As part of this series on the intersections of queerness and multireligiosity, I want to offer queer, multireligious people a platform to reflect on our experiences in our own words and on our own terms.This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For my first interview in this series, I sat down with my dear friend, Justin, to reflect on his experiences of being gay within the contexts of Catholicism, Wicca, and atheism. Justin is a wellspring of courage and resilience, and it was a joy to talk with him in my home over beverages and gay indulgences!
Esther: So I’m sitting down with my dear friend, Justin. We have mimosas, we’ve both just done our makeup, so we’re in like, primo gay mode. Can we get any gayer? Probably.
Esther: We’ll try. And we’re going to talk about queerness and religion, and have a great time doing so. Hello, welcome!
Justin: Hi, thank you for having me in this, your home.
Esther: Thank you for being here. I’m delighted to have you. So, tell us a little bit about yourself!
Justin: Sure. I identify as a gay man, an atheist, although I have certainly been through a fair number of different religious experiences in my life. I am an oceanographer by trade and a gamer for hobby.
Esther: Well, I have one very important question for you.
Esther: Is the ocean gay?
Justin: Hm. I have always been rather fond of Greek myths and everyone in Greek myths is gay. So, yes. I don’t know of any particular stories with Poseidon, but I assume. I like to go back to those days where bisexual is the baseline default.
Esther: Love it! Cool. So we talked a little bit before we started recording, and I’d love to start by asking you to describe your religious upbringing. Tell us about how you grew up and what you were taught as a part of that; what you took in as the main, important things about the religion of your childhood. And then we’ll get into the queerness of it all.
Justin: So I was brought up — my mother was Catholic, my father was Protestant. And they decided to bring me and my brother up Catholic. I had been raised Catholic. I was baptized, had first communion, and so that was my childhood. There was a lot of going to church, typically every week, and learning a lot through catechism, of going weekly and learning about faith in that sphere. [I] decided when I went to high school to go to a Catholic high school. And then I sought Confirmation at that stage.
Esther: Can you tell us a little bit about what Confirmation is for those who don’t know?
Justin: Oh, sure. One of the sacraments of Catholicism is — so, Baptism being something that typically happens when you’re just brought in, so not really typically capable of choosing. And then you have the sacrament of First Communion. And then, the thought being that when you reach adulthood, you have a better understanding of faith and religion and you choose to confirm your faith through a process known as Confirmation, which for me took about a year. I had a sponsor who was walking me through the whole process of deepening and accepting the faith of Catholicism.
Esther: What was that like for you?
Justin: It was very perfunctory for me. It was the thing I was supposed to do, and so I did it.
Esther: So was there ever a time during your childhood and early teens when you had direct experience of what we might describe as the sacred or God? Did you believe that if you were praying, God was listening to your prayers?
Justin: Yes, absolutely. That was a thing that I believed. And I’ve told you of how mixed-up I think this God in my childhood brain is. I would think “Oh, let’s see. Christmas being a very sacred holiday, if you can pray to Jesus, why couldn’t one pray to Santa Claus, for example?” But [I] definitely prayed relatively devoutly through most of my youth, definitely every night for a while.
I think it’s kind of interesting because I think I started getting more into exploring religion and pondering the sacred in high school after, after — so I was Confirmed my freshman year and then I think it was by my junior year that I was essentially converting to Wicca. But that was one of the first few times in my life where I was really exploring what the sacred meant to me in a way that didn’t feel perfunctory or forced.
Esther: That is really cool. It’s also part of why I was so excited to talk to you, because you have three very distinct religious experiences. Which I think is really awesome, and a perspective that a lot of people can relate to, but that we don’t necessarily hear about all the time. So before we get to Wicca and then to atheism eventually….
Esther: Let’s talk about how you became aware that being queer was a thing, and then how you became aware that you were gay.
