Around the age of fourteen I began to realize the way I viewed the world was quite different from most of my peers. It was around this age that I started to think of myself as gay. I didn’t come out until I was eighteen but I had a clear sense of my sexuality by this age. I also knew my sexuality could cause problems for myself, so I chose to keep that part of my identity largely hidden through my secondary school years. It was also at this age that my sexual identity and my involvement within a conservative Christian faith became irreconcilable. Once, in confirmation class, I joined two friends in questioning what we were being taught that it provoked the pastor into storming out the room. It was around this point that I saw my perspective simply was no longer compatible with the faith system of my family. I was confirmed about a year later, and the next day I left the church for good.
After that point I have spent quite a few years trying to figure out what I believed, not what I should believe. I landed on atheism fairly quickly. I continued to read about other faith systems, but I didn’t find anything that really appealed to me. Some areas of study that fascinated me included earth-based spirituality, the old mythologies, the new/redeux Wiccan movement, and others. Such studies intrigued me intellectually but didn’t work as a belief system.
Along with my religious studies I found organizations to participate in within the LGBT community. Community organizing and working within non-profits that were helping to strengthen the LGBT community were a way for me to pair my values and my identity with finding a rewarding career path.
After college I also began to revisit my religious viewpoints, and I found them wanting. I had formulated a strong identity around my sexuality, yet there still lacked a compatibility between my sexual and religious identities. I would never identify my sexuality by what I was not (I do not identify as “not-straight” for instance) so why must the religious component of my life be based on a negative identity — that I didn’t believe in god?
I did some research and reading to find something that worked while being honest to my worldview. What I found was humanism. Humanism, as defined by the American Humanist Association, is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. As a humanist I was also looking for community and a place to continue to learn and grow. I was looking for a religious community; just one without god.
You might be wondering “if there isn’t a belief in god, why have a religious community?” or “isn’t god really the point of religion and religious communities?” I would answer that while god or gods are oftentimes a crucial part of the religious service that a belief in god isn’t the only reason why religious communities happen. The real driving factor in religious life comes down to an ability to connect with other people; not god. Many faiths have ways for the individual believer to connect to their deity, so why travel to a building to be with others who share your beliefs? It comes down to that very human craving for community – to have people to come to when you experience both crisis and joy. I may not believe that people praying for me will help solve my problems, but I still want other people to be with when I am in need. It truly makes me feel better to know they care, and people help others in very real ways when something goes wrong.
Not only is there opportunity to help when an individual is having a problem, but through community there can big an impact on larger issues: homelessness, natural disasters, or environmental issues. Religious community also creates a way to raise children in a particular ethical environment. All of these things have very little to do with a deity and everything to do with human beings interacting with each other, trying to work together through a world where things sometimes go awry.
The religious home I found was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that specifically identifies itself as both Humanist and Unitarian Universalist (UU). This particular flavor of UU community (First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis) meets all of my needs. It is a place where theological questions can be studied and discussed, yet it isn’t there to tell you what to believe. It is also an open and affirming place to LGBT individuals and families and works for change in the Minneapolis area on a variety of social justice issues.
Beyond finding a place to connect with people around what I believe, I found a place to make friendships and support causes that I believe in. During this process I also found the Humanist Institute, a national graduate program working to create leaders within the humanist movement. Through this program I am deepening my knowledge of humanism, theology, philosophy, and developing leadership skills.
What amazes me today is how more and more people are finding the spiritual path that works for them; not the one that worked or didn’t work for their parents and grandparents. A tremendous number of people in the United States now change their religious affiliation at least once in their lifetime. For more information about this and a good introduction to current Humanism, I invite you to read Good Without God by Greg Epstein. I hope this means that people are working to find what works for them, and I hope more LGBT people are doing this as well. For too long we have been a community that works for change in secular society, often shutting down conversation around the theological areas of our lives. I believe this comes from the poor treatment many of us have received from religious communities and the very loud religious right. I must continue to remind myself that there also exists a religious left. They are our allies and they are members of our community and our movement.
I hope that our LGBT communities can embrace the secular and religious sides of people’s identity. I hope we come to recognize the great contributions both secular and religious organizations have been making to promote our causes. Because while I believe we are more powerful when we embrace who we truly are when we come out as LGBT, I believe we are even more powerful when we can be honest about what we believe in and where we find our community of faith.