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The Right to be Spiritual   
by Patricia Nell Warren 

Patricia Nell Warren is the author of the newly released novel about youth, Billy's Boy, sequel to The Front Runner.   Her publisher is Wildcat Press. 


The other day, a young lesbian sent me an email about her struggle to reconcile her love of God with her love of women. She feels lost, totally confused. The only "spiritual people" that she knows are church folks who hate homosexuals. 

After I answered, I got to thinking about all the "rights" being argued today. The right to marry. The right to attend school in safety. The right to express yourself. The right to have rights. But how about the right to be spiritual? 

In college in the 1950s, as an intensely spiritual kid, I had my own struggle with her question. It started with Catholicism: how would I reconcile my own dawning truths with the Pope's self- appointed right to be "right"? Why do some religions have Goddesses, and others only Gods? 

After I came out in 1974 and published my first novels about gay life, the questions rankled deeper yet. Why do same-sex attractions persist, in spite of the efforts by some religions do to stamp out homosexuals? I became convinced that religion as jury-rigged by homophobic Western males would never meet my spiritual needs. Religion didn't matter anyway. I was out, wasn't I? My new self-honesty was enough, wasn't it? So I buried that young spiritual part of myself...only to discover, as the 80s neared, that it was still there, and had gotten strangely sad and sick. Writing got hard, and I didn't have much to say. 

The discovery shocked me into re-confronting the old questions. 

Alone on a mountaintop one night in the 80s, I built a little fire. My native aunties call the fire Cheemah. I sat watching the many fantastic shapes that Cheemah shaped with Her flames. Were these not the myriad possibilities that lay before the human spirit? As I prayed with my fire, I found that I had to give myself the RIGHT to be there -- to be spiritual in my own way, to be who my vision tells me that I am. So many people had tried to dictate to me about what "spiritual" is, that I wasn't even sure I had this right. 

Unfortunately, our notions of what is "spiritual" are shaped by culture, politics, and what we see in the media. In the 50s, "spiritual" was radio broadcasts by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and bestselling books of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. By the late '60s, "spirit" wore beads and peace buttons, in pop music and film. By the '70s and 80s, news shows and cable made their big break into power -- "spirit" was either on the news as a Jesus freak being dragged out of a cult, or as New Agers reading Seven Arrows. 

Today, as TV virtually rules our lives, the most muscular TV spiritual presence is the born-again variety. You have to have money and good publicists to command TV, and evangelical Protestantism has both -- it dominates the news, and controls several major channels. On Sunday afternoons, you can have your choice of Dr. Gene Scott, Benny Hinn, or the Crouches telling you what the proper parameters of spirituality are. Even Catholicism takes a back seat to EP these days. An Italian friend reminds me, "The United States has always been a Protestant country. Look what happened to our only Catholic president." 

"Spiritual" is even sharply and crassly defined by our penal system. Outside of prison, citizens may technically enjoy the right to pray as they wish. But one million Americans behind bars do not have the same right. The "get tough on criminals" movement wants to end the diversity of religious expression allowed in our jails and prisons. Yet evangelical missionizing is ever more present in our prisons. Indeed, some kinds of protection from jailhouse violence, even parole, are sometimes not available to inmates unless they jump through hoops for the chaplain. Some prisoners feel forced to pretend "penitence." Others, unwilling to lie, may have a genuine desire to change their lives, but their search for spirituality may take them into the proscribed areas. 

These days, for many Americans, the bottom line is: "spiritual" is more and more identified with a strident, controlling brand of media Protestantism. Many, like my young correspondent, feel forced to deny their need for spiritual healing, because of this scary association. 

Yet ultra-right-wing Protestants are not the only ones who would say that we must pray their way, if it at all. The sermonizing spirit of our times has infected other belief systems as well. In recent years, some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have felt unwelcome in so many different churches, that they investigated the spiritual ways of native peoples. Some native cultures are more open-minded about homosexuality. Yet even here we sometimes encounter an ouchiness about "who decides who has the right to what". As a mixed-blood, seeking in the native American world, I encountered some people who teach that they alone can give permission to a person to carry a Sacred Pipe. I sat alone by a few more prayer fires, and pondered the story of White Buffalo Woman carefully. To me, the story says that She gave the Pipe to all humans, not just one tribe, as a way to pray. Why should anyone's immortal destiny depend on permission from some mortal, whether it's the Pope or a Medicine man? 

Historically, in the West, many gay people have ravenous spirits, because so many religions rejected them. They responded to these rejections by creating their own churches and spiritual practices. In the early 70s, I remember feeling very moved when I visited the Church of the Beloved Disciple, a tiny Gothic marvel with stained-glass windows in downtown New York City. I could feel the hunger that created this place of prayer, and the rage that gay people could not pray openly in "real" cathedrals. Gay-created spiritual movements are many -- global growth of the Metropolitan Community Church has been parallelled by growing gay New Ageism, complete with gay men pounding on drums and lesbians working with crystals. 

In a Northwestern U.S. city, I felt equally moved when visiting the home of a Buddhist gay man who was translating ancient Chinese texts. The vibrant quiet of contemplation around him, the spartan simplicity of his life, brightened by his puckish sense of humor, were outward signs of the spiritual home that he'd had the courage to to build, after long years of heartbroken drifting. For him, the challenge was going beyond coming out -- daring to give up the sexual freedom prized by so many gay men, in order to follow Prince Gotama towards personal enlightenment. 