Justin: So I was made aware of queerness when I was fairly young. My best friend in elementary school, Dylan, later came out to me. I think my parents had [also] kind of seeded this in my mind. But Dylan and I had hung out a lot for years. And she and I had this really close friendship for a long time, and eventually I got to the point of starting to be more aware of dating becoming a thing. And so I asked her out and she responded that she was only interested in women. [laughs] Which I totally– it was definitely kind of like, “Oh! That’s a thing!” I mean, I was in like, sixth grade.
Esther: That’s so adorable.
Justin: And it was like, “Oh, of course.” I was confused for sure, ’cause it was the first that I’d heard of it. It wasn’t until much, much later in my life that my parents told me that they had suspected I was gay since I was very young. And looking at pictures of myself from when I was very young, I was like, yes, obviously. Here is me, basically cosplaying as Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga was a thing. [chuckles]
So that was kind of my exposure. And then coming to much, much later in life, after I had started exploring Wicca, was when it just kind of hit me. I was like, “Oh, there’s a reason I’ve never felt attraction to women before. Oh, that makes sense!” Like I never — this is always funny to me, ’cause I never went through a questioning phase. It was just an “Oh! Yeah, that’s it.” That was after 10th grade. So that probably would’ve been like four or so years after I had learned about it from Dylan. And she was actually the first person I told.
Esther: That’s so sweet.
Esther: I love that story. So, did you get any messages from the church growing up about queerness? Was it a thing that was discussed at all?
Justin: No, absolutely not. It was not a thing that was discussed at all. It’s something that was starting to become a little bit more prevalent as I got into high school, but it still wasn’t really addressed in any kind of concrete way until probably my sophomore year. One of the things that we had to do with high school was… so, we had the typical array of classes and then a Religious Studies course, which was really a Catholic Studies course. There was very little that was branched out from that. And second year, the course that mattered — that year was Sacred Scripture and it was taught by my favorite teacher, Ms. Mary Carroll, who was also the Drama teacher and was the person — um, let’s see. St. Lawrence is defunct now, so I can probably say this. The person who basically was like, “So I’m not allowed to teach you about contraception, but….”
Esther: That’s amazing.
Justin: We actually talked a bit about interpreting gospel and how to not take everything in gospel at face value. That it must be analyzed and interpreted, particularly in the context of the time in which it was written and for the purposes for which it was written. That there are things that made sense to do at the time which don’t really apply at present. Like mixed fabrics, for example: that nowadays that’s basically impossible to avoid.
Esther: She sounds like an amazing teacher.
Justin: Oh, she was great.
Esther: I think so many of us grew up in a very literalist school of thought where everything that was written in scripture must be taken at face value. And the idea that interpretation was a thing that you learned is really amazing to me.
It sounds like your experience of the church and of many Catholic spaces was heterosexuality-by-default, and by not saying anything.
Esther: But also there was this kind of opening for you get to interpret the scripture —
Esther: — and filter it through how it’s relevant to our lives today.
Justin: Which, in my experience is not the general Catholic experience. But it was mine.
Esther: Very cool. So, take us into Wicca. How did you feel called into Wicca at the time?
Justin: This gets kind of into a number of fun things in that I have always had a call to fantasy and have always had a kind of fascination — and I would say almost spiritual connection — to the concepts of the elements and to nature. It’s certainly something that has a lot to do with my becoming a scientist eventually, is really finding something beautiful and awe-inspiring about reality and about trying to figure out how it works and take it apart.
And so all of that coming together and then starting — so Dylan was actually Wiccan as well. And so I found this book just one day at Borders called Inner Magic, by Anne Marie Gallagher. And leafing through the book, [I] found it contained so many things that really connected with me, and [I] started to explore this religion that was much more about recognizing the wonder in things that are here. Not the metaphysical. I feel like a lot with Wicca, there is a lot of it that is just appreciating the wonder that is nature. And there’s something so physical about that kind of reverence that is much more difficult in the kind of like metaphysics of the divine, right?
