Journey Story

I’m A Lesbian Christian Unlearning Shame

by Rev . Katherine Katsanis-Semel

I’m writing here about what I always, somehow, write about: the unlearning of shame. This is the topic on which I’m most focused. It’s my focus, for in the process of unlearning shame, we simultaneously remember our worth, which connects us to Love. And Love—the inherent sense that we’re both loved and emanations of Love—is at the heart of authentic, Christian teaching.

For in being both loved and being emanations of Love, we are indeed made in God’s image.

God’s image is Love itself—not sentimental love, which changes with time, but transcendental Love, which transcends limitations, including time. (To pull upon my Greek heritage, for explicative purposes, we usually function in “chronos,” whereas the Trinity functions in “kairos” and can pour into “chronos,” shifting the course of human affairs.)

Again, it seems that I only write about unlearning shame; shame: The false sense that we’re divorced from God, therefore undeserving of being loved or being emanations of Love. (Of course, nothing could be further from reality, even in a world that often tells our LGBTQ+ community otherwise.)

Shame, unless it’s a legitimate, emotional response to committing a terrible act, is not of God. Learned shame, indoctrinated and internalized shame, is not of God. Shame separates; shame isolates; shame alienates. It cleverly creates walls, and calls them good when they are not good.

And most of all, shame lies.

Shame whispers things to us that we wouldn’t believe were true, except when under the influence of shame. On a regular basis, I tell myself not to DUI: drive (and generally function) under the influence of shame. It’s so intoxicating that it’s a gateway drug, so to speak, to plenty of self-harm, including subtle and psychological self-harm. It’s also a powerful intoxicant that can cause us to act in violent ways toward others, as we know all too well.

Shame provokes; shame incites; shame controls. Yet it provokes, incites and controls us to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise, do. Unchecked shame can be dangerous. I should know, as someone whose shame-triggered suicidal ideation once led me down a destructive path.

Even as someone who recovered from a bout of nearly unmanageable, shame-driven depression (which ended when I was 21 years old), I still struggle with shame. Some days I think that I’m doing okay.

Then, suddenly shame shows up, crashing the party of daily living.

Some moments I’m actually feeling God’s presence, as my inner Adam and Eve walk naked in the garden of consciousness, and then shame arrives. There it is—pushing me, once again, out of the garden of unity with: wholeness, worthiness, belonging. That’s shame for you.

We all know what that—being pushed out, until we’re red in the face, hot in the chest—kind of discomfort feels like. Yet what we’re less experienced in is how to unlearn it. And though I’m an “I process my feelings until I should really get some sleep” kind of lesbian, I admit that my advice is pragmatic.

We unlearn shame—quantum leap unlearn shame—not only by processing it out of our emotional systems, but by challenging systems of oppression that perpetuate it.

What does that look like? 

So, every time I tell a stranger turned new acquaintance about my spouse, and the acquaintance replies, “Sweet. What’s your husband’s name?” And I share my “husband’s” female name with this individual, I’ve challenged a microsystem of oppression. I’m not going to take down ISIS or the NRA tomorrow, and neither are you, except, possibly, through prayer and petitions. Yet it’s empowering to challenge microsystems of oppression, in our daily lives, during personal and professional interactions.

Challenging microsystems of oppression won’t make news headlines. Yet doing so is valuable, because we unlearn shame via this behavior.

Sometimes unlearning shame is meeting myself in the mirror, and mentally repeating kind words when I feel down. Yet quite often, it’s an external process, which may mean inviting a colleague to an LGBTQ+ community event that I organized, even though I intuit that it’s out of this person’s comfort zone to receive this invite. And being as sensitive as I am, it’s therefore out of my comfort zone to extend the invite. And more often than I care to admit, unlearning shame means risking being perceived as uptight when I insist, “No, not my “friend.” She’s my spouse…” after I’ve already introduced her as my spouse.

Undoing the ripple effect of shame can mean standing firm.

Furthermore, though this suggestion can be perceived as “sex negative,” sometimes usurping shame means getting help when one finds one’s self to be sex obsessed, or sex addicted. Personally, I don’t find my suggestion to be “sex negative.” Rather, I find it to be “sex neutral.”

Like money, life energy is a neutral force—it’s what we do with it that counts. Truth be told, being driven by sex can be as oppressive as repressing one’s sexuality. Within the delicate realm of sexuality, context counts for a lot; a sexual act primarily driven by the craving for pleasure, rather than the intention to connect, can be problematic.

Unlearning shame can also mean cultivating self-forgiveness, for becoming more focused on the body, than on the spirit. (Might I add, this piece equally applies to anyone of any sexual orientation.)

Recently, for me, unlearning shame meant writing an e-mail to an Orthodox priest, who is aware of my subjectivity, to thank him for ministering to my spouse after she lost her Mom. It meant acknowledging him for comforting the grieving, whether or not he agrees with our “life choices.” Furthermore, it meant knowing that he doesn’t call himself LGBTQ+ friendly, yet that didn’t stop him from caring, nor did it prohibit me from writing to him.

Because that is what love does.

Love speaks, love writes, love listens, love sings, and, when necessary, love pushes back. And sure, unlearning shame leads us into Love, yet acting out of Love can lead us out of shame.

Photo via flickr user UMWomen