I loved all the religions I knew about as a young child. From the sweet-faced Jesus my great-grandparents talked about to the stern big daddy God of my Pentecostal cousins to the muddy femme spell-craft of my Appalachian kin, it didn’t seem strange to believe in it all. Then life happened. I learned you had to pick a god or at least a side.
But I couldn’t see myself on one spiritual path. All of them seemed to revere the binary. Some paths were more equal than others for women. Most seemed ruled by men, with no possibility of genderlessness or ambiguity in any religious space. As a female-assigned person who was dubious about gender from a young age, I knew that I did not belong.
I am not the only queer person who has struggled to find their place in a spiritual community. Sadly, I consider myself lucky because I did not experience religious trauma or the long-term emotional damage caused by practices like exclusion, or conversion therapy. For me, not fitting into religion was disappointing but not dangerous. Unfortunately, that is not true for many queer people.
While many people find comfort and community in religion, queer people often face rejection and denigration that take a major toll on our well-being. Recent research suggests that religious trauma increases the risk of abuse, mental illness and suicidality for queer people. But it is human to crave a spiritual home, and more and more queer people are forging new spiritual paths instead of waiting for the old dogs of religion to learn new tricks. What contemporary queer spiritual leaders are doing is revolutionary as they rehabilitate our relationship with old religious ideas and structures.
“I left mainstream Christianity because as an Asian American, bisexual woman, I intimately know what it feels like to have my body scrutinized and vilified as a sin,” Tara Teng, a spiritual embodiment coach in Vancouver, Canada, tells me. Teng helps people heal from trauma using their bodies. But she was formerly a preacher in the evangelical Southern Baptist tradition, as was her father. Ultimately, she was called to a different path because the intersections of her identity were not accepted. “There was an expectation to live up to my parents’ dreams for me, and being a bisexual Christian or ex-evangelical was not part of that,” Teng says.
Now a leader in the Deconstructing Faith movement — a loosely organized group of spiritual orphans — she uses her work as an embodiment coach to help people reconnect to spirituality and their bodies after religious trauma. “When we know in our bodies that we, as queer people, are a unique embodiment of the Divine, then we can see how we have been lied to by institutions seeking to gatekeep access to God,” Teng says. “It does not have to be this way, and we can heal the trauma in our nervous systems that have been taught to believe such lies.”
Our queer bodies are divine in and of themselves, says Teng, while also being a site of spiritual connection. We don’t need to be healed of our queerness, but we do need help recovering from religious teachings that tell us otherwise. Teng believes that a queer theology — ideas about God, religion and spirituality designed by and for queer people — can help us heal.
“Healing comes when we welcome back the parts of ourselves that we severed due to trauma and anti-gay theology,” Teng says. “The key to my work is coming back into a relationship with our bodies. And for those who want to stay connected to their spirituality, recognizing that we, as queer people, are also made in the image of God.”
She sees her beliefs not as contrary to the Christian faith but as reinterpretations of Scripture. “God is described in the Bible using gender-fluid imagery that includes both masculine and feminine energy — i.e., God as a father and as a mother — and God self-identifies in a nonbinary way by simply stating, ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus 3:14,” Teng says. “If we can embrace a God who transforms to become a human, then it really isn’t a far stretch to believe a person might transform their gender in the same way.” The idea of God as trans and/or nonbinary is validating for those who don’t believe humans can be boxed into genders.
Teng’s queer, embodied theology has revolutionized her spiritual experience. Studying queer theology brought her to the realization that her queerness is good, holy and can be a reflection of a divine being beyond our limited imaginations. Now she aims to bring that revolutionary insight to others. She believes healing the physiological trauma from religious persecution can help us realize and feel divinity.
In many religious traditions, queer bodies are policed and punished instead of celebrated and sanctified. In the mainstream religious imagination, we are simply cautionary tales. Some queer spiritual leaders believe that changing the narrative around queer spirituality is part of reconciling our religious experience. “A big part of my work right now is telling spiritual stories — my own and those in the community,” says Caitlin Breedlove, vice president of movement leadership at Auburn Seminary in Phoenix. Queer spirituality, Breedlove reminds us, is not new. “There are ancient ways of understanding spirituality and our spiritual connection that predate monotheism and contemporary white supremacy and capitalism.”
Centering stories instead of antiquated patriarchal lore serves queer people. It engages spiritually minded queers in more expansive ideas rooted in the world and community. “Many are yearning to know more,” she says.
Breedlove sees a change in spiritual spaces. She believes more is possible and necessary, as many traditional faith organizations are at least somewhat accepting of queerness. “I would love to see the boldest theologies right now.”
A more radical queer spiritual future is what Breedlove is conceptualizing — one that requires our active participation. “We are still conforming our theology to outdated shapes, patterns and stories. We require the ancient, and we require the new in our theology.” Breedlove believes queer theology would come primarily from Indigenous wisdom, Black liberation teachings, communally queer understandings and spiritual knowledge that comes from the margins. Our queer spiritual work is also sociopolitical work.
Queer spiritual spaces that center on ideas of inclusivity often end up evolving communities in unexpected ways. An online community space called enfleshed started to fill a need for queer Christians but has ended up serving people of many faiths and practices. “We began enfleshed solidly on the fringes of the Christian tradition but have evolved into some broader directions,” says Rev. M Jade Kaiser, director of enfleshed in Iowa.
enfleshed is a collective space of creative spiritual resources designed to support people who want to practice a more liberating spirituality — individually and collectively, says Kaiser. They have no explicit dogma, Christian or otherwise. Instead, what you find at enfleshed is mostly ideas for practices intended to help move individuals creatively towards personal and collective liberation. I know that sounds a little woo, but their eponymous newsletter is full of essays and suggestions for practices that are thought-provoking and practical.
I can feel those stories told by the many artists and thinkers, who comprise enfleshed, in the tender meat of my heart. As Breedlove mentioned, even hearing queer stories of spiritual practice and transformation feels revolutionary. Teng’s work, and the like, help me understand how my spiritual wounds have changed the way I move in my body and the world. It gives me hope for healing.
Old-time religion gave us the soul-crushing misconception that queer people don’t deserve God. We’ve been mostly denied entry into many houses of worship, much less the pearly gates of heaven. But we are no longer accepting that rejection as evidence of our original sin. Instead, we are reconceptualizing religion and spirituality in pursuit of both personal liberation and healing the collective. Queer people aren’t coming for your old gods, we’re making God anew.
I see a new trinity emerging in this queer spiritual revolution: body, story and collective. These are the places where we can find the inspiration to enliven our world, animate our bodies and speak a language suited to the soul. This is a trinity without hierarchy. Contemporary queer spiritual leaders know that we must address all three at once to help us move, not just away from the harms of the past but toward new visions of healing for our collective future.