I met Ash* when I was working as a caseworker in a large men’s homeless shelter and referral agency in Atlanta. Ash came to get a referral to another service agency for homeless people in town. I initially assumed she lived in a women’s shelter or slept on the street. But she told me during our first meeting that she slept in a bunk upstairs, surrounded, any given night, by between 700 and 1000 men. As an adult trans woman, this was Ash’s only option.
Ash’s situation was unbelievable. New to Atlanta and to homeless services, I couldn’t trust that this men’s drop-in shelter with minimal security and poorly trained staff was Ash’s only possible placement. So I called around. I talked to staff at other shelters. I talked to housed trans women. I read public accommodation ordinances. I contacted a transgender right’s attorney. But Ash had, of course, been right.
At that time, Atlanta had shelter for trans women under 21 and trans women who had tested positive for HIV/AIDs. Adult trans women who didn’t know their status or who didn’t have HIV/AIDS slept in men’s shelters, like the one where I worked. Typically, these shelters required trans women to present as male to receive services. During their time in shelter, they were harassed, denied certain services, and sometimes raped by other clients.
Ash lived in the shelter off and on during my year-long contract there. She did sex work in the evening and attended a nursing program during the day. She would come by my office sometimes and tell me how things were going but the news was rarely good.
At the end of my stint at the shelter and during a time when Ash was facing a particularly high rate of harassment and discrimination from shelter staff, Ash came to live with me. But her stay was short. My house was far outside of downtown, where most of her johns lived, her boyfriend still lived at the shelter, and she admitted to feeling like an imposition. So less than a month after she moved in, she asked me to drop her off back at the shelter. I did.
I called Ash regularly after that day but a year and a half passed with no word. Then one morning a mutual friend called me with news that Ash had died in Florida, where her family lived. The person on the other end of line didn’t know the cause of her death.
A memorial service was held for Ash in Atlanta. Bulletins from Ash’s funeral in Florida sat in stacks on a table by the church basement entrance. Her parents had “taken her back”…they had picked a photo of her presenting as male for the bulletin cover and they used her birth name and male pronouns in the sparse obituary they had written for the local paper.
A string of people stood up and spoke about Ash. A young man, her chosen son, told the room not to cry because Ash’s life had been painful and perilous. A local trans* activist called Ash’s death at 29 of pneumonia a human rights issue. A trans* minister closed by noting that Ash had “made her final transition and now God is calling her by her true name”.
In spite of the directive from Ash’s son, we did cry. Ash’s life was not the one-dimensional tragedy that the mainstream media portrays when documenting the lives and deaths of trans women, particularly black trans women like Ash. Ash spoke out against unfair treatment of other trans women, she gave me gardening advice, she talked about traveling the world one day, she hung out in the park and fed the ducks when the shelter got to be too much, she had friendships and partnerships that she valued, she did more than survive…she lived a life of love and resistance. When she died, all that goodness disappeared and we grieved that.
Though trans* experience is not monolithic, Ash’s story points to a larger truth that mainstream LGB activists, Christian or not, appear unable to face. The story of Ash’s life and death illustrates the necessity of privileging queer survival issues over the politics of inclusion currently espoused by the gay rights movement. While same-sex, civil marriage was being secured nationwide and LGB inclusion in the military was taking effect, the life and death issues of inadequate access to healthcare and housing; employment discrimination and disproportionate rates of queer (specifically youth and trans*) homelessness and imprisonment were going largely unaddressed.
In 2012, $33 million was spent to bring marriage ballot initiatives to just four states. (1) In 2013 Human Rights Campaign spent $1.6 million lobbying congress. Though the HRC is supposed to represent all issues affecting the queer community, the majority of this large sum was spent to forward the issue of same-sex, civil marriage. (2) A year later the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, introduced in almost every Congress since 1994, failed to pass once again. (3) As of 2015, only three states and the District of Columbia have outlawed reparative therapy for queer minors. (4)This month, the families of Shade Shuler, Ashton O’Hara, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, and Tamara Dominquez are soliciting donations for their loved ones’ funeral services.
