Religiously queer

Written by Virginia Shram | Illustration by Justine Touchon

No purpling.

That was the rule. It included any kind of physical contact from frontal hugs to holding hands to even the potential contact of a pair of “opposite-gendered” friends walking to the camp mess hall without a chaperone. Girls were pink, boys were blue. No touching: no purpling.

There was no questioning of magenta-ing, no threat of periwinkle – there were only three hues available: pink, blue, purple. How ironic that these colours would later mean something else to me, who, waving them in flag form in perverse declaration, would scream that there were far more shades than these.

But for my 13-year-old self concerned with lake races and forest hikes and sunny barefoot soccer games played without sidelines, there were only three colours. Pink on pink was fine, because two pinks through raw touch never had the sexual potential to make red, or scarlet, sunset, tomato. Pink on pink only made more pink, and the myth that two pinks making new colour was impossible prevented me from seeing in gradients.

My bifurcated identity buckles under pressure itself twofold: queer spaces don’t allow for my religion, and religious spaces don’t allow for my queerness. I am left with neither, and shamed by both.

I do not fully exist in many queer spaces because I am seen as an agent of institutional religious dogma. That because I have not completely recanted a misogynistic faith, I still perpetuate the misogyny and queer hatred present in a patriarchal framework; that if I am still religious, I may accept my queerness, but probably am suppressing it in a quagmire of required celibacy; that I deny my (ironically, God-given) biology.

I do not exist in religious spaces because I’m living in deliberate sin and thus must be ‘fixed’; I am fabricating an identity for attention, recklessly flaunting the rigid rules of attraction.

At 13, I had heard too many sermons on sex. Sex was taboo enough of a topic, but hearing the laundry list of female emotional requirements from the microphoned rasp of our salaried patriarch was a punch to my uterus, already bleeding in preparation for wifehood.

Skipping church was never an option. You wore small lacy dresses and carried a mini Bible (with pictures for fun) and ate those tiny tasteless cookies once a month during service. Those religious kids carried the printouts of pre-structured pamphlets so they could fill out the sermon notes and seem extra devout in exchange for extra cookies. Your parents, mercifully recognizing that a two-hour sermon was a little above the patience of a four-year-old (thank the good Lord), allowed you to bring crayons – one of those 128 packs, in the flat plastic case – so your notes could be colourful. But you were not allowed to be colourful past your tenth birthday.

At 15, my social studies homeroom teacher told the class that there was no such thing as a gay Christian. If someone [here she curled a finger, drew it across in a sickle-sweep of the room, presumably separating us guilty chaff from the wheat] claimed they were, they would have to sit down and have a talk with her because that was blasphemy and they needed to be brought out of their sin. I thought I knew what a gay person was, but I wasn’t sure.

Devoutness was a display of hand-raising and page-turning and highlighter marginalia in devotional books. On the other hand, my sexuality, the youth pastor often said, was the spit-soaked gum, having been chewed by every person there; the rose, whose pretty petals crimped and broke, having been passed among all people there; the mangled cardstock, having been stapled to itself and ripped apart a dozen times over as it passed hand over hand among every person there. So I was the girl, small and still, and I solemnly swore to not be passed around.

My sexuality was by definition promiscuous. I, a modern manifestation of Eve, was valued by men, but betrayed them (and thus, God) so easily. Sexual repression began young. My daydreams of future monogamy only contained the outlines of men, who were so present in every sex-related conversation I had ever had that I never thought of women: it was sin to think about sex, to put a face to a desire, much less one with soft hair and soft eyes and skin.

My sexuality was deemed heterosexual, and already contracted. No wonder I never questioned it till late.

At 17, I heard a guest speaker talk about the importance of celibacy, saying, “Now look, all you guys, nobody wants to walk the town slut down the aisle, right? You want sex, but she just wants to feel wanted.” He was invited back for the next four years (and counting? I don’t know).

The deeply religious say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but nothing could be more personally hateful than to deny a person of any right to themselves, to love and be loved, and to claim a spiritual identity. If I sin in my immutable sexuality, I am a sinner indeed; the two are indistinguishably intertwined and I will never be pure.

The minute someone is identified as gay, they are referred to with patronizing disdain by Holy ones who scatter about them, murmuring that they can be fixed with the right sort of prayer and fastidiousness. The gay antidote as the Holy Grail.

Being bisexual, I am more fixable than some, they say, as they twitter and frown and flip through Testaments for cures. (I, the patient, will never be cured, but bisexual, to them, is not a word.) They say: It’s the liberal media! confusions of friendship! pornography! lesbians! your daughter’s impure! stop having bad thoughts (they finger-wag mad), everyone’s tempted, just trust in the Lord! you’re straight – you like men – you’ve never liked girls. Don’t sin: give me your computer password.

At 18, I questioned everything, started conversations about Biblical errancy and homosexuality at the dimpled pine tables in the school library with my conservative friends. I stopped when a student interrupted me, threw me a leather-backed NIV translation, and spat at me to read it. I already had, but we all knew that wasn’t her point.

I think something greater is there, someone, maybe several? I don’t know if it’s Jesus or a goddess or gravity. So what if the stories I read as a child weren’t literally true? I believe in wisdom, not Solomon, in confidence, not David. If I look past the symbols, I find peace between myself and that greater being. What fetters my spiritual breakthrough is not my sexuality, it’s others who claim they love me and want to save me from this wretched sin. How ironic, that the greatest Christian commandment is to love one another above all else, yet I’m being driven from love by those who say they love.

Those ancient stories, of Deborah and Mary and Ruth and Jesus, bring literary (not literal) frameworks to everlasting truths. These people being people means nothing at all, but these stories as metaphors say more than the former. I am not less religious the more I doubt – it is, in fact, the opposite.

At 19, I started an LGBTQ group at my high school. Most teachers supported it, and some parents too, once I iced the vanilla Statement of Intention with the softest pastel buttercream. Even then, people hated the flavour, and I had to recruit others to fix my creation under the cover of translucent conversations about liberal politics, like a chef of some clandestine bakers’ collective.

At 20, I opened up a safe space to an old classmate to talk about homosexuality in the Bible. He compared lesbians to adulterers and repeatedly pressured me to divulge my religious and sexual orientations. Safe space, I couldn’t bring up the courage to tell him, is only an invitation to the rooms of myself I wish to share, not a warrant to search my every skeletal closet. He ended “God Bless...”

These days, I am angry. I am using all the same arguments that I have researched in The Beginning in preparation for dirty sparring with fundamentalists. More research into ancient texts and their translations only corroborates those arguments. My anger is exponential and coldly justified. As my anger thrashes at being exposed, vilified, then swiftly erased, it only alienates me as “crazy,” “way too political for the church.” I’ve always been told patience and meekness were virtues worthy in Heaven, but maybe they were just trying to shut me up so I’d go easy.

At 20, I came out, and was outed.

Justified anger is acceptable, right? Jesus flew into rages at injustice, spilled the blood money of thirsty dogma, stomped flat pages and pages of irreverent laws. Can I mitigate these uneven halves of myself if I just keep trying? Am I drawn to the spiritual because, even if only in a metaphysical way, I, the erased and invisible, exist?

At 21, I prayed.