Esther: Yeah. In thumbing through the book last night, I was noticing how she talks a lot about a connection with a patron deity, and specifically goddess. And we talked a little in my class this semester, in my Queer Studies class, about Wicca and queerness and connection with the goddess. Did you feel connection with a goddess during your time in Wicca?
Justin: By that point in my life, I had essentially extracted the concept of gender from the divine. To me it was very, if there is a divine then it is an entity far beyond our comprehension. Our capacity to give them pronouns is sort of meaningless. So I had pretty much extricated gender from that. And I remember that was actually a reflection question that we had in my second year. The Sacred Scripture course was about like, how do you view a deity, what pronouns do you think the deity would have, and what does that mean to you?
Esther: This sounds like a really cool Catholic school, I just have to say. Having known other people who were in Catholic school their whole lives, or most of their lives, this one sounds like it’s kinda cool.
Justin: There were a lot of other complications and issues that I think would bring it into a little bit more of a stark reality. This particular teacher and this particular course were very influential for me, and that’s largely the one I talk about.
There was a course every year, essentially, and the main ones were the Intro To Catholicism, Sacred Scripture, Catholic History, and then Social Justice. In particular I spent a lot of my life unlearning the Social Justice course, because it was a very warped view on social justice that was not very helpful, with a lot of misinformation about things like conception and such that I had to correct later. The Catholic History was history, but focused obviously very strongly on the Catholic church. And the Intro To Catholicism was essentially just catechism summarized, so I didn’t learn very much in that course. We were required to go, regardless of your religious leanings, to church once a month. We had a monthly kind of mass that we would do I think on Fridays, or Thursdays.
One of the things we did once a year during Lent, we would have a multi-hour thing where essentially all of the priests of the church, which was connected to the school, would set up at different spots in the church. And we were encouraged to essentially confess, whether you were Catholic or not.
Justin: And one of the interesting things that happened to me, ’cause I did participate in this when I was Catholic in my early years, but when I had fully transitioned eventually to being Wiccan and then more agnostic near the end, I also did it then. It was an interesting experience in both ways. In particular, I remember getting a priest who was very willing to listen, even though I was not a professed member of the faith at that point. It was a very healing experience for me, and I remember thinking on it very fondly.
Esther: So it was in some ways the experience of just being witnessed by someone?
Justin: Yeah, absolutely.
Esther: I think it’s amazing how that can be really profound in a very generative way if someone is just holding a very deep presence.
Esther: Even if they are of a different faith tradition than we are.
Esther: Or the opposite experience, if they are in judgment.
Justin: I’ve definitely had both experiences. I’ve had times when I feel extremely judged and times when it feels like holding a really productive and healthy space.
Esther: Getting back to the Wicca of it all, it sounds like your connection was very much through the elements, through the natural world, through being in the here and now.
Esther: Which I do feel like Christianity kind of has us looking forward towards the end in some ways.
Esther: Or looking back. And there can be a sense of groundedness in the present, but at least in the kind of Christianity I grew up in, there was this sense that we were waiting for Jesus to come back and then everything would be good.
Esther: And our lives here were in service to that. And it was a little bit of a feeling of being divorced from what was going on right now, around us. So it just strikes me, the difference there.
I’m wondering, can you talk about your experience of queerness as it relates to Wicca?
Justin: That one’s a bit trickier, because I was very much a sort of self-practicing Wiccan. Most of what I was doing, I was getting either by reading stuff online or from the books that I was reading. And there was mention of that in these books for sure, but I never actually did any like communal kind of exploration in Wicca. I don’t have a particularly good lens on that.
It was certainly a bit freeing to be, I think, a bit divested from the Catholic church on this particular front. But like, I was still obviously going to Mass. I was still serving as an acolyte, ’cause we had to do a required amount of community service at our school. So it wasn’t like I was completely free from that sphere during that time.
Esther: So you were both practicing Wicca and being an acolyte at the same time?
Esther: Would you describe that as an experience of multireligiosity?
