A journey of many paths: Stories of LGBT religious lives in Colorado

November 19, 2013

By Alison Wisneski

Out Front

Image of four people standing with their arms around each other in front of a brick wall. Rafi Daugherty is the second person.

Photos by Hans Rosemond, www.HansRosemond.com

Many faithful people don’t need to think twice about how spirituality plays out in their everyday lives and relationships — but for LGBT people, faith and life are deeply intertwined when we’re forced to reflect and reconcile a religious community and LGBT community that don’t see eye- to-eye. We hear about LGBT-friendly and “open and affirming churches,” but a range of world religions inspire remarkable similarities in how LGBT people search for peace in their faith. To celebrate the diversity of faith and spirituality in our community, Out Front met with local LBGT members of many traditions to hear their stories.

Rafi Daugherty: Between orthodoxy and individuality

Image of Rafi Daugherty. He is wearing a button-down shirt and tie, and a kippah. He is standing with his arms crossed in front of a window. 

“My whole job is about bringing my identity as queer and my identity as Jewish together, so I’m lucky,” said Rafi Daugherty, 31, who grew up as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl and now identifies as a Jewish trans-guy.

Daugherty said it was challenging experiences in the Jewish community that led him to where he is today — the Colorado Outreach Coordinator at Keshet, an organization that promotes inclusion in Jewish life, where he works to make queer people feel safe and comfortable in the Jewish community.

“I’m at an advantage in my day-to-day life, reflecting these things. When I speak to rabbis or other community leaders, I’m very out. Most of them know I’m at least queer, if not transgender. Part of bringing change to the Jewish community is sharing my personal story, and letting people know that this isn’t some abstract concept of queer Jews or transgender Jews out there. I’m right here. I’m right in front of you.”

His earliest childhood memories are celebrating holidays with his Christian father and Jewish mother, and being placed in an Orthodox school after his parents divorced.

“When I would come home from Orthodox Jewish Day School, I’d say ‘Mommy, we can’t eat McDonald’s anymore,’ or ‘Mommy, you have to wear a skirt; you can’t wear pants anymore,’ so I was subtly brainwashed through the Orthodox Jewish streams,” he said. “By the time I was ten, I was a really hardcore Orthodox kid with very strong moralistic ideas of what was right and what was wrong.”

Daugherty decided during his senior year in high school that being Orthodox was taking a toll on his emotions and had to break away.

He spent the next few years reconciling what that meant: believing that Orthodoxy was right, but that he needed to go off and do the wrong thing for a while.

After he came out as transgender, Daugherty thought he could try being Orthodox again — as an Orthodox boy. “I wore a yarmulke and a tzitzit and thought ‘I’ll go to synagogue, and I’ll be religious, I’ll just do it as a boy,” he said. But he found that even in the adornments of a traditional Jewish male, he still felt like he was hiding who he was. He was outed as transgender by another member of his synagogue in Florida, and the rabbi gave him two options: sit on the women’s side, or leave.

From there, Daugherty has never looked back.

With a path that has crossed both sides of Judaism — the traditional and the liberal — Daugherty said he sees himself fitting in somewhere in between. He’s not Orthodox, but he can’t go to a synagogue that doesn’t practice traditional prayer. He admits that finding comfort in that in- between existence took time, and that the struggle is even more difficult, from what he knows, for transgender women — but if they are looking to rejoin Judaism in a way that’s comfortable for them, Daugherty said it’s worth it to try.

“Finding organizations that help link people back to that LGBTQ community is probably the best suggestion that I have,” Daugherty said. “And if your faith tradition doesn’t have organizations like Keshet or Dignity USA (a Roman Catholic LGBTQ organization), finding an ally is the best thing. If you can find an ally within that church or organization that can go with you through the process, help you come out to the leader and move from there, that’s my second best offering.”    

Hina Chow: Life as a lesbian Muslim in America

Hina Chow, 38, has always identified as gay. She asked her female neighbor to marry her when she was two — it always made sense to her, she said. But, growing up Muslim in a family who so desperately wanted safety for her and her sister, she feared the idea of coming out.

