After coming out in her evangelical church, Rachel Murr searched for others who have held onto faith after coming out in non-affirming Christian environments. Using memoir, research, and interviews, she wrote Unnatural: Spiritual Resiliency in Queer Christian Women. Here’s our interview with her:
1. What prompted you to research the experiences of queer Christian women?
Prior to coming out, I had always looked at faith communities as a positive thing in my life. My church involvement brought me fantastic friendships, a sense of connection to others and to a greater purpose, and it challenged me to stay aware of and respond to the needs of others in my community and around the world.
As I came out, I started to reflect on all the negative messages I’d heard about LGBTQ people from my churches and from high profile Christian leaders. I started to wonder if church was good for me anymore. Still, I didn’t want to give up my faith, so I went in search of others who came from non-affirming Christian environments and asked them how they went about constructing an affirming and meaningful personal faith.
As I started my research, I found a huge disparity between existing literature on gay Christian men and women. There were a handful of studies that had been done specifically exploring how gay Christian men resolve conflict between religious and sexual identities. No such research existed that was specific to women. I also discovered that queer women were more likely to leave the church than gay men, straight men, or straight women. I wondered what was causing these disparities.
2. Did you uncover any reasons why queer women might be leaving churches more than gay men?
This wasn’t one of my initial interview questions, but I was able to ask some of my later participants if they had thoughts on why gay women were more likely to leave church than gay men. The research I’d read suggested that the church’s anti-gay views combined with systems that limit women in leadership form a “double whammy” that keeps most queer women away from religious institutions. Answers from women I interviewed similarly pointed to these two factors working together to create an overwhelmingly unwelcoming environment in many churches. My own experience is that even LGBT affirming churches are typically predominantly male and pastored by men.
3. What were some common messages that these women heard about LGBTQ people?
The messages varied in severity, but all took in some negative messages about LGBTQ people. In churches where anti-gay messages were preached from the pulpit, women heard that “gay people aren’t welcome, only to be fixed,” or that being gay is “a disgusting thing and you are going to hell.” One woman recalled, “any example of someone who is a sinner or sinful or bad, the epitome of that example was usually a gay person.” These messages carried shame that was hard to escape.
Others grew up in a culture where they felt pressured into silence about their sexual orientation. One woman described how her family’s heritage contributed to the silence: “I think my ethnicity has something to do with it—not only being a Christian but being Mexican as well, I think that it’s one of those unspoken things. It’s known but never talked about, like the giant elephant in the room.”
My own churches taught that gay people are unhealthy and damaged from childhoods gone wrong. They advocated for compassion, but made clear their message that same-gender romantic relationships are inherently sinful. They also taught that homosexuality could be healed—another common message that women in my study were taught.
4. Why focus on resilience?
Resiliency is simply the ability to thrive after painful and damaging experiences. I didn’t want to write a book that only focused on the harm done by non-affirming churches. I could fill multiple books with such stories, but I don’t think that focusing only on the harm tells the whole story. The women I interviewed were kicked out of churches, denied leadership, rejected from families, lectured, punished, and even physically assaulted. Still, they fought to hold onto their faith. They studied the Bible, went to seminary, found affirming communities, and developed solitary spiritual practices. They worked harder to hold onto their faith than most Christians in America are willing to work. What resulted was profoundly beautiful stories of commitment to a loving God. I had to tell of people’s strength as well as pain, and I had to tell of the ways that God has shown love to those the church has rejected.
5. What inspired you most in the process of writing this book?
When I started interviewing queer women for my research project, I was moved by how eager they were to tell their stories. They volunteered readily and quickly told me of others whose stories they felt I needed to hear. In the interviews, they spoke freely of their pain, their uncertainty, their convictions, and the things they’d learned along their journeys. Sexuality and religion are two topics not easily discussed with strangers, but these women seemed to be longing to tell of their experiences, suggesting they’d had few opportunities to share them.
Hearing their honest and vulnerable stories inspired me to tell my own story too. I was amazed at the ways they experienced God at work in their lives no matter how they may have been treated by the church. Their stories were testimonies of the goodness of God. They made me want to join them in sharing about what God has been saying to LGBTQ people. God has been speaking to us. People experienced God speaking to them in the wilderness, in the still small voice, through the Bible, through community, and through other means.
My faith was renewed after hearing again and again that even after we’ve been rejected by our churches or our families, we still experience God as one who loves and accepts us.
Header via Rachel Murr