Episode 3: Queer and Called

After a years-long battle wherein Methodist church officials publicly interrogated M Barclay’s private life, including their gender identity and sexuality, M Barclay is now Reverend M Barclay, the first openly non-binary queer and trans person to be commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. Today, M is able to provide a visible and enthusiastically queer ministry to people of faith, but that wasn’t the case a year ago, when M stood amid the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, desperate but unable, within the confines of their own church doctrine, to do what they knew they had been called to do in that moment: Minister to queer people in grief. Not because M wasn’t faithful, not because M wasn’t educated, not because M didn’t know how, but because, the church said, M’s sexuality prevented them from inviting others into the presence of God.

M Barclay, wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt with a peek-a-boo tattoo on their right arm, leans with their arms crossed.
Rev. M Barclay is the first openly non-binary trans and queer person to be commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church.

On this episode of Traitor Radio, M gives listeners a heartfelt, and often heartbreaking, first-person look into their journey to ministry and, on the second half of the show, talks with host Andrea Grimes about how people of faith can make their own church communities places where queer and trans people — especially queer and trans children — can flourish.

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Can’t listen? We’ve posted the episode script below — something we’ll be doing for all of our episodes as part of our commitment to accessibility.

But first, here are links to the organizations and resources we talk about on this episode:

TRAITOR RADIO: QUEER AND CALLED

ANDREA GRIMES: Hello Traitors! Welcome to episode three of Traitor Radio, the podcast for people who are mad as hell and ready to bring the resistance home.

< THEME MUSIC WITH STRINGS AND PIANO >

ANDREA: I’m your host, Andrea Grimes. Traitor Radio is a way to focus our energy and our anger into making positive change in our own communities, one issue at a time. The format is pretty simple — we introduce y’all to real people who will talk about how their lives are affected by the racist, sexist, transphobic and otherwise oppressive laws and policies that are backed by the officials and institutions that are making America un-great. Then we’ll give you some homework — stuff that goes beyond calling your elected officials, which you should totally do, but which will help you start making change in your own community.

Because when government doesn’t work for us we have to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the mid-terms, we can’t wait for the perfect politician to save us. We have to lift each other up, now, today.

Every activist, new or seasoned, is welcome here. Hello, old-school resisters! But this is a 101-level space; if you’ve never done activism before, or you’re just getting into the swing of it after the election, I’m so happy to join you on your journey to un-fucking this country.

So let’s get started.

< MUSIC >

ANDREA: I am delighted that, on this episode, I get to introduce y’all to a real-life friend of mine, M Barclay. I met M in Austin five years ago at a feminist Twitter meet-up group I used to run, and I remember the first night I really got to know them, we stayed late at the Pour House on Burnet Road talking about feminist theology and queerness at church, and all of these incredible, sacred, social justicey concepts that no one in the church I’d been raised in — a United Methodist church in the Fort Worth suburbs — had ever even hinted at. Meeting M was like having a little light turned on in my head and in my heart, in a room in my house I didn’t even know was there. I think you’ll get this from M’s story, which you’ll hear in a moment, but: When M says they are called to ministry — they are not kidding around.

Today, Reverend M Barclay is first openly non-binary trans and queer person to be commissioned as a deacon in The United Methodist Church. They currently serve at Reconciling Ministries Network, a national nonprofit working to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people in The United Methodist Church. M has a background in faith based organizing around issues related to reproductive justice, affordable housing, and LGBTQ communities. They enjoy making connections between the sacred, social justice, queerness, and the pursuit of wholeness.

(Oh, and by the way — if you’re not super solid on things like using singular “they” pronouns — like M does, or if you want a primer on other basics about queer and trans rights, you might check out episode 2 of this podcast before tuning into M’s story and the homework that will follow. My pronouns, by the way, are she and her.)

On today’s episode, we’ll hear about M’s journey to ordination, and then talk about ways people of faith can begin remaking and reimagining their Christian churches to be places of acceptance, inclusiveness and celebration of queer and transgender folks. If you’re like me, this might be one of the first times you’ve ever thought about what can be sacred and holy about your gender and sexuality, and my only advice is to be open and welcoming to new impulses and views of spirituality, even if they sound wildly different than what you were raised with.

After M tells their story, we’ll talk about some questions y’all can take to your own congregations — not just to your pastors — in order to create more welcoming spaces for queer and trans worshippers.

