Death and illness are strange things. You think you have life figured out, and then you get terribly sick and understand that you don’t. I definitely wasn’t expecting to know what that felt like during my late twenties, but my health had other ideas.
At first, when I got my diagnosis, I was more annoyed than anything. It meant impediments, changing my life, having new and uncomfortable medical procedures done, getting used to new habits, and not being as athletic as I used to be. But I didn’t think it would get any worse, because I was in my twenties, and how bad can your health really get at that age?
Well, things became progressively worse. My meds were not working, my doctors gave me contradicting advice, and they refused to run more tests. Instead, they threw different medications at me and hoped that the next one would do the trick. None of the meds were effective.
It turns out that you have a lot of time to think about life when you’re bedridden. About death too, of course. I started to see anything related to death with new eyes. For most of my life, death had seemed so far away, but it was suddenly looming on the horizon, getting ready to rear its ugly head. And of course, with that came the big question: what happens after we die? Contemplating that colossal question, eventually brought me to the topic of religion.
Female homosexuality as it pertains to religion is a complicated and thorny topic nowadays. And yet, being homosexual and religious was not always as contradictory as it appears to be today. In the middle ages, being a nun was a common path taken by lesbians for obvious reasons, to the point that it has become a lesbian stereotype. Lesbians could avoid marriage and live surrounded by other women and they could access greater levels of education. There are plenty of documents confirming relationships between nuns, like the book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence, or the texts left by Hildegard of Bingen, or the letters from 12th century nuns found in Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages.
In current times, a lot of us don’t have to find refuge in convents; many of us can live freely as out and proud lesbians. In fact, the homophobia that is present in most religions has driven many of us to dislike them. This is especially true if said religions are powerful enough to be organized and impact how homosexuals get treated — be it by considering us sinful or actively working to deny us the rights to get married or adopt children.
Can lesbians be religious in spite of that? Aren’t questions about the afterlife, souls (and whether or not they exist) just as relevant to us as they are to anyone else? How can we ask those questions and reconcile the possible answers with the homophobia that many religious institutions create and support?
I interviewed four lesbians to find out about their views on this topic.
For Rusty, a confident atheist and artist in her late twenties, “it’s all a bunch of nonsense.” She was raised with no religion, and her mother heavily warned against it. She tells me, “my mother was raised Catholic and dislikes religion due to it. But many aspects of ‘catholic guilt’ came with her after she left the church, and it impacted my thinking growing up.”
For Honey, who is in her mid-twenties and on track to study medicine, things are more gray. “I wouldn’t say I’m religious, but I’m a bit spiritual. My beliefs come closest to animism and a little bit of mediumship. I’ve had many important dreams that ended up becoming true, which led me to believe that communication with spiritual forces is possible.” In regards to her family’s religion, she says: “There wasn’t really a religion in my household, though my grandmother was baptized. I come from a mainly protestant country, and though many people believe god exists, they don’t actively go to church or read any holy books. You could say I’ve been raised agnostic.”
Ronnie, a woman in her early twenties, who was raised in Russia, also had complex experiences with religion. “I am a spiritual person,” she starts to say. “I believe in reincarnation, the journey of the soul, the power of thought and other dimensions. My grandma is Tatar, so her religion is Islam, but my mom didn’t want to follow her steps, and she converted to Orthodox Christianity when she was thirteen. I attended church every week and prayed every day, until I turned fifteen and abandoned the religion.”
For lesbians like S.K, a book lover with a passion for history, religion holds wisdom and insights that lesbians and humanity as a whole can learn from. “I am a Christian, specifically Lutheran.” She tells me. “My parents taught the religion to me and my siblings. I’ve never heard of a religious family that kept their beliefs private from their children and ‘waited until they were old enough’ to decide to believe in them. I reject the idea that children aren’t old enough to understand Christianity. When children don’t understand something, they ask a lot of questions!”