Justin: Yes, absolutely. I was getting more and more comfortable with the kind of capacity to hold both. So to essentially practice both, particularly through my junior year.
Esther: Let’s talk for a minute about theology. Were there striking similarities or differences in the way that Catholicism and Wicca approached theology? And, part two of the question is: which ones resonated with you and which ones felt not resonant?
Justin: What do you mean by their approaches to theology?
Esther: So, the idea of there being a divine being at all. Is there one or more? Are we born into an inherent state of sinfulness versus not? I’m really curious about — if you consider that to be a practice of multireligiosity, how did those two things wind up tying together?
Justin: I see. I truly never really adopted the belief of original sin because it made no sense to me. And so I largely just ignored it throughout being Catholic. It certainly comes up with like, I was supposed to feel ashamed for everything. But largely, it kind of grew into more of a shame about things I had done rather than shame about simply being and having sin that was original. So that never really connected with me that much.
I do remember rather strongly focusing on things like symbolism and celebrations, in that there are obviously a lot of parallels between the Catholic symbols and the Wiccan symbols. Like the four-pointed cross and the cardinal directions for the elements; the celebration of Easter and Christmas, which, you know, has its own analogous celebrations of Ostara and Yule. So there were all of these connections that to me made itself evident that these two things were not divested as much as perhaps the church would have me believe.
Esther: So I’m curious as to when you realized you’re gay, and what impact that had on your spiritual identity?
Justin: It definitely had a big thing of when I was — I think the biggest one was when I started to learn and realize that getting married in a Catholic church was simply not something that was going to happen. That did really strike me, because as I’ve told you, I am a really strong romantic at heart. I, like many people, have been planning for my wedding for like, my entire life. I’m often reminded of Steven Universe bringing out the book, like, “Yes! I have so many wedding plans! I have been preparing for this moment my entire life!” It’s very me. So that was kind of the start of this realization that like, hmm, this throws a wrench in things.
My biology teacher, my favorite teacher when I was a freshmen, whom I really liked and discovered later that he had a husband, and also discovered that he “voluntarily” left — where I put voluntarily in quotes. I mean, of course it’s not like I was super aware of what was going on. But I also remember a student who had gotten pregnant, who “voluntarily” left the school. So it became a pattern that I was like, this seems like a toxic space for people who don’t follow rules very carefully.
Did that impart why I perhaps am a little bit stringent about following rules? Maybe! Who knows?But the facade that we are the church, we welcome all despite your troubles and sin… and having it become very apparent that, that wasn’t really true. That this was not a space where you could come and be accepted regardless.
Esther: Were you out in high school?
Esther: How was that experience?
Justin: Let’s see. I mean, it’s complicated. I was definitely the only person who was out. I was not the only person who was gay, as became clear much later when we had quite a few people come out afterward. I never faced anything that was particularly mean that was directed at me. And the way I did it was I actually had my best friend start a rumor about it, and just let that spread and then came out and was like, “yeah, that’s true.”
Esther: That’s really beautiful! Thinking about all the stories I’ve heard of how people have come out and had it be on their own terms — or not — it really strikes me that in high school you were like, “Start a rumor! And I’ll confirm it!” That’s very brave. Especially like — I think the climate right now is difficult in many ways, and also has come a long way from when we were both in high school and the kind of rhetoric that existed around queer people then. And I remember it being very, very challenging to come out, and I think that’s quite a brave thing. It sounds like there wasn’t like a Gay-Straight Alliance or anything like that.
Justin: No, absolutely not. There was a me. [laughs] Yeah, it was complicated. I think looking back on it now, I think it might’ve been a little… reckless? It was still before I had learned a lot of stories about people being like, thrown out of their houses, which was something I was never worried about. Or worse, right?
Esther: I also wonder if, in some ways growing up in the Bay Area was a microcosm of insulation in itself? Like, if there’s other experiences in very similar schools where regionally things might be more complicated or charged. Not that shitty things don’t happen here, because I’m sure they do. But I do wonder if regionally, there was a little bit more progressive thought going on there in some way.
