When I was a child, my favorite song to belt out in the children’s choir at my Southern Baptist Church was “This Little Light of Mine.” I loved how this song encouraged young people to express themselves freely.
However, when I grew older and realized that I liked other women, the message no longer resonated with me. I hid my sexuality under a “bushel.” Each time my preacher and my youth leader encouraged me to find a “nice God-fearing boy,” my confidence and self-worth dwindled.
While some have their light recognized, others, like me, have their light doused. After I came out, many of my church members blocked me on social media or encouraged me to repent of my “sin.”
I am not the only queer person who has felt unsafe at a place of worship. According to a Pew Religious Landscape Survey from 2014 (coincidentally, the year before I came out of the closet), 46% of Christian congregations did not accept LGBTQ+ people. Reading these messages, I felt confused. I had learned that God was supposed to love us unconditionally, so why had my previously loving church community rejected me?
These statistics show how being LGBTQ+ in a religious community can feel like a dark experience. But in many ways, embracing my sexual orientation became the bright guiding light that helped me reignite my spiritual flame.
Many of us have internalized that our queerness leads us away from religion. Yet as I became more confident in my sexuality, I also had a better understanding of what I need from a spiritual community: to feel supported and loved. This wasn’t an easy process. I spent almost a decade exploring different faith systems and religious groups: Methodist, Catholic, Humanitarian, pagan, and Quaker. Here is what I learned from my search.
Look for “green lights” that might indicate a welcoming congregation
Along my religious journey, I was wary of the “red lights” that might indicate that a place of worship wouldn’t accept me as a whole person. When a preacher exclaimed, “hate the sin, love the sinner” or when a member of the congregation asked me, “why did you get that short, manly haircut? Your long hair looked so feminine,” I began my search anew.
Instead of avoiding “red lights,” I learned to seek out the “green lights” – the positive signs I saw shining from LGBT-friendly congregations. When LGBTQ+ people can find a welcoming congregation, they can reap some powerful psychological and social benefits: feeling like they belong in their community, decreased isolation, more peace, and a greater sense of purpose in life.
Find community leaders who are interested in getting to know you
No “green light” is all-inclusive or cut-and-dry. Nonetheless, these five “green lights” helped light my way to my current synagogue.
LGBTQ+ people and families openly attend worship services
During my first visit to my synagogue, I was greeted by a man. As we made small talk, the man’s husband came up and kissed him on the cheek. When I attend a worship service, I want to feel like I can open my heart without being judged. I instantly felt a little safer when I realized that LGBTQ+ people felt comfortable enough to attend services with their partners. I thought, “This is a place where I could bring a girlfriend without being judged. This is a place where I could imagine bringing my family.”
Another way that congregations might express their open support of the LGBTQ+ community is by flying Pride flags on their building, adding a Pride flag to their website, hosting heterosexual and same-sex weddings, or intentionally inviting LGBTQ+ people to attend services.
LGBTQ+ people are in leadership positions
Growing up in my conservative, Southern Baptist community, I was always confused about why women were not allowed to become preachers or deacons. I remember my preacher telling me, “Women have their place; that place just isn’t in the pulpit.” Similarly, when LGBTQ+ people are barred from serving in leadership roles, I feel that I am not welcome as an active participant in the community. This form of exclusion is particularly hurtful because it feels like the congregation is implying, “Yes, you’re allowed here even though you’re gay.” When I visit congregations that have LGBTQ+ pastoral and ministry leaders, I feel like I’m not just allowed to take up space in the pews, but that I am welcome to share that space.
Religious leaders include their pronouns on their name tags or in their email signatures
When I first visited my synagogue, my confidence grew when I received an email from the rabbi where she listed her pronouns and asked me if I was comfortable sharing mine. As I told my best friend about these first synagogue visits, I said, “I have a really good feeling about this place. I think I can be myself.”
When religious leaders or community members ask for pronouns, they signal that they are aware that a person might be nonbinary or transgender. I use “they/them” and “she/her” pronouns when I feel safe to do so, but I often limit myself to “she/her” because I worry that I will be rejected or mocked. After all, several studies and polls have indicated that nonbinary and transgender people experience harassment in public due to their gender identity.
Fortunately, I feel like I can be more of my authentic self when I attend a congregation where worshippers unironically share their pronouns.
The congregation distributes support or donations to LGBTQ+ charities and organizations
Even if a congregation does not discriminate against individual LGBTQ+ people, they may not be true allies. For example, a place of worship might have several out and proud LGBTQ+ members, but that congregation might support organizations or policies that hurt the LGBTQ+ community. When I found out that my synagogue actually donates to LGBTQ-friendly charity projects, I felt confident that my religious leaders were putting their money where their mouth was.
Instead of just telling the congregation that they welcome everyone, my synagogue was showing that support. The rabbis and religious leaders took the extra initiative to support community projects and charities that would help make our neighborhood (and our world) a little safer for LGBTQ+ people.
Even if a congregation is part of a denomination that (as a whole) might not be very welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks, people in that specific place of worship make a point to tell guests that they are welcomed (and loved) without condition
When I was first considering my conversion to Judaism, I chose Reform Judaism because of its widespread acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. I wish that each religious group ardently supported the LGBTQ+ community, but the reality is more complicated.
Some denominations might discourage LGBTQ+ people from leading services. In 2019, the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its existing ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy.
But even if a larger religious group struggles to accept LGBTQ+ worshippers, local congregations can still be welcoming. I attended a Methodist college, and after the 2019 decision, Methodist clergy at my alma mater joined with other religious leaders to organize Pride sermons and demonstrations, and they made a point of inviting guest pastors who identify as LGBTQ+ to share the pulpit.
It felt daunting for me to step into a new place of worship when I had been judged or excommunicated because of my sexual orientation. Now, I have attended online services at my synagogue for over a year. I have celebrated as LGBTQ+ couples have attended conversion courses alongside straight couples.
I feel happy, and I feel safe celebrating my spiritual milestones and asking for support. And each week during Shabbat, I say a prayer of gratitude that my “green lights” helped guide me to a safe congregation where I can let my true self shine.