The Spiritual Path Was Never Straight

—Storying the Queer-Spiritual Sensibility

For many queer people, an evolving relationship with their queerness and contemporary queer communities can have a tremendous influence on their burgeoning spiritual path. Traditionally, this path and practice is seen as separate-than-queer—and in many cases diametrically opposed to the notion that one’s queerness exists at all. In reality, queer and spiritual histories, and modern queer sub-cultures reveal a more integrated spiritual formation; one that is often non-linear, sometimes non-dogmatic, and comfortably houses a variety of queer experiences. 

My own spiritual inquiry emerged in tandem with my developing sexual identity. I was 15 years old when I was being confirmed Catholic, printing Encarta articles on Buddhism, squirreling away books on paganism, and developing an at-home yoga practice. Behind, around, or maybe inside all of this, I was also allowing myself to be gay. At the time, I did not understand these two parts of myself to be related. But retrospectively it is clear that to self-explore wasn’t just opening the closet door—it was opening every door in the hallway.

Seeding my own truth as a gay man was also, though unrealized at the time, a wandering into a realm of being queer. Objectively meaning “weird,” or “strange,” the modern use of queer itself resists definition just as it resists the conditions under which it is born. Queerness is both broader and in many ways entirely distinct from identifying as LGBTQIA+. I think of it as the unnamable energy of radical emergence. It is a practice of critique that evaluates the various hegemonic powers, and an invitation to restructure inherited power dynamics within our own personal relationships. Queerness is universal and also culturally-specific. Rather than accept a conditional boundary, it holds space for a plurality of identities and reclaims ways of being inside fixed, theological, and colonial systems of gender and sexuality. To be queer, or weird, within such systems, is to seek and make space for liberation.

But how, exactly, is practicing or honoring a queer experience honing the spiritual one? What is the shape and texture of this strange helix? And why does it matter that the two have any relationship at all? Given the brutal track record within the history of religion of marginalizing queer and trans people, why would we be drawn to anything remotely close to traditional dogma? 

There is no singular way to experience queerness or spiritual wholeness, and storying a queer-spiritual sensibility may be more of a hypothesis, or personal reflection, rather than an objective review. Still, for many, these two aspects can and do feed one another. By studying a broad, archetypal journey of the two paths—as a story, or something of a lifelong rite of passage—it is possible to reveal where the evolution of queerness and spiritual wholeness coalesce. In the beginning, it can be queerness that opens the door towards spiritual knowing. Along the way, queerness and spirituality find shared ground. And finally, it is what is cultivated from the spiritual heart that may nourish the self and queer communities. This blended, informal journey forges a reciprocal relationship within our personal and collective selves that affirms a more spiritual queer awakening, and a queerer spiritual liberation.

Opening The Door—Separation From The Old Self

I have been studying and practicing the way of Zen Buddhism casually by myself for years. But recently, I decided to initiate as a formal student within a particular lineage. To do so, I am required to participate in a series of retreats including a week-long sesshin in order to untether my attention from external distractions. Like many spiritual initiations, or rites of passage, the formal “path” begins with a period of separation; a ritual death where one is removed from society in a meaningful way in preparation for a transition. 

By way of sesshin and entering into daily, silent meditation, my mind—hopefully—ebbs away from its usual chatter. By committing to the practice, I renounce—eventually—that which binds me to suffering. This severing, or ritual death, from the old self is also a form of awakening. It was only through his early renunciation of lay life that Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) seeded his enlightenment, and in the traditional hero’s journey, the awakening is what draws the protagonist onto the path of truth. It is Achilles (and Patroclus) leaving Phthia for Mount Pelion, and in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, it is Callie running away from home to initiate their new identity as Cal. For many queer people this separation from the old self is often represented by coming out. Regardless of how public or private it may be, coming out is an awakening to one’s own truth. It’s giving permission and authority to the internal experience. It’s willing to be vulnerable time and time again, and a commitment to living honestly, if only at least with oneself. In relationship to the dominant culture, coming out is also internalizing oneself as “other” or outsider. And depending on how one is received in the culture, our “ritual separation” of self-realizing may also mark a more serious exiling. Queer, trans, and nonbinary people have been historically targeted as unnatural and threatening to the values of a cisheteropatriarchy. A period of coming out is not uncommonly marked by an intense physical, and emotional emigration.

