We Are All Queer Disciples of Christ
How my struggles with gender have brought me closer to God
Author’s note: The following contains personal information and beliefs that could change your perception of the author. If you are comfortable with the author as you know him (assuming you know me) and would like your relationship to stay that way, then I kindly invite you to stop reading at this point. Know that I completely honor and respect that choice.
I promise this is not a gimmick to have you keep reading this article, although it would be a really good way to do it.
Earlier this year, I turned 40 (which will explain most of what comes next).
For many, the “Big 4 - 0” marks a dramatic left turn on the road of life; a moment where the joys of youth suddenly disappear from the rearview mirror, replaced by the chilling realization that a just few miles ahead you’ll be giving up the steering wheel for good.
Instead of visualizing my decaying corpse trapped in funeral procession traffic, I decided to celebrate my birth plus 40 by writing on a deeply vulnerable topic, which I then shared privately with a few of my closest friends and family.
Here’s an excerpt from the article…
I’ve typically been a late bloomer.
At no time was this more evident than the Fall of 1990.
I’d always been told I was an old soul, but somehow, at age eleven I still owned all my baby fat.
My lovable pudge, coupled with my chipmunk-cheeky smile and all-around-nice-guy approach to life, made me “THE UNDISPUTED 11-YEAR-OLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION!” among moms across multiple neighborhoods.
I was also the local boy-wonder entrepreneur with a thriving lawn mowing business, the lone male babysitter in a sea of young female colleagues, an avid cookie baker, general do-gooder, holiday craft maker, peewee baseball all-star, and soon-to-be youth deacon in my local congregation.
In my brief 11-year career, I had been cast as the “golden child,” and I had learned to play the part to near-perfection.
Unfortunately, lawn mowing, cookie baking, tole painting, and even do-gooding couldn’t keep the Jr. High woes away.
Lying under the soft hum of my electric blanket on chilly Fall nights, thoughts would begin slowly buzzing inside my head, eventually building and swarming like wasps knocked clean of their nest.
“Just look at you…”
“No one could ever love you.”
“No one will ever find you attractive.”
Night after night, with these self-defeating thoughts stinging the soft gooey center of my soul, I became schooled in the art of self-deprecation and, eventually, self-hate.
I hated my jiggly buddha belly and my rosy red cheeks (both sets).
I hated my closet full of XL Portland Trailblazer t-shirts (even though I worshipped the Blazers).
I hated my bedside table drawer stuffed to overflowing with milky-white Saltine cracker wrappers and stale gummy bears lying in hiding.
More than anything, I hated the fearful glances I was getting these days from girls. Just weeks earlier, they had been BFF’s — hanging out together on lazy summer afternoons baking snickerdoodles and watching Saved by the Bell.
We had been comrades in arms under the thick of night games, confidants when it came to matters of the pre-pubescent heart. There had never been anything but kindness and sincerity between us.
So why now, when they looked at me, did it feel like I’d suddenly been diagnosed with a highly-contagious disease?
It hurt knowing that I had exited 6th grade as the “Golden One”, only to enter 7th as a true Quasimodo. Where did I miss the memo that cooties had been upgraded to crushes and friends were now filtered by physical attraction to the opposite sex?
Sex. I hated that word too. It might as well be a four-letter word, like darn, or even worse, shiz.
Shifting uncomfortably in bed, weighed down in my skin and unable to sleep at night, I would bury my face in my pillow, trying to smother the thought of me.
I wished I could run away and hide permanently. I prayed to be anyone but the chubby buddy no girl wanted to “love.”
And then, one night, my prayer was unexpectedly answered.
Whether from God the Father or Mother Nature, I cannot say to this day. But somehow, at that moment, the hormone cocktail brewing in my developing body was stirred and shaken.
For the first time, I envisioned myself as an entirely new self, freed from the suffocating self-doubt now threatening my existence.
The new being was gorgeous. “She” was everything I was not at the time and, as the thought of being “her” coursed through me, my mind and body were set ablaze.
In retrospect, it was my sexual awakening into the world. Oddly enough, I was waking up on the opposite side of the gender spectrum.
Transforming instantly from an ugly duckling into a radiant swan can have powerful repercussions on the mind of an 11-year-old boy — almost as powerful as having to watch my newly formed swan feathers molt away only moments later, leaving nothing but the ugly duckling lying under the hum of an electric blanket on a cold, dark night.
So, where does an uncomfortable, gender-confused 11-year-old go in 1990 after such a transformational experience?
Naturally, I went to the closet — not the figurative kind, but my mother’s.
Waiting for an afternoon when everyone was out, I sneaked into her room and picked out a dress I had never seen her wear (with good reason).
Like illegal contraband, I smuggled it upstairs to my bedroom, stuffing it in the back of my closet behind my XL Portland Trailblazer t-shirts.
Over the following days and weeks, I would add to my ensemble of rejects: an old forgotten pair of stockings, a worn-out lipstick, a couple of blush compacts older and crustier than the surface of the moon.
