Queer young adults say coming out deepened their faith

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 26, 2024
Share this Post:
Sabrina Hodak, who is Modern Orthodox Jewish, is a youth ambassador for Beloved Arise. Photo: Tiny House Photos
Sabrina Hodak, who is Modern Orthodox Jewish, is a youth ambassador for Beloved Arise. Photo: Tiny House Photos

For many LGBTQ people, any solace provided by religion came intertwined with condemnation and deep shame.

The tension between the human need for faith on one hand, and the opprobrium toward their love lives or identities by some religious communities on the other hand, tore queer bodies and souls apart for generations.

But a new generation is challenging not only some traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs about what it means to be LGBTQ — but also traditional stereotypes of what it means to be queer and religious, by trying to live out a positive view of both parts of their identities.

The Bay Area Reporter spoke with four religious LGBTQ young adults, who said not only could they be unapologetically Christian, Jewish, and Muslim and also be proudly transgender, pansexual, bisexual, and nonbinary, but that coming out deepened their faith.

Beloved Arise founder Jun Love Young, left, and membership program manager Drew Young. Photos: Courtesy Beloved Arise  

All four are connected with Beloved Arise, a Seattle-based nonprofit that seeks to empower religious LGBTQ youth from all faiths and denominations. Beloved Arise is holding its Queer Youth of Faith Day on June 30 — the last day of Pride Month and the day of San Francisco's — and several other large cities' — LGBTQ Pride parades, which this year mark the 55th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which is credited with birthing the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States.

Sabrina Hodak: 'You have to seek validation from yourself'

The B.A.R. last year first spoke with Sabrina Hodak, a 21-year-old bisexual woman from Hollywood, Florida who is Modern Orthodox Jewish, when she was among the first two people named as a co-leader of the Beloved Arise Youth Alliance.

Modern Orthodox Judaism is a strain within Orthodox Judaism that seeks to find greater synthesis between observance of the Torah's laws and participation in modern society than other types within the tradition.

"It's slightly more lenient than Orthodox, if that makes sense," Hodak said. "There's a whole spectrum and variety in the Modern Orthodox denomination. I grew up going to synagogue, I'd gone to Jewish day school, but I grew up wearing pants and stuff."

Hodak started realizing she was bisexual around middle school, "but repressed it and left it for later, as one does, naturally," she said.

"Around 15-16 years old, I started coming to terms with it and realizing it," she said. "I had friends in high school who were queer, and I felt comfortable coming out to them and all the rest of my friends."

But the environment of her Jewish youth group was "a different dynamic," she said. She asked through her mentors, who had been supportive of her religious identity and helped her grow spiritually, how she could address her "queerness and its relationship with Judaism and how it can be expressed," she said.

"My mentors, who I looked up to a lot, said they are mutually exclusive. 'You can't be a religiously observant Jew and be in the LGBT community. They are simply opposite.' It was, honestly, a real struggle," Hodak said. "It felt isolating and disappointing to hear from people I looked up to that two parts of myself were opposites. It was disappointing, that's what they believed about me."

During the COVID pandemic, Hodak went online in search of the answers she'd been seeking, she said.

"I was able to dig more into research, and I don't remember how I found out about it, but I happened upon a website about Orthodox Jewish gay people," she said. "I thought 'Wow. That's incredible. That's cool.'"

But as she continued talking with her religious mentors, Hodak said things came to a head during "a heated discussion that made me incredibly frustrated."

"I decided I was going to show them, out of spite, that I can live this way," Hodak said. "My identities are part of me — how can God create two parts of me that are opposite? I decided I had the choice of what in my faith was important to me, and what I wanted to pursue. I couldn't choose who I love, my sexual orientation, but I could choose what path I wanted to take."

Hodak found out about Beloved Arise from the website of Jewish Queer Youth, and she became a youth ambassador in addition to being co-leader of the Youth Alliance.

Since the B.A.R.'s online report last year, Hodak said she's had the chance to "come more to terms with my sexuality and Judaism."