This matters because to exist at the edge of one reality is to occupy the center of another. By distancing ourselves from the social mainstream, queers are well positioned to explore our own truths over inherited beliefs. In my own coming out, which was relatively well-received, a turning away was still a turning inward. This applied as much as to gender, sexual expression, and culture as it did to spiritual existence. Peter Sweasey, author of From Queer to Eternity, asserts that, “To be queer is an existential condition.” It is a living question and an invitation for deep, ongoing inquiry into what it means to be human, and how to achieve lasting liberation. Queerness is the opposite of political absolutism, and like the dharma, it asks: if I’m not who I thought I was, then who am I?Why am I this? What is the this? And inside of this, where is my refuge? Such a queerness becomes a type of spiritual doorway. Queer, Zen priest Rev. angel Kyodo williams reflects that, “Queerness paved the way for my entering the dharma. Rather than trying to colonize, commodify, or compartmentalize it, I could let it enter me.” 

Clearly, the dharma nor any other spiritual discipline becomes important for every queer person. And since I believe queerness to be ever-expansive and essentially undefineable, I don’t believe people who identify as queer have any essential advantage towards a spiritual fulfillment. But queerness can initiate an unlearning and spiritual inquiry in a unique and sometimes urgent way. Both queerness and many spiritual paths ask: How can I fully embody my truth? What follows is a jagged process where lived, autonomous experience and the structure of wisdom traditions blend together.

Approaching the Unknown—Finding Truth Together

In a rite of passage or the hero’s journey, once the initiate or protagonist is awake, they must journey into the unknown. Unlike a singular “hero” image however, queer and spiritual embodiment can often flourish in community, especially within their respective affinity spaces. I’m reminded of one of the last scenes in the film Paris Is Burning (1990), a fundamental documentary in the queer canon. In it, two memorably young boys hang on each other outside late at night and describe the New York City ballroom community: “In a religious community, they want to pray together a lot, right? Well, this gay community might want to…like, want to be together.” It’s an endearing, and telling honesty–that even if it is not named such, the energy of the balls acted as a sort of emotional and spiritual sustenance, especially within the context of the pervasive sexual, gender, and racial oppression. While not every queer community is a “spiritually” rich one, many do experience the power of collective sharing. This is a power the Buddha knew well, too. It is said in the Pali Canon’s Upaddha Sutta that Ananda, a disciple of Lord Buddha, asks whether or not being with other seekers is half of the spiritual path. To this the Buddha replies, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” I might suggest that any spiritual nature of a queer community is the result of feeling more fully seen and therefore more fully unchained from false-self. Queers are not the only people capable of such an intimacy, but perhaps because of shared experiences rooted in a particular time, place, and cultural context, they are uniquely capable of seeing one another in particular. The Buddha called such close companions kalyana mitta, or spiritual friends. 

In 1979, about a decade before Paris is Burning was filmed, a group of 200 west coast gay men converged in the Sonoran Desert after following an ad titled “A Call to Gay Brothers: A Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries.” This rural gathering, under the organization of Harry Hay, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker, was the official founding of said Faeries. Over the course of three days they would engage in conversation and practice around health, healing, politics, and sexuality. They broke bread, read Whitman, danced, and made love. For many of these gay men, it would be the first time that their marginalized bodies and spiritual aspirations would openly co-exist.

When I think about the winding, helix shape of a queer-spiritual consciousness, I can’t help but think of the Radical Faeries and their heart circles, ritual theater, and other often reappropriated ceremonies. Here, access to the sacred is expressly through the body, and the communing with other bodies. Specifically, I see them deep in the rural wood, braiding in and out of one another around a maypole. I hear wild laughter and visualize the pole wrapped in colored ribbons, each infused with queer prayer and desire, winding upwards. I see this particular ritual as a subversive, ecstatic, and ultimately liberatory experience of queer, spiritual selfhood. It’s in this time-space suspension, removed from social conditions, that according to anthropologist Victor Turner, “the person (liminal being) crossing the threshold comes in contact with divine elements and gains sacred knowledge  that is both informative and potentially transformative.”

Early Faerie thought, led by co-founder Harry Hay, also integrated relational sexual and spiritual liberation more explicitly and philosophically. Hay developed what he called the subject-SUBJECT consciousness. Subject-SUBJECT espoused an attraction where queer men experience the Other with the same subjectivity as themselves. Queers, according to Hay, can work to relate to each other and experience one another as equals. This was in direct contrast, Hay said, to what was historically normalized in male-dominated heterosexual dynamics rooted in an objectified Other. Effectively queering the relational dynamics, Hay and the Radical Faeries upturn a conditioned understanding of interpersonal reality.

