Getting dressed up as a lesbian was definitely the easiest part. Black pants, black belt, black shoes? Got ’em! Hawaiian shirt? Not a problem for me! Perhaps this isn’t exactly what the typical lesbian wears on an average day, but this was not an average day and these lesbians were anything but typical. I had been invited to play with the Dixieland Dykes for the Lutheran Rite of Reception and Reinstatement, and this was a special occasion indeed!
The Lutherans were celebrating a major shift in their denomination: LGBT clergy who had been denied recognition or removed from the clergy roster were now being welcomed as full members. Lutheran churches that had been expelled from the denomination for standing by their LGBT pastors and seminarians were being invited to return.
It was not clear, however, that everyone was going to be celebrating. The event organizers were preparing for the possibility that there would be protesters, and things might get loud and unpleasant. So members of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band had been invited to play before the service, and the Dixieland Dykes ensemble had volunteered to perform. We didn’t know how events were going to unfold, but we were no strangers to protesters or difficult situations. If hostile protesters wanted to be loud in an unpleasant way, we were prepared to be loud in a positive, affirming, jazzy way.
Now at this point you might be wondering about my eligibility to play with a group called the Dixieland Dykes. Yes, I do have the wardrobe. But if I were asked directly, I would have to admit that I’m not really a lesbian. This is not a problem for the Dixieland Dykes – they overlook things like that all of the time. They needed a sub for the afternoon, and I was happy be a dyke for the day if it meant that we would be able to support the Lutherans and their celebration.
I was also glad to have company for the service. I have only been to Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church on one other occasion. It was ten years ago, on May 20, 2000. I was there for a memorial service for my boyfriend, James Fernando Lowrie. It was a hard time for me, and I was keenly aware that returning to Saint Mark’s might be difficult. It was good to be going with friends.
Still, being a Dixieland Dyke was only one of my options for the day. I am an ordained and licensed minister, and I had received an invitation to process as part of the ceremony. Certainly, I would have friends among the clergy there, and it would be great to spend time with them. But somehow I did not feel that I quite fit in the ranks of those who were vesting for service. I have been a pastor, but I am not currently serving a church. I have been an official of my denomination, but I do not currently have any formal position there. I have been the president of the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County, but my time in that office has ended. I would have been glad to participate in the service as the representative of any of these religious institutions, but I have willingly given up those roles.
And yet, if I don’t quite fit in with the clergy, I don’t really fit in with the laity either. Serving as a church pastor changes you in a permanent way. You can leave a church or a denomination, but you can never go back to being what you were before. Perhaps this is why in Catholic theology, ordination is a sacrament similar to marriage. Yes, a relationship might end, but you can never claim that it didn’t happen or that it didn’t change you. Your experiences are engraved on your soul, and the grooves run deep.
So, if I wasn’t quite clergy and I wasn’t quite laity, being a Dixieland Dyke for the day was an excellent option! So I practiced my music, cleaned and oiled my horn, and prepared myself for the service. We had clear guidelines as to what we were supposed to wear, but there was one thing that wasn’t covered. Should I wear my clergy collar to this event? Well, do dykes wear clergy collar? At a service celebrating the welcoming and reinstatement of LGBT clergy, they most certainly do! So I grabbed my horn, my clergy collar, and my Hawaiian shirt, and off to the church I went.
It is funny what you do and don’t remember after ten years. Large and magnificent as it is, I have absolutely no memory of St. Mark’s grand organ. The beautiful stained glass at the back of the chancel? It must have been there before, yet I had no recollection of ever seeing it. But the magnificent loops and curves of the church’s architecture – I remembered them well. When someone close to you dies unexpectedly, the whole world enters into a liminal state. The boundaries between life and death, the possible and the impossible, reality and unreality – they all dissolve into a chaotic jumble where anything is possible and the universe obeys no fixed laws. As I made my remarks at James’ memorial, I remember looking up at the rear corner of the church and waiting for those loops and arches to buckle and open, to form a mystical gateway through which I could speak not merely to the people in the church, but directly to James himself. The organ, the stained glass? They’re beautiful. But what I remember is those arches and those curves and waiting for that gateway to open.