But first, I’ll let M take us back to the early hours of June 12, 2016.

< MUSIC >

M BARCLAY: Like so many others that June morning, I woke up to the devastating news of the Pulse nightclub massacre in a text.

“Have you heard?” my friend John wrote. “It was Latinx night at an LGBTQ club. I’m heartbroken.”

I struggled to piece meaningful words together to send out on behalf of the organization I serve at – a faith based organization committed to ending discrimination against LGBTQ persons in The United Methodist Church. It felt so present. So connected. What could possibly be said?

Not 24 hours later, my boss and I were on the ground in Orlando, heading to the only place that made sense – the largest LGBTQ club in the area. The heaviness of what had just happened hung on every disco ball, on the rainbow ribbons pinned to everyone’s chests, on every drink poured to wash down the grief.

“We had to come,” the mourners would say. “They would win if we didn’t. Especially tonight. And anyway, where else would we go?”

In this space, in this moment, I had never been more angry at The United Methodist Church. Partly because the anti-queer teachings of the church contribute to a culture that breeds violence against LGBTQ persons, but also because I was being denied, in that moment, the opportunity to be a pastor to my own grieving community.

I could have been, should have been, wearing a collar, bearing witness to the Holy, who was grieving and raging along with all of us.

Had the discriminatory policies of my denomination not prevented my commissioning as a pastor years before, on the basis of my sexual orientation, I would be standing in the same place but visible as a minister to any queers who needed one.. I wanted desperately to say to anyone in that room who needed to hear it: “I know you are afraid, so am I, and God is with us, and you are beloved, and your tears, and rage, and wondering how a God could allow, this has a space here – with me – if you need it.”

But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t offer a visible invitation into prayer or an intentional presence to those who might want it but wouldn’t dare step in a church, especially on a night like this, because my own church was keeping me from being a minister for the very reason I could have been a helpful one in this space. Because I am queer and trans and able to offer pastoral care to my own community in a unique way.

If Jesus Christ himself were going to be anywhere that night, it would have certainly been queer bars and clubs and meeting spaces. But my church didn’t and still doesn’t understand that. Ironically, it silences the Holy in traditionally unexpected places, missing out on some of the most moving, profound, and sacred experiences and opportunities. An irony God is uninterested in entertaining.

The dance floor was empty until late in the evening, when a drag queen took the stage,singing a song of Love. As her voice drifted cross the room,  young, beautiful, queer, heartbroken boys walked up to her one by one, collapsing into her embrace as she sang. She held them like a mother as their bodies relaxed into her song and they wailed for all of us. Love and Sacredness were profoundly present in that moment – where beauty and care and togetherness meet pain and horror and hopelessness. For some, God was embodied in a drag queen that night.

I wonder though, about those who might have needed something different in that space, but never received it because the church denies queer people entrance to the ministry that calls to us. I’ll never know for sure, but I know countless faithful queer and trans people don’t know where to take their spiritual needs after leaving a church that has refused to make space for them. I believe a queer and trans pastor would likely have been helpful that to at least a few faces in that nightclub. And in light of a life-altering and traumatic event like the Pulse massacre, that’s nothing to take lightly.

This was one painful night, one single experience, but reflects the core of my frustration with my church and its commitment to theological, pastoral, and political discrimination against queer and trans people.

The church teaches people that there are spaces and people they should turn to when they need to question or celebrate or be in community or wonder or grieve with the Divine, and then the same church says, to queer and trans folks: You just can’t do that with people like you.

I didn’t start off a journey to ordination in the United Methodist Church knowing I was queer or trans. I only knew I was called to make connections between compassion and justice and the Holy. But I came out along the way, and the liberation I experienced in embracing and learning to love myself was so clearly of God that I found my queerness and transness drawing me more towards my faith than away from it.

In 2013, after six years of pursuit of ordained ministry and the support of the vast majority of my faith community in Austin, Texas, the gatekeepers of the ordination process discovered an openly queer person — me — had been receiving support of the church and they attempted to immediately put a halt to my ordination process. It was public and ugly and harmful and the worst of everything the church can be. I still remember listening to a room full of more than 400 clergy debating at our annual gathering in Corpus Christi whether or not there was enough public information to prove I was having sex – an act forbidden for queer people in the ordination process under our discriminatory policies. Over the next year, the Judicial Council – the United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court and my local bishop weighed in on the efforts to halt my process. Like so many other queers in the denomination, my life and love was being publicly ruled on through the lens of discriminatory policies and legal technicalities regarding my identity and their ponderings of my sex life.

