and a tattoo on her arm.
And I went out to lunch with my ex and my children, and we were sitting on the patio at this restaurant and she had shown up after church with a group of people from church at that same restaurant. And it was the first time I realized: I don’t want to be here with him. I want to be with her.
We became friends that April. We had our first date at the end of June. By the time we had our first date, we were pretty serious about dating. And I had to talk to a lot of people about how to do it appropriately and boundaries and all that stuff.
There’s this line about true love in The Princess Bride, “It’s true love.” It comes around once every 100 years. You know, she is my true love. She is everything like in my life, all these pieces: so-and-so’s smile, the shape of so-and-so’s ankles, the way so-and-so responded. All these things that were good in my life all along the way, I can see them all in her. I could from the beginning. It was like breadcrumbs all along my life that led me to her. And she just showed up in church one Sunday! Some friends had told her that it was a good, and safe, and loving place. And she wasn’t a church person. She’s not religious in any way. It was totally serendipitous or providence or good luck or karma or I don’t know. It was divine: ordinary but sacred. It was wonderful.
It wasn’t easy to figure the relationship stuff out with teenaged kids, ya know, an ex-husband in the church. Drama. But we married a year later and the church went with us on a bus. There were nine of us couples that all shared vows: heterosexual couples renewing their vows, gay couples that had been together years and had had civil ceremonies but not legal ceremonies, and then a whole bunch of folks who just came to support us. And we loaded on the bus and we went two summers ago in July to this little church in Burlington, Iowa, that didn’t even know if they wanted to celebrate gay marriages until they had this opportunity. The conference ministers called them and said, “Would you please host this church for us?” And they opened their arms and they greet us and loved us. It was just this blissful day. And, you know, even now, I wake up next to Darlene and I think: ‘I get to wake up with her every morning for the rest of my life.’ And I had been married to a guy for 20 years and I never felt that, not once. And I didn’t know that people really felt that. I thought they made it up, you know?
So having discovered what love is, right?
The church on paper and in theory absolutely supported me, and they did, [but] they really couldn’t make the transition with me. They kept looking to my ex as my husband, they kept looking uncomfortable with me with a wife. They couldn’t make the transition.
And the other thing that happened is that the more I prayed, and the fewer words I had for God, the more I was sure that what was important to me—and maybe it is queerituality—it’s that place of encounter with the sacred that is not bound by people’s rules and dogma. And the more we worshipped without words for God, the more we worshipped reading all kinds of different traditions’ sacred texts, the more we grew, the more we had fun, the more relevant we were, the more faithful we were I think.
But eventually there were people who got really crabby. And I decided to retire last fall, and people got really, really crabby and crazy after I announced that. And I retired in February and it just didn’t feel good. And Darlene said, “I’m you’re Yoko Ono. You have to choose between the church and being gay.” And so I did. I chose, I chose. I had found a real relationship with the sacred, a real love on this Earth with Darlene. You know there’s not a choice anymore. So I left the church. And that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That was harder than leaving a 20-year marriage. That was harder than I don’t know. I felt betrayed and I felt I was abandoning the Church, both at the same time.
And so I took three months off and I was just home and wrote a lot. And I have a blog where I wrote a lot about it.
For the last couple months, I’ve been working at this school with emotionally disturbed children. And I work with the little ones, with the kindergarten, first- and second-graders. Everything I ever learned about life and the sacred is really relevant there, you know? And it’s like the Quaker concept of an inner light. What I do with the children and my only value to them – I mean yeah reading and writing and math, you know – but what is really relevant to them is that someone sees them. That someone sees that behind all that chaos of their acting is a loving soul that’s hurting, you know? And that’s why I am there.
So it’s queerituality. There’s no God talk.
When I was at a conference near Seattle last summer, I had an amazing experience. I had a writing assignment, and as I was writing, all of a sudden a child’s story came to me about a little girl on the playground and her hero. And it had to do with an incident that had happened at church that was very painful. It was also a clear message that it was time for me to leave the church.
There was this woman that I had worked with at church for a very long time. She came after I had been there six months. She was a person who was my hero, she was my muse, she was my wise elder. She was a decade older than me and openly gay, like a two-spirit person in every way, and passionate for justice and the underdog. She was the first person I came out to and she was just a real source of inspiration for theology and finding the place where we can be in the church and gay. You know, where they didn’t have to separate, you could hold them together. She was the one to push me to look outside of Christian writings, she was the one that encouraged me to write. She was really important to me. And when I came out publicly, the friendship ended. And I never could figure out why, and I never believed it. And when she left the church a year before I did, she actually forced the church to choose between keeping her or me. I mean, she made it her life’s mission to get rid of me at the church, which I still don’t understand. I know it’s probably complicated.
The story that came to me in Washington State last summer was so clear: It was time to leave the playground. She was your hero, and she told you there was this place you could go where you could drink from the river water and know the spirit. She had pointed the way, and we had gone together. But once I found a way to go myself, once I found a way to be gay and a person of faith by myself, it wasn’t OK. And the thing about the story that was also clear was that I didn’t want to be on the playground anymore, I wanted to be in the water.
I want to be at the river. And I don’t want to be in the church anymore where we talk about God, and I don’t want to be in the church where we talk about ‘It’s OK to be gay and be with God’. I want to be gay. And I don’t want to talk about being gay. I want be gay. I don’t want to talk about praying, I want to pray. I want to be in the water.
And so I guess that is queerituality.
This was condensed and edited from a Queerituality story that Katherine Hawker-Self recorded in St. Louis, Mo. on July 3, 2013