Preach the Gospel. When Necessary, Do It In Drag | Sojourners

Preach the Gospel. When Necessary, Do It In Drag

Isaac Simmons is right in the thick of it. Simmons, 23, is the first openly gay man certified for candidacy for ordination in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church. And if that wasn’t enough of a barrier to break through, he’s not doing it alone. Instead, he’s bringing along Ms. Penny Cost — his drag persona.

Drag is the art of dressing up and performing a “highly stylized” persona, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. While it is especially popular with “people who identify as men and present themselves in exaggeratedly feminine ways as part of their performance,” anyone of any gender and sexual orientation can participate in drag. As an art form, it’s existed since the 19th century, and in its current form drag is inextricable from its queer roots. Drag is often performed in gay bars, keeping the tradition connected to the community.

The public meshing of queer identities and Christian faith, a wider cultural shift seen across the U.S., is personal for Simmons and his process of ordination. This spring, after several years of internal conflict that came to a head during the 2019 UMC General Conference, a conservative sect of Methodists announced they were starting their own denomination, the Global Methodist Church. The decision came directly in response to disagreement within the UMC over same-sex marriage.

“There have been closeted folks or people who have been shoved back into the closet before me, but I am the first [openly gay man] to be certified in my district,” Simmons told Sojourners.

Simmons said he comes from an “extremely affirming” church community, Hope United Methodist, in Bloomington, Ill.

“We are filled with queer folks, with drag queens, with drag kings, with everyone,” he said. “We're also intergenerational. So we have silver-haired people in Dockers and then also the drag queens.”

Following the 2019 General Conference, where the UMC affirmed existing policies barring LGBTQ people from joining the clergy, Simmons’ strong base community inspired him to push past his nerves and commit to seeking ordination.

Around the same time, Simmons realized that his other passion — drag — felt like a necessary extension of his faith.

Simmons created the character of Penny Cost for a college project; Simmons was inspired by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who theorized in Rabelais and His World about using the “carnivalesque” and the “grotesque” to “invert systems of oppression to subvert them.”

“What's more carnivalesque than drag?” Simmons said.

That subversion, and interest in experimenting with mediums of communication, inspired the name for Penny Cost, a play on the Acts 2 story of Pentecost.

“It's one of my favorite stories — this idea that folks can acquire new ways of reaching each other. The art of drag is a way to have a conversation with people,” Simmons said. “I've done performances on stage — all the way from Gospel, to mixes about the importance of mental health — and just to have people making eye contact, and seeing folks being moved is unlike anything I've ever experienced.”

Penny Cost is the “epitome” of a 1960s-style “church-lady persona,” Simmons said. While there’s more than a hint of cheekiness in Simmons’ drag instincts, there’s also something deeply spiritual.

“One of my missions in drag is to show that these two seemingly opposite things — spirituality and queerness — aren't mutually exclusive, and that the divine is accessible by all people,” Simmons said. He chose the path of ordination and chose to bring Penny Cost into the process for the same reason: “To be able to show queer folks that they can be represented in the church, and that they can be reflected in it — and that the church can be reflected into them ... the church is as much the people as the people are the church.”

Simmons, and Penny Cost, ended up reaching further than he’d ever anticipated. Within 24 hours of his certification, a video of Penny Cost teaching people how to pray the rosary went viral. “It started a bit of an uproar,” Simmons said.

“I was not expecting any of this to receive any sort of attention other than my district voting ... It felt very out of body. I have never met any of these people in person, and yet they were commentating on who I am as a person [and] as a figure of the queer community,” Simmons said. “In many cases, in more conservative spaces, it was verbalized that I was the future of the church, like, ‘this is the queer agenda.’ It was very hard, and it was very tiring.”

Simmons struggled while witnessing members of his wider Christian community try to paint him as an example of the worst that queerness could bring to Christianity.

Queerness and Christianity, and the challenges between the two communities, are having something of a moment. From Lil Nas X’s biblically-themed video for his song “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” to Semler’s “Preacher’s Kid” EP, there still aren’t easy answers for the tension between the queer community and Christianity. That tension also follows Simmons.

As Penny Cost, and therefore Simmons, became more well-known, he became concerned about how the character would be received by members of the LGBTQ community.

Simmons felt a sense of responsibility to prioritize the queer community in his performances, given that religion can be complicated, nuanced, and painful for many queer folks, especially those who have experienced harm from religious groups.

"It is an incredibly fine line … It can be incredibly re-traumatizing for folks who have been ran out of homes, ran out of churches, who have undergone ‘conversion therapy,’” Simmons said. “It can be incredibly harmful, if done improperly. And I never, never want to cause someone harm with my actions.”

The pressure of bringing his whole self before his faith community almost made Simmons question his commitment to the process. He recalls a particular moment soon before beginning his certification process, at a conference for those considering ministry.

“I was just bawling, because I had this moment where I realized that [I] was being called to a sort of martyrdom within my conference, because of who I am, and the inclusion that I stand for,” Simmons said.

After the rosary video went viral with over 5,000 views on Simmons’s Facebook, he received both supportive and derogatory messages from Christians all over the U.S. and the U.K.

“When all of this was brought to a national level, I didn't need to mourn. I had already processed everything,” Simmons said. “I was able to dive in to try and recenter the conversation away from whether or not drag is an abomination, whether or not queer folks are condemned, to help move the conversation away from that, into a conversation of: Absolutely everyone is loved and is a reflection of the Divine.”

At the same time that the viral video of Penny Cost was being met with homophobia, Simmons was also met with an outpouring of support from his church community. That validation showed Simmons that the time was ripe to pursue ordination.

“One of the higher-ups in my conference saw the video and said, ‘You know, I don't know what people are upset about. I see an evangelist teaching people how to pray.’” Given Simmons’s nickname as the “drag evangelist,” it makes sense.

The schism between the UMC and the new GMC is not yet official, and as a result, Simmons said ordination feels both “exciting” and “nerve-racking.” The rest of his ordination process, for the next few years, will likely overlap with the UMC’s official rupture.

“The actions that the church makes in the coming couple of years will be reflected for an entire generation,” Simmons said. “If we do not set up a church that is fully accepting, fully anti-racist in its values, non-colonial in its system, then we will be having the same argument for the next coming generations.”

In the meantime, Penny Cost will continue creating space for people with stories like Isaac Simmons — those living in the in-between, Christians and queer, uncompromising on either identity.

“Whether or not queer folks who are reading this or encounter this story identify as a Christian, Methodist, or anything, I want them to know that they are made whole, they are made wonderful, simply by existing,” Simmons said. “You don't need validation from the church to be whole, you are already whole.”

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