A Groundswell of Gay Spirituality
“Being gay is not an accident . . . it is a calling.”
I read these words and quietly gasped with joy. I was on the train to New York City passing the time by reading M.R. Ritley’s God’s Gay Tribe. The book is only 60 pages. I could easily finish it before getting to Grand Central Station.
Yet the book’s careful prose, often poetic in its simplicity, inspired careful reading. And why not? After all, little masterpieces deserve to be contemplated while read, like a devotional, like a gospel.
Tribe begins: “This is the lesson on crossing the sands. Remember it. . . . I am a gay woman who has made that perilous and lonely journey through the sands more times than once. I have a spiritual obligation now to tell the story. [Gay men and women], more than most people, have a desperate need to pass this kind of wisdom on; too much of it has been deliberately buried, too much lost in the silence of our lives.”
Exclamations of recognition escaped my mouth as I read, surely convincing the passenger in front of me that I was having some sort of religious experience. In a way, I was.
The good news in Tribe is that to be gay is to be more than different–to be gay is to be different for a reason. To be gay is to be so by heavenly design; it is to be set apart, Ritley asserts, by God.
Many gay men and women will cherish her message as liberating and inspiring. Ritley notes in an early section, “Because coming out involves the discovery . . . of one’s identity in a sexual context, all things connected with it are apt to be wrongly classified as ‘unspiritual’ in the gay person’s mind.” She continues provocatively: a gay person’s “moment of insight” into his or her sexuality, and very personhood, may take place “in a gay bar while coming out.” So what? Such an event is still “fully ‘spiritual’ in character, despite its setting. . . . [We must recast] common gay experience as spiritually significant.”
The gay bar as revival tent? As temple? As church? Bold . . . and, I was willing to believe, true! Ritley had me hooked.
When I got to Grand Central, I had the last two chapters left. The words of New Testament scholar Leander Keck concerning the Gospel of John leapt to mind: “You can’t read this book quickly; to do so would be dangerous. It’s deceptively simple, and its simplicity is deceptive. Simple words here say profound things.”
I would be late for my New York appointment. I sat in the terminal and finished the book.
“I really can’t read [Tribe] without . . . well, tearing up. It really is very moving and inspiring,” said Wayne Eley. Eley is President of Beloved Disciple Press, a small publisher in New Haven, Connecticut, which is publishing Ritley’s essay as the book, God’s Gay Tribe: Laying the Foundations of Communal Memory.
I interviewed Eley in his sunny apartment which doubles as the office of Beloved Disciple Press. He summarized Tribe this way: “It is not an apology; it doesn’t quibble with arcane Biblical texts. It does treat coming out as a transfiguring experience and develops it in a manner suggestive of being born again.”
This idea of coming out as conversion carries much currency these days in the gay community and liberal religious traditions. Frequent a gay bookstore and you will notice the Queer Spirituality section grows rapidly. And consider this: Tim McFeeley, former Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation’s largest gay, lesbian, bi-sexual organization, and a man not previously noted for spiritual conviction, recently appeared at Yale Divinity School and spoke of coming out as spiritually important. He stated, “As gay women and men, we don’t procreate, we validate” He said that out gays validate to straight people, and to each other, that “God is a God of diversity”, that homosexuality is beautiful, and that hiding it in the closet, or repressing it in others, “dishonors the Creator” and the Creator’s artful and wonderful intentions “for human life and community.”
McFeeley unknowingly echoes Ritley’s assertions in Tribe. But Tribe carries a different tone. Unlike McFeeley’s speech, or many recent autobiographical pieces such as Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate, or many of the essays in the remarkable Wrestling With the Angel, Ritley’s writing evokes the tenor of devotional literature without the heaviness of a prayer book. Her words carry an authority springing from both the intense variety of her spiritual adventure and the depth of her pastoral insight.
“She’s a rising star of gay spiritual theology,” said Bentley Layton, Yale Professor of Ancient Christianity. Professor Layton first met Ritley at Christ Church’s Gay Christian Readings Group in New Haven, Connecticut, in the Spring of 1994. Ritley was a guest lecturer at the Yale Divinity School and was introduced to the Christ Church group by the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Adams. Adams, now on Yale’s faculty, met M.R. Ritley in a queer-friendly Episcopal parish in California. Adams knew of the Gay Christian Readings Group and introduced them to Ritley.
Sue Bingham, an opera composer, was present as one of the few straight members of the Group. “Her essay was just wonderful. I think she was just about to be ordained. She was bright . . . her ‘self’ was attractive–informal physically, in sweats most of the time, but delightful, interested, warm, multidimensional . . . a mensch!”
