This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
In a dimly lit, wood-paneled room at Plymouth United Church of Christ (UCC) in Oakland, California, Reverend Rhina Ramos asked everyone present at Ministerio Latino, a Spanish-speaking LGBTQ-inclusive ministry, to not only introduce themselves but specify their preferred pronouns. Next to her sat Charlotte, a soft-spoken trans woman from Honduras who arrived in a migrant caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border last spring and was invited to deliver the night’s sermon.
The attendees then sat in a circle, meditated, and sang hymns. After they read aloud a Gospel passage on the Crucifixion, Ramos emphasized the importance of understanding it as punishment for Jesus’ message of freedom and dignity for all, which religious leaders had viewed as a threat. Ramos said Jesus’ death was a subversive act, not a submissive one. This is crucial in the context of LGBTQ rights, since a similar narrative of submissiveness has been invoked to oppress those groups.
Charlotte then gave a sermon on the reading. Jesus “shows us what love feels like without asking for a price… without discriminating,” she said in Spanish. “God doesn’t have a gender. They see the person for the person, rather than their identity.”
Ramos, the founding pastor of Ministerio Latino, is part of a new vanguard of female pastors fighting for LGBTQ equality in mainstream Protestant churches. Many religious studies scholars say it makes sense that women would emerge at the forefront of this movement. Indeed, they’re pushing back against church institutions that have historically granted power to straight, white cisgender men and disempowered everyone else—not only women, but LGBTQ people, too.
Women, and especially women of color, in church leadership may be more attentive to not only the discrimination LGBTQ people face, but also the theological links between LGBTQ and gender equality, said Brandy Daniels, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Virginia. These links have their roots in a concept known as complementarianism. Complementarianism, shared by many denominations, views the biological differences between men and women as proof that God has assigned them different yet complementary roles: for men to lead and women to support them.
“The same theological justifications that have been used to exclude women are used to reproduce heteronormativity in the church,” Daniels explained. Complementarianism is why many Christian denominations have historically ordained only men and expect women to submit to men—it’s also why they don’t ordain openly LGBTQ people and allow marriage only between a man and a woman.
These stances “are rooted in the nature of sexuality and what ordered sexuality should be,” said Elizabeth Bounds, an associate professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Gender equality has helped pave the way for LGBTQ equality by prompting people to question these sexual norms, Daniels said. “Deconstructing gender threatens the whole system of power in place.”
Ramos, 50, wears thick-framed purple glasses and has a wide, gap-toothed smile. She bubbles with youthful enthusiasm, occasionally shaking her fists in excitement. Between mouthfuls of pupusa at a Salvadoran restaurant in Berkeley, she told me it took years for her to learn how to embrace both her Christian and queer identities.
Ramos is among a growing group of Christians rejecting the dominant, conservative narrative that they need to choose between their faith and their sexuality, which Deborah Jian Lee, the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, said has played a major role in fueling female-led LGBTQ advocacy efforts. Through rejecting this narrative, Ramos is helping other queer Christians do the same.
Raised Catholic, Ramos fought hard to suppress her queerness. At age 14, as coyotes (a colloquial term for smugglers) guided her, her brother, and her aunt across the U.S.-Mexico border so they could escape civil war in their native El Salvador, she struck a bargain with God: “I had promised God I would become more faithful if we crossed safely.”
Ramos said she and her family ended up at a safe house in San Diego before reuniting with her mother, who had settled in Long Island a few years earlier. True to her promise, Ramos met with a local Catholic priest, but then began attending a fundamentalist Baptist church, drawn to its more Scripture-based teachings. She met her husband there at 16. They got married three years later—yet Ramos continued to grapple with her sexuality. She started seeing a psychologist who was a Methodist pastor. He helped her realize, slowly, that her faith and her sexuality could coexist.
