Toronto
5 min

Divine determination

As Canadians leave religion like rats from a sinking ship, queers are fighting their way back in. Are we crazy?

SEARCHING. Is there a hole in gay life spirituality will fit in? Credit: Tony Fong

In the new book Recreations: Religion And Spirituality In the Lives Of Queer People, Alaric Wendell writes, “What I want to know is how you all can sit here Sunday after Sunday and be humiliated – all in the name of religion.”



The same question has occurred to me. As we get mired in the hype and buzz leading up to the Christian high holiday of Christmas, I am reminded that organized religion makes me squeamish. There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the homophobia that’s preached from the pulpit, circulated in religious tracts and fueled in God-fearing, queer-hating organizations.



How is it possible that queers, who aren’t looking to be saved from their orientation and who face enough glorification of heterosexuality every day of their lives, can pledge allegiance to the patriarchal, homophobic institution of organized religion?



The answer I’ve discovered is that religious practice has a very personal meaning for the individuals who participate, and that meaning seems to transcend social and political objections.



Some religious queers seek to reconnect with rituals that have marked them since childhood. Some thrive surrounded by a community with a common belief. Some get a kind of satisfaction in the sweet revenge they effect on institutions that have rejected them. Still others are looking for guidance in a morally ambiguous universe.



“It nurtures my spirit,” says an acquaintance I bump into on the morning I attend the Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto out of curiosity. MCCT is housed in a old creaking church at the corner of Simpson and Howland in Toronto’s predominantly Indian east end. My acquaintance is a social worker who, Monday to Friday, deals with the difficult and often traumatic lives of her clients.



“I can’t get through my week if I don’t come here on Sunday,” she admits. The strength of the community and the balm of music and meditation bolster her spirit. But perhaps for many who function in a world, or profession, where the needs of many are sorely compromised, there’s relief in giving up control and trusting in the benevolence of a superior being.



To my staid Anglican outlook, MCCT’s ritual of healing by anointment and the primacy of almost gospel-like music give the service an evangelical flavour. The queer presence certainly alleviates the distress of being the only, invisible queer shrinking down in your polished hard-backed pew as messages of eternal damnation are delivered as God’s everlasting word.



But there are many who don’t have the company of other out homos in their place of worship, nor the comfort of being out themselves.



“When I attend Friday prayers at the local mosque,” writes Sulayman X in Recreations, “I usually get there just before the prayer starts and vanish just as soon as it is finished.”



His discretion is prudent. The Islamic Penal Law Against Homosexuality dictates that punishment for lesbianism is 100 lashes and, for sodomy, death.



But for Sulayman, being part of this community is as unnegotiable as being gay.



“I am a Muslim,” he writes,” and, inshalla, God willing, shall die a Muslim.”



His insistence asks those in the queer community to understand being Muslim in the same way we expect straights to understand being gay. It can be a big request.



“The gay community can be just as self-righteous and closed as any religious community,” says Wayne McNamara from his home in Kamloops, British Columbia. He lives not far from the Christian Conference Centre of Sorrento, where he has led week-long study groups in gay and lesbian issues. “I have met some of the best and worst people in both places.”



While gay men and lesbians wrestle with whether they want a spiritual practice, a religious community or organized religion at all, religious leaders have struggled with whether they want open homosexuals.



Certain examples resonate. The 1991 Bishop’s Court trial of openly gay Anglican minister Jim Ferry was not unlike a witch’s trial, but without the actual burning. The same can be said for the United Methodist trial of Rev Jimmy Creech, of Nebraska, who just last month was stripped of his vocation for presiding over the union of a gay couple.



Such disapproval is echoed in the statement issued from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, an international meeting every decade of bishops of the Anglican Church. The conference attendees voted overwhelmingly for a resolution rejecting “homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture,” and against “the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions” or “ordaining of those involved in same-gender unions.” There were comparisons of homosexuality to bestiality.



“Sure, many of us feel that what happened at Lambeth was disappointing,” says Chris Ambidge, a leading member of Integrity, an organization of gay men and lesbians in the Anglican Church. “But homosexuality was not even allowed onto the agenda 10 years ago.”



“The Christian church has a dreadful record of dealing with human sexuality,” says Rev Stephen Bemrose-Fetter of Metropolitan United Church, which has just become the 15th affirming congregation in the United Church in Canada. (Affirming has become the agreed upon term for a church that welcomes gay and lesbian people.)



Homophobic, retrograde and ignorant, these incidents are typical of what many people expect of organized religion.



So why bother? Why fight for inclusion within organizations that even straight Canadians are abandoning? While church attendance in the US has remained at around 40 percent through the latter half of this century, Canadian church attendance has dropped from more than 60 percent in 1957 to 27 percent in 1997. Shouldn’t gay people be leading this exodus?



“Many of us queers get a pretty hostile response from our families too,” says Catherine Lake, editor of the Recreations and soft butch who has single-handedly run Toronto’ Queer Press for the last two years. “But we keep going home. It’s not always such an easy tie to cut. There are things you miss – the traditions, the rituals, the community. I long just to hear the words of the Anglican service.”



I know what she means. I was raised in a church-going family with an Anglican minister for a father. As an adult, I disagree with many founding doctrines of the church and am pretty irate when told by members of the Christian community, as I was this summer, that “homosexuality is a sin.”



But the rituals of the Anglican service are my childhood. They are an unshakable connection to family love and community, and especially to my father who died two years ago. Many queers share a similar history, a sense of community and belonging that plays a big part in their attraction to religion as queer people.



“I was raised with a sense of a loving God in my life,” says McNamara, who is a Sunday school teacher. in Kamloops “Lucky for me it wasn’t the fire and brimstone version. As I came out I moved away from the church, but that never made sense. I always felt that something was missing.”



When almost all the socially recognized holidays, festivities and, let’s admit, cuss words in most cultures are tied to religion, why should its spiritual observance be the privilege of an exclusive club? As Chris Ambidge likes to say, “The Anglican Church baptized me, so they’re stuck with me.”



For those in the West who were raised in cultures marginalized by Christianity, religious practice or cultural rituals can also offer a sense of identity and belonging not found among gay peers.



“The gay community – if there is such a thing – seems to me to be a subset of the larger, white and Christian community,” observes Susan Goldberg, a twenty-something writer and editor in downtown Toronto. “I have often found that religious difference gets ignored.”



Though she doesn’t often attend synagogue, Goldberg does participate in family religious and cultural events and says she is more and more drawn to identifying as Jewish and upholding Jewish customs. In her case, the importance of observing rituals is less about being queer than it is about maintaining an identity that too often gets lost within the larger gay community.



There are those for whom the stories in the scripture, the words of the Torah, the teachings of Jesus, Muhammad, Gautama Buddha or any other divine messenger, are an important element in their lives. It’s imperative, then, to claim the right to share the creed and to demand change from the institutions who control how religious beliefs are expressed.



Those who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday may not be humiliated at all. They may just be stubborn individuals with enough courage and conviction to insist that their religious institution accept them for who they are.