The other day, at the request of one of the priests in the North American Old Catholic church, I put the following on our national Facebook page: "Please pray for our Seminarians, as they take the next step in their preparation for the Priesthood. Pray that the Lord will continue to send workers for the vineyard." It seems like a simple request and lots of people "liked" the post and a couple commented. But then someone wrote "And pray that they don't become child molesters." I was heartbroken by the comment, but I probably shouldn't have been surprised. As a queer person I have often been seen as a threat.
People have claimed that the sexual abuse scandal in the Boy Scouts is because of gay men and many people have made the same claim about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church. Queer sexuality is often equated with predatory behavior even when the facts don't prove that assertion.
As a transgender man, as I began my transition and began to be perceived correctly as male I quickly realized that when I smiled at a child in a store what was once seen as innocuous now carried a hint of threat. My talking to small children was no longer welcomed. Now that I am an ordained priest and wear a collar I am seen as a double threat: both a priest and queer.
I have struggled with all of this. I work with youth, I have small siblings that I adore, I love little kids. I like to smile and wave at little kids on the bus, make funny faces and place peek-a-boo with babies in strollers, coo and grin, and I feel like I can no longer do those things; or I have to be incredibly cautious when I do them lest I be seen as threatening. It makes me angry. And sad.
I am pissed (and pissed isn't even a strong enough word) at the priests who have violated the trust of children and families, pissed at them for taking advantage. I am pissed at the priests who have dishonored the collar and pissed at the bishops who covered it up and created a space that allowed it to happen to more children.
I am angry at the people who use the abusers to blame and scapegoat queer people. I am angry at all of the people who think that queer people are sexual deviants, sinners, or predators. I am angry that instead of figuring out who the actual abusers are and getting them the help they need that we instead scapegoat queer people. I am angry that as a queer priest I will always been seen as a double threat.
I have wondered whether or not I should even wear the collar. Maybe the symbol is too tarnished, maybe too much evil has been done by people who wear the collar to ever reclaim it. I often feel the same about Christianity in general. With so much harmful history and so many people continuing to say harmful things in the name of the church and Christ, I sometimes wonder if we'd be better off just packing it all in. But there is something within me, and within this tradition, that doesn't allow me to give up so easily.
I want to reclaim the priesthood. I want to reclaim the image of the priest as the person who shows up when you are in need, who helps to craft rituals that bring life meaning, who walks with people in their lives and spiritual journeys. I want to take back the collar as a sign of hope and blessing.
I want to reclaim the idea that priests are people who can be trusted; I want to earn the trust of people. I want people to begin to see the collar as something trustworthy again, as a symbol of something good.
It means, though, that I have to work twice as hard to be above reproach. Things that would be seen as innocent with other people will be seen as threatening when coming from me. I have to make sure that I am always aware of how I am coming across to people. Most days I am able to be pragmatic about it, realizing that it is simple the way the world is; other days I find it frustrating and hurtful.
I try to look for the ways in which I can be empowering to people. It matters that a queer person is wearing the clergy collar. It matters that a queer person will be ordained as a priest. It matters that queer people know that these symbols, this church, this religion is for us as well. We queer people are priests. We are ministers of the Word and Sacrament. No matter what you say about us or how you try to pin your sin upon us we know that we are worthy and we have a place in this church.
I will wear the collar and I will earn the trust of people. I will work to reclaim both the symbol and the church and work to make it a place that is safe for all people.
The church and these symbols don't solely belong to the people in power. They don't only belong to the people who get the press, who get on tv or who get published. They belong to you and me as well. They belong to the queer people who have been silenced or kicked out, they belong to those of us who have clung to the faith even though we have had every reason to toss it away. This is our church, our faith.
It's time we claim it.