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Guest Column

The Right to Be Spiritual
By Patricia Nell Warren

The other day, a young lesbian sent me an e-mail 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 what 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 mountain top 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 gave 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 "spiritual" is that I wasn't 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. By the late '60s, "spirit" wore beads, in pop music and Hollywood. In 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, TV virtually rules our lives, and 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. Even Catholicism takes a back seat to EP.

For many people, this means that "spiritual" is more and more identified with a strident, controlling, affluent brand of Protestantism. Many, like my young correspondent, feel forced to deny their need for spiritual healing, because of this scary association.

Historically, many gay people have ravenous spirits, because so many religions reject 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 it, and the rage that gay people could not pray openly in "real" cathedrals. Global growth of the Metropolitan Community Church was paralleled by growing gay New Ageism, complete with gay men pounding on drums.

The problem is, TV never shows gay people at prayer. If it did, the public would have a radically different perception of us! Despite right-wing allegations of our overweening affluence, we don't command the money to buy our way into that kind of visibility that Pat Robertson has bought. Indeed, he and other TV cultists have succeeded in upstaging the whole gamut of U.S. spiritualities -- from Muslims praying towards Mecca, to native Americans praying with eagle feathers. Even the Interfaith Alliance, that new coalition of churches who oppose the radical right, still has a low profile in the media.

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.

Spirit is standard equipment for humans. It isn't a special gift given to a few. It isn't something you automatically get by joining a church or doing a sweat. Spirit hungers to be nourished as much as body, mind and emotion do. Young people hunger for spiritual growth as much as they do for sexual growth. This is how the cultists get their hooks into kids -- by pandering to kids' need to belong, to feel the first rushes of vision.

Today every human spirit faces the challenge of breaking through that wall of media images that money and politics have built around us. Beyond that wall is a vast vista of possibility. Prayer can heal anyone, regardless of gender, ethnic background or orientation. Even atheists pray when they talk to themselves about their lives. Everyone can have a vision, no matter who they want for U.S. President. No one achieves anything positive without a conviction of one's own sacredness and destiny.

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


Patricia Nell Warren wrote "The Front Runner," "Harlan's Race" and other best-selling novels about gay life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Visit her Web page here.
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