Of course, religion isn’t always the driving force behind homophobia. In fact, my own religious family cited scientific reasons for their negative view of homosexuals when I came out to them. Rusty had a similar experience.
“Homophobic thinking was still present, but not as overt.” She tells me, recalling the words uttered by her mother when she came out to her at 12 years old. “‘It’s okay if you’re gay, but I don’t think you are because all women find each other attractive‘. I think the general acceptance from my mum was due to her lack of religious faith. Though my heavily catholic grandparents were accepting of my sexuality, and my grandmother even came to my wedding as a witness” Rusty adds.
My heart goes out to Rusty. I heard similar homophobic phrases when I came out. Some years ago, my dad told me that ‘sexuality is fluid’ in the hopes that I’d magically stop being a lesbian, fall in love with a man, and have a baby.
For S.K, religious homophobia was not a problem for long. “I never thought about other girls in a romantic way when I was younger because it didn’t occur to me that I could. Any attraction I might have felt was completely suppressed.” She says, recalling those years. “I was taught that homosexuality is a sin, so I didn’t know any better. But when my homophobic beliefs were challenged for the first time, I realized how illogical they were. I completely changed my mind about homosexuality several years before I realized that I was a lesbian, so that’s something I can be proud of.”
Meanwhile, Ronnie had a more complicated approach to her sexuality. She recalls being left with religious trauma and a fear of god that made her journey towards self-acceptance longer than it should have been.
Not every belief is black and white. Some women appreciate insights from those who don’t share the same religious beliefs as them, or they might disagree with people who share their faith when it comes to certain issues.
“Yes, there are aspects of religion I disagree with,” S.K explains calmly. “I hate the misogyny and homophobia. Naturally, my evolving personal and political beliefs as well as my increasing knowledge about how the bible was written significantly changed how I view it. Christians don’t believe that God wrote the bible, but they do generally believe that the writers received some divine inspiration. One thing that a lot of people, even a lot of Christians, miss about the bible is that just because someone is recorded to have done a terrible thing, it doesn’t mean that it was God’s will or desire for that person to do it. You can read stories of kings and warriors of the past and be rightfully disgusted by their actions, but they are a window to the past. They don’t have any relevance to how modern Christians should live. Misogyny and homophobia are notably absent from Jesus Christ’s teachings. I truly believe that Christianity can change for the good without diluting the central message.”
Honey says: “I jokingly call myself a spiritual atheist, since I don’t believe in god. I don’t think I agree with anything when it concerns organized religion. My experience is that religious people don’t practice what they preach. I also think religion is overall used to do bad things; even if I believed in god, I can never support a group of people who treat homosexuals and women so badly. I find that spirituality gives women more freedom.”
For Rusty, the answer as to whether there is some good to be found in religion is clear. “No, I think religions are wholly unhealthy and a waste of time to participate in. I think many issues in the world could be solved by erasing any memory of religiosity from people’s minds.”
Ronnie, on the other hand, thinks there is a balance. “I believe in God and souls, but I don’t think you need any rituals or places to have a relationship with God. God lives in all of us.”
But what about other religious aspects? In regards to death and the afterlife, the opinions are pretty varied:
“I believe we either choose to reincarnate and learn new life lessons, or become guides for other reincarnated souls, or stay on the other side in a so-called paradise” Ronnie explains.
“I think it’s just nothing. Nada. Zip. No awareness, consciousness or sentience anymore, like the black screen at the end of a film; there’s no life after death.” Rusty believes. “It’s all created in the brain, science-y stuff I don’t have a degree to understand.”
“There is life after death for sure.” S.K says with conviction. “If you believe Jesus died to take the penalty for everything you’ve done wrong and you seek forgiveness, you go to heaven. If you don’t believe, well, I don’t think you’ll necessarily suffer eternal torture, but I do think God will judge you based on the life you’ve lived.”
Honey’s beliefs are quite different. “I think we get reincarnated,” she says. “I have held this belief since I was a very young child. I don’t know if heaven exists, but it does not sound very logical to me.”
