Coming Out

Dragged To Drag: We Lip-Sync For The Lord

by The Rev. Mark E. Erson

Growing up as a gay male in the 60’s and 70’s, with the wider LGBT community just beginning to open the door to the great closet, the culture of our invisible community was hidden from me.

Living and growing in the world as it was, I often felt like I had been kidnapped and forced to live amongst a people that were not my own.

Therefore, while much of my coming out the process through the years has been focused on coming out to myself and to the non-gay world, it has also been a process of emerging into the wonderful, and very diverse, culture of OUR community.

The adventure of discovery has taken me to occasions, events, and enclaves of our community that have felt as foreign as that non-gay world that I grew up in. Strange to tell, seeing the movie Brokeback Mountain and hearing the discussions that followed was a huge breakthrough moment for me. Why is a topic for another full discussion? Suffice to say, I identified with those two men in ways I had never identified with gay men before.

One part of our culture that had never really been a part of me and those I count as friends were the whole Drag culture. No judgments. I never had an urge to do drag. (Don’t have that gene.) I never made a point of going to drag shows. If I was there and it was happening, okay.

By being called to be the pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village of Manhattan (literally across the street from the Stonewall Inn), I took on the task of redeveloping a congregation that was close to death and had had little connection with the neighborhood of the West Village.

Neighbors that I spoke with actually were surprised to hear that there was still an active congregation in the building.

Eager to connect with the neighborhood, and especially eager to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the many in our community who think they are not welcome in God’s church, I jumped at chances to collaborate with folks who came looking for space and support.

Miss Simone (a transgender performer and promoter) came to me and asked if she could host a fashion show in the sanctuary. I was game. The night was filled with transgender women showing their style and a couple doing lip-sic performances. As one of the young ladies was leaving, she thanked me deeply for allowing this to happen in the church.

I reflected on that short exchange for quite awhile. These folks had grown up in faith communities that had either shown them the door or caused them to run out the door before they were found out. They had grown up in communities where music was important and style was honored.

On that night, they could bring all those valued parts of their culture and themselves and worship as their authentic self.

We had a couple of more similar events. We also became known as the church for memorials of noted drag performers and transgender performers. In most cases, the family did not want to acknowledge the individual’s true self and/or did not want friends to be present for the “official” funeral. So friends and colleagues would come to St. John’s and ask to provide a memorial event that truly celebrated the life of this child of God. These have been some very moving events.

After one of the events of style and song, I asked the performers if someone would work with me to create a similar event in which presenters would perform gospel music. I got a taker, and we were off.

But what was this thing that we were creating? Where did it fit into the church culture? Where did it fit in LGBTQ culture? We could not call it drag, because most of the performers were transgender.  Although they borrowed from drag culture, it seemed wrong to call them drag performers.

We started calling it Gospel Divas. But then some guys wanted to join in. They are gay men, performing as men, and lip-syncing to male performers.  So we started calling it Gospel Night.  Lately, we’ve had some special guest musicians who sing their own music and we have had some instrumentalists.

It continues to evolve. Currently, I am hosting. (Me, the one who never got drag.)  I use the time in between songs to bring the good news, to highlight lyrics of songs just performed for the sake of teaching of God’s amazing love. We are starting to borrow from the revival culture of American Christianity (also foreign to me).

True confession: This blog is the first and most public discussion I have offered about this ministry. 

I have been shy to even talk to colleagues about it for fear that it will be shock them and they would judge me. (I have only been an ordained pastor for six and half years.) But I think of Boniface transforming pagan tree symbols into Christian symbols that pointed to the God that the missionary was bringing.

I think of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in the South Pacific who engaged a culture that had no concept of sheep and so they had to translate the image of Lamb of God into Pig of God, because pigs were cherished and valued most.

But mostly I think of that woman of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet much to the dismay and shock of those watching. But Jesus welcomes the shocking behavior of sincere and heart-felt devotion. And, transformed by the one who makes all things new, we have been anointing one another in Jesus’ name ever since.

So it continues to evolve. What to call it continues to be the question of the hour.

The newest name is Magnify: An Evening of Music and Mercy.

Whatever we call it, whatever it evolves into, may God’s name be praised and may the good news of God’s mercy and grace be heard.

Photo via flickr user Joshua Rothhaas