Justin: Yeah. I think so, having been exposed to it pretty early with Dylan and having most of the people that I had come out to be very accepting. And then I think later in life in college, when my aunt got married, going to that wedding and being very excited for her and her wife. And then discovering, just in general, about how we don’t really talk about things in my family. That conflicts, you know, just kind of be. And that it was apparently a big deal that my grandparents actually even came to the ceremony.
And that they couldn’t even get married in their state! They had to cross the border to a different state to get married there. And then we were all brought in to have a celebration at their house, which was beautiful. Two of her brothers didn’t even come, right? Like, they very intentionally abstained. I remember her crying on the day-of that there were members of her family that weren’t there. And I think that was really when it started to hit me about how damaging all of this could be.
Esther: So let’s talk about becoming an atheist, and how that came from being Wiccan. What was that process like?
Justin: It was a very gradual thing. It’s harder for me to put a pin in that one. There was a lot about collective religion that I had never really connected with, and even though I’d done a lot of self-practice in Wicca, it’s not like there was a community for me that I was connected to. So I think that was one of the things that perhaps made it less appealing to stay focused on that.
As I started to get into later parts of my life — senior year and then into college — I became very busy and did not really have the time to practice. It just kind of fizzled out and I just ended ended in this state of accepting a very scientific perspective of, there is nothing definitive that I can say about the divine by nature of its existence. And so the easiest thing to be is agnostic. I simply do not and cannot know, and continuing to ponder is a kind of thing that I could trap my brain in for way longer than I would need to.
It has been interesting, though, particularly as I have progressed more recently in the way that I have been trying to be cognizant about emotions and feelings and such, in that I’m starting to realize that the things that I am practicing remind me a bit more of Buddhist practice. Which I find very interesting.
Esther: That is interesting!
Justin: Most of the things that I think I adhere to somewhat ritualistically in the modern day tend to be closer to that than like, actual, typical atheism. So I don’t know. Life is a journey.
Esther: Life is a journey. I think that’s beautiful. And I’m curious about how queerness interplayed with becoming an agnostic or an atheist and continues to interplay with some of these rituals that you’re still engaged in.
Justin: I definitely think that in that regard of like how being agnostic interplayed with queerness is that there’s a large part of me that felt kind of forced in that direction, just because of continuously hearing about stories about how the church rejects people like me. And it’s very much like, I might have been brought up this way, but I don’t like the way you treat me and my kind. And I don’t have to be here for it. And if I’d had a group that I could have practiced Wicca with, I don’t know, maybe things would have been different. But definitely in the long-term, I felt kind of pushed away from religion because of being queer.
Esther: Is the practice of Wicca with a group something that interests you now, in a kind of nontheistic way?
Justin: In a nontheistic way, yes, I think so. We’ve chatted, right, that I would really be interested in celebrating the eight festivals, in a mindful nontheistic way, for sure. That would be something that I would delight in. Because it’s kind of something I feel like I missed out on in high school and they just tend to be such clear celebrations of facets of nature. There’s a line from Doctor Who — something about how they say Christmas, but Yule essentially, is this thing that is shared by so many peoples. Specifically in this, different planets, ’cause it’s a scifi show. And it’s this celebration of being halfway through the dark, which I love and is a very delightful, universal sentiment. Yule, to me, is recognizing that sentiment in its most pure form. It is the acceptance of, we are celebrating this day because it is the darkest day. And it starts the cycle anew.
Esther: It’s a little more non-dualistic than certainly many incarnations of Christianity. I’m curious how sexuality felt being Wiccan. Did it feel like Wicca was more accepting of diversity of sexuality and desire than Catholicism? Were there aspects of Catholicism that felt welcoming?