Yet another emotional moment came to me while hearing a pagan lesbian tell of the powerful healing that she experienced, when she finally made her first spiritual journey to the ancient sacred places of Britain, and prayed for the first time at a thousand-year-old holy well in Cornwall. She left a blossom floating that would spread ripples of her prayer after she was gone, and for as long as it stayed afloat. The questions about "fairy people" of old, and their link to us despised "fairies" of today, are questions that veer beyond academic research, into the realm of personal vision. 

In gay literature, few scenes of spiritual awakening are as intense as the one in T.E. Lawrence's memoir "Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as he tells of that moment in the Middle Eastern desert, when he met an old Bedouin praying at a tiny mountain spring. Exhausted by the carnage and hardships of desert war, by the spiritual denial and devastation that he had experienced as a well-born closet case in British society, he heard the old man's words with searing clarity, "The love is of God, and from God, and towards God." 

Yet, however deeply we gay people may feel our spiritual challenges, we have a severe image problem. TV never shows us at prayer! If it did, the public would have a radically different perception of us! Indeed, we are the only minority in America who are perceived by the media as having no spiritual life whatever. Other than the rare news scene of parents, lovers and friends grieving at the Quilt, most TV and movie images of gay people still tweak the negative and the sexual. I wish news cameras would catch the glow on the lesbian ex-nun's face as she speaks of Mary, whom she still loves and holds high as a luminous ideal of powerful woman. 

On TV talk shows, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth are squeezed for the purely sensational, as hosts insist on discussing their sex life. If only a nationwide TV audience had a closeup on a 16-year-old Latina lesbian's earnest eyes as she told me, "It was my faith in God that helped me get out of gang life, and stop drinking and doing drugs." I wish they could see a 17-year-old prostitute, a Thai immigrant, express his yearning for self-respect and healing by painting golden Buddhas. I wish they could see the 15-year-old drag queen, dressed in her best, drawing herself up to her full height (which included 6-inch platform shoes) and telling me with great dignity, "I've realized that I am a very sacred thing." 

Despite right-wing allegations of the gay community's affluence, gay people don't command the money to buy our way into the same kind of prime-time acceptance and visibility that Pat Robertson, for example, has bought. With a single telethon, the 700 Club can raise a pile of money that GLAAD or HRC would need a year of hard work to scratch together. 

Indeed, Robertson and other TV church cultists have succeeded in upstaging the whole gamut of U.S. spiritualities -- whether American-born Muslims praying towards Mecca from Chicago, or Mexican immigrants praying with their departed loved ones on Day of the Dead. Even the Interfaith Alliance, that new coalition of churches who oppose the radical right, still has a low profile in the media. 

In the November election, religious-right Republicans tried to allege "illegal campaign contributions" made by a Buddhist Temple in California that Vice President Gore visited. The uproar around other such donations, like the one made by Gandhi's grandson, showed clearly that bias against non-Christians was the real motive here. Yet the Christian Coalition saw nothing improper or illegal in their own political fund- raising, or in the 25 million voters' guides that they handed out. 

No wonder my young correspondent feels "lost." 

A dangerous journey faces her, as she struggles to separate what is "spiritual" from what is "political". But she has a right to make that journey. 

A spirit is standard equipment for every human, along with a body, emotions and a mind. That spirit hungers to be nourished as much as body, mind and emotion do. Vision isn't a special gift given to an elite few. Nor is it something that you automatically get by joining a church or going through a sweat lodge. Young people hunger for spiritual growth as much as they do for sexual growth. This is how the cultists of every variety get their hooks into kids -- by pandering to kids' need to belong, to feel the first rushes of vision. 

Having rights may be a collective concept, but each of us gets -- or doesn't get -- our rights as an individual. Like snowflakes, no two human spirits are alike; and, like a snowflake, each spirit follows its own unique course as it rides the winds of storm. Spiritual challenge is terrifying precisely because it is personal and lonely. Yet we homosexuals have a right even to this stark and extreme testing, because it can tell us -- more than any night in bed -- who we really are. 

Today every human spirit faces the challenge of breaking through that wall of media images that money and politics have built around each of us. Beyond that wall is a vast vista of possibility. Prayer can heal anyone, regardless of gender, race, ethnic background or sexual orientation. Even atheists could be said to pray when they talk to themselves about their lives; their very denial that a Deity exists must be ringed round by a sacred fire of protection for their right to deny. No one achieves anything positive in life without some kind of conviction about one's own destiny. 

I hope the young woman who wrote me can give herself that right to celebrate and heal her own spirit. Isn't that what "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" really means?

Patricia Nell Warren' s Intro to Bridges Across 
"And Liberty for All" in the South 

The Holidays: Ceremony for Everyone 

Patricia Nell Warren's Personal Page 

Choice in Sexual Orientation: The Sword that Cuts Both Ways (re the APA resolution) 

More editorials from PNW 

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text © 1997 Patricia Nell Warren
Permission for posting by Bridges Across the Divide granted.  All other rights reserved.
This article was previously published in Deolog, as well as widely distributed and reprinted in a shorter online version in Warren's column "News You Didn't See on TV." For more information, or permission to reprint or repost further, email