Something that Honey says resonates with me. “I’ve always been quite stubborn.” She tells me, “I don’t like rules, and most of the rules in religion don’t make sense to me. I also think the stories are unrealistic. People often don’t see spiritual people as skeptics, but I am quite skeptical of religion and mysticism as a whole. I need proof before I can believe in anything.”
I’ve never been too much of a believer, myself. I am very skeptical, and just like Honey, I don’t believe in anything easily until I see proof of it being true. Atheism should have been a simple answer, but I had experiences in my life that could not be explained by normal means. I knew what those would sound like to most people – strange and false, and I never wanted to seem insane or dishonest. In the end, I either ignored or tried to alter the facts, convincing myself that things happened in a way that made sense with the world I knew.
But wasn’t that dishonest? I was refusing those experiences just because I did not have a logical explanation for them. I was not letting myself hear the whole story, and I used skepticism as a comfort.
At one point, when I was very ill, I visited my parents. They got me in contact with a good doctor that has known our family for ages. Every time my mum touched my shoulders, I could feel her silently praying for my health. My dad asked if he could read me his favorite passage of the bible, and I agreed to it.
The text talked about how God provides for us. If he has taken care of us by putting us in this world, won’t he keep taking care of us when the time comes? It was a kind sentiment. I don’t share my parents beliefs, but I can feel through their gestures and words that they love me, and that’s what’s most important.
I ask other lesbians what they think about homosexual women who do not share their beliefs. Do they struggle to understand them? And if so, why?
“Most lesbians seem to be atheist or agnostic, which is unsurprising.” S.K says, understanding. “I think many of them have had painful experiences with their religious families or community. I empathize with them a lot, obviously, and agree with some of their criticism of religion.”
“Like everyone else drawn to religion, some lesbians find comfort in the beliefs they provide. Maybe they were raised that way, maybe it spoke to them. I question their critical thinking skills, and how much they’ve delved into the damage of religions they’re a part of, but I judge them on the same level as anyone else who is religious.” Rusty tells me.
“It’s really hard to understand those who are religious and believe in some misogynistic or homophobic aspects of the faith. But each one is on their own journey.” Ronnie says.
My last question was about the lesbian community and our approach to religion: is there a stigma attached to discussing religious beliefs in the lesbian community? If yes, how could we solve it?
“Hm, unsure?” Honey replies, uncertain. “Some atheists can be really… a bit much. There is a theme to ridicule religious or spiritual lesbians and I don’t like that very much.” I see what she means; sometimes, both religious and atheist people can put ego before truth, only caring about winning. “But most lesbians are quite open to discussing religion; never seen otherwise. A bit of kindness goes a long way.”
“I think religious lesbians constitute too small a minority for there to be any serious contention between us.” S.K tells me. “I do have the impression that atheist lesbians tend to have a more or less negative view of religious ones, but it seems to me that religious lesbians don’t openly espouse their views much; not due to a fear of backlash so much as due to a feeling that there is little interest in what we have to say.”
“Haven’t encountered many religious lesbians – other than ones into dianic wicca woo-woo stuff,” Rusty replies, alluding to the female-centered religion. “I just give them a wide berth. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t discuss my thoughts on religion or my beliefs, so I don’t know if I can accurately comment on the presence of a stigma there.”
“Yes,” Says Ronnie decisively. “We should end the stigma against religious lesbians; religion can be practiced in healthy ways. We need to talk about it more.” I like her solution: it is necessary to make all lesbians feel included.
There’s still a lot I don’t know. There’s a lot about how conscience and death works that is a mystery to me. As I keep healing from my illness, the answers remain far away. But I like to be able to think about it without prejudice, and to share my thoughts with other lesbians. Even if there is no big resolution for me, I am satisfied to have this conversation. In life, it is important to be honest with oneself, and whatever I end up believing in the future, I will make sure to prioritize honesty.