"I realized every time I was asking rabbis, 'How does this work in Judaism?' ... I realized I kept asking those questions because I wanted them to give me a response that made me happy," she said, "and all the responses they gave weren't what I wanted. So I decided, ultimately, it's my choice to make, whether I want to perform certain mitzvahs [a mitzvah is a deed to fulfill a commandment of the law] and, honestly, certain mitzvahs shouldn't be put on pedestals as a way to gauge whether I'm Jewish enough or not."

That theme — that LGBTQ people are not doing enough to be good members of their religious traditions — spans denominations and religions.

"A lot of times we're told that if we don't do certain things, we are not a part of a certain religious group, we aren't religious enough, and it is really difficult, but ultimately, you have to seek validation from yourself," Hodak said. "You might as well pursue something meaningful and that brings you the ultimate happiness."

Mia Miller: 'I thought I'd dive in it, just go for it'
Mia Miller, an 18-year-old nonbinary, queer, and asexual Muslim, lives in San Antonio, Texas but is planning on attending Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts school outside Atlanta, in the fall.

"I was actually raised Christian," Miller said. "It was around 2019 when I kind of didn't feel a strong connection to my faith. COVID was happening, the world seemed to be in chaos, I was transitioning to high school. Everything was online and my mental health was not good."

Miller was already openly queer, and their friends agreed that institutional religion was not a safe place to go.

"I was confident in my queer identity, and people were talking about religious trauma, so why would I want to go back to a structured institution?" Miller asked.

But one of Miller's good friends is a Muslim.

"Just the way she carried herself, the way she was so sure about things, the way she knew Allah, God, would provide for her — she had this confidence, this way of being sure of herself, so I thought I'd dive in it, just go for it," Miller said. "I told my friends, 'I want to be a Muslim.'"

Miller came out as nonbinary during their sophomore year of high school and then as a Muslim during junior year.

"People were like, 'What is Mia doing?'" they recalled. "But these things I'd thought in my head for years upon years."

When asked how their family took it, Miller said that "at first there was shock, but they were there to support me. ... Finally, I felt kind of fulfilled in my spiritual life again, and in my queer identity, but there were all these narratives that 'you can't be queer and religious,' and, honestly, one of my queer friends had a lot of religious trauma, so they rejected religion wholeheartedly."

Miller took a shahada, a public declaration of faith, in front of witnesses.

"Once you take your shahada, you're officially Muslim," they said. "It was an amazing time. I had my best friend with me and it was like, 'OK, here we go.'"

But it was hard for Miller to find openly queer representation.

"The Muslim community in Texas is more conservative than some other Muslim communities, so it can get kind of hard sometimes when you always have a narrative weighing you down," they said. "It can get hard to tune out the voices, so that's been difficult for me."

Miller said that they then "stumbled upon Beloved Arise."

"It was so different from the other organizations I was looking for, because it included a section on Islam, and so they offered some books to reaffirm my identity, and it was mind-blowing for me," Miller said.

Through Beloved Arise's mentorship program, Miller said they "could connect to another person who was Muslim and nonbinary."

"That was also mind-blowing — being able to talk to another person who was affirming of my identity," Miller said.

The result was that they developed "a deeper sense of my faith."

"It was so incredible; I was able to have a viewpoint and get stronger in my faith despite people saying, 'You can't be Muslim and queer,' which is not true at all, and I'm just so thankful I came across Beloved Arise, and I say that as a youth ambassador," Miller said.

Mia Miller, who is Muslim, is a youth ambassador for Beloved Arise; Lanes Miller has found spiritual friendships since joining Beloved Arise; Sid High, who is Christian, is a youth ambassador for Beloved Arise. Photos courtesy of Beloved Arise  

Faith group seeking mentors
The organization has three youth ambassadors — young people who are "speaking up and showing the world why faith matters to queer youth," according to Beloved Arise's website. In addition to Hodak and Miller is Sid High, a 20-year-old trans man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The organization gives the raison d'être for its existence as the statistic that 21% of LGBTQ young people say their faith is important to them, according to a 2022 Trevor Project survey. Data for the report was gathered from 33,993 LGBTQ youth recruited via targeted ads on social media, according to The Trevor Project.

The false dichotomy that people have to choose between a religious identity and a gender identity, or sexual orientation, has significant mental health consequences.