These disparities call into question the argument that multiple issues can receive equal attention or funding at the same time. As marginalized people in a myriad of movements have always known, the issues effecting the most privileged demographic in the movement; in this case, white adult gay men and lesbians in the middle and upper classes; are addressed first and the trickle down social justice they promise never arrives. Marriage equality does not lead to an end to the bullying that causes queer youth to be twice as likely as their straight classmates to drop out of high school. Military inclusion doesn’t diminish the resolve of the prison system to place trans women in men’s prisons.
Many radical queer activists have given greater context to the disparities outlined here. They have done rigorous research to help us all better understand the racist, classist, capitalist and cisnormative reasons that marriage equality was so heavily funded and well-publicized.(5) What has not been widely written about is the role queer clergy played in promoting issues of inclusion over issues of survival and liberation.
Believe Out Loud, an online platform for “Christian faith and LGBTQ advocacy” estimates that 5,000 U.S. churches “intentionally embrace the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people”. (6) This number is based on self-reported statuses or affiliation with “welcoming” denominations making it a conservative estimate. Many of these churches not only welcome gay members, they have or would welcome queer clergy.
Over the last few decades, the rate of LGBTQ church inclusion has moved at an ever-increasing pace. Many secular queer activists have seen LGBTQ desire to attend seminary or pursue ordination as inherently assimilationist and self-hating in light of the church’s gross mistreatment of queer persons over the centuries. This critique, while built on a true history of oppression and grounded in an awareness of the corrosive nature of internalized homophobia and/or transphobia, fails to acknowledge the existence of queer liberation theology and the power of Other-ed voices in the pulpit. While the argument for civil marriage and military inclusion was about interacting with an institution “just like everybody else”, being a queer minister has always had the ability to be peculiarly queer endeavor.
If queer ministers had used the lens of queer liberation theology, a theology that goes beyond “gay is ok” apologetics to assert that God views heterosexism and cissexism as sinful and has a preferential option for oppressed queer persons, the church body would arguably be interested in a different set of queer issues. After accomplishing the goals of church inclusion, a queer minister grounded in liberation theology could have taken on topics that the church has failed to properly address, making itself an uneasy fit or an unwelcome addition to many current social justice movements that focus on survival issues.
Queer ministers could have gotten their churches to talk openly about sex. These frank conversations could have pushed liberal “welcoming” churches to not merely reject the sexual rules endorsed by more conservative denominations but to develop strong, inclusive sexual ethics. While life-long sex education and classes on child sexual abuse awareness and prevention are being implemented by churches in a couple of American denominations, issues pertaining to sex; sexual violence; rape culture; and sexual consent are not often addressed from the pulpit.
White queer ministers could have made prisons and policing a constant point of study and discussion in the white church. While it is important not to detract from the particularly brutal violence black persons have experienced at the hands of the prison industrial complex, queer people are aware that policing not only works to protect white bodies and white property but also to protect white, heterosexual ideas of purity and normalcy. Naming this under-discussed function of policing and imprisonment could have dispelled the idea that unjust policing and sentencing is just an issue for black communities and called white churches into the work for prison abolition and a strong critique of policing.**
Queer ministers had the ability to reiterate and nuance the anti-capitalist economic agenda of unearned, God-given abundance. Making it clear that when we say that all God’s children deserve housing, food, and medical care we should be explicitly including people with criminal records, histories of drug use, and people living with HIV/AIDS should have been straight-forward task for ministers belonging to communities where these struggles are experienced in disproportionately higher numbers.(7)(8)(9)During a time when the government provides less support for underserved communities and more private-sector, safety net organizations are claiming religious exemptions and complicating applications for service, this stance is particularly needed from clergy.
