I was married to a man and our oldest son had been born when someone asked me, “how do you identify?”
It seems to me the first time someone had asked me specifically, and it gave me a kind of freedom to respond, “bisexual,” to her, to claim and name the truth of what she experienced in me. She, too, identified as bisexual, and when she mirrored me to myself, it helped me to know and unlock that spoken honesty. There was nothing surprising in it, for her or for me: it was the significance of saying it out loud. And we compared notes on what it had meant to us to hang around with lesbians and feel not-quite-at-home there, to recognize that being attracted to women and men was tricky territory.
Straight crowds weren’t completely right, but we could fit in there; lesbian crowds urged us to just make up our minds and get on with it. Everybody assumed we wanted to have a lot of sex. That moment, now 24 years ago – the age of my son – feels at once far away and present. Naming a truth of “orientation” (that is to say: sexual attraction identity) seems unnecessary and superfluous when you’re married to a person of the opposite sex and it’s been going swimmingly for over 25 years.
And still: in the last six years of my life, as I’ve had the privilege to serve at Broadway UMC and continued to learn and grow with the Broadway community, I’ve chosen to claim “queer” as my identity. And I like the way this queer suit feels and captures how I’ve come to understand myself and the me that is in this body, this skin; this mind, this heart. Today, when I preach, I’m aware that I stand firmly in my true self: queer, grey-haired, cowgirl boots, Jesus-lover. I’m more at home with me than I’ve ever been, which makes me more at home with God.
The epiphany came in an anti-racist training. Doing an exercise in identifying times in my life when I felt targeted or not targeted helped me to more clearly see my white privilege, and shook me to write about my own gender confusion. White girls growing up in my neighborhood in Muskegon Heights, Michigan – “the Heights” – who climbed trees, raced bikes, peed down fire escape tubes, and flunked piano were called “tomboys.” Grown-ups attributed it to having three older brothers. When I think back on it, with the rear-view mirror that age gives, it seems I was confused: I was attracted to girls the way the boys were, but I didn’t want to be a boy; I was attracted to boys the way girls were, and I wanted to play their games and wear pants.
In those days, girls were required to wear dresses and skirts to school; we could wear pants only underneath the skirts. The hand-me-down dresses I got came in special packages for Easter, frilly and fussy; I loved them because my girl cousins, whom I adored, had worn them the previous year. I didn’t fit in; I was too skinny; I was a weirdo. At home, nobody told me “girls don’t sit with their legs open like that, cross your legs!” or “put your shirt on!” or “girls don’t spit,” or “girls don’t laugh at ‘The Three Stooges,’ but I got those messages when I was away from home. When I grew up and entered the workforce in the early eighties, professional women wore suits with skirts that in every other way looked like men’s suits; we wore tiny ribbon bows in the place of neckties – and when we acted strong or powerful, people told us “women don’t behave like that,” or “you are so aggressive,” or “could you get me some coffee?” or “did you say something?”
In the elevator, men hit on us; behind our backs, they called us bitches. I loved women-only spaces, created them and joined them, and had the same crushes on women that I used to have on the other girls when I was a kid. Still, I was physically and romantically attracted to men, and even though I could identify as “bisexual” in my own mind, I didn’t find the space for it in conversation. Oh, how I loved the theatre, where you could pretend to be someone you weren’t; where everyone else was pretending, too.
What I like about “queer” identity is that people ask me what it means, and I get a chance to say I like it blurry.
I like it that I don’t conform to cultural norms for women (don’t wear make-up, don’t shave, dress in jeans and flannel shirts; take charge, interrupt when men are speaking). I like it that I’m attracted to both women and men. I like it that the binary of how someone else thinks it should be doesn’t fit me. For me, “queer” is an identity of bisexual orientation as well as gender non-conformance. (It also means that I could change my mind tomorrow and get those heels out of the back of the closet, put on a dress, walk in the door opened for me by a man, sing soprano.) I’m lucky, because I happened to fall in love with a man who totally gets me, and who fell for me, too. We fit together, and I’m grateful. I’m also lucky that I learned as a little tomboy-girl that Jesus loves me no matter what, cause the Bible tells me so – first from my parents, and then from my Sunday School class.
I learned that the God above pours out love for everybody, like rain. I learned that Jesus was just like us – a person who walked around telling stories, feeding people, healing people. I learned that when wars and rumors of wars were on television God was weeping, too. I learned that when people asked if those neighbors who lived down the street in “the Heights” were men or women, my tender Daddy and tough Mommy could put a stop to ridicule, and name them simply “our neighbors, who are children of God.”
Lois’ background includes working as a writer in government, politics, and the arts; community activism in peace and justice; and lay ecumenical ministry on the campus of Miami University of Ohio. She has served congregations in the Northern Illinois Conference in the city (Holy Covenant, Epworth, and Broadway) and suburbs (Naperville, Northbrook) following her studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Lois is Co-Founder of CLASP (Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Partners) and serves on the national Steering Committee for its parent organization, LGBT-Freedom & Asylum Network.
In addition to her part-time organizing with RMN in The UMC, Lois also serves as a facilitator for “Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People” with Allies for Change; and as a facilitator for Creating Culturally Proficient Communities in Ypsilanti Community Schools.
Lois is happy to have returned to her home state of Michigan, residing in Albion. She sings in three choruses: Sistrum: Lansing Women’s Chorus; Battle Creek Community Chorus; and Ensemble Alioni of Chicago (folk music from the Republic of Georgia). Lois identifies as bisexual and queer and is married to Clayton (who totally gets her); they are parents to Nate and Cullen. She loves to read, to write, to eat, and to sing.
Latest posts by Rev. Lois McCullen Parr (see all)
- Babel and the many languages of General Conference - June 7, 2016
- I married my high school prom date - February 15, 2016
- Liberty, loyalty, and freedom in The United Methodist Church - October 23, 2015