After seven years of marriage, Ramos filed for divorce. Amid swirling rumors of her queerness, she says the congregation grew cold, and she left her church—but not once did she want to leave her faith. “I grew up with a very Catholic grandmother, and the story of Jesus was always very beautiful to me,” she said. “I couldn’t see it as a thing I was just going to leave behind.”
After working in labor law for five years, Ramos decided to return to school. She obtained a master’s in divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in 2003 and, in 2012, was ordained as a minister in the UCC with a mission to start Ministerio Latino, the community she herself needed. Since then, she has supported queer Latinx Christians—some of whom have fled anti-LGBTQ violence and are seeking asylum in the United States—in their journeys to live their truth, even baptizing trans people with their new names. She also provides a space for them to heal from their often-grueling social justice work, as well as to grieve in the wake of tragedies like the Pulse massacre. Recently, she accepted a position to help Latinx UCC churches in the U.S. become open and affirming to LGBTQ people.
Perhaps by virtue of living near San Francisco, Ramos said she rarely encounters resistance to her support for LGBTQ people. But this February, after a student filmed an interview with her about her immigration story and posted it on Facebook, a troll scrolled through her profile page and responded to her LGBTQ-related posts with antiliberal memes, including a GIF of Trump building the border wall. After enduring a day of harassment, she blocked him. She “was really freaked out” for herself and her wife, wondering what other personal information he could access. More than anything, she felt frustrated—but she remembered that in the end, “the message is bigger than that.”
Her own queerness aside, Ramos said that living as a woman in a culture with rigid gender roles may have made her more likely to advocate for LGBTQ people, who don’t conform to these roles either.
Ramos’s intersecting identities help queer Latinxs in Ministerio embrace their own. Aldo Gallardo, a trans community organizer raised by Evangelical and Catholic parents, became an atheist in college, unable to see an overlap between Christianity and her gender identity, until Ramos invited her to a Ministerio meeting in 2014. “Rhina, in her whole embodiment of different identifies, allowed people to be able to explore their faith,” she said.
Like Ramos, Reverend Kyndra Frazier, 37, took years to reject the narrative that she had to choose between her queerness and her faith. Throughout adolescence, she also wrestled with the narrative that casts queer people as disgusting and evil, since they fall outside the church’s cis, hetero norms of “ordered” sexuality. Indeed, especially in conservative Christian communities, sexuality in women and LGBTQ people “is often seen as a threat and as something to be controlled,” Lee said. Queer Christians are often told, “You have to be celibate, and if you can’t do that, then you’re bad,” she explained. “There’s something inside that’s sinful.”
Frazier opened up about her struggle to resist this narrative to congregants at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem when she came out to them in 2016—in her first sermon to them. Soon after she stepped up to the pulpit, she began to sob.
“This is a gift to be present with you all,” she said, through tears. “There was once a time when suicide was better because I could not imagine being openly gay and a pastor.”
Warm and earnest, Frazier told me about growing up in the Church of God in North Carolina and how, when she was 12, her parents heard an answering machine recording of a conversation between her and a girl she was dating. They told her what she was doing was sinful.
In her early 20s, Frazier moved to Atlanta, where she started attending another Church of God church. Against church teachings, the pastor said her queerness was OK as long as God had told her it was OK—which Frazier said God did. It “was a powerful experience,” she said.
In Atlanta, Frazier studied theology and was ordained at a nearby Baptist church. After she completed a social work program at Columbia University, FCBC’s executive pastor, Michael A. Walrond Jr., asked her to direct its Healing on Purpose and Evolving (HOPE) Center, which provides free mental health services tailored to communities of color. He and his congregation have embraced Frazier; and queer congregants like Jae, whose last name has been omitted to protect her identity, recognize themselves in her. Seeing an openly queer Black woman like herself standing before the congregation is “very empowering,” Jae said.
Finding that acceptance hasn’t come easy. Since her own parents’ initial rejection of her identity, Frazier was kicked out of the home where she stayed while interning at a Baptist church in Brazil. Her aunt decided last-minute that she didn’t want to participate in her ordination, despite having already committed to doing so, and her grandmother once told her she “might as well be with a dog.”