Then when no one was paying attention, I’d sneak up to my room, lock the door, and experiment with them all. Unsurprisingly, the hodgepodge of apparel and makeup went together horribly. If I had been a blind drag queen with essential tremor, I doubt I could have done any worse.
Experimenting with the dregs of my mother’s feminine expression left me wanting and discouraged. I had not only failed to uncover my beautiful feminine self, but I had also traded the ideal for a Frankensteined version that had to be kept in the shadows for fear of scaring away the villagers.
Sadness still ripples up through me as I think of the pain and discomfort I experienced at this time of my life, especially given that I have boys that same age today.
I deserved to feel better about myself. We all deserve to know how special and unique we are, especially at times when the world is shifting under our feet.
I spent far too many of my nights during Jr. High crawling inside a shell of self-pity. I pray my four young boys will never have to do the same.
Unwilling to nab more attractive clothes or makeup for fear of being caught, I instead decided to confess — not to my mother, but my local bishop.
Kind, benevolent, and unaccustomed to hearing confessions of a little boy wanting sometimes to be a little girl, my bishop listened attentively and then lovingly asked me to knock it off.
I promised I’d do my best and, barring a few “relapses,” I effectively smuggled the feelings and emotions deep into the closet of my soul.
Thus ended my early age of unfulfilling gender exploration. The ugly blue-striped dress eventually was placed back into the far recesses of my mother’s closet (where it rightfully belonged); the holey stockings thrown out along with the dried-out lipstick and crusty blush compacts.
I had failed to meet my most beautiful self, so I decided to break up with her and, instead, drowned my sorrows in gummies of all shapes and sizes, purchased in unhealthy bulk quantities at my local Food4Less.
(end of excerpt)
The article, to be honest, was more divisive than I had anticipated; a “coming out” that touched many family and friends while making others squirm in their swivel chairs.
Case in point, more than once I employed the word “queer” to describe aspects of my personal experience.
This, I was surprised to find, was the most controversial of the 2,000+ words I typed.
It caused a flurry of heartfelt responses, some of which applauded my appropriation of the label while others refused it and outright asked me to never again use it on myself.
These comments from my inner circle left me marveling that one five-letter word could pack so much emotional punch.
Examining a “Queer” Faith
Today’s reigning definition of “queer” is tied to the LGBTQ community. Originally meant as a derogatory label, it’s now been proudly adopted by the same community it was intended to harm.
Given its turbulent etymology, as well as its highly-charged subject matter in an increasingly polarized society, there’s little wonder it generates such a reaction.
My experience in offering and receiving the word, however, drove me to ask a fundamental question:
How does the label “queer” fit into my personal faith?
Almost immediately, an unexpected example came to mind: the Savior of mankind himself, Jesus Christ.
Important note: Little is known about Jesus Christ’s personal life and relationships and there is nothing in the Holy Writ that addresses Jesus’ sexual preference. On this, the Savior and traditional scripture remain reverently silent.
What we do know is that Jesus loved deeply and authentically those around him: his Father, his parents, his disciples (male and female), and even his executioners.
While today’s prevailing definition of queer (relating to a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas) might be misplaced when explicitly applied to the Savior, I would argue that Jesus did magnificently and intentionally fail to correspond to the established ideas of his day.
Peculiar, even considered outlandish by many, Jesus was entirely incongruous with the world in which he was raised:
- He entertained and had meaningful relationships with the dregs of society, including prostitutes and tax collectors
- He freely forgave those whose sins merited death according to traditional law. To the adulteress caught in the very act, he repulsed her accusers, frankly forgave, and asked that she “go, and sin no more”
- He sought out the outcasts, those warped by the mortal experience either physically or emotionally, and healed them according to his love and their faith in that same love
- He worked on the Sabbath for the greater good, when necessary, and taught that all men and women should do likewise
- He preached a higher law that replaced carnal instinct with submissiveness, then exercised that same law as his accusers wrongfully condemned, tortured, and murdered him
Is it wrong then for us to look to mankind’s shining example of peculiarity and then think of his “queerness?”
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” — Isaiah 55:8
What if, as the Savior, we were unafraid to be queer?
As humans, we are prone to obsess about what makes us weird, abnormal, even freakish from our conceived idea of the established norm.
We look at those around us and all we can see is the distance between us, a distance almost entirely invented by history, pop culture, social media, the list goes on. We can feel like we’re so far from one another and so far from where God wants us to be.
Too often we tell ourselves…
- You’re not thin enough
- You’re not strong enough
- You’re not pretty enough
- You’re not smart enough
- You’re not accomplished enough
- You’re not faithful enough
These damaging mantras can quickly escalate to silent, personal persecution for that which we perceive is queer within us. And then, for far too many today, instead of celebrating their unique and beautiful offering to the world, they consider erasing it from existence.
Take this heart-breaking graphic as case in point:
Why do we do this to ourselves and others?
Why do we allow terms and policies to divide us? It seems entirely backward when compared with one of humanity’s greatest examples?
Jesus Christ taught that mankind’s highest form of love “suffereth long, and is kind, and seeketh not her own.” What better way to say that true love, including true love of oneself, means having to work through things we find uncomfortable. It means being kind to ourselves and others even, or especially, if we don’t think we deserve it. We do deserve it. You deserve it.