“On my dad’s side of the family, it’s very strict Muslim,” Chow said. “They believe there was another prophet after Mohammad, and they’ve been discriminated against (for that) for years. If you were caught saying this belief in Pakistan, you could be thrown in jail. My dad’s biggest fear was not fitting in, always.”

For Muslims in America — especially over the last decade — it can be a difficult thing to do.

“(The afternoon of September 11, 2001), I went into a bodega to get a beer, and I look at the guy (behind the counter) and I said ‘Are you Muslim?’ and he said ‘Yeah,’ and I said ‘Let me be the last person you tell. Don’t tell anybody else. Say you’re Egyptian Christian.’ And then I called my mom and I said ‘Mom, don’t wear any of your Pakistani outfits.’”

Her family’s religious practice was more relaxed than what her father grew up with, but Chow still didn’t feel safe coming out. Her father, one of the first Pakistanis to attend the Colorado School of Mines, believed in walking a fine line between tradition and encouraging his children to blend in.

“Even though we prayed five times a day, I grew up where there were two churches within four blocks of each other from my home, so we would go to Sunday school,” Chow said.

Chow’s childhood revolved around trying not to make waves — she said she felt asexual and focused more on school and going to Muslim camps than dating. But after falling in to an addiction to alcohol, her life changed. She started dating — men and women — while vowing to abide by her Muslim religion and not have sex until marriage. When drinking and losing her virginity eventually came together to bring her to a darker place in her life, Chow’s parents sent her back to Pakistan to get “straightened out.” By then she’d already fallen in love.

After six months in Pakistan, Chow returned with a fear that her parents would find out about her sexuality. Her parents and secret girlfriend came to pick her up when she returned, and when they were walking up the stairs in her mother’s house, her father turned to her girlfriend and said “You know she came back for you, right?”

That was the moment Chow knew that things in her family were different than before — her sexuality was safe and accepted by her parents.

Though Chow believed that her father wanted to blend in with mainstream American society, she knows that it was her parents’ love for her that helped them accept her for who she is. She credits her parents’ American education with giving them more worries about whether their daughter would meet her life goals than over her daughter’s sexuality.

Chow’s extended family still doesn’t know — she said it’s a measure of safety for herself, but also for them.

“I’m not out to my cousins,” Chow said, “they’re very devout. When my cousins and I visit, it’s a very different Hina. I don’t tell them, not because I’m afraid of what they would do to me, but I’m afraid of what it would do to them. There’s such a fear, and I don’t know if they’re born with it, but I wouldn’t want them to be any less open with me.”

That conflict made Chow into an incredibly self-aware person, she said. She still prefers to be the one in control of outing herself because of ongoing anxieties around who is and isn’t safe.

As for her philosophies that she follows now in her adult life, Chow believes in a few things:

“You know that campaign It Gets Better? I say no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t get better. What happens is you get better. Those people won’t change, it goes from generation to generation. But you can get better. Don’t try to change anybody, you change yourself inside. As for gay Muslims, they should come to the truth that Allah loves them because they’re gay, and they love Allah because they’re gay. At the end of the day, if you are Muslim and gay, you are Muslim.”

Myntha Cuffy: A search for a community of acceptance

Growing up in the Midwest as a Seventh Day Adventist, religious beliefs outside her own didn’t seem real to Myntha Cuffy, 35, who now lives in Denver. Her family, activities and life were all based around her Adventist faith, and which she adhered to without question.

But at a Seventh Day Adventist college for her undergraduate degree, she began to question why women weren’t allowed to take leadership roles in church. From there, she began to understand that as a queer woman, her role in the church of wife, mother and caregiver would not be accepted, leaving her with no place in the church. She looked for feminist spiritualties and different interpretations of the Bible.

“I really began to question the things I had grown up believing, the reasoning behind the doctrines of my church, and my own beliefs about the place that spirituality would play in my life,” Cuffy said. “Before, the question had been how can I play a role in the church, now the question became more of how can the church be more applicable in my life.”

Cuffy still has love her deep roots in her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, but said she couldn’t reconcile her feeling of non-inclusiveness in the church with who she knew by then she was. Her mother passed away around the time she came out, which brought another struggle — until then, she’d related being a good and hospitable person to her relationship with her mother and her childhood faith. In one difficult moment, she’d lost both.