While numerous surveys show religiosity decreases suicidality and provides hope for most people, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found in a 2018 survey that "lesbian/gay students who viewed religion as very important had greater odds for recent suicidal ideation and lifetime suicide attempt compared with heterosexual individuals." A 2015 study of LGBTQ young adults 18-24 cited by The Trevor Project "found that parents' religious beliefs about homosexuality were associated with double the risk of attempting suicide in the past year."

But successful integration of these identities could have some benefit — the 2022 Trevor Project survey found that "LGBTQ youth who reported that their religion or spirituality is important or very important to them reported significantly lower rates of symptoms of depression (55%), compared to their peers for whom religion and spirituality were not at all or only a little important (58%)."

"Overall, past research has been limited in the inclusion of transgender individuals and has focused primarily on adults," The Trevor Project stated.

In the early heady days of gay liberation, the Metropolitan Community Churches was formed by a gay man, the Reverend Troy Perry, back in 1968 specifically to provide safe worship space for LGBTQ congregants.

In the years since, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have allowed same-sex marriages and openly LGBTQ clergy. Reform Judaism synagogues also ordain LGBTQ rabbis.

Beloved Arise's mentorship program is a new addition, according to Drew Young, a membership program manager who is queer and has been involved since the nonprofit was started in 2020 by his husband, Jun Love Young, who is a member of the organization's board. (Drew Young started working there himself in 2023.) The program "is to connect queer youth of faith to queer mentors of faith to provide guidance and support throughout the year."

The organization's annual budget is "between $100,000 - $150,000," according to a spokesperson. According to its 2022 IRS Form 990, Beloved Arise took in $185,203 and spent $154,540 between January 1 and December 31 of that year. Jun Young, listed as executive director, worked 20 hours a week but did not receive reportable compensation, it states.

The mentors and the youth meet twice a month virtually through MentorHub, which allows the organization "to monitor their interactions for the safety of everyone," Young said. The two-month inaugural, or pilot, mentorship program included five mentors and five mentees and wrapped up at the end of April.

"Right now, we're recruiting for the next cohort," Young said. Anyone 25 years old or older who is a queer person of faith can be a mentor, and anyone 16-24 can be a mentee.

"We have a background check" on the mentors, Young said. There is also a six-year age gap between mentors and mentees, and the organization tries to match people who have the same religion and sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Beloved's mission is to celebrate and empower queer youth of faith," Young said.

"We've done a good job of celebrating them — our social media has blown up, and a big part of what we do is sharing the stories of queer youth, letting them know they are out there, so the mentorship is part of the other arm of empowering them. We want them to build a sense of community, develop skills and coping mechanisms, and feel more empowered in their identities."

As part of Queer Youth of Faith Day, Beloved Arise will be "hosting a live event online where our youth ambassadors are going to be leading it," Young said, as well as making friendship bracelets and announcing the winners of an essay contest.

"Right now what we're hoping for is for more people to apply for the mentorship program," Young said. "Our hope is to begin rolling enrollments and bring new people in every month. We want to serve every youth out there who wants to be connected with a mentor who knows what they're going through."

Sid High: 'God calls us to love one another'
High, alongside Hodak, was also named a co-leader of the alliance. High told the B.A.R. last year he started a book club and worked with a local library to start the first-ever Pride event in Marion, Iowa.

A nondenominational Christian, High said that "my family has always been the type where it wasn't pushed on me."

"I ended up getting more curious [about Christianity] around 13-15 [years old], at the same time I was realizing I was queer and I was trans," High said. "Basically, my mom was super supportive, and that was helpful, but, unfortunately, I went to a church that was not supportive."

At the time, though High is a non-denominational Christian, he went to a Bible study at a United Methodist church. As the B.A.R. recently reported, the United Methodist Church has debated homosexuality for many years and this year ended the bans on ordaining "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" and allowing its ordained ministers to officiate same-sex weddings. Since 2019, 7,600 congregations have left the United Methodist Church largely over LGBTQ inclusion.

"I was in a Bible study where they were talking about gay marriage, and the Methodist Church was splitting on whether to accept it or not, and they were asking what we thought about it," High said. "I was the only one who was out, and I said, 'God accepts everyone,' and this guy gave me a list of verses."

The so-called clobber passages refer to the verses of the Bible used by conservatives to condemn homosexuality.

