Queer. Religion. So often these two words feel like antonyms. Many of us have felt the pain from words of faith twisted into weapons. So many of us feel that pain still. But today, we start a journey to see synonyms in the concepts of “queer” and “religion.”
We start this journey with a close-up of one man in faith. Gabriel Loredo, a young, Chicano, queer, transgender man who has joined and taken a level of leadership at Sherman Methodist Church in Madison and is helping start up L.O.V.E., a project for Madison’s queer and allied youth across the spiritual spectrum. (You can find more information about this project in the News Briefs section of this issue.) I start with Gabe and this look into a man who stepped away from the Christian faith that abandoned its queer family, but with time and love, he found a home in a Christian church. My hope is that in columns moving forward, I can share stories of queer people in other religions as well: Queer in Islam, queer in Buddhism, queer in Wicca, queer in Hinduism and queer in so many other spaces that we reclaim or maybe, were never pushed out of.
As we look at Gabe this in this issue, never forget that each of our stories are our own, but our stories also resonate. Gabe has felt both the pain brought by houses of faith and the love that uplifts from those who intentionally welcome. Gabe says that he is the last person to tell anyone to follow the same path he has, though you’d be welcomed if you did. Gabe sees too much beauty in each of our stories and he tells of how much he learns both from the faith leadership of his pastor, the Reverend David Hart, as well as from a friend who is Norse Heathen and from his work in advocacy for all across the spiritual spectrum.
Gabe grew up, as too many of us do, in a home and church that did not welcome or affirm. He says he knew early that he was not the girl his family expected him to be. He tells his feelings about puberty, “I was hoping my mom was actually lying to me about what would happen. And then it happened. I was like, ‘Dang it!’”
Gabe tried to make things better, becoming hyper-feminine. His mom was conservative and had an image of a stereotypical family with one boy and one girl. He says, “She had the boy. She thought she had the girl.” Gabe tried to please his mom, “I just was really hyper-feminine and just tried, maybe if I was dressed feminine enough [my dysphoria] would just go away. Eventually though, as my body just kept forming and I was like, ‘Oooh! I’m really uncomfortable!’”
Gabe recalls a joyful moment of defiance as he unexpectedly found a chance to claim at least some of his masculinity, in a shopping trip to a Madison mall, “I remember a shopping trip with my brother, for school clothes. My mom didn’t have time, being a single mom, to take me so [my brother] was like, “Whatever you want to get, just pick it out. I don’t know what you wear.” And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I have free rein to pick out my clothes!’ So I just picked out whatever I wanted! And it was all sweaters, jeans, t-shirts, and shoes from the guy’s section, and I felt great!” Gabe’s mom was not happy with his choices, but went along with it, giving a resigned, “Fine,” with an offensive addition of, “At least you won’t get pregnant wearing this.” Gabe says he “gave her the biggest eye roll” and he thought, “Oh, mom. If only you knew.”
Gabe didn’t know many queer people growing up, but one queer person he met in band introduced him to BriarPatch, and through that organization he joined Top Ten, going to other youth groups to teach peer to peer, and he joined Teens Like Us. In these spaces, Gabe learned more about queerness and gained a stronger sense of self.
Gabe struggled against the queerphobia—and specifically the transphobia—that surrounded him through his life. He recounts the faith journey of his family, one that was always unaffirming, with differing levels of outright hostility. “I grew up Catholic and then [Mom] left Catholicism and joined the Assemblies of God…after that it went more evangelical and then after that was non-denominational Christian. I don’t really know how that works to be honest.” Gabe felt more and more uncomfortable in faith spaces. He tells of his youth pastor showing movies of The Rapture with traumatic scenes of sinners being beheaded. The message was clear, he says, “If you stray from God, then you won’t go to Heaven, and these awful things will happen to you.” He still has nightmares about those movies. Gabe pointed me to the Tik-Tokker @kevinjamesthornton who speaks of his own work deconstructing harmful Christian spaces.
As a youth, and still today, he didn’t understand how churches could be so cold and the people could abhor him just for existing. One common way transphobic Christians justify their hate is to say that God doesn’t make mistakes. Gabe has a strong faith that he is not a mistake, that he was wonderfully and fearfully made (Psalm 139:14). He says, “I didn’t understand why all these people were just so abhorrent toward me, and I didn’t understand why, if I’m this way and supposedly God doesn’t make mistakes, then why are they saying that it’s terrible.”