Certainly, there are queer ministers who have discussed these issues. But it is hard to believe that the majority of queer ministers allowed stories like Ash’s to direct their ministries when the only queer issue the liberal church has felt the need to take a public stand on is marriage. Marriage not only fails to push the church to think differently about sex, it allows the church to maintain the most conservative position on romantic relationships and sexuality. Marriage equality advocates have attempted to erase the fact that queer folks are persecuted and feared because of who they have sex with and how they have sex by making this about “love”; using hashtags, campaign slogans, and photos that portray gay marriage just like monogamous, child-rearing straight marriage. Additionally, the battle for same-sex civil marriage has pitted the liberal white church against the black church, with black churches being cast as homophobic and dangerous and liberal white churches holding themselves up as safe havens with a monopoly on the words “welcoming”, “affirming”, and “open”. Perhaps most frightening of all, is the amount of influence that queer clergy and their affiliated denominations have exerted on the government around the issue of same-sex marriage. Though activists have pointed out that conservative churches and denominations are out of line and should lose their tax exempt status for lobbying against same-sex marriage and promoting anti-gay candidates from the pulpit, this critique has not extended to liberal churches who engaged in the same practices to support same-sex marriage.(10)
So what happened to queer liberation theology and the power of the preaching voice of the Other? Though numerous other liberation theologies (e.g. Latin American, Black, Womanist, Korean, Palestinian) are still widely used, the concept of queer liberation theology has fallen out of fashion. Academics still discuss and write on the topic of queer theology but usually without the liberative idea of the queer person as an oppressed person in possession of God’s preference. Though the reason for the disappearance of this particular lens has not been explicitly named, it is implied. The implication both in the academy and in the church is that the work of liberating the queer person is done.
This idea, while false, persists because there is no queer church to rebut it. Unlike other people who claim a liberation theology, queer people do not gather for worship in a segregated, predominately queer space. When queer people become ministers or theologians, there are not masses of organized people imploring them to write or preach a liberative word. Queer folks, scared of attending more conservative churches and not ministered to by liberal churches that merely celebrate inclusion, leave the church and join radical social justice activists outside the church who accompany the least and most maligned, the very people the church is called to care for and invite in. So queer ministers stand in the pulpit and perhaps tell their coming-out story and make a few jokes about the supposed discontinuity of being a gay Christian. But they are not reflecting back to the congregation a true understanding of the state of most queer lives in America.
Queer ministers, on the whole, are not queering ministry, they are not doing ministry for queer laity, and they are not bringing a queer lens to the pulpit. Queer ministers are “just like everybody else” in ministry. And that truth is not just a hard loss for gays and lesbians living in rural areas and conservative regions of the country, trans* folks, displaced queer youth, and those who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing transphobic or homophobic violence. This is a hard loss for the entire Body of Christ. We need the whole Body to understand the wounding experienced by queer persons, and those stories are best conveyed by people who move in the world as queer people. We also need a queer lens to see old, supposedly settled issues in a new light.
When the minister closed Ash’s memorial service by saying “Ash has made her final transition and now God is calling her by her true name”, she was speaking about liberation. In that church basement, the struggle for queer survival was raised up as real and difficult. The room needed to hear about freedom and God’s great affection for those who are brutalized by this culture. The preacher saw those needs and ministered to them as only another queer person could. Certainly, her words were directed by the voice of God as much as they were directed by the story of a queer woman who resisted the system that eventually killed her. To hold these two voices together in ways that teach the church who it is and who it must serve; this is the work that all queer ministers must be faithful enough to undertake.
5. For more information about the ways racism, classism, and cisnormativity played into the battle for same-sex marriage: http://www.againstequality.org/about/marriage/
For insight into the ways that corporate interests were protected by proponents of same-sex marriage:
*Name changed to protect the privacy of other persons mentioned in this story.
**This argument assumes that unless white persons see white people mistreated by the criminal justice system they will not abandon hope in the system and its ability to reform. At this juncture in our history, the murder and mistreatment of so many black people should be enough for all Christians, regardless of race, to turn against this death-dealing, sinful institution. Unfortunately, I do not see evidence of this anti-racist, abolitionist trend in the white church. This argument also assumes a racially segregated worship community. According to a recent study by LifeWay Research, 8 in 10 churches are predominately composed of one racial group. It is also important to note here that as a white person who was raised in a white church and currently attends a white church, I can really only speak out of and critique that institution.