Wayne Eley remembers that “when the manuscript of Tribe was read in the Gay Readings Group, no one who read it felt less than transformed.” Jim Papp, a high school music teacher and Group member, also recalls the transformations of the first reading of Tribe. He lends his own interpretation of the text: “Ritley says, really, that the process of coming out is sacramental. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and a permanent change. If coming out is also a major permanent change which is guided by the spirit and meditation, then it is sacramental.”
The idea soon surfaced that it ought to be published by the Group as a tract. Eley, as the Group’s resident publisher, helped organize the effort, along with Layton. Over three thousand copies of the tract version have been distributed.
At first, it was read only in Connecticut. Copies were on the literature table at the back of Christ Church. Bingham recalls, “A friend of mine from Zurich, who . . . [is] a gay woman, was at church and picked a copy up and began to read it. And I thought, ‘Bingo!’ She loved it. She took it back with her to Switzerland. . . . I felt proud that my church had done that, and that this made her feel welcomed there.”
Eventually, Eley began distributing copies on the Internet. However, he had always envisioned a book, convinced the essay deserved a wider audience. Tribe, with its elegantly simple content and nearly mystical tone, is serving as an inspirational text for the gay community.
It is like an invisible groundswell. The Reverend Dr. Rembert Truluck, noted author, Biblical scholar and MCC Pastor, has distributed fifty copies to friends Dr. Truluck commented “Tribe helped me to deal with my own loneliness and isolation during a time of wilderness wandering. Many friends who needed encouragement and inspiration have found the book to be of great help.” It has been used as a text in Christian ethics, and a closeted Episcopal priest ordered thirty copies for friends. And it is used as the text for the course in Gay Spirituality which Ritley leads at Pomona College.
Ritley is humble when speaking about herself. She understates, “I’ve had a spiritually adventurous life.” She was raised in an ethnic community in Cleveland and spent more than a decade as a teacher, writer and spiritual director in a liberal Islamic religious tradition. Later she worshipped with the Quakers and eventually found her way to the Episcopal priesthood. She currently serves as a priest at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, simultaneously pursuing further theological education at nearby Graduate Theological Union.
In addition to Tribe, Ritley has written an autobiographical chapter in Amazing Grace: Stories of Lesbian and Gay Faith (eds. Malcolm Boyd and Nancy Wilson).
While Tribe stresses coming out as spiritually significant conversion, it also takes up the concern for community and communal memory, as the subtitle states. Ritley picks up on a theme promoted by Yale Professor John Boswell, who died of AIDS in late 1994. The gay community does not have a communal memory of a past; it must begin constructing one immediately.
Ritley writes, “we may be born into the tribe, but we are not raised in it . . . . We must tell the stories, weave the legends, paint the icons of another family of saints whose lives will give us light . . . . This is the . . . essential ministry of gay-to-gay, the only way in which, some day, we will be able to make God’s gay children free.”
Jim Papp reiterates Ritley’s argument with his own analogy, “Ritley seems to say that a chosen tribe of God justifies itself by proving they are chosen by creating their own history. Just as in the Jewish tradition the stories [of Passover] are part of the whole rite, as are the asking of questions–‘Why do we celebrate this?’–we, too, must create our own stories about our own heroes, saints, and martyrs.”
Tribe is also a book with tears. Tears of anguish, tears of recognition, tears of relief, and tears of joy. The book begins with a quote from Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue: “The day I saw a poster declaring the existence of an organization of Gay American Indians, I put my face into my hands and sobbed with relief. . . . Gay is a universal quality . . . like predicting the weather.” But, Tribe ends with tears as well. The last section of the book harkens back to Ritley’s days in Islam as she weaves in allegorical language the story of Hashad the Fool.
Hashad joins a Caravan which is crossing the sands. He awakens one night to discover a fire in the inn where the Caravan is staying. He rushes in and out of the fire and finds the Master of the Caravan, who weeps with pain for the members of his caravan who are unaccounted for. But Hashad knows where they are, and leads the Master to them, passing again through the fire.
Ritley writes, “For it is this, you see, that Hashad the Fool was born for: to place his hand in the hand of God, and to pass and repass and repass through the fire, until the fire has lost its power to burn, and until he has learned to dance in the fire–to dry the tears of God. . . . “We [gay men and women] are all this Hashad . . . who begins the journey of his life without the slightest recognition of where he is bound.”
Ritley declares that we did not chose the fire, but it is the only way through to our freedom and the freedom of others still trapped inside. She concludes, “We are God’s fools, God’s gay people, called to bear God company on this impossible journey . . . God help us all.”
Scott Isebrand lives and works in New York City. He is originally from Iowa and graduated from Yale Divinity School / Institute for Sacred Music, Literature and the Arts. He joined the Tribe in 1995.