To kick off Lesbian Visibility Week, today’s post covers a conference on lesbian and queer women religious covered by the Global Sisters Report.
In an essay for the outlet, Sister of Providence Tracey Horan explained that when she arrived at the New Ways Ministry-sponsored conference, titled “Lesbian and Queer Religious: Our Sacred Stories Continue,” she received a small mirror with a Pride flag on the back. She found the mirror to be a metaphor for what the conference asked of her—deep internal reflection meant to translate into external expressions of support for LGBTQ people. Horan writes:
“Each of us was invited to peer into a mirror: to look at how our own congregations make space to honor these sacred stories, and how we integrate these parts of ourselves on a personal level,” Horan shared. “Presenters looked bravely into a mirror at their own journey of embracing their sexuality, gender identity and expression in the context of religious life and shared the fruits of their reflections with us.”
Horan explains, “The atmosphere of trust and candor during the conference allowed for honest questions and sharing among participants from different congregations, generations and identities on the spectra of sexual orientation and gender identity.” No matter a sister’s background, she was welcome to share her experiences.
Presenters at the conference had all contributed to a 2020 book published by New Ways Ministry, Love Tenderly: Sacred Stories of Lesbian and Queer Religious. The conference challenged its attendees to reflect more deeply on their own sexualities and gender expressions, and to consider how they could contribute to communities that are safer for and more inclusive of LGBTQ people.
Sisters shared some of their challenges, too. One sister shared an experience of rejection from a community member after she came out as lesbian; another worried that her congregation did not approve of her contributing to Love Tenderly.
Gender expression was the subject of much discussion at the retreat. One sister reflected on unlearning the idea that it was unacceptable for women to present themselves in masculine ways. Many acknowledged internalized pressures and stereotypes around gender expression. “We discussed the expectations for sisters — habit or not — to dress, look and act a certain way: feminine enough so as not to appear ‘butch,’ but not too feminine so as to draw attention to themselves,” Horan said.
Sisters also had conversations about working through internalized homophobia, which “causes shame for LGBTQ sisters and keeps others from openly supporting them.” It is a challenge for many religious orders in the U.S. to lend public support for LGBTQ equality while maintaining good relationships with the hierarchical church.
The conference made space for sisters to learn about how different congregations were discussing LGBTQ topics. One order hosted a committee to focus on LGBTQ inclusion and celebrated the sisters who had shared their stories in Love Tenderly. Another congregation encouraged a sister to identify herself publicly in the book if she wished.
That sister said that coming out was like coming home. “I realized I’ve been home the whole time, but the challenge has been inviting others into my home, to know who I really am,” she explained.
Horan said that she left the conference ready to continue these conversations about LGBTQ inclusion. “We all acknowledged the need to keep creating spaces like this for open conversation and inviting others to join us,” she said. “As we went our separate ways, the invitation to ‘Love Tenderly’ continues, inviting us to engage others in the collective work toward LGBTQ inclusion in our church and world.”
Horan’s article highlights the importance of creating spaces such as this conference for more open and honest conversation about how gender and sexuality shape sisters’ experience of religious life. Bit by bit, these conversations have the power to contribute to a church in which all queer people are able to find home.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, April 23, 2022