Small-town Pride

Why I joined a Pride march with the church I avoided for almost 20 years

6 minute read
About 20 people, photographed from behind, walk on a paved path through a green lawn. One holds a large rainbow Pride flag.
Real bravery: some of the marchers at a Pride demonstration in Bryn Athyn, PA, this June. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

This year, in my family’s hometown of Bryn Athyn, in Philly’s northeast burbs, two things happened that would’ve been unthinkable to me when I graduated from its Christian boarding school. First, invitations went out to my 20-year high-school reunion. And second, a grassroots gay-straight alliance held a Pride demonstration targeting clergy members whose long history of anti-LGBTQ+ statements never had visible opposition in their community—until now.

Ostensibly, these two events have nothing to do with each other (especially since one is personal and the other is important to the wider community). But they collide in my mind because of my burgeoning realization that 20 years is an eyeblink as well as a lifetime in which everything can change.

I won’t be attending my reunion, because this year, leaders of the church (a conservative branch of the Swedenborgian or “New Church” faith) that governs my alma mater publicly reaffirmed their disregard for queer and trans people. Troubled even as a teenager by policies like a male-only clergy and explicit, highly gendered shame about all matters sexual, I never joined my family’s church and, though I was raised with a strong faith, became secular in early adulthood—and rode a pretty high cloud of superiority about my choice.

They harmed me, too

I knew about the church’s official anti-gay stance from an early age, and I never knowingly met anyone who was openly queer or trans until I left the church’s sphere as a college student. What I didn’t know is that even though I’m straight and cis, my own religious trauma has the same roots as church leaders’ disdain for LGBTQ+ folks.

The lessons that made me feel sick with shame about normal teenage romances, that drilled into me that men are God’s chosen leaders, and made me believe that early marriage to a person who routinely hurt and derided me was necessary for my salvation—they all extoll a toxic gender binary that harms the whole spectrum of humanity, but especially queer and trans people.

So when Bryn Athyn’s new gay-straight alliance planned a peaceful demonstration this June during a gathering of their clergy, I wanted to be there. But I had some fears.

Hours before the protest, I couldn’t decide if I would go. Creeping feelings of shame, fear, and regret hit every time I visit my former campus, where I was taught that divorce is one of life’s greatest evils. Many interactions over the years have shown me that some folks in that community either don’t know or won’t accept that I’m no longer a believer, and it can be distressing to talk to acquaintances unaware that I left my marriage and remade my life.

But most importantly, I do not believe that true gender liberation is possible from within a paternalistic faith. What if progressive protest of any kind is useless inside a historically patriarchal religious community?

To believe, or not to believe

Years ago, I jettisoned my faith, left the community, and moved to a place where progressive policies reign and liberation is possible: the City of Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in the great United States, where (for now) a sliver of Democrats hold Congress.

Philadelphia, which has a vibrant queer community and the country’s only residential recovery program dedicated to trans folks … and where we continue to mourn fatal violence against Black trans people. Pennsylvania, where our governor publicly supports Trans Day of Visibility … and state senators are proposing our own “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would outlaw classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through fifth grade. The US, where the president tweets in support of trans rights ... while laws across the country limit trans people’s access to public space, recreation, and medical care. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, after torching our right to privacy and due process, explicitly signals that same-sex marriage is next on the chopping block.

I’ll be an atheist for the rest of my life. But I need to stop believing that I moved into a better world simply because I left my faith, or that I’m braver than my former fellow worshippers. I’ve joined countless progressive protests in the big city, but in a lot of ways, a handful of first-time marchers in a tiny conservative town risk so much more when they carry a Pride flag by their pastor.

At the march

During the June march in Bryn Athyn, which drew at least 100 rainbow-spangled demonstrators (including me), I was surprised to see some clergy smiling and waving, and even singing their church’s traditional song of friendship. Other priests (and their wives) who passed by the demonstrators were hunched and hurried, stone-faced and pointedly ignoring greetings from friends in the crowd. (Will they ever compare their moment of obvious fear and dismay to what queer people in their own congregations experience every day?)

Another tried to hand out a religious pamphlet describing gay sex as unnatural, perverted, and selfish, and claiming that all gay people are recklessly promiscuous and prone to drug abuse.

Participating kids and teens who had received the pamphlet pored over it curiously, and one handed it to me.

“Is that good, or is it bad?” a girl of about eight asked me, with piercing earnestness.

“It’s saying that people who are gay are not as good as people who aren’t gay,” I said.

“Well that’s stupid,” she said, and the kids surged away, buzzing with indignation.

I appreciated the conversations I had there with my fellow marchers—someone who models understanding and consent with her kids, a proud parent of a nonbinary child, people learning that an anti-LGBTQ+ stance isn’t about marriage or morality: it’s about enforcing the gender binary that patriarchal power can’t live without.

A new body of work

Ultimately, I was glad to add my body—a body that I spent years believing was a vessel for someone else (God, or my husband)—to a pro-inclusion march in a community I have avoided for close to two decades. And I was glad to continue breaking my own false binaries, like the idea that religious and secular people can’t join forces on the issues that affect all of us.

What will happen in the next 20 years? Some of us have billions of dollars, legislative power, or international platforms; some of us have nothing but a park for a picnic and a local Facebook group. Change begins today, where we are, with the tools we have—or it doesn’t begin at all.

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