After a few years of searching for an identity she could feel confident in, Cuffy found herself in a PhD program at the University of Denver in Research Methods and Statistics, and in the summer of 2010 she wandered into a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s Sunday service where laypeople were leading the services instead of ministers.

“They got up and shared stories about being divorced at age 22, polyamory in their lives, being accepted as Wicca or Pagan or Atheist, and I just sat there thinking ‘I have found it. I didn’t know these people existed, but here they are.’”

It was a powerful contrast from what she knew before.

“The only legitimate path for a queer person in the Seventh Day Adventist church is celibacy, and even then, they’re not so sure you should be volunteering.”

Cuffy hasn’t officially joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation — its a relationship of curiosity and balance that is accepted in that religion — but sometimes attends their services and finds comfort in practicing mindful meditation and kirtan, a call-and-response group chant. She said she enjoys feeling present in the life she is currently in, rather than the focus on the afterlife that dominated her experience with Christianity.

Most importantly, she has a community that allows her to be completely out.

“It’s very queer-friendly,” Cuffy said. “Three of my ministers in the UU faith are queer. That might just be my own experience, but I know it to be safe. I feel welcomed.”

Claire Ku’ulei Wilkins: Spirituality without labels

For Claire Ku’ulei Wilkins, a life of options is the only life that makes sense. Why choose when you don’t have to? That’s been her philosophy for her sexual identity as well as her faith.

“I identify more now as a spiritual being. I believe in a higher power, whatever name that’s called,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins, a 22-year-old student in Fort Collins, was raised in Hawaii as both Episcopalian and Buddhist — the idea of limiting oneself to a single religion felt foreign to her.

“I remember coming up to my mom as a young child and being confused, asking why my church friends don’t want to come to temple with me. I asked her, ‘Aren’t Buddha and Jesus talking about the same thing?’”

Wilkins avoids too much attachment to identities in that and many other ways: “I don’t identify as either gender, and though I know I am cisgender, I don’t see myself as wholly anything,” she said. “I find that the most beautiful realizations in life, both in gender and spirituality, has been letting go of those labels and letting me be me.”

When Wilkins moved from Hawaii to the mainland, she discovered most people considered it abnormal to find love for multiple traditions and allow herself to change with them, a challenge she encountered along with the challenge of being far from home.

In her life, she found that coming out as sexually fluid while growing into her spirituality and coming into her own has taught her a lot about who she wants surrounding her.

“I feel that after this shift, I can tell who is in line with me in my views of spirituality and gender. I’ve become very selective in my friendships and in learning about my spirituality. It’s very freeing.”

She advises those who struggle with identity — especially those who have moved away from where they were raised — with a quote that she says has followed her on her journey:

“You can only be yourself when you’re far from home. There’s no way to fake it, no matter how hard you try. Being pushed into that realization made the process of me learning who I was happen quicker.”

Andy Sethi: A journey of one’s own mind

“A woman in Santa Fe told me once ‘Don’t be a Buddhist, just be a Buddha,’” said Denver addiction counselor Andy Sethi.

Sethi was raised in Dallas with both Episcopalian and Hindu influences from his parents. His parents were raised strictly in their respective religious traditions, and their marriage was controversial in both of their communities. Though Sethi himself was raised secular, he grew into a Buddhist spiritual path with encouragement from his parents.

But the community he was surrounded by was more conservative.

“It was in the atmosphere in Dallas that they still did prayer in school and everything was organized around the church community, and to struggle with my sexual orientation,” he said. “I was looking for something to help relieve the pain of being closeted, confused, and angry. I had a lot of resentment against Christianity, which I think is common in our community.”

Sethi said the fundamentalist Christian community he was brought up in did more than give him an aversion to it — it also led him to explore Buddhism, which felt like a stark contrast from his surroundings.

He read Buddhist scriptures and texts to fill a spiritual void in his life — a void that’s common in the LGBT community where so many are alienated from mainstream American churches. He read them to feel worthy and whole again, and said they soon all began to make sense.

