How 2SLGBT people are reclaiming their faith and redefining their relationship with spirituality
'I see a change and it's incomplete, but it's happening and it's real': United Church minister
This story was originally published on June 25, 2022.
The week Mitchell Anderson publicly came out as gay, he also attended a Sunday service in his hometown for the first time.
Anderson was nervous heading to church, since personal news (and gossip) travels fast in small towns like Meadow Lake, Sask. But when he arrived at the United Church, a community member literally embraced him with open arms.
"You know, Mitchell, it's so nice to see you here today," he remembers her saying, "I just want you to know you're welcome here."
Anderson still holds onto that experience nearly 15 years later, now as lead minister at St. Paul's United Church in Saskatoon.
"A warm hug and welcome and smiling face is to me exactly what the church should always be for everyone, no matter who we are … in the full richness of our identity," said Anderson.
His understanding of scripture is of a God who is on the side of the oppressed; that God has the intention to reconcile and renew all, and that Jesus draws himself to all people.
"That 'all' to me doesn't have an asterisk. That 'all' doesn't have a 'but.' That 'all' means all, so when scripture says 'all,' that means 'all,' and that includes queer, trans and two-spirit people," said Anderson.
But a warm, inclusive welcome is often the opposite of what religious institutions extend to 2SLGBT people.
"At St. Paul's, we have members who either are themselves LGBT or have family members or close loved ones who have been pushed out of or hurt by less accepting communities of faith," said Anderson.
Despite widespread harms against 2SLGBT people by many religions, some people from the community are pursuing faith on their own terms, reconciling with it and redefining what it means to be spiritual. They're pushing back against traumatizing, exclusionary practices to create safer communities for people within faith.
Pray the gay away
Lisa, who only identifies by their first name, spent the first decades of their life trying to "pray the gay" away. They loved God, but their faith made them develop a deep self-hatred. They repeatedly thought, "Something's wrong with me."
Early on in their life, Lisa's family attended the Worldwide Church of God. Lisa called this institution controlling, racist, abusive and homophobic. They said leaders cited the Old Testament and remembers teachings about stoning gay people to death. This complicated the crushes they began having on girls.
Their family moved to an evangelical church when they were about 16. Lisa said it felt more inviting, with a focus on values like forgiveness and "love thy neighbour."
As it turns out, that sentiment didn't extend to all.
"They started talking about people going to hell for being gay," said Lisa, who now lives in Prince Albert, Sask.
At 18, they were shunned from their bible college after leaders learned of their same-sex relationships. The feelings of shame and guilt consumed them. They left the college and tried to to force themself to want a husband.
"I don't want to go to hell," they thought. "I don't want to burn for eternity."
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Across the world, Iris Akbar endured similar trauma in Singapore.
A transmasculine person now living in Saskatoon, Akbar remembers the Friday-evening Islamic teachings that emphasized the "wrongs" and damning consequences of "homosexuality."
This made Akbar feel anxious, like an outcast.
By Akbar's family's religious and cultural definitions, being a good Muslim meant being straight and cisgendered.
Akbar didn't fit that mould, even as a child. Akbar was attracted to masculine styles, but was forced to wear a hijab and a baju kurung (traditional full-body women's clothing).
"I hated it."
Adults brushed off Akbar's desires to be a boy and said it was wrong for girls to be attracted to one another, forcing Akbar to hide their identity for protection.
Akbar was taught that you cannot be 2SLGBT and a Muslim – that one must either renounce their faith or change their identity. Akbar began to question Islamic teachings and having a relationship with faith, wondering how great God really was if people were punished for being themselves.
"That resulted in a lot of mental health struggles," Akbar said, describing it as spiritual trauma.
When Akbar came out as an adult, Akbar said they were "blatantly rejected" by family members. Akbar said the mental well-being of people who are deeply religious is intertwined with their faith practice, so the consequences of shunning someone from a faith community can be dire.
"I felt very lost. I went into this very dark place. I was struggling."
Akbar faced depression and thoughts of suicide.
Prayer didn't change Akbar nor Lisa, who turned to alcohol and self-harm. Lisa said religious leaders and practitioners must realize the pain they can cause by trying to force people to reject their true identity and conform.
Action needed beyond talk
One of the first steps toward creating safer spaces is for religious institutions and faith leaders to acknowledge and atone for traumatic legacies, said Julian Wotherspoon, a queer woman and parent of a non-binary child. She is also part of an affirming ministries committee with Regina's Knox-Metropolitan United Church.
"You can't end harm that you haven't recognized or that you haven't owned your part in. I would just like to see more congregations taking on that work in a more meaningful way ... It goes beyond being willing to do a gay wedding."
Anderson said some religious circles are having conversations that felt impossible a decade ago.
"I see a change and it's incomplete, but it's happening and it's real."
Last year in Saskatchewan's capital, more than 40 faith leaders signed a letter asking Regina city council to move forward with a local ban on conversion therapy, which is an attempt to get people to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Anderson said some faith groups that seem more progressive in their allyship, like the United Church, need to do more than just talk; they need to demonstrate inclusion through their actions. For example, they can hire 2SLGBT people, host support groups, expand ceremony offerings, integrate 2SLGBT stories into sermons, or rely on 2SLGBT scholars and theologians.
"You say all the right things, but what do you actually do?" challenged Anderson.
"You say everyone's welcome, but when that person shows up, do they have that experience like I did with Betty, or is it cold, uncomfortable, weird, awkward? And I think that gap between what you say and what you do, that's what needs to continue to be closed."
Akbar dreams of making Islamic faith communities more inclusive, and is calling on local leaders to embrace open allyship and support.
"If you are a centre that is meant for all Muslims, there could be space for a queer Muslim," Akbar said.
Nurturing spirituality on their own terms
That desire for a community of people who had similar experiences with Islam brought Akbar to Canada six years ago, thinking, "maybe this is the place where I can be queer and Muslim and reconcile my faith." Akbar was inspired to create a 2SLGBT Muslim support group in Saskatoon and has found that networking to be a healing undertaking.
Akbar also used interpretations of the ancient texts by 2SLGBT Islamic scholars and authors to reframe religious teachings, understanding them in a more inclusive manner.
At one of Lisa's lowest points, they connected with a counsellor – a Catholic who was accepting of 2SLGBT identities. Lisa also dove into studies of religion, history and science to better understand themself. At the same time, they entered a healthy relationship.
"Education has been huge and having a supportive partner has been huge," Lisa said. "That's when I started to accept myself, [when] I wasn't only looking to religion, to what the bible says."
Some people who experienced spiritual trauma, like Lisa, will never return to organized religion. Lisa has been able to carve out a spiritual practice on their own terms and inspired by the natural world.
Wotherspoon said it's not always safe for 2SLGBT people to practise their faith in a building or with an organized group, but that doesn't mean a person has to stop.
"That relationship can be nurtured and it can be explored and it can be a part of your self-care and your identity even if you're not in a physical building declaring it."