My name is Jessica Easter, and I grew up in Chicago. I was always a very spiritual child. I was always very sensitive. I was raised Roman Catholic and I graduated from a very good Catholic high school. My sister and I were altar servers, too, so we were very close with the priest. I can’t emphasize enough how communal it was, and how beautiful. So looking back now, it makes a lot of sense that I’m in seminary. But I was just talking with my mom, and we said that if someone has come up to either of us when I was in high school and said that I would go to seminary, we would have laughed.
Being a black Catholic, I kind of stand out during Mass, at least in the churches that I had in my area growing up. Being queer, too, it eventually felt like I had to fall into denying an identity, either this or that. I refused to do that.
I went to a public university in Illinois, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And that’s where I really started questioning my various identities and what it means to be a sexual being and how sexuality works in my own personal life. When I first went to U of I, I went to a few Catholic masses. Some of the things that the priests there said were very painful or very hurtful, usually revolving around sexuality and abortion and whatnot. So I decided that maybe this isn’t… That’s when I found Quakerism, actually. I studied that for a while and grew to love that even more, and I became a Quaker.
I looked for a place that, if I wanted to get married, I could get married no matter what the gender or sex of the other person. Quakerism was one of the faith traditions [that met that criterion]. I visited a Quaker meeting near my home on winter break, and I just really felt a spirit there. I felt something really powerful there. The communal atmosphere that kept me in my parish when I was younger was available in a different setting. That’s something that, to this day, I've been chasing and following.
I now go by the acronym that I made up with a few friends in undergrad, “QQWOC” – queer Quaker woman of color. I guess if you can sum up the complex identities within myself, you’d probably do that.
I find sexuality to be inherently very spiritual. A lot of mystics that you read, especially Christian mystics, there’s a lot of erotic language. I think that is how it should be. It’s something that’s very beautiful. Unfortunately Christianity has separated the two, considering celibacy the ultimate way of being spiritual. And there is some spirituality in that, but I don’t want to downplay how important the human body is, and connecting on a very human level is.
[My sexual morality] continues to evolve. In Catholic school they would say, you have to be married, presumably straight, and you have to have sex for the sole purpose of having children. And I didn’t fall into any of those categories. So I was tempted in a lot of ways to go to the other extreme and say, “Well I’m just going to have sex with anything at any time, and if anyone has any problem with that, they they’re obviously prudes.”
I’ve since been able to figure out how to demonstrate integrity for my own sexuality. For example, for me, one-night stands are impossible. Well, not impossible – people do it. It’s not like flying. Still, I think that, if the reason that I want to have sex with someone is to be intimate with them, then I can’t be intimate with them in just one night. It’s important for me to continue talking with them, to get to know them. And that’s how I demonstrate sexual integrity. You’re not just a means to an end. You’re not just some way for me to get off. For me, that’s a really big part of my own sexual integrity.
My faith is very important to me, but I don’t, you know, shove it down people’s throats. When I visit Chicago, friends ask what I’m doing, and I can only BS for so long:
— “Oh, I’m in graduate school.”
— “Oh? What are you doing?”
— “Oh really? What brought you to study religion?”
— “Alright fine. I’m in seminary. I’m a Quaker, and I plan to do a ministry in this particular way.”
It usually scares a lot of people away because they experience a lot of ugly things in the name of religion.
In seminary, for my supervised ministry project, I’ll be working with LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes because their families were religious and they thought that being queer in any way was a sin. To have me there who, in a very odd way, represents a minority sexuality as well as a spiritual majority on some levels, might throw them off a bit. I hope that would demonstrate that you can exist in both societies. I also imagine that it could trigger a lot of people, too: “It’s your Jesus / It’s your God / It’s your Allah / It’s your ‘insert deity’ who kicked me out of my own house.” It’s interesting to walk that line of intersectionality.
I would like to say that I in no way represent, ESR, of all Quakerdom, or queer Quaker women of color worldwide. I just want to say that.
I personally am involved in a few BDSM communities – bondage, domination, and sadomasochism. I have a few friends who are involved in that as well. And that, I think, is sexually radical because it gets into the question of consent. If I am spiritually non-violent, how do I reconcile that form of spirituality with someone saying they’d like me to punch them, or kick them, if that’s something that really gets them going?
It’s difficult to carry all of these identities in one package, obviously. But it’s difficult because I feel like I’m in the face of, um, everyone in a way. I don’t want to simply talk about sexuality in the sense of sexual orientation, although that is a lot of fun and it’s important to talk about. But there are people who do sex work, who are porn actors and actresses, and that’s something that we’re really going to have to talk about – especially in a spiritual sense. How do we incorporate these groups as well without being blind to them?
I’ve found in talking with BDSM communities that there’s a real desire, a real need, to have that part of their identities talked about, especially when it involves spirituality.
I do think it’s important to give voice to people who want [to fit in], but I think it’s also important, when we discuss things like being accepted by society, that we don’t play into the status quo. I don’t think downplaying our differences is going to help. I think the queer community is extremely diverse. Not everybody wants to fit in. There’s a beautiful energy and a beautiful power in not fitting in, and also in not being a jerk.
Part of my studies with Christian spirituality is my desire and challenge to recognize the beauty in people different from me. That’s what Jesus stood for and I think that’s what Jesus is calling us to. People tend to gloss over the fact that he hung out with prostitutes. For me, that’s kind of a “we need to talk about this” thing.
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This text is edited from an interview with Jessica recorded on Sunday, May 5, 2013 in Richmond, Indiana.