Fighting for LGBTQ equality resonates with Frazier’s experiences being not only queer but also Black. At the predominantly white church in the Atlanta area where she was ordained, she sometimes felt invisible. But unlike Ramos, she has rarely felt marginalized for her gender. In fact, she grew up seeing women in the pulpit. She credits Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and other pioneers of womanism (a theological framework that seeks to liberate and empower Black women), for creating space for her to lead.
At the HOPE Center, Frazier counsels people struggling with religious trauma syndrome, the psychological harm inflicted by strict authoritarian religions. Growing up, Frazier experienced religious trauma in the form of intense fear that she would suffer eternal damnation for her queerness, which nearly drove her to suicide. Indeed, studies show LGBTQ youth are much more likely to attempt suicide than those who don’t identify as LGBTQ.
“I want them, and I want us, to know that there is life beyond the voice that says you’re an abomination,” she said.
The first time an LGBTQ couple asked Vicki Flippin to marry them in the United Methodist Church (UMC), she said no. The UMC forbids same-sex unions and prohibits clergy from officiating at them. Like many denominations, the UMC defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. They claim to “reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage,” but this definition of marriage nevertheless has deep roots in complementarianism. While Flippin disagreed with the church’s stance, as a first-year seminarian at Yale Divinity School (a graduate theological program) she had been advised not to do anything to jeopardize her ordination.
But she felt terrible. “I knew I couldn’t be a part of this denomination unless I was actively working to change the laws and stance of the church,” said Flippin, 36, now a pastor at First and Summerfield UMC in New Haven, Connecticut, near where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Raised by a white American Methodist missionary and a Chinese war veteran, Flippin doesn’t fit the mold of firebrand activist. Aya Yabe, the leader of a New York City–based group focused on Asian and Pacific Islander parents with LGBTQ family members, likened her to “air or water,” yet “she always has an energy… She doesn’t just talk. She does things.”
Flippin walked the talk in 2016, when the General Conference, the highest governing body of the UMC, invited her to deliver a greeting from her community at its quadrennial meeting to establish church policies. As an associate pastor of the Church of the Village in Manhattan, a congregation with a significant number of queer members, she wanted to include an explicit welcome to LGBTQ attendees. When she was told to omit the welcome, she refused, leading to her removal from the opening worship service. Then, this February, after a special session of the General Conference upheld the UMC’s ban on LGBTQ ordinations and marriages, she helped open the venue doors to allow entry to those protesting outside.
As a multiracial, progressive female pastor, Flippin can empathize, to an extent, with the rejection openly queer people experience. “Every day I have to be brave and not care what people think,” she said. “Until people get used to you and the idea of you, you just have to wade through and find your inner confidence.”
Daniels, the University of Virginia religious studies lecturer, and her like-minded peers expect these and other female-led LGBTQ advocacy efforts to grow, reflecting an increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people in the U.S., even among Christians. And with church membership plummeting 20 percent over the past two decades, churches may need to accept them to survive. “Christianity is going to lose its relevance to the world if it doesn’t recognize the relationship between the Gospel and various social movements,” said Linn Tonstad, an associate professor at Yale Divinity School.
The UMC and other churches’ resistance to fully accepting LGBTQ people may also reflect a struggle to recognize the relationship between the Gospel and the full breadth of human existence. LGBTQ youth often hear from their churches, “just don’t be gay, and if you are, don’t tell us about it, because we don’t want to struggle with it,” Flippin said. Yet millennials yearn for authenticity, “to explore the full range of what they can be,” Frazier said, which could help explain churches’ struggle to attract and retain them.
The outcome of Frazier’s and other female pastors’ fight for LGBTQ equality remains to be seen, but for now, they offer an alternative to the Christianity that has so often hurt women, as well as LGBTQ and other marginalized people—one that creates space for the messy complexity that being one’s whole self entails, rather than rejecting it.
If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.