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Queer & Religious Panel Discussion Redefines Unconditional Love

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

A Queer and Religious Panel Discussion flyer hangs in Lupton Hall. Sunday, April 24, 2022. Allie English, Assistant Photo Editor

They dare to love whoever—person or God—they choose.

On the surface, the queer and religious communities seem opposed in their values and aims—the former re-envisions love and inclusivity, and the latter upholds the traditions of communion and worship. Yet, in the eyes of one panelist—love is love.

“I don’t think there’s a divide happening,” Rachel Lesler, an elder for Northminster Presbyterian Church, said. “I’m here and I’m gay, and God exists, and God is love, and I love God.”

She, along with Rev. April Berends of Grace Episcopal and Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas of Renaissance Presbyterian Church attended the “Queer & Religious: A Panel Discussion” event on Wednesday, April 20. A diverse group of spectators, students, staff and faculty filled twenty seats while listening to the panelists discuss religious trauma, accepting their gender, sexualities and faith as well as the sexism women face as religious leaders.

In planning the event, the faculty advisor for the Religion Club, Jaclyn Michael, Ph.D., contacted Spectrum’s facilitator, Salem Murray (they/them). While bringing affirming religious leaders to campus was Michael’s idea, she wanted Spectrum—UTC’s Queer Collective—on board.

“When Dr. Michael and I first started having conversations, I was a little hesitant because of the tension between queer and religious identities,” Murray said. “The majority of people I’m in contact with have some kind of religious trauma but are still interested in the social aspect of how you can be both queer and religious.”

Beneath the fluorescent, hexagon-shaped lights of Lupton Hall’s first floor, Michael spaced out the event’s chairs. She moved a white table, spread out a blue and white tablecloth, and arranged soda, tea, coffee and snacks—all while conversing with students.

Serving as event host, she introduced the panelists and briefly prefaced the discussion.

“Religion, gender and sexuality really shape each other as they are expressed in society,” Michael said. “The ways in which we learn to be religious are often very gendered, and vice versa, if you’re part of a religious community, often you learn how to act in society according to gender rules.”

She was well-aware of the controversial, hurtful actions of non-affirming religions towards the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Religion is both a resource and an obstacle to folks who are part of non-normative, non-hetero identity categories,” Michael said. “A lot of people who have experienced rejection from their faith community seek affirmation within it.”

Michael first passed the microphone to Lesler, who summarized her life. Having grown up in religion, she had no issue accepting and loving her queer friends, leading to her eventually accepting herself.

Then, Lesler proposed an alternative way of thinking—one including queer love as part of God’s unconditional love.

“Queer love is so radical and queer identity is so radical, it fits right in with how radical God and Jesus are,” Lesler said. “The entire bible—and my understanding of law in the Hebrew Scriptures—is figuring out how to be in community with each other, in a way that honors each other and God.”

Churches like Grace Episcopal create an affirming community, according to Berends, but she adds her church and herself will always have room to grow. Growth becomes easier as non-normative and/or traditionally oppressed identities begin to fill leadership roles.

“I as a kid who never saw a woman in the pulpit, couldn’t see myself as a leader in the community,” Berends said. “I often just think this is a miracle, that all these people are here. That they dared to come into the doors of a church after what they’ve been through.”

Thomas, who also serves as the executive director of the Hope House, advertised the Hope House as a welcoming, all-inclusive space, and she explained the unique challenges affirming churches and women face.

“Spaces that tend to be more open and affirming tend to have smaller budgets and don’t have the resources to advertise,” said Thomas.

As a panel, they entertained three audience questions, but reaffirmed the platform was meant for dialogue, not theological debate.

One student participant, Jillian Hindman (She/They,) reconciled their identity, but wanted guidance on crafting a relationship with God.

“What’s a piece of advice you have to begin that journey as one who has accepted her queerness, but doesn’t know where to begin my journey with religion?” Hindman asked. 

“It’s really scary if you go back in; the church can be so hurtful,” Lesler answered. “God is everywhere, and you don’t have to find God in the church… Find people to connect with who can walk that with you, very carefully.”

She advised Hindman to make her religion personal to her and visit, which compiles lists of officially affirming churches.

Lesler said, “A lot of churches do the ‘everyone is welcome,’ but they don’t show you the asterisk.”

Berends sat in the middle, sharing her microphone with Thomas. She advocated on behalf of her church, basing her advice as an insider.

“If a community has carved out space for queerness, I feel like it shouldn’t be too hard to find that out,” Berends added. “Take a friend with you, you don’t have to go by yourself either.”

Sitting on the leftmost chair, Thomas commented more towards the discussion’s end. She disclosed how she struggles compared to her husband–who also serves in church leadership.

Student Sydney Taylor asked the panel, “How do you all work with people within the religious community who don't think that women should be in authority roles?”

Thomas erupted in laughter, with the panel following. She apologized in the moment–as the question was serious–and explained she laughed because she believed she was the only female campus minister.

“Sometimes you walk into spaces, and you know you won’t be heard,” Thomas said. “That happens here on this campus. I’ve been uninvited to pray in pulpits because I’m a woman.”

“It doesn’t really hurt me; it makes me pissed off, [and] it makes me angry,” Thomas said. “How dare you limit how I feel I’m being called into spaces.”

Wrapping the discussion, Michael thanked the audience and panelists for their participation, and a handful of students stuck around to talk individually. 

Throughout the meeting, the panelists echoed the phrases “affirming churches” and “clobber scriptures.”

According to, affirming churches “place no restrictions on people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Queer.”

Meanwhile,this reading explains the controversies of the clobber passages.

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