On the first Wednesday of the month, we invite a member of our community to write a guest post for our blog. This post is by Joshua Kawase, who joined our online community from Kansas City, MO, after attending our GS Virtual Retreat this past May. Here, he describes how he's finding new language to tell his queer story.
It is no overstatement to say that my life is in relative chaos right now. Since I came out to myself last year, I left my family’s church (which remains one of the megachurch bastions of conversion therapy in the United States), moved out from my parent’s house, moved from my apartment space to my sister’s house due to COVID, came out to my family, reported my supervisor to his profession’s state board for inappropriate behavior, moved out of my sister’s house because our relationship was deteriorating into severely toxic territory, almost became homeless, and landed in a potentially unaffirming Christian denomination/home, in which I currently help lead worship. Yay. Not to mention having significant mental health concerns while being a graduate student in a professional counseling program—which led me to take a hiatus during this semester. But good things are coming from this time too. I’m resting and healing after my wounding closeted years, I’m re-learning how to build and maintain healthy relationships, and hey, I’m in therapy! Thank God for my (I think lesbian) therapist. She’s amazing.
I have a lot to heal from. I imagine that a lot of us do. I was talking to a friend, a married gay episcopal priest in his 40s, and we talked about the unique, invasive trauma of living in evangelical churches as a queer individual. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to take on criticizing the entire evangelical church. But I do want to turn our eyes to our stories, as queer people who have submitted to authority that required us to sacrifice our humanity to their cause. In her book Queer Virtue, Episcopal priest Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman notes that our queer journeys set us on a “trajectory that places extraordinary spiritual demands on the individuals in its path” — “Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us.” And for those of us who have grown up in environments that ignored and maligned our stories, we likely had no friends, leaders—or even language—to assist us in that journey. We have been isolated. No one should have to endure the complexity and pain that we have endured. We are also an incredibly courageous people to have understood, viscerally, the intensity and pain of the journey ahead of us. And we continue to step forward.
As a 23-year old multiracial cisgender gay man, I do not have the benefit of many years of life experience that many of my queer family members have. But I still do have somewhat unique experiences, even as they are also shared by much of our family. My queer journey began at age 6, when I began to realize that my relationship with my father seemed to be colder than the relationship he had with the rest of my four siblings. My queer journey began at age 12, when I engaged in compulsive months of confession where I admitted every one of my sins that I could remember, to purge my soul of the certain darkness I was sure I had. My queer journey began at age 13, when the only words I could use to describe my burgeoning attraction to other men was that I had “severe body image issues.” It began more clearly at age 16, when one night, Pandora’s box finally opened, and, with stark terror, I realized I was gay. Or at age 19, when I told my family that I was same-sex attracted and wanted help. Or the four years that followed, where we never spoke of my sexuality once, beyond the infrequent “purity check-ins.” Perhaps the greatest damage was caused by my lack of words to describe my normal developmental processes—and the fact that in the few moments that I did try to articulate my experiences, people who loved me were too overwhelmed to engage my stories with courage.
As bleak, and real, as those experiences are, dark as well is the life that denies reality. Bleak is the world where we ignore our suffering and enact it upon others. Bleak is the world that is too afraid to admit uncertainty. Bleak is the world that, for the sake of stability, promotes false hopes against increasingly clear evidence to the contrary. Bleak is the world that requires people to lie and deny to hope. I think my point is that I have come to honor the queer community—particularly the queer community with some sort of history in Christendom and other religious contexts—because our honesty truly is sacrifice. We move from sacrificing our humanity to attain false hopes to sacrificing any sense we have had that the world makes sense, could be kind, or that we will be loved in the ways we have always wanted—simply for the hope that we will no longer have to lie.
Part of that journey is that we have all have to come up with new language to describe ourselves and our journeys. Like I said, I am a 23-year old kid who would probably consider himself ex-gay up to about two years ago (not that I had even touched or considered thinking about touching a guy up to that point, but I understood comparably far less about sexuality back then). I know very little about what to expect from life, even less so since I have come out and opened myself up to the idea of being in a relationship with another man. But in that process, I have learned to write, to sing, to create, and that in itself has been a healing journey for me.
The first song I wrote came to me a year ago. I couldn’t tell you why I was depressed then—my poor counselor struggled to get a full sentence out of me without me stuttering out some nonsense—but I knew that something was wrong. So I wrote about walking out in nature, watching as this beautiful world I once knew burned to the ground, while I was left alone to live in the ashes. Or the song I wrote when I discovered Mary Oliver’s “Love Sorrow,” which calls us to love our pain like a “strange, mute, difficult, sometimes unmanageable...child...and amazing things can happen.” And then the songs started flowing, and I still haven’t stopped writing, over 30-50 songs/poems later. There are many words and phrases that I have learned through writing music to describe my experiences as a queer person. That I’m a survivor, or collateral damage, of the church’s holy wars. The “waltz of paranoia” that my family seems to dance around me, “pretending they are blind, while as heads of warring nations, they’re planning mutual devastation.” And the hardest choices I have had to make have been because I choose to leave “abusive power to its own decay,” and give up on my dreams of being part of my family’s healing from their own wounds.
It’s really easy to be hopeless, to be nihilistic. I’ve already lived enough of that, though, so despite being largely biblically averse, part of my reimagining of my faith has involved turning to less-known scripture passages for inspiration. Joel 2 speaks of God “restoring the years that the locusts have eaten”—and that exodus-like imagery invites imagery ingrained in my head since childhood, of not returning to the land of Egypt, of walking in wilderness, and of deliverance. It also invites my queer playfulness, because thinking of Exodus makes me think of Exodus International, and wouldn’t we all love to rub Exodus’s name into the dirt by using their borrowed imagery to inspire our queerness. Hope is difficult as we unearth trauma, rebuild our language, deconstruct faith, lose friends and family, and grieve. But—and if I may demonstrate my developing capacity to learn new four letter words—queer people are damn beautiful, and as my friend Nate says, are “f***ing strong” (my rebellion, as I say, is quite mild). We have courage to navigate uncharted waters, forgotten territory, ultimately, to enter the hell itself that we have been often been condemned to, because we say “hell no” to the harm of any others that follow us. Because we refuse to let cruelty, abandonment, narcissism, and dishonesty win. We are courageous mysteries that no language can describe unless we create it ourselves.
To be honest, I don’t know where I’m going with this anymore, beyond just to say, you inspire me, and it is an honor to be in a community that is often in the process of rediscovering our stories. Use language as you see fit, because you are its pioneers. Take care of yourselves.
Peace and love,
Joshua Kawase is a gay, male, cisgender counseling student and singer/songwriter/producer based in Kansas City, MO, USA. His unique cultural experiences as a half-Japanese, half-German Mennonite man, his complex mental health issues, as well as his spiritual development in the nondenominational evangelical charismatic church all inform his therapeutic lens as well as inspire his writing. He is currently developing his first album, "The Holy War," regarding queer trauma in the Christian church, as well as recording podcasts for his mental health talk show, "The Trauma Sandwich," hopefully to be released within this next year.