The Subject-SUBJECT consciousness is a discourse that, without much direct acknowledgement, shares aspects with Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and other dharmic philosophies. The queer consciousness challenges dualistic thinking, and replaces it with a non-dual consciousness ideal. And much like Buddhist teachings, it subverts a subject-object reality of what it means “to be” in a body. Zen seeks to understand the idea of “to be” as a shared dimension. Everything exists in a space of “to be” – a space in which, through practice, we are to achieve the effect of no longer seeing reality as separate or distinct (kensho). Though distinct in its relationship with desire, the dharma, like what the Faeries sought, is deeply relational. Both work as a practice in a non-possessive love that requires an openness, vulnerability, and deep presence. Sōtō Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi and author of the classic Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind quotes: 

“But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha. You just become one with Buddha. You are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher and everything can be the object of worship.”

It is important to clarify that this is not an argument to retrofit a dharma with new age ideals or contemporary queer theory, nor one to posit that queer people should run towards a particularly Zen (or any other) spiritual tradition. Rather, I suggest the example of the Radical Faeries as one where queerness and spiritual embodiment are of a similar dimension—the same “to be”—and offer a shared language.

Coming Down The Mountain—Integrating Wisdom

In the hero’s journey, the protagonist eventually comes back from the unknown to incorporate lessons that were learned. It’s inside of that liminal period that, as Victor Turner had said, sacred and transformative knowledge is acquired. Many queers, like the Radical Faeries, have found meaningful healing in their spiritual practice, especially when their identities are affirmed in their respective spaces. In this way, traditions rooted in compassion and relationality can be a salve for folks who have struggled in a world that has invisibilized them.

But in queer and many dharmic philosophies, that liminal space can also complicate ideas of identity, and exactly who we “return” to the world as. While both queer and spiritual inquiry have probed questions around our true nature, in non-dual traditions especially, we start to find that all identity is a myth. In fact, clinging to any hard-wired idea of the relative self is what gets in the way of true liberation. According to the Buddha, it is only by going beyond fixtures of identity can true freedom be found—in unfixed states of deep meditation, or samadhi, who we are really, is no one at all. “Our true nature is beyond conscious experience,” Suzuki Roshi says.    

So within the context of a spiritual journey, as our dual nature is stripped away, would our queerness not dissolve with it? Eventually, queerness along with any identityis going to be defined in contrast to what it is not. As expansive as a queer consciousness might be, isn’t infinite, universal truth more so? In the deepest states of meditation, what is the nature and utility of identity anyway? 

While coming out might give momentum to a spiritual journey, and that journey itself might intertwine with queer selfhood, the ironic question is that, in the vastness of a spiritual dimension, what if our queerness means very little? In Zen, we chant Para sam gate, bodhi svaha at the end of the Heart Sutra. “Gone beyond Gone, utterly beyond.” Proud queer Buddhist minister Lama Rod Owens reflects on his experience to this type of dissolution inside the Tibetan lineage :

“I felt a lot of freedom to enter and reimagine a self that was very liberatory. There was this space where queerness wasn’t so important, but rather it was the intention of my life and how I used these identities to help people and to help myself. I was being really taught that attachment to identity is another way in which we are fixated on this sense of self.”

A particularly special or essential queer-spirituality (as Hay would have argued for) is questionable from the perspective of nirvana. In fact, while this investigation has largely been a focus on the politically and spiritually inclined, queers are just as susceptible to the trappings of social norms as our cis-hetero counterparts–just step into any gay bar, Peter Sweasey suggests, where fixed identity stereotypes (top, bottom, trade, etc) are often adopted and strictly reinforced. 

But is this how the hero’s journey ends? That this queer-spiritual helix just fruitfully dissolves into the non-dualistic ether? That we are all basically the same? That would again render invisible identities which have fought so hard to be seen. Where then, if not in the dimension of our highest self, are we able to find our earth-bound ourselves? Lama Rod’s experience shows us that one can seek true liberation in an absolute space where a sexual or gender identity wasn’t important and also understand those identities to be of real service in a relative sense.    

To further soften the edges of this absolute-relative dichotomy, I propose a return to  the understanding of queerness as a practice, and an energy of radical emergence rather than a coatrack of identities. Just as a spiritual practice can be a living question, queer theorists speak to a queerness that is constantly reexamining itself and challenging injustice. There are many ways to be queer or to “practice” queerness. Even a long list here would defeat the point. Like giving names to God, it would never be enough. That type of queerness, in my opinion, is open to all. It’s an invitation. The term ‘queer’ itself is a reclaiming, structured for new invention. A study and understanding of the universal ultimately doesn’t negate queerness, but may compliment, even mirror the infinite nature of queer particularities.

For me, what the spiritual path offers is an experience of unity that is rooted in diversity and pluralism. What ecstatic, meditative, or other spiritual practices teach is the ability to sit with what is, as grand or particular it may be, and just be. What results is a more secure bond with a relational, mysterious, and fluid world—which is perhaps the queerest thing of all.