Keeping the Faith

Aug 20 2015
Layshia Clarendon
New York Liberty
Aug 20 2015

Arian Foster doesn’t believe in God.

I do.

We could easily fit into the believer/non-believer binary that religion has constructed over time; a Christian praying for the soul of the faithless and the godless rebuking salvation. There should be tension between us. I should be defensive about my faith when he criticizes Christianity. But I feel more of a kinship with him than most of my fellow believers.

We’re both outsiders in the Christian community — two people who don’t believe in religion as an institution but who invest in and love Jesus’ teachings; Arian, the Agnostic, and me, the Believer, both driven away by Christianity’s exclusivity. We’re the same yet different all at once — religious rebels who are forced aside as they look in on the Christian majority.

I identify as black, gay, female, non-cisgender and Christian. I am an outsider even on the inside of every community to which I belong. My very existence challenges every racial, sexual, gender and religious barrier.

My older sister came out when I was in middle school, and suddenly, my parents were religious. They referenced morality, but only for that particular sin. It can be a convenient excuse, the Bible, to cover up someone’s personal discomfort. The entire experience was rough on my sister. Her admission broke the whole family up. She played basketball at Pepperdine University and my dad stopped going to her games. He didn’t speak to her for months.

I didn’t say anything at the time but I knew I was gay, too. I learned right then and there that my home was not a safe space in which to be gay, and had to swallow every derogatory slur about “dykes” and “fags” over the next few years.

I got a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley. I had been very much out in my basketball circle since high school. My coaches were accepting and affirming of who I was. I found my place amongst those who identified in similar ways as I, who looked like me, who shared an equal open-mindedness.

I was already out to my older sister and younger brother, and eventually came out to my mom my sophomore year. My mother, after attempting to throw a few Bible verses at me, was more loving and inclusive this time around. I could hear the concern in her voice about my dad finding out. It was less about me being gay, and more about having to deal with another family catastrophe.

The four of us became bound by acceptance — and, also, by fear of my dad’s reaction. My mom met the people I dated with some lingering hesitation. But, with time and exposure, she came to fully accept my sexuality. It’s easy to discard or disagree on principle with a faceless concept — my gayness as a mere fact. But when she saw — when people see — two people, relating in happiness and love, it becomes much harder to untangle right and wrong.

Love is not a moral argument. Who hasn’t felt the rush of new love, the guttural sickness of a broken heart, and all of the messy and beautiful and complicated feelings in-between? Love isn’t a gay or straight experience; it’s a human experience.

While I found love in others, I also found love in God.

One of my Cal teammates went to a church in Berkeley, called The Way, and invited me along. I wasn’t seeking to answer life’s questions or searching for something bigger than myself; I wasn’t trying to fill a larger inner void or find acceptance, given all of my identities. It was simple: I just accepted an invitation with an open mind — and now, I realize, an open heart as well.

I fell in love with the people and with God. I wasn’t looking for salvation. And yet, here I was. There are many people who spend their whole lives in the Church as nothing more than routine. They know every Bible story; they can quote any verse. But they don’t necessarily experience it. I didn’t have any religion attached to this. I didn’t have any Christian baggage. I was experiencing God and these believers in the purest form. They showed me what God’s love is, and for that I am forever grateful.

The Way, a non-denominational (predominately black) church, focuses on not just lessons but issues. Its messages are largely rooted in social justice — conversations, causes, understanding and advancement. It’s not condemning or fundamentalist. It seeks to answer larger questions but also accepts that it doesn’t have all of the answers. I was an American Studies major, so these conversations — sociology meets faith — fascinated and inspired me. The more I learned about the gospel, the more I fell in love with Jesus and his radical love and non-conformity. It wasn’t about the religious rule; it was about freedom in faith.

I became deeply involved with The Way. My teammate and I were always excited any time we got back from a road trip in time to attend church. It didn’t matter if we were still in our sweats or, admittedly, a little hungover after having gone out on Saturday night. My favorite part of church was and is praise and worship. We dance, sing and shout with freedom and joy. Before the sermon starts, we go around and hug one another, exchanging smiles and small conversation. I’m fortunate to have only had positive experiences with this body of organized religion. No one questioned my faith as an out person. I was accepted and shown love, as one should be.

Even so, I started to question, Can I be gay and Christian? It wasn’t because of the laws of the Bible around gender, keeping faith, governing bodies or treatment of women (all of which I still can’t answer for). I had to reconcile my sexuality with my faith, and also reconcile those two things with the homophobia in the larger body of the Church and Bible.

I struggled for two years with the tension between those two things: faith and sexuality. Do I live honestly, knowing that my sexuality isn’t something I chose but rather an innate detail of who I am? And if I do, what does that mean for my relationship with God? Those two years were full of turmoil. The shame and fear attached to being LGBT are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. To lay awake at night, wondering if you will forever be punished for something you cannot change, is a dark place. I had just started to experience so many amazing things about God, but now it seemed like perhaps it was all too good to be true.

Like The Way, Cal has always been a safe space for me on this journey. From coaches to athletic directors to support staff, I was given freedom and acceptance to express myself. I was encouraged to bring any significant other I chose to team events, and embraced by fans — Mohawk and all.

I delved into books and sought counsel with my pastor. This turmoil helped me discover God’s character: His promise, love, acceptance, call for justice and strict call to righteousness. My constant prayer was, “God, if this is who you created me to be, please just give me peace. A peace that surpasses all understanding.”

I had to realize that this is who I was created to be; this is who I am and that’s okay because I was uniquely made. God welcomes all who seek Him, and it says, “whosoever shall believe.” Anyone. Jesus didn’t just die for the straight people.

I fully accepted myself, and finally came out to my dad. The sad irony is that the most difficult place for me to find acceptance outside of myself is within the Christian community. When people find out I am gay, their immediate thought is sex. They attach that behavior to me — they try to have agency over me. When my aunt, who is Christian, learned that I was gay, she prayed for me. I was told that marriage and sex were meant to be a beautiful thing between a man and a woman. (As if I hadn’t heard that before and didn’t struggle for years with this very belief.)

People assuming I’m having sex in the first place: You couldn’t possibly know my relationship with my partner, nor could you know my relationship with God. There’s a rampant ignorance about homosexuality. Sex is certainly a detail that differentiates gay relationships from straight relationships — but even within heterosexuality, there are different sexual relationships. When you hear about a straight couple, though, you’re not thinking about their bedroom. Why are you, then, with me?

This message leaves people hurting and turned away from God. Faith is supposed to be the one place where all are welcomed and loved.

I’ve had a lot of experience with tension among intersecting identities. Someone once asked me which race I identified as: black or white. I’d never identified as a white woman or a black woman. I just existed. But as I got older, I had to reconcile those racial identities. How people view you can change your identity. I became aware that most viewed me as a black woman. When I was with my white family, I felt like a black woman. There’s an unspoken racial tension that exists within that family dynamic. I was coming into my black consciousness, increasingly aware of racial constructions, particularly in the United States. I felt the weight of the black identity — the stigma. Unlike my sexuality, when I walk into a room, it’s apparent that I’m black. I cannot hide my skin. I don’t look like the whole of my family.

Again, on the outside — amongst those I most closely belonged.

I identify as a black woman but gender is another social identity I’ve had to reconcile. Gender is largely a spectrum. I understand that my presentation is more masculine than not. Most people see me and attach any number of their own identities: gay, male, black. The front line of gender identity for me was — and remains — the