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"I understand why so many of my LGBT+ friends want nothing to do with religion—I spent more than a decade of my life living that, too. But these are not the only options; there are now a number of faiths in which LGBT+ people are not merely accepted, but affirmed."
Emily McAvan

12 Jan 2017 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2017 - 4:27 PM

When I was young, I believed in God. That belief, I was taught, was incompatible with being queer or transgender. For many of us, the stark either/or choice between accepting one’s gender/sexuality and faith is a deeply painful one, fraught with rejection from community and family.

My parents raised me in a fundamentalist Protestant sect that believed every word of the Bible was holy and correct, that one could easily find the truth from the text in the English translation (King James, of course), that God had literally created the world in seven days, and that there was no such thing as evolution. More than that, LGBT+ people were sinners, women had to wear modest attire including covering their heads, and they were most especially not allowed to preach. Every Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to church all day, where I was taught to hate myself for every sin - major and minor - that I had committed or even thought about committing.

Over the course of my teens, it became readily apparent that this religion was incoherent nonsense. My budding inner literary critic found numerous contradictions in the Biblical text, and the science I learnt at school made the creationist theology laughable at best. But more than anything, the misogyny and homophobia of the church was intolerable to me as a closeted teenager. Over and over, I had been told that LGBT+ people were sinners—an idea that made me feel sick to my very core as I began to realise that I myself was queer and trans. Not surprisingly, as soon as I could stop attending church, I did.

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For many years afterwards, I was extremely happy about being an atheist. No longer did I have to worry about the burden of all that sin, nor worry about the absurdities of belief in a literalist faith. A life without God was a huge relief. On Sunday mornings I slept in. I came out, began taking hormones, and made a life for myself as an out queer trans woman. I had lovers, study and then work, and a lot of good books. I was relieved from the burden of hating myself for being queer and trans, and felt free to live loud and proud. But something was missing.

As I moved into my thirties, I began to feel what Jean-Paul Sartre called “the god shaped hole,” - the longing for the God of one’s childhood. I felt like my life lacked ultimate meaning, that I needed more than what was around me. The daily grind of work left me feeling numb, and nothing I could buy filled the gap—shopping does nothing for the soul, I’ve found. I missed the comfort of ritual and the feeling of community.

Even through my atheist years, I kept reading about different faith practices, and found myself especially interested in 20th century Jewish philosophy from the likes of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. These authors strove to create an intelligent religion that could cope with the challenges of modern life. Furthermore, it seemed as though this openness was mirrored in Jewish communities. For those unfamiliar with Jewish denominations, Reform or progressive Judaism is the most liberal stream of Judaism, having ordained female rabbis for over forty years and supporting marriage equality since 1996. I was intrigued.

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"I couldn’t even take up the offering. I was simply looking to be actively involved and become a member of the church… Because I was gay, that was sufficient for [them] to turn around and say no. And by then, I thought, ‘That’s just not right'."

Eventually, that curiosity led me to a synagogue, where the first person I met was a queer man. It felt like a sign. The rabbi was very welcoming, and we had many great chats about the place of LGBT+ people in the Jewish community. There was never any question of conflict between my gender and sexuality and my becoming Jewish. After a move, I found myself at a new synagogue, one with a female rabbi and annual services for Pride. Our rabbis preach loudly and frequently for the need for marriage equality, and take every opportunity to create an open, welcoming communal life. Instead of the rhetoric of LGBT+ sin, we are told that all Jews are btzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. There is a stark difference between this and the faith of my childhood.

We live in a culture where many people consider there to be a complete disconnect between religion and being LGBT+, where the idea of being religious and queer is considered a contradiction in terms. Politicians talk about the need for religious exemptions to the potential marriage equality bill here in Australia, wanting to enshrine religious hatred against LGBT+ people in law. I understand why so many of my LGBT+ friends want nothing to do with religion—I spent more than a decade of my life living that, too. Many of us have been hurt deeply by the faiths in which we have grown, or find religion to be intellectually unsatisfying. That’s fine, we live in a secular world and not everyone feels the need to be religious.

But these are not the only options; there are now a number of faiths in which LGBT+ people are not merely accepted, but affirmed. Homophobic and transphobic religions do not have a monopoly on faith. Though some of the loudest voices in the public sphere still remain homophobic and transphobic, there has been a quiet sea change among faith communities in the last twenty years. Indeed, polls have shown that a majority of Christians now support marriage equality. So, there are many opportunities out there for LGBT+ people to explore religion without having to pretend to be straight or cis, and I hope that those who wish for it find a faith community as accepting as the one I have found.