With three powerful (and tweetable) words — “We see you” — Attorney General Loretta Lynch set Twitter alight as news organizations, activist groups, and individuals responded to her promise to transgender communities.
Some would say that’s the beauty of Twitter: Any individual with a handle can appear alongside corporations, celebrities, and organizations on one of the world’s largest social media platforms. Everyone has a story, and on Twitter, everyone has an audience.
Increasingly, this includes LGBTQ people of faith who push against the pervasive notion that their identity as religious and LGBTQ does not exist.
For writer, activist, and Sojourners online contributor Eliel Cruz, it started with the hashtag #FaithfullyLGBT, one he first used to share his column of the same name at Religion News Service in 2015. Since then, others have picked up the hashtag as a handy way to create visibility for their intersection of faith and sexuality. In January 2016, Cruz launched a photo campaign highlighting the faces of those who are#FaithfullyLGBT.
Sharp photographs grace the new #FaithfullyLGBT website, each one accompanied by the subject’s name, sexual orientation, and religious tradition. Each photograph also includes a quote about the individual’s relationship to sexuality and faith.
This fusion is far more common than either the conservative religious or the secular progressive may think. And there are some who might even consider this fusion heroic.
At least, that’s what Chris Davies wants to show the world.
Capes with your collars
After a queer clergy friend had a rough day, Davies created a trading card — similar to a baseball card — to cheer them up. The card was meant to make her friend smile — it highlighted their superpower, their kryptonite, and a feel-good song to walk out to before preaching.
After Davies, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ, posted the card online, other people began asking for their own versions, and Queer Clergy Trading Cards began.
If the premise sounds funny, that’s because it is. The cards can include a superpower as serious as “brings inclusive theology, practice and behavior to the masses” or a kryptonite as irreverent as “hymns split by gender instead of voice range,” and “emails with the subject line: A concern.” The cards invoke both Taizé-style hymns and Destiny’s Child classic “Independent Women.”
Coming from a place of good-natured humor, the Queer Clergy Trading Cards project imagines LGBTQ clergy as superheroes because they are doing what was once thought impossible.
“We didn’t think we’d be able to do this,” Davies said. “For faithful, queer Christians, seeing themselves reflected in church leadership has been really incredible.”
While a growing number of church denominations — including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) — affirm same-sex marriage and the ordination of out LGBTQ people, the phrases “Christian” and “LGBTQ” often seem dichotomous. Policies are changing, but LGBTQ people — clergy and lay people alike — have yet to be broadly welcomed into many local churches. Until they are, the visibility of these individuals at the intersection of faith and sexuality remains key.
Holy stories, one tweet at a time
Using platforms like Twitter and Facebook, ordinary individuals who may feel alone in their church or tradition are able to tell the world their story. Projects such as #FaithfullyLGBT and Queer Clergy Trading Cards amplify these stories with highly visual and easily sharable content. And organizing hashtags like #Equality, #translivesmatter, #repealHB2, and #LGBT increasingly provide solidarity, community, and visibility to those whose experiences have long been dismissed or ignored.
For Cruz, currently running a campaign to launch more initiatives like #FaithfullyLGBT, there’s a particular word to describe this sort of visibility: Holy.
“When LGBT people of faith share their stories, it’s a holy act. It’s a holy act to have someone be that transparent with you,” he said.
And in a year when trans folk are killed at higher rates than ever, and over 40 percent of youth who are homeless identify as LGBTQ, holy stories that prompt delight are even more necessary.
Something about the combination of irreverent humor, authentic snapshots, and truthful storytelling in these two projects has struck a chord.
“I think people are really thirsty for these stories,” Cruz said, about the popularity of #FaithfullyLGBT. “They’re really excited to engage.”
But it’s not just savvy Twitter users engaging with this work. Davies prints and sells the trading cards both online and at conferences (Queer Clergy Trading Cards donates their profit to LGBTQ youth organizations). Pastors have bought the cards to leave them out in their youth groups. Others have added the cards to personal prayer shrines. Perhaps most striking: “Grandparents give the cards to their grandchildren who are gay as a way of saying they’re loved by God in the fullness of who they are,” Davies said.
Twitter and Facebook may be able to foster online communities, but Cruz and Davies hope their projects expand beyond the Internet. The first #FaithfullyLGBT photos were taken at the Gay Christian Network conference in 2016, and Cruz also sees the hashtag used as a way to find people to connect with offline. Both Cruz and Davies dream of holding retreats in the future — some sort of way to gather their expansive cyberspace communities in the flesh.
These campaigns have had a wide network of people sharing and supporting them, but it is the deep impact of their stories that makes them last.
A white church still
In recent years, a more prominent LGBTQ faith community has formed as more queer Christians — and people of other faith traditions — declare that they do, in fact, exist. They have pushed against the narrative that religion and non-straight sexuality cannot mix.
However, even in affirming spaces, single narratives can threaten the diversity of stories that exist. Historically, the gay rights narrative — and specifically, the media that shapes and covers it — has focused on gay, cis-gender white men. As recently as March 2016, Twitter users expressed outrage over the gay media’s lack of inclusion of LGBTQ people of color with the hashtag #gaymediasowhite.
Neither Cruz nor Davies is unaware of the racial disparities associated with the mainstream LGBTQ community. “Even affirming spaces — they’re very white spaces,” Cruz said.
Both Davies and Cruz intentionally cull stories that speak to the racial, gender, and religious diversity within their communities.
Davies sees this as part of a larger project: Who is getting hired to lead churches? The inclusive policy of several denominations notwithstanding, if congregations don’t take deliberate steps to seek out people who embody inclusivity, queer clergy — and especially, queer clergy of color— are still left struggling for representation.
Davies makes sure each pack she creates includes the faces of queer people of color. She often wonders what would happen if her cards fell into the hands of search committees looking for pastors.
“What we’re seeing is if there are more folks visible, whether it’s queer, women, people of color, or people who are disabled. It statistically grants more opportunity in congregations,” she said.
When worship isn’t welcoming
In the collection of Queer Clergy Trading Cards, one sticks out: The Closeted Clergy. The card represents clergy who are unable to come out with their superpower being “staying solid under siege.” It’s Davies’ favorite card, and it has resonated with many others.
“As soon as I put that card up, I got several messages from people saying: ‘This is me right now,’” she said.
It is a reminder that despite the growing LGBTQ community on faith on Twitter, many churches and congregations remain unwelcoming.
“Church can be a battlefield for us,” Cruz said of the challenges facing LGBTQ people of faith.
“Finding a space where we can worship without oppression can be very difficult, and depending on where you are, impossible.”
Cruz’s words feel particularly on point as the United Methodist Church convenes their general conference where they are considering more than 100 pieces of legislation on human sexuality. In the lead up to the conference, 100 LGBTQ Methodist clergy came out in protest and to remind the UMC that they are already a part of the church.
Days later, LGBTQ clergy of other Christian denominations published a letter of support for the queer people in the United Methodist Church. It echoed Attorney General Lynch’s words — “we see you” — but it took the sentiment one step further: “We have all experienced this with you.”
It’s been a year of celebrating #lovewins and a year of lament in #translivesmatter. There has been critique of representation in #gaymediasowhite and a reminder of a covenant in #calledout.
For LGBTQ people of faith, Twitter is becoming a vital space for a diversity of stories to emerge. And these stories — whether of the pastor down the street or of the people sitting in the pews — allow those of us lucky enough to see them a glimpse into the lives of everyday superheroes.