“Buddhism, when I read about it, was like reading something I already knew but hadn’t put into words yet,” he said. “Intuitively, I was like ‘Yes, this is what I’m looking for.’ Mostly because it was about liberation from suffering, which is what Buddhism is about. It’s about how to be happy, basically.”

Sethi dove deep into the readings and into practicing martial arts, and discovered in college that Buddhism — its focus on the technology of the mind and cultivating its capacity for happiness — fulfilled a need created by the hurt and anxiety of coming out.

He began to take ten-day meditation retreats to work with the problem that he understood to be in his mind. After graduating, he went into monastic Buddhism for two years — a practice similar to being a monk. He worked closely with a Westernized LGBTQ-friendly teacher in Santa Fe.

“One thing that people need to understand about Eastern religions in America is that they were primarily popularized by hippies in the sixties. In this country, people who were attracted to that religious tradition tend to be more liberal, which is what I’ve found.”

After leaving the monastic life, Sethi sought opportunities to live in service. He became a registered nurse, went to graduate school for psychology at Naropa University in Boulder, then moved to Denver to focus on addiction counseling.

“I know my life has to be focused on relieving suffering in the world. Right now, that’s working with people with addictions,” he said. “It melds well with my religious training. Right now, I’m starting to do a little more focus on LGBTQ people with addictions and how I can use my karma and conditioning in this lifetime to be of benefit to other people.”

Sethi cautioned LGBT people who are interested in Buddhism to seek out groups with Western influence if they are seeking an LGBT-friendly environment. He said he’s found that homophobic elements in some Buddhist groups are based on culture, rather than the religion itself.

“I find that American Buddhists are incredibly open — in fact there is a huge number of queer people who are interested in Buddhism because they’re looking for something that’s not clearly homophobic to them and their culture,” he said.

That said, Sethi believes people have a spiritual power in themselves regardless of the religion they choose.

“I don’t think that one religious tradition is better than another,” he said, “it’s just a codification of rituals, practices, and doctrines that all ultimately lead someone to the same place.”

Alistair Andrew Bane: Breaking from Western definitions

It’s not common to grow up both Irish Catholic and Shawnee Indian — but Alistair Andrew Bane’s life has very little that’s common about it.

Bane, 47, is a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and an artist. He identifies as Two Spirit, which Bane loosely defines as a cultural and spiritual role that Western culture interprets as a form of LGBTQ identity. He said the Two Spirit are creative people — often artists like he is — with specialized places in their nation.

Bane said being Two Spirit is both recognizing one’s role in the community and the community recognizing that role within the person — and points out that there’s a big difference between that and the Western concept of sexual orientation.

“Human sexuality may be less constrained in the labels we want to put on it, so a man might have a relationship with a man but not necessarily be Two Spirit. We don’t see things defined on the lines of sexual orientation the way Western culture does. In Western society, gender roles are forced upon people, and in our society it’s more about assurance of quality,” he said. “If a man walked into an area that belongs to women, he’d be treading on her area. Women took care of the land, because the land is like the woman. For a man to go and start digging up that earth would be sort of like a sacrilege.”

Bane became more engaged in about his Shawnee background and the concept of Two Sprit as an adult. To him it was a new way of thinking — the Catholic Church had previously had him believing that Creator did not accept him, he said.

“That’s a really vulnerable place to be, because if you’re an LGBTQI person and you’re told that Creator doesn’t accept you and your parents don’t accept you, then how can you love yourself?” Bane said. “How can you figure out your place in this world?”

Bane said that it’s easy for Western culture to draw a comparison between LGBTQ identities and Two Spirit, but there are still differences.

Bane tells a story of bringing a friend to a pow wow and watching the men use drums in the circle, where women were not involved. She said that she believed it was sexist, but Bane explained that since women are able to grow heartbeats within themselves, the drum (given to the men participating in the pow wow) signifies the heartbeat that a man can never grow. The drum is part of sharing in that part of the woman that a man can never have on his own.

Bane’s advice to those who want to learn more about Two Spirit and native culture is to be wary of those who advertise themselves as any high-ranking member of an Indian community.

