A panel on Feb. 7 confronted the issues that arise between the spiritual and the sexual. The panel included members of the Wesleyan community and religious organizations in a discussion of the intersection of religious and queer identities. It consisted of five members of different religious affiliations, sexual identities, and gender identities: Sami Shamma, a Muslim chaplain; Reverend Ray Bagnuolo, who provides leadership for That All May Freely Serve, a Presbyterian mission and ministry; Reverend Aaron Miller, who is a pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church at Hartford; John Steele ’14; and Katy Thompson ’15.
The event was organized by the Queer Resource Center, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and Presbyterian Promise, an organization that is not affiliated with Wesleyan but that works closely with the University on religious matters. The panel was intended to create a safe space for members of the University to explore the relationship between their different faiths and sexual identities.
“We thought it might be interesting for [the panelists] to talk about their experience of bringing together all their identities: their sexual identity and their religious identity,” said University Protestant Chaplain Reverend Tracy Mehr-Muska.
Andrew McCloskey ’15, one of the founders of The Wesleyan Association of Christian Thinkers, asserted that it is crucial for students to have these types of discussions.
The event began with small group discussions of the negative and positive experiences members had observed pertaining to the relationship between faith and the queer population.
“This is not intended to be a religious or philosophical debate, but it is intended to provide a safe space for people to talk about the intersections between their multiple identities,” McCloskey said.
The idea of the event as a safe space was further exemplified by the question-and-answer period, during which the audience members shared their own experiences in reconciling two identities.
Steele, who graduated from the University last spring, expressed his excitement at being invited to speak at the panel.
“I was really happy to see that people were creating a space where these two identities that I’ve always kept separate could exist and come out together,” he said.
Steele also brought up the issue of tolerance at the University.
“I think Wesleyan is a place where they are tolerant to the point of intolerance,” he said. “I’ve always felt it was so much harder for me to be religious at Wesleyan than gay.”
Hannah Rimm ’15, a student who attended the panel, agreed with Steele.
“On campus it is easier to be queer than it is to be religious, and there is a certain level of tolerance at Wesleyan, where there are certain things where we can say, ‘It’s so great you can be any of these things,’ but at the same time, ‘Oh, you’re religious,’ is not tolerated as much, and it’s important to talk about these two things together,” she said.
The idea of religious institutions and personal faith was also addressed.
Bagnuolo was born into the Roman Catholic Church, but when he came out as queer, he felt excluded by some of the Church’s policies. He ended up leaving the denomination and joined the Presbyterian Church, and he now provides national leadership for That All May Freely Serve.
“When I found out I was gay, I tried to conform, because the last thing I wanted to do was be rejected,” Bagnuolo said. “It was a long time before I realized I didn’t need to be in an abusive relationship with the Church to have a relationship with God.”
Talia Baurer ’15, another attendee, expressed similar sentiments.
“A lot of people on this campus have a problem separating out institutionalized religion and individual religion, so there can be very significant intolerance towards people who are involved in any faith and it’s really silencing,” Baurer said. “Especially when people are trying to reconcile different parts of their identity, it can be really harmful.”
Mehr-Muska hoped that the event would inspire its attendees to connect their spiritual and sexual identities.
“My dream is for people to not have to leave their faith at the door,” she said. “You can be the full person that you’re called to be.”