Justin: Wicca definitely felt more welcoming in that regard. We were looking at a chapter from Inner Magic that actually focused on that and it was like, “Oh, wow. Imagine having a religion that actually doesn’t immediately reject you for existing. What a fascinating notion that would be!” So, yes, definitely. That has been generally my experience is that it just feels like a more welcoming community. But I’ve always been, I think, a bit afraid to — honestly, it’s another thing that I think the Catholic church has done to me is that there is this absolute fear of reaching out and being rejected. That makes that just a little terrifying.
Esther: Yes. Religious trauma and wounding takes a long time to heal.
Esther: Broadening out for a moment, I’d like to ask, do you think it’s important for churches and religion to talk about queerness? And to include queer theologies in their teachings?
Justin: Bringing knowledge of queerness to particularly youth, I think, is extremely important and I definitely think it should be talked about in like, sex education for sure. I think in any religious space, if you have the intention of it being a space that humans are present, that you should make it clear that people of all kinds are welcome there. And for some, in particular for queerness, which is often not talked about, it would be good to make it clear explicitly that those people are welcome. Because generally the implicit assumption is that they are not.
Esther: Yeah. How do you feel about the construction of a queer divine, or a divine that is inherently queer, or aspects of the sacred that are just viewed as inherently queer. Does that feel important?
Justin: Interesting. Hm. I’m immediately brought back to Greek mythology.
Esther: I mean, I love me some Greek myths!
Justin: Love them! I don’t know. For me, I guess largely I can talk mostly about my experience. And generally my experience with the concept of the divine was more on the side of it being an entity or group of entities kind of beyond comprehension. So the definition of like, what is being queer — to such an entity that I cannot comprehend — loses a bit of a meaning for me. It’s an interesting question; not one I’m sure I have much of an answer for. I’ve always liked the idea of — there’s many people, I think, who try to see themselves reflected in conceiving of the divine. I know that’s part of the general Christian tradition of Adam being made in the form of the divine. I certainly get that, in the sense of having there be some kind of connection, even if it is taking an entity and projecting it into a sense that is a little bit more comprehendible to us. And so that we each see some of ourselves in that force. That’s an interesting notion. Very different from like, Greek mythology where essentially the divinities are flawed individuals; it definitely comes across more as like collections of stories and folklore. And I’m not quite sure about how all of that would fit together? Yeah, I don’t know.
Esther: My last question: if there were to be a space that welcomed you in your whole identity as queer, as an agnostic who is interested in Wiccan ritual with other people, what would a welcoming space feel like? Or be like?
Justin: Hmm. I think one of the problems that I have right now, just in general with dealing with things in my life is that I really don’t know. And I’m working on that right now. I feel like it probably does exist, but I’m not sure I’m at the point where I know how I could answer that question in a useful way, since I’m still learning for myself the things that I want and need in life.
Esther: I think that’s a very beautiful place to be, too. And I wish you ease and much, much beautiful self-discovery on the journey. Thank you. Is there anything you would like to say in conclusion? Or ask?
Justin: I’m really coming to, having been thinking a lot about this kind of thing recently… it’s definitely been interesting to consider the possibility of exploring more communities like that. It’s been so, so surprising to me, I guess, that being rejected by a community that proclaims to be very accepting is a really, really painful experience and really makes it that much harder to try again. And yeah, I’ve just been thinking more and more about what role, if any, seeking out a community like that would have. And I think probably spending more time reading about Buddhism would be very interesting for me.
In conclusion, being queer, with respect to the Catholic church… not an experience I recommend. And I really like this, what you have mentioned like, making it apparent — not the way that I was brought into this of, we won’t talk about this in general. But the few experiences I had with Mary and with some other religious folks of being accepting… I think it would help a lot if we were more explicitly accepting in these spaces.
Esther: That was so beautifully said.
Justin: Thank you.
Esther: Thank you so much for this chat, it’s been wonderful.
Justin: Thank you for having me.
Esther: You’ve demolished your mimosa, I’m almost done with mine. So I feel like this was perfect timing.
Esther: And thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Justin: Of course! Happy to.