"It really got me into research, and I got into the context of those, and it helped me read the Bible more," High said. "I never felt any judgment from him [God]. The judgment people are casting toward my community is not from him."

High said studying the history of scripture led him to understand the verses as coming with historical context. As the B.A.R. previously reported, "the things going on in the New Testament and the Old Testament had to do with power and position. If you had powerful status you could penetrate any other person — women, children, enslaved people — as long as they have lesser value," according to filmmaker Sharon "Rocky" Roggio, a lesbian who made a film purporting that in the first Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, chapter six was mistranslated to condemn "homosexuals," as a class of people, to damnation.

As the B.A.R. also reported, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, a gay man who's an assistant professor of New Testament at the Boston University School of Theology, argued that St. Paul did have a "rather contemptuous stance on pleasure," and that the New Testament's views of sexuality, some of which buttress identity and some of which deconstruct identity, should be read on their own terms.

High said, "I think it's important as a Christian to have that knowledge and to have questions. That's what makes faith really meaningful and special as we learn about it more. ... It really hit me because I was a kid, I was a teenager, and it made me realize it's OK to question things in the Bible and look for context and dive into it to better understand it."

High came out as trans publicly at age 18, and found out about Beloved Arise from TikTok. He writes letters to people who request them and who want to seek affirmation in their religious and LGBTQ identities. People interested in receiving one can fill out a Google Form.

High said he's written over 100 letters.

"People don't recognize the harm they're doing," High said. "The last thing Christ would want would be to push someone away from God."

When asked if he had anything he wanted to add, High said that he wanted to include a verse from the First Epistle of St. John 4:7: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God."

"No matter who you love, God calls us to love one another," High added. "And they are welcome into God's kingdom."

Lanes Miller: 'If he made me in his image, I'm perfectly me'
Lanes Miller, a 21-year-old nonbinary, queer, pansexual person is originally from Orange County but now lives in Manhattan, where they are wrapping up their last year of school at Marymount Manhattan College.

Miller, no relation to Mia, told the B.A.R. that they found out about Beloved Arise from one of the youth pastors at their family's California megachurch. Miller was also in the pilot mentorship program earlier this year.

"I love it," Miller said. "I spoke with them [their mentor] a lot. We had regular check-ins about how it was going. I thought it was really grounding to have someone to meet with once a week. I really benefited from it because my mentor and I had very similar faith stories and faith journeys. I had the best time."

Miller grew up in "a very conventional Christian megachurch in Southern California," where they were working "for a number of years" and where they were "very heavily involved."

"I distinctly remember thinking 'I like girls,' and everything we were taught, obviously, was 'that's not the way it works,'" Miller recalled. "So I was like 'OK. I like girls, I like boys. If I just never think about it or do anything, I'll be OK.' Which of course is never how it works."

When signing papers to be employed at the church, Miller had to sign a paper that stated, "You cannot support or be part of the LGBTQ community in any way."

"I had a friend at the time who had quit because she came out as a lesbian," Miller recalled. "I was like 'Shoot. I'm this far along. I've grown up with all these people I respect and admire and I signed the forms and thought 'I guess nobody will find out that I'm gay.'"

But somehow, the church did find out.

"I got a call," they said. "I was so scared and then I thought 'I can't do this anymore.'"

Miller quit the job and, after a couple of years, officially came out via social media.

"I posted it and didn't look at my phone for five days," they said. "Later, I started combing through things, and there were a lot of hurtful moments — people I'd been mentored by who no longer wanted anything to do with me. But there was a whole secondary wave of encouragement and affirmation. I thought 'Wait, no — I can do this.'"

Miller said the whole experience helped them to become closer to their faith and, they put it, "firmer in my beliefs."

"I'm Christian and, biblically, 'God knit you together in your mother's womb,'" they said, quoting the 139th Psalm. "If he made me in his image, I'm perfectly me, and I think that helps me feel a lot better."

Miller returns to the church when they are visiting home; they haven't found a faith home in Manhattan though they "checked out a couple places."

"I love Beloved Arise," Miller said. "I cannot say enough kind things about them. I think they have really given me a place to call home, and I love that they get to do that for so many people."

For more information about Beloved Arise, go to belovedarise.org.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!