Brené Brown has written that “We cannot share ourselves with others when we see ourselves as flawed and unworthy of connection. It’s impossible to be ‘real’ when we are ashamed of who we are or what we believe.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in humanity’s perfect example, Jesus Christ. Not only is “I am” is one of the names of the Savior (see John 8:56–59), more importantly, it was his modus operandi, his way of living a perfect life
Not once in scripture did Christ apologize for who he was. Not once did he back down from truths about himself that were unpopular and dangerous. When he was given the choice between slightly fudging his public persona or suffering a cruel death, “I am” had already chosen the path
What role did his completely transparent, unapologetic approach to self play in his ability to show empathy and compassion, no matter the person or situation? Was it simply that his power to love unconditionally was supernatural?
I would argue that, as is the case with everything Christ did, he was showing us what is possible — what is possible when we clear out our own closets of the shame and fear that fuels the defense systems of our natural egos
True love, as Jesus taught, means embracing the natural diversity that makes us beautiful instead of trying to inoculate ourselves from inevitable self-exposure.
So how does “queer” fit into my personal faith?
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Jesus taught that true love “rejoices not in iniquity but in the truth.” The truth is that Jesus Christ was perfectly comfortable in his queerness; a queerness which has inspired billions since his death over 2000 years ago.
He exercised perfectly his power to live each day without the shame of being different.
In a world that continually seeks to draw lines between us, I believe we also hold divine powers:
- The power to choose how we see ourselves and one another
- The power to wipe out the perceived differences and, in their place, find a common love and hope that drive us all in the same direction
- The power to be unique and, in that queerness, be a light and example to those struggling to find their own unique, authentic self
Instead of fighting against the idea of a word like “queer,” what if we embraced it more universally? What if we wrapped our arms and minds around it the same way we embrace our father, our mother, our siblings and closest friends?
What if, instead of being divided to the point of desperation, we were all beautifully peculiar in our perceptions and preferences?
What would life look like if we were willing to stand and say “I am” no matter how scary and vulnerable it may seem? What could we be if we lived in sincere acceptance of ourselves and those around us every minute of the day?
While it’s probably not possible to simply flip a switch, there has to be someplace to start
For me, it starts by letting go of the shame of things I’ve held onto for far too long; things that I’ve always considered ugly burdens when, in reality, they’ve been the driving force in the development of who “I am”
I am the happiest and luckiest man alive, married to the woman of my dreams. I am the father of four boys that inspire me daily. I am the fortunate son of multiple loving parents, both in this life and the heavens. I am a brother, an uncle, and a friend surrounded by loved ones that inspire me to be better.
I am also perfectly flawed, with one of my heaviest imperfections to date being that I have lived a life of struggle when it comes to gender — feeling both masculine and feminine at times.
To the world and to strangers, that makes me transgender. However, to myself, to “I am,” and to those I love, I have learned it makes me more. I have learned I am not more in spite of my beautiful imperfections (all of them). I am more because of them.
I have sat on this truth for many years, slowly sharing with a small circle of family and friends. It is their responses that have inspired this article. In their responses, I have found that we (especially those of a conservative religious background), carry around our beautiful imperfections as if they were giant boulders, burdens on our path of progression.
I testify today that they are not. They are the wings that allow us to fly closer to heaven than we ever knew possible. Take away the imperfections, the deep struggles of the soul, and you take away the true meaning of life.
It would be nice if simple recognition completely removed the burden but we still have to decide how to coexist with our struggles.
For me, that means wrapping my arms around both “sides” of me every day, saying “I love you,” and then focusing on what matters most: living up to sacred promises I’ve made to God, my wife, and my children.
For me, it means being the best husband and father I can be, the best brother and uncle and cousin and grandson I can be.
You are Loved
This article is no longer solely for me, as I once thought it would be.
I hope instead that it can be as much for you.
Please recognize that “you are” beautiful.
Your imperfections are beautifully human and deserve not only to be accepted but celebrated in the holiest and most reverent manner.
I believe we, like Jesus, all have elements of ourselves that do not correspond to established ideas. These elements make us real; they make us beautifully queer in the eyes of a loving God.
They’re worth sharing.
You’re worth sharing, even if it’s only to a select few on your 40th birthday.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you.
My name is David Smurthwaite. I’m a husband to one of the most amazing women in the world and father to four boys that inspire me daily. I’m also a former bishop and a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, often known as The Mormons.
I recognize that my struggles with gender and views on faith are unique to me. I believe there are as many versions of faith-based living as there are souls on the earth, regardless of the faith.
Point being, I would love to hear about your heartfelt struggles of the soul (feel free to comment below or email me directly). I take courage and inspiration from the counsel offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:
“If you decide to share your experiences… you should be supported and treated with kindness and respect, both at home and in church… As Church members, we all have a responsibility to create a supportive and loving environment for all our brothers and sisters. Such a support network makes it much easier to live the gospel and to seek the Spirit while navigating any aspect of mortality.”