The outside of the church echoes the arches and curves of the interior. The Dixieland Dykes were set up to the left of the main entrance, playing as people drifted inside. As we played, we were buffeted by gale-force winds, which alternated between lifting our music off of our stands and carrying away the stands themselves, music and all. Armed with clothespins and stand weights, we bravely played on. Despite my meticulous attention to wardrobe and the care I took in following the instructions that I had been sent, I still didn’t quite fit in. It was chilly outside, in the way that only a San Francisco summer afternoon can be. The other dykes were prepared for this, and their colorful Hawaiian shirts were hidden by the arctic parkas that they had brought to protect themselves from the cold. So there we were, five Dixieland Dykes in their dark and reserved coats, along with me wearing the brightest Hawaiian shirt that I own. No matter, it’s Dixieland and it’s jazz, so a little deviation from the norm is expected.
After an hour of playing, it was time for the service to start. I hurriedly put away my horn as the clergy procession lined up outside of the main entrance. The church was packed, and it quickly became clear that there weren’t any seats left on the main floor. So I headed upstairs, where the situation was the same. I was stopped at the entrance to the balcony by a friendly usher. In a welcoming but hushed tone, he gently informed me that all of the seats had been taken and encouraged me to stand in the stairway outside of the balcony during the service. “If there’s a fire during the service,” he whispered encouragingly, “that’s the best place to be. You’ll be the first one out of the building!” He said this with a confidence and enthusiasm that implied that fires were a regular part of services at the church. Certainly he conveyed the sense that I had just gained the place of honor for that afternoon’s expected conflagration.
So I stood there and waited, not quite in the church and not quite out of it either. Then it was time for the clergy procession to begin, and the congregation rose and turned towards the entry to the church. Suddenly, a powerful sense of foreboding washed over me, and nine simple words filled my mind, “I need to get out of here right now.”
I wasn’t surprised. I had expected to feel strong emotions in this building, and here they were. So, would I stay, or would I go? I had no further responsibilities during the service, and there was no room for me in the church. No one would blame me for leaving – probably no one would even notice. Certainly, I had more than enough excuses to leave.
“You are not the first queer person to feel uncomfortable in a church,” I told myself. “You think that others would benefit from facing their fears. What makes you any different?”
“Stay! You might learn something.”
So I stayed. And stood. And watched. Eventually my panicky desire to leave turned into resentment. I resented the fact that I was standing while everyone else was sitting, that I was outside while everyone else was inside, and that I had played for an hour before service and there still wasn’t a seat for me. It was too bad that there wasn’t room in the service for an extra violin solo, because I could certainly have used some tragic and self-pitying music right about then.
Eventually resentment turned into boredom. I don’t want to imply that the service was boring. It was not. The music was ethereal, the preacher was brilliant, and the occasion was momentous. But I was stuck out in the stairwell, I had nowhere to sit, and there was a large part of me that really didn’t want to be there. So if panic and resentment weren’t going to get me out of the building, I was going to give boredom a try.
In the midst of my boredom, I distracted myself by studying the church’s architecture. There was a lot to study. Even the doorway in front of me was fascinating. It is not uncommon for a church to have arched doorways, with straight sides leading to a rounded top. But this doorway was different. There were no straight lines at all. Every part of it, floor to ceiling, was a curving part of the arch. And that’s when it hit me. Ten years ago, I had stood at the front of this church and stared up at the rear corner of the building, waiting for its curves and arches to open and reveal a mystical doorway between this world and the next. I was now standing in front of that exact doorway, and I was standing on the other side of it.
Suddenly the stairwell was not a bad place to be, and I did not mind that I was there alone.
After a time, the usher poked his head into the stairwell, and quietly invited me into the sanctuary. “I’ve found a place for you. You can sit at the bottom of the stairs on the balcony, if you wish.” I entered the church and joined the congregation.
It was a lovely service. It was hard to be there, and I’m glad that I went. It was good that I got to see so many of my friends. Things are much easier now than they were ten years ago, but I’m once again in a liminal state, a place where all of the previous borders, boundaries and distinctions have collapsed into a chaotic jumble. Clergy or laity, pastor or congregant, inside or outside of the church – I’m not sure that any of those labels apply to me right now. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s good when all the lines get redrawn.
So what is on the other side of that door, the one between this world and the next, the one that I was waiting to see open all those years ago? I’m really not sure. I don’t think you get to find out what’s on the other side of a door unless you’re willing to go through it. Personally, I think those doors are actually around us all of the time, and we don’t even notice that they’re there. A close friend dies, a denomination changes its policies, a pastor enters ministry or leaves it – we’re constantly crossing over from one world into the next.
So the new world is here, mysterious and unexplored. What does it mean? What does it contain? Where do the unfolding pathways lead? I have no idea. But I intend to find out. At the end of the service, I picked up my horn, looked around the church, and then I deliberately walked out through that archway. I’m looking forward to exploring the other side.