by Chase Baldwin
and Jerry Reisig
We’ve been having conversations for a while now. I’m so happy with how the NYYM mentorship program was able to connect us. So much of it is because we are so similar in some fundamental ways and it gives us common ground to connect on all the ways we’re not.
For the purposes of this public letter—I have a question about how you handle this internal issue I keep having.
It’s the issue of being queer and religious. Especially people who moved away from the south, and that I meet here in New York. There’s this attitude of wanting and lacking a church for many reasons. But you also feel like any and all religion is not yours.
Being queer and religious feels almost as contradictory as being Black and American. Especially when your home flavor of religion is very homophobic. With Black flavors of patriotism—it’s like our prophet Chris Rock said 'You got to look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college, but who molested you.' We built this country, and we need to be able to take ownership of it and do everything in our power to redeem it, because it’s all we got unless you want to emigrate.
Every time I talk about religion with all my LGBTQ+ friends (the Bushwick-burlesque scene types and others) we always end up in the same place. There’s a need we have (which is for community and nurture and spirituality) that we don’t have a place for.
We do a lot to replace it, we have so much solidarity and mutual understanding among us—but we’re all young and broke and still early in our healing and in our lives. And a whole generation of those who should be our Gay Elders were decimated. So we keep needing to rebuild the struggle bus.
In the South, at least if you’re Black where I’m from in Atlanta, church is just where everything happens. There’s a lot of churches, and everyone has a home church. It’s weird if you don’t. The church being the center of the community is so intrinsic to how communities thrive there. There is place for you there because you are part of them and the church is a part of the place that you live. However small, however limiting, however 'don't ask, don't tell' that place is.
The queer kids are not okay. Especially all the southern ones I know best. I'm not sure if it was different in the past or it was kind of bred that way from the start. But where are they supposed to go; where are we supposed to go? But really—I guess we’re all refugees of spiritual abuse and there’s no place for us to go.
You and I keep discussing Spiritual refugees. We usually use a lot more words, but that’s what we all are.
For years, I have had these same conversations with different Queer friends. It goes like this—how you’re not an atheist but you don’t not believe in god. But you can’t say you believe in god bc of the whole “god hates f——s” thing? Ugh so what can I do? I’m a gaytheist not an atheist-atheist. How can there be healing where there is not even refuge?
Spiritual refugees. Such a good term for it. For my own part, I was convinced Quaker on the basis of other convictions I hold and by the commitment to the testimonies of Simplicity and Truth. And yet, it’s not a religious place I can invite my friends. I’m Black and queer. If you invite your friends to a place you are responsible for how the white/straight people there treat them there (or at the bare minimum, for giving the option to opt out of such spaces).
Meeting is a place that I feel nourished in going, but not one I feel I can simply invite my lowercase friends. Sometimes, y’all seem to have a lot of trouble not being weird. Ditto for not being so puritanical and shame-y. Especially if we’re not from here—the culture shock is off putting enough when we can see there’s so much internal work to be done that hasn’t been. All we want is to live our lives, be socially nourished with partying on Saturday and roll up to church before brunch on Sunday to be spiritually nourished.
Everything about society and everyone here up north seems to act like those things are not compatible. It doesn’t seem very Quakerly (or very Christian) to have to choose between different kinds of needs like that.
In these conversations we never come to any good solutions. I have my ways, others have theirs. But none of them are that great. What do you think about this tension—is it necessary? How far from ready to receive these spiritual refugees do you think New York Quakers are or could be?
TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) I guess my question is: How I can gay & god— at same time? Pls send help.
In merry Friendship,
My younger friend,
Some years ago, a friend at meeting began wearing an American flag pin. When I asked her about it, she said she refused to give over the idea of patriotism to people who wrapped the war in the flag. She was a patriot who was against war, and America needed that type of patriotism. In many ways, I think the same thing about being queer and believing in God. I refuse to give over my relationship with God because there are people who use the idea of God as a staff to beat others over the head. I am not willing to give over my understanding of what the Bible says to people who contend that it supports hatred, bigotry, homophobia and all of the other isms. If Quakerism has taught me one thing, it is that we are the church, and the church and God need us. Christianity is not a belief system that began as a way to promote hatred of others; Jesus spent most of his ministry supporting those who had been displaced by the religious system.
The question is not how one can be queer and have God. For me the question is how can a group of people who are consistently ostracized by the good people of society not have a God that supports them. You have three strikes against you from the beginning: you are young, queer and black. Rather than celebrate that diversity, many in our society and in our churches condemn you for who you are. The easiest choice is that in order to be who you are, you must reject what you seek. You address yourself as a seeker and a seeker does not have a choice. To deny what your heart knows to be true does not make you a seeker; it makes you a follower, a follower of ideas that you find onerous. I am not dull; I know that there are people who would find it easier if you did not come around, always asking the difficult questions. But if you do not ask the necessary questions, who will?
You are a teacher, and I am sure that you are a very good teacher, and that your students respect you. How can you not be honest with them and with God? How do you teach without giving over part of yourself in order for others to grow. Every day that you teach, you create and maintain a safe community for others. You are expected to do that; it is your job. But it is also our job to create community with God, especially for those who have been abused by God’s representatives. Many people have been hurt by these representatives, many have left in order to find community. But our heart knows that a community without God is built only on mutual interest. There is nothing wrong with this, but the community that we really want is the community of humanity. This is the blessed community, and although we try to build that every week in meeting, we constantly fail because we are all too human, and we sometimes lose contact with God.
So is it always up to those who have been excluded to explain things to people who do not get it, do not get being queer or black or young? In a sense, I think we represent the hope of the community. As outsiders we are experienced at understanding the ways of those in charge, learning how to code switch in order to survive. When someone tells me they do not understand my being queer, I believe them, for they have never had to. On the contrary, I understand what it is like to be straight because I have lived my entire life trying to emulate the walk and talk of the dominant culture in order to thrive. It is tiring, always being the person who is on committees of diversity, always being asked what it feels like or how I heard things that were said, as if I had special queer powers, but the choice is to not engage with the other, not to understand that they want to understand, but do not yet know how.
I was saddened when you said that you did not feel comfortable bringing your friends of color to Meeting, because of your feeling of responsibility for what some white person would say. But you are not responsible for white people; you are responsible to love and truth. We are responsible to support one another, not against others but for our community, the community of God. Come and bring your friends, and do not put trust in what people may do, but in the God who has called you to sit and worship with others, even those who may never understand or accept you.
As I have said many times, church needs you, your unique and wonderful identities, your honesty and love. That is a big job to fill, but you have strength and humor (Lord, do we need that), intelligence and a desire to connect with others and God. If you do not find God in the community that you are in and you cannot help open that community to God’s grace, you may need to move on. In the meantime, connect with someone in that community and hold onto one another, for it’s going to be a bumpy ride.