My straight sister-in-law shared a meme on Facebook the other day, asking people to name their first gay bar, as a sign of solidarity with the victims and survivors of the Pulse shooting. She used to work at Disney as a performer; her first was the Parliament House in Orlando, Florida.

A confession: I’ve never been to a gay bar or a lesbian club.

The closest I came was looking for a Friends of Dorothy meeting on a cruise ship a few years ago – well, it took place in a bar. I was with my wife, Kathryn. We sat gingerly on two barstools only to have a somewhat more flamboyant fellow offer a friendly shout asking, “Are y’all queer?!?!!”

Our new friend told his story of being a pastor who left his wife and children, fell into drug use and self-hatred, and was only beginning to come back to what felt like a healthy and fruitful life. I looked at my wife and saw that she wanted to remain incognito, and for once I agreed with her. Our stories seemed so, well, tame by comparison.

My own was sadly simple. It never occurred to me that I might be queer because it also never occurred to me that what a woman wanted would matter. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s with a fairy-tale attitude toward romance and marriage. If someone wanted to marry me, he must be the one. My eventual journey of self-discovery contains a completely internalized chapter in my late 30s, and finally, after a disastrous attempt to talk myself out of it, twin lightning strikes of realization: I could no longer deny I was a same-gender-loving-woman, and I loved one woman in particular.

From that point forward, we carefully and prayerfully discerned our next steps, mindful of the impact we would have on our family members, our friends, and our churches. Our children offered their love and support. While we considered the future, important denominational and civic changes took place at miraculously convenient times. I won’t say there weren’t times we didn’t feel worried about how parishioners were taking the news or disappointed by extended family members who disapproved mightily, but for us the pieces mostly fell into place. We settled into the tiny cross-section of worlds that is life in the manse as a queer clergy couple who came out fairly late in life and don’t quite know where we fit.

Some of the time I forget that people think we are different. I know some people don’t approve, but I also believe we make some minute headway for understanding every time we go to a Little League game. If I am not affectionate with my wife in public it has more to do with my age and the way I was raised than a watchful awareness of my surroundings. Maybe I still live in a fairy tale. Or maybe I did until the 12th of June.

Last Wednesday, Kathryn hosted a prayer vigil for the Orlando victims outside her church and invited me, along with other local clergy and church folk to participate. We read the names of those who had died, and rang a bell, as many have, but we also read a brief biography of each person drawing from profiles available online, particularly on the Orlando Sentinel’s website. My role was to read about ten of those bios, and since I went first, I spent most of the rest of the service standing with my back against the brick wall beside the church doors.

I'm wearing the rainbow stole.
I’m wearing the rainbow stole. The shouting occurred just after this. 

The church sits on a busy corner, and lots of cars and trucks went by, some drivers and passengers taking a long look at us, a group of white people aged mid-40s to mid-70s standing on the church lawn, some dressed in clericals, wondering if we would get the names of the mostly Latinx victims right, one holding a modestly-sized rainbow flag. A pick-up truck with at least four people in it drove by, and I heard shouting. We were not yet halfway through the stories of the dead. What did they yell? Did they know get a good enough look to know what we were doing? What would I do if they came back with a gun?

From there, my thoughts grew admittedly morbid. I wondered if I was the most sitting of ducks. I worried about where my wife was standing, closer to the road. I gave thanks to God that we had left our son safely at the nearby manse, then had the horrible image of a Playstation game interrupted by real gunfire.

I felt the rough bricks with my hand – reality – and tried to get my breath back.

I didn’t have to go to a nightclub to identify, viscerally, with the beloved children of God who died in Orlando.

But maybe now I will.

“Are y’all queer?”

Yes, we are.

*****

Martha Spong is the Executive Director of RevGalBlogPals and a United Church of Christ pastor; she lives in South Central Pennsylvania (US) and blogs at marthaspong.com. She is the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit (SkyLight Paths, 2015).

*****

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