Gabe stopped going to church when he was a senior in high school. He recalls the drama that grew from one time when he tried to tell his mom that he thought he was “queer in some way.” His attempt at connection led to a conversation with their pastor who slipped his mom a brochure and tried to get Gabe to go to therapy, which Gabe now understands wasn’t therapy at all but a “therapy camp,” a form of conversion therapy that was not what the brochure adverstised. That’s when Gabe said, “Okay, I think I’m done. This is not for me.” He remembers that word got out about him being queer. “Church parents would just hold their kids just a little closer when I would walk past with my mom,” he said. “Or my mom would come home from church and she’d be like, ‘Well, this person asked about you today and they’re praying for you,’ and I said that I don’t need their prayers.”
Gabe came out fully in his early 20s. He says, “I finally said I can’t keep trying to do this hyper-femininity. I can’t keep trying to pray the trans away for my mom to love me. I just can’t keep doing this. So I came out, and I promptly started hormones, and here we are.
But he stayed away from the church for years.
When Gabe went to church again, it wasn’t something he meant to do. He speaks of a moment in time, an affirming pastor, The Reverend David Hart, opened the door in a gentle way. After being invited to come to Reverend Hart’s church, Gabe declined, saying, “I’m not into it. I don’t want to go to church.” Gabe says that the Reverend Hart never pushed and just engaged in conversation about how each of their days were going. After his earlier toxic experiences, Gabe wondered at this man who was a Christian leader and yet “so chill.” Gabe did find out that The Reverend Hart was affirming of LGBTQIA+ people, which also surprised him.
Gabe’s first time in a church again came because his spouse at the time wanted to go. Gabe decided that they would be most welcome at Sherman Methodist with Reverend Hart. What he did not expect was to be moved emotionally. He was so surprised when people from the church greeted him, fully welcoming without concern that he was queer. In other church spaces, the people stayed well away once they found out he was queer. But at this church, he was greeted fully, and when he heard the sermon, he said it was so beautiful that he cried a joyful cry. However, he also wondered, “How is this person making me cry! I’m on testosterone!” One of the first things Gabe noticed when he started on T was that his ability to cry just tanked. But here he was just bawling in the pew and thinking, “I need to be here.”
If you knew more of the Reverend Hart, you might also cry for joy. When asked about when he became an affirming pastor, Hart said, “I have always been an ally and affirming in my ministry and have carried that wherever I go. I refuse to be in a place where I can’t do that. I was marrying queer folx—family and friends—and blessing their unions back when it was illegal to do so. We would cross the state lines, speak up, speak out. Yes, I have always been an ally as a called clergy and as a human. As a Black man, I identify with others who have struggled to exist and to be fully themselves in this world, because some are afraid or hateful.”
Reverend Hart continued with more of his own theology, stating, “I have spent my called life as a womanist preacher. I see God as a trans God—a God bigger than pronouns and hate. So I am intentional about the pronouns I use for a God that big. God is not simply “he.” God is all things. My sermons and teaching are liberators and affirming. Anyone who sees the sermons hears the love and fullness of God.” And in the work he leads with his church, Hart says, “We are making our bathrooms accessible to all people. We show up for the oppressed and marginalized, not just when it’s convenient. And we do right.” And in that spirit of always working for the oppressed, he asked me, and really all of us, how we, the people and readers of Our Lives, are working toward ending the oppression of Black people.
Gabe also holds a strong warmth for the faith leadership of his friend who is Norse Heathen. Gabe says that she offers a wisdom that he doesn’t always reach on his own, especially when he feels self-doubt about belonging. He says, “I’ll never forget when she said that I do belong. That I have ties to this earth. That the Earth tells me who I am so I can teach the next generation. She always encourages me to feel my feelings when I want to bury them.”
With that leadership, it is not hard to see how Gabe found a home in faith. Gabe speaks of the need for people in faith to do better in the world, and he is clear that he does not ever want to come across as telling anyone else how to be. He speaks clearly of the need for Christians to be open to hearing how much hurt Christianity has done to the queer community, and adds, “Not just the queer community, but also to the Indigenous community, the Black community, the Asian community, the disabled community—by not having accessible buildings and by being ableist in word and intention, and all communities that are not white and hetero.” He adds, “I think being able to listen to that, with an open heart and an open mind to take that, and do better in your church is I think what will make it better.”
And Gabe takes to heart every part of his own journey and all that he is learning as he works his way into the service leadership at the heart of his faith, both at Sherman Methodist and with the project for queer and allied youth across the spiritual spectrum. Gabe works to live into his own call for spaces that are not pushy and that work against the idea that there is only one truth, but welcome all truths that are centered in love and mutual understanding.