“Our spiritual leaders don’t talk that way about themselves. Usually, somebody else might say that about them but they never say it about themselves. They never charge money for things, and I see a lot of people being taken advantage of when they think they’re learning our ways, but what they’re being sold is false. We don’t have classes and we don’t have workshops and we don’t have books.”

Bane does hope that people who are not a part of the Indian community choose to learn about native peoples and Two Spirit people so they can see that it is not a religion, but rather a way of life.

“All of us are born exactly how we’re supposed to be. To question that is sort of in a way to question Creator, and say that maybe Creator made a mistake. My people have always known that who we are is what we’re born into, and our choice in life is whether we utilize who we are and the gifts we have to serve our people. That’s our only choice. Not our sexuality, not our gender identity.”

Gerald Holbrook: A tangle with two Christian traditions

Gerald Holbrook, 67, has deep ties to the Christian faith — so deep that he twice entered seminary to become clergy, once in the Anglican Church and once in Roman Catholicism. A classical musician, spirituality and music have for Holbrook always gone hand-in-hand, with his sexuality weaving between the two.

“We all need ritual, and there’s lots of rituals in the Roman Catholic Church,” Holbrook said. “Just going into a church and the service to pray; say the rosary, light a candle…all these things, it’s all ritual that gives one a sense of

belonging, of being a part of a greater whole that’s important.”

But unlike many who walk in that path, Holbrook has known all along that he is gay.

“I knew I was gay – I didn’t know what gay was, but I knew I was different – I knew I was different when I was four,” he said. “I knew it had to be kept a secret, because nobody talked about it. I knew that was my orientation.”

Holbrook was closeted but active in the gay community for years before he came out. A move to Lincoln, NE, brought Gerald to a community that had him cross paths with gay people, even though he was not out himself.

Holbrook had a religious experience during his junior year in college that led him to the Anglican faith, moving him so deeply that he dropped out of school to attend a monastery. It didn’t stop him from having relationships with other men from the closet, but when he eventually left the monastery it wasn’t because of his sexuality, Holbrook said.

“I left the monastery because my need for music wasn’t met. Later, in London, I was singing at an Anglican church with lots of ceremony, and of course the music was wonderful. It was the thing that attracted me to the church, all of the liturgy and the music.”

Holbrook came out while he later worked for a United Methodist church — he’d stumbled upon one of the first Reconciling Ministries Network meetings for lesbian and gay Methodists. He came out to the pastor of the church, who said he’d already known Holbrook was gay and didn’t have a problem.

From there, Holbrook’s life seemed to move in the opposite direction from how many LGBT people of faith progress in their spiritual lives — he got a job as the associate director of music at a Roman Catholic church in Chicago, and found himself growing closer to the religion that many other LGBT people leave as they come of age. The church Holbrook worked in had other gay employees, and he found himself so deeply enthralled in the music made inside the space that he decided to revisit his monastic background. He joined the Roman Catholic Church and entered seminary to become a priest.

Holbrook had already come out of the closet and was happy living and working in Boystown at his church — but after moving to Washington D.C. for seminary, he found he had to go back into it, not only for his safety but to be allowed to continue through the process.

Holbrook was disenchanted — he felt he wasn’t able to work as deeply with music as he wanted, and wasn’t able to be who he felt he truly was. He found himself escaping to the gay neighborhoods — forbidden for seminary students.

He said that leaving the church but continuing to follow his passion of making classical music in churches has opened doors he couldn’t have gone through in monastery or seminary.

“They’re all together. They’re my whole being. How did I deal with my sexuality as Roman Catholic? I had no problem with it; I had no guilt. The church is wrong.”

Holbrook said LGBTQ-identifying Catholics should find groups like Dignity, or a priest who’s welcoming, to discover ways to live out their faiths as true to who they are. Though he’s left Christianity to work through his spirituality through music spending time in nature, he believes individuals should try to find what works for them.

“Look for groups of men and women who want to keep their faith and keep their connection with the Roman Catholic Church — where nobody’s telling you you’re going to Hell,” he said, “while being in an environment that’s safe and honorable and comfortable.”

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