Another day, and another shot is fired in the battle between the forces of religion and the gay community. For the sheer relentlessness of the volleys, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this so-called war has been going on for centuries like some sort of moralistic Middle East.
But the skirmishes are much more recent than that. In order to have a Crusade, both sides must be able to fight. It wasn’t until well into the second half of this century that the gay community was able to find its ground, much less stand it.
For good or ill, religion has influenced every facet of common law and daily life for most of human history. Pronouncements were made, rules established and transgressors, gay people among them, were struck down with every weapon the state had at its disposal. Conformity — or, at least, the appearance of it — meant survival.
But slowly, inexorably, the rebellious individualism that runs through the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French and American revolutions, the civil rights movement, feminism and gay rights all conspired to weaken religion’s absolute control.
As Dr Martin Luther King once famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The skirmishes between religious adherents and gay rights activists that we are seeing across the West are yet another endgame in the struggle for equality.
For most, the lines are drawn and sides chosen: Secular morality versus religious virtue. But there are others caught in the no-man’s-land between the two sides: gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people for whom religious observance and tradition are as ingrained as their gender and sexuality. For them, the struggle is more internal than external.
This duality, for Christians specifically, between who they are and what they believe is the focus of Vancouver’s Frank Theatre Company’s latest staged reading The Aspect of Eternity — Readings of Queer Plays Exploring Faith.
The first of two plays on the program, The Book of Esther, by Vancouver playwright Leanna Brodie, is the story of a teenaged girl’s struggle to reconcile her sexuality with the beliefs of her conservative rural family. The other, Oblivion, by Calgary playwright Jonathan Brower, turns a played-out trope on its head, asking if it’s possible for a gay man to eradicate his “faith gene.”
“It’s a thorny issue, the tension between religion and queer sexuality,” says Frank Theatre’s artistic producer, Chris Gatchalian. “But ‘thorny’ has never stopped Frank before.”
“As a queer community theatre company, the whole point of this for us is to stimulate conversation, in this case, about the role of religion in queer life, especially when so many people have had horrific experiences with religion,” Gatchalian explains.
However, Gatchalian also points to a flip side of religious oppression. “Vancouver is a very secular city inside an increasingly secular country,” he says. “It can be extremely hard to come out as a Christian — sometimes harder than coming out as queer. The attitude, particularly within the LGBTQ community, isn’t always immediately positive.”
It’s that polarization that Brodie faces head on in The Book Of Esther. Coloured by Brodie’s own coming-of-age as a misfit in a Big-C and small-c conservative town in Southern Ontario far outside the shadows cast by Canada’s largest metropolis, the titular character is a 15-year-old returning home from the big city for a visit in 1981 (not coincidentally the very same year as the infamous Toronto bathhouse raids, long considered Canada’s version of the 1969 Stonewall riots).
Much like Gatchalian, Brodie’s intent is to spark a conversation. “This is the story of one set of characters in one space and doesn’t preach any particular viewpoint,” she explains. “For me, the idea I wanted to convey with The Book of Esther was whether it’s possible for people who are linked together to exist within diametrically opposed positions. This is as much a story of Christianity and sexuality as it is about the divide between urban and rural. It speaks to so many things that can separate people from each other. It’s not just religious but geographical and political.”
Artists, she believes, live in the in-between with the fight between religion and sexual expression being the ultimate black-and-white.
In an email follow up to our in-person interview, Brodie expressed her discomfort when it comes to taking sides. “I get genuinely queasy when asked to make anything in the nature of a pronouncement —about fundamentalist Christianity and queer persecution; about acceptance and the future; about how people should live their lives . . . ”
Her play, she continues, is “about living in the disorienting complexities of who and what we are, of who and what we love. And as important as it is to be true to yourself and your own community, when we reduce each other to being only queer or straight, arrogant urban or ignorant rural, godless scum or vicious bigot, with no attempt to understand those on the opposite side of the fence . . . that makes me about as queasy as the idea that anyone would listen to me ‘pronouncing’ about anything.”
For Brower, author of the second play, Oblivion, and the artistic director of Calgary’s Third Street Theatre, the pronouncements that Brodie works hard to avoid are impossible for him to dodge. In fact, the struggle against his own duality nearly broke him.
Brower knew he was different from the age of 10 or 11. “I didn’t know what to call it, because I lived a relatively sheltered life, but I knew I was different,” he says with a narrative all-too-familiar to many LGBT people.
But Brower had the additional difficulty of being raised in a hardline Evangelical Christian family. His faith was very strong and he dreamed of one day ministering to a congregation of his own.
At age 12, he shared his secret with one of his pastors, who counselled him to fight against his sexuality. He then sought out Christian help online and by Grade 10 was slavishly following the tenets of conversion therapy books he hid from his family.
In the first of several reversals, he came out to his mother and close friends in his first year at the University of Victoria, living as a gay man for about eight months before the struggle and guilt became too much.
Leaving his first boyfriend behind, he moved to his father’s home in Calgary and went back in the closet to train as a missionary. While evangelizing in France, he heard of a worldwide reorientation course called Living Waters. “Of course,” Brower offers, “They’d never refer to themselves as that. They would say that they help with sexual and relational brokenness. They’ve done a lot of backtracking and message rebranding in the last few years.”
Headquartered in Langley, BC, the organization offers people caught between faith and sexuality what Brower hoped and literally prayed so fervently to find: a chance to “find healing in Christ.” Unable to achieve the desired results, he recommitted himself for a second round and then a third, finally rising through the ranks to a peer-counselling role within the program.
It was in witnessing the pain and hurt of others that Brower came to live what he calls his “authentic life.”
“I literally one day said, ‘To Hell with it!’ I gave my notice at the church where I worked and left Living Waters,” he says. “I’d previously shared with the congregation that I was attracted to other men as part of my testimony and they were supportive but it was understood that I could never act on it and still be a member. And I just didn’t want to live with that hypocrisy anymore.”
In the four years since he’s left the church, Brower has co-founded a queer theatre company and penned his first play, Oblivion. Written as a day in the life of Tim, a young gay man who must decide whether he wants to be vaccinated against his “faith gene,” the play is something of an attempt by Brower to reconcile the two parts of himself that are still at odds.
“Would Tim still be the same person at all without his faith or does it inform who he is as much as his sexuality?” Brower says of the crux of his work. “It’s my saving grace that I am able to see from the other side of the table and I sure hope that fundamentalist religions will allow their desire to love everyone on earth to grow wider than their desire for everyone to follow the rules.
“But I can’t be a part of that anymore. Secrets will kill you if you don’t deal with them.”
Leanna Brodie’s The Book of Esther will be read on Tues, March 10 at 7 pm at St Andrew’s Wesley United Church, 1012 Nelson St.
Jonathan Brower’s Oblivion will be read on Thurs, March 12 at 7 pm at St Andrew’s Wesley United Church, 1012 Nelson St.