But something inspiring happened at the same time: I was introduced to a world of queer, trans, and ally United Methodists who were fiercely fighting to remove the gospel from the grips of our hateful institutional policies.

Queer, called, and unwilling to compromise on either, I was united with some of the most incredible people I know. While our church continues to proclaim that “self avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be clergy and that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” queer and trans United Methodists are leading the most courageous, meaningful, and relevant ministry I’ve seen — ministry that a church that has rejected us hardly has a right to claim as its own.

Queer people of faith have been experiencing discrimination in the church while modeling sacred work and relationships for decades; I know that my journey so far is but a blip on that radar. But it’s been, for me, a long road. I have struggled, and almost walked away. But I also found support I could never have dreamed of, and been buoyed by that which I call God. I am called to make change in the church while still committing to the ministry I feel is mine to do outside of the church – where faith and justice coincide in the streets and, yes, even in nightclubs.

I was finally given that chance to celebrate both my identity and my ministry a few weeks ago. After all these years wondering when the final “no” to my ordination would come from the church — a “no” I refused to speak to myself on their behalf — I finally found a faith community more interested in recognizing the urgent ways queer and trans people are able to offer pastoral care and proclamation than they are interested in the discriminatory policies of our denomination or the repercussions of breaking them.

On June 4th, the bishop of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference commissioned me as the first openly non-binary trans deacon in our denomination. A queer and trans Reverend, appointed to the work of advocating for an end to LGBTQ discrimination in a church that says I am still incompatible with Christian teaching.

Of course its seems contradictory. And it is. That is not lost on me or anyone who has supported me along the way. But there are more and more people everyday who recognize that saying and living the “yes” on God’s behalf to all the bodies and identities and lives that the church and world all too often says don’t matter, or are wrong, or are anything less than holy in and of themselves, is the real ministry that matters. And whether that happens through a church or drag queen or protesters or old church ladies or the queer and trans ministers betwixt and between, I’m here for it and I feel fairly certain, God would say she is too.

HOMEWORK SEGMENT

ANDREA: Hey guys, it’s Andrea, again. On the second half of the show, we’re going to give y’all some homework to take back to your communities and, if you’re the churchgoing type, your congregations to start some new conversations around how religion can be used to silence and exclude queer and trans folks and what you can do about it. So I’ve got M on the line to talk us through this — Hi, M!

M: Hi!

ANDREA: How are you?

M: I’m wonderful, glad to be here. How are you?

ANDREA: Fantastic. One of the things that struck me about your story was the presence of so many people claiming to speak for God, against you. You obviously have a very different and personal relationship with God. Where is God in all this, for you?

M: Yeah, that’s a great question. Lately I’ve been kind of thinking about it, imagining, you know that white person or that straight person who says something terrible about black people or queer people and then attempts to justify it by saying like “but my best friend is black,” or “I have a gay best friend” as if somehow that makes whatever they said prior to that okay? I wonder if God ever feels like that used best friend when the church says something racist or queerphobic. Like, is God is wondering how they ever got into this mess and is horrified at the thought of being used as a justification for it? I absolutely think that the answer is yes to that. I just think that God is eternally face-palming over her relationship to the church.

ANDREA: I think that metaphor totally works. In your story, we heard about some specific ways in your ordination process that the church obstructed and challenged you — more broadly, how do you see the church harming queer and trans folks in the day-to-day? And what are the consequences of that?

M: Yeah. The church, including United Methodist denomination, but also so many others, continue to raise up queer and trans babies in the life of their congregations and they’re teaching them to do the very opposite of what I think God would intend for these kids. The church teaches them to hate who they are, to see themselves as broken, and of course, then, society often only reinforces these teachings of the church. And I think this is how we lose young lives to suicide. And when we make it, against all odds in some cases, when those who are queer and trans make it to adulthood and learn to love ourselves and seek to proclaim that love to others in the church who need to hear it, there are still these policies and practices are still doing their best to kick us out of leadership positions and other places of influence in the church.

Many people in the church recognize that the whole purpose of a faith community is supposed to be a place where we grow in loving community with one another so that we can live into our whole selves and engage in community outside of the church as, you know, empowered, courageous, compassionate, justice-seeking people. And every day that continues to go by where the church is inhibiting that work and inhibiting the flourishing of one more queer or trans lives or community of lives, is certainly one more day too long.

ANDREA: So for listeners who do attend church, what kinds of questions can they start asking in their faith communities — and who should they be talking to about these issues?

M: I love that question because so many people in the church are directly or indirectly treated as if the pastors are the ones that have to make decisions for the church and how the church should act. But actually it’s up to the people who show up every Sunday or every few Sundays. Whoever is claiming the life of that community needs to take their own authority and start asking questions not only about themselves which is always great work but about what the community is doing. Looking at stuff as big as the denominational policies to see if they include trans and queer people or actively discriminate, or try to take a so-called “objective” approach which of course isn’t possible. But start looking at the big questions of policy and practice and then also thinking about the very local questions. Of, what’s showing up in our theology in church on Sundays? What’s coming out in the pulpit about queer and trans people? What policies are enacted in our church? Who’s in leadership? I think there’s some really easy concrete things to ask yourself, specifically if you’re trying to be welcoming to queer and trans people in your church. Like, do we think about people’s proper pronouns in this worship space? When something as simple as a greeter is put at the front door of the church to be a place of hospitality, do they assume people’s genders when they walk in the door by saying, ‘Good morning ladies’? Or something like that, where they’re not mindful that maybe they’re reading somebody’s gender in a way that isn’t helpful. What is the whole church’s mindset about even being aware that trans people exist/ Are there gender-neutral bathrooms in the church?

ANDREA: So would you recommend, if people are gathering for a bible study or something like that where you’re doing introductions, would that be a time people can say, ‘Hi, my name is Tammy and my pronouns are they and them’?

M: Yes, absolutely. I think a lot of communities don’t think about doing pronoun rounds until they know there’s a trans person in the room. But that can make it really awkward for that trans person, because you can usually tell when a group has never done this before. And so I think absolutely it’s really a beautiful thing to walk into a Sunday School class that has been clearly modeling using and inviting pronouns long before, perhaps, there’s somebody who’s a known trans person in the room.

ANDREA: M, what can folks do personally or internally when they’re thinking about their own kind of heart-facing journeys with God? What questions can they ask themselves? How can they think more widely and broadly about how their own faith interacts with queer and trans folks?

M: I think the conversation often stops at, Do you believe quote unquote homosexuality is a sin? Or quote trans people are inherently sinful? And I think there are a lot of Christians who would say no, I don’t believe that, but they’re not usually invited into more deeper questions about how their faith lives intersect with sexuality and with gender. Which is a shame not only for queer and trans people but I think for everybody. We all have a sexuality, even if that is asexuality, and we all have a relationship of some kind to gender. So for those of us who have a relationship with what we call God and want to bring that into the most intimate parts of our lives, I think we should all be asking what God has to do with these parts of us and with these parts of our communities. I would encourage people to start thinking a little deeper. Like, where they see holiness and sacredness in their own sexuality. And in their own relationship to others or their own gender. Where do they experience a sense of God in that? And what might that have to say about people whose sexualities or genders are different than theirs?

And I think there’s a lot of unpacking we have to do from some really bad theology that most of us inherited that have taught us to incorporate things like shame and disgust with our sexuality in general and certainly with marginalized aspects of sexuality and marginalized identities of sexuality. So starting to ask ourselves questions like, What kind of words come to mind for me when I sit in language with sex and sexuality? Do I first think of things like profane and immoral and godless, and if so, why? Is that something I really believe? Or am I open to asking myself why holiness doesn’t show up in that same thought process. Really struggling with like, what symbols in the Christian faith might have done to ourselves as sexual and gendered beings. There’s a lot of unpacking to do with the teachings we’ve been giving. And until we stop and think about the teachings we’ve been given we don’t realize they’re with us still, even if we don’t want them to be. And I think creating space going forward, going why do I feel this way? Why do these words come up for me? Or why don’t I have an opinion on this god that I believe in engaging with something as intimate as my sexuality or gender can lead us into some really productive ways of navigating our own journeys.

ANDREA: Totally. I want to ask you for a reading recommendation because I love to give our listeners a book to dive into. These are some really tough theological questions that might lead people down some unusual or surprising paths, so what’s a book you’d recommend that people can read and help them unpack some of this stuff?

M: There’s a book that came out in the past year, maybe a little longer, called Queer Virtue. It’s written by Rev. Liz Edman who’s a lesbian Episcopal priest. And it’s one of my favorite queer theology books. It’s a great read for anybody who’s kind of new thinking about queerness and theology and what they have to say to each other, and it’s a great read for people who’ve been engaged in this conversation for a while. It really can meet the needs of so many different people. And my favorite thing about it is it’s not interested in making an argument for the validity of queer and trans people in the life of faith. The whole purpose of the book is looking at the ways the church, particularly the institutional church, need to learn from the lives and experiences and spirituality of queer and trans people.

ANDREA: Of course not everybody goes to church or feels welcome in a faith community. For those folks, is there a productive way to get involved with this kind of stuff? How can people of not-faith, non-faith people, what can they do?

M: The first thing that comes to mind is how you might posture yourself toward those who are people of faith, particularly advocating for queer and trans people. A few years ago, I almost walked away from all of this because I was so deeply confronted with the discriminatory pieces of the church with LGBTQ people, but also we have a long, long history for a very long time of doing a lot of harm to a lot of people. I certainly resonate with a lot of the reasons people are completely opposed to religion and want to completely affirm all of the critiques that are rooted in the harm that religion can produce. And, one of the things that I had to confront when I was particularly, sitting in that, is the reality that religion isn’t going anywhere. The church is not going to just disappear. And so then I had to choose for myself how I wanted to engage the church once I accepted that fact. That the church is always going to influence our culture in particular in the United States. It’s too big of a beast not to. While my response to that was to engage it more directly, I would just encourage those who have some really solid, important critiques of religion to also hold space for those who feel a different need to relate to what is not going to go away. In a way that will benefit those who are, the queer and trans kids that are going to grow up in these churches no matter what those of us feel about the church, that’s going to happen. 

ANDREA: And regardless of anybody’s religious affiliation or lack thereof, there’s a ton of work to be done in the wider, secular world. Any ideas there?

M: The first two that come to mind is, one, be aware of the bills that are coming up in your own states. What’s happening around particularly laws targeting trans people, trans students, bathroom bills. See what’s happening in your local area and do your best to get involved to make sure policies are not being enacted that are not making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable. That’s an ongoing way to make a difference whether it’s local community or statewide.

And then in a more interpersonal way, just being mindful of the opportunity to love on and support in particular trans youth. Whether there are trans youth that show up in your life that you can make sure you’re just loving on and encouraging them and celebrating who they are even as they might try different things on, they might try different clothes out, they might try different names on, different pronouns on. And then also reach out and support organizations that are doing really important work, like Trans Lifeline, which is a suicide hotline specifically targeted to trans people and so you actually have people who are equipped to talk to trans people who understand the struggles and who understand what needs to be said. It’s vital, vital work as the suicide rate continues to be a really painful high at 41 percent attempted suicide for trans folks.

ANDREA: Totally. Listeners, we will put a link to Trans Lifeline and others in the show notes so you can go to TraitorRadio.com and see those. M, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show! And telling your story. This is really beautiful.

M: Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.

ANDREA: THank you.

< MUSIC WITH STRINGS >

ANDREA: Thanks for tuning in — and thanks to the dozens of donors who have made Traitor Radio a reality. In particular I want to thank Aria, Shannon, Aspen, Merritt, Timothy, Teresa, Caitlin and Jacob, our Traitors of Record who’ve pledged $5 or more per month to support the podcast. If you want to join badass bunch of Traitors who get thanked by name on every episode, check us out at Patreon.com/TraitorRadio. We’ve got three different donation tiers with some pretty cool rewards, everything from behind-the-scenes updates to exclusive calls with our producers and guests. Because we’re committed to paying our contributors for their time and their emotional and intellectual work, we can’t do what we do without your financial support.

If you would like to contribute to Traitor Radio, we are always taking submissions, especially from people who are willing to share their first-person stories with listeners, just like M did on this show. Journalists are also welcome — if you want to do radio reporting on social justice activism, let us know! Our email address is traitorradio@gmail.com.

This episode was produced by me, Andrea Grimes, with help from Traitor Radio’s creative director, Carrie Kaplan. Our music is by Emily Meo. Follow us on twitter at @TraitorRadio, and find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TraitorRadio.

< TRAITOR RADIO THEME MUSIC WITH STRINGS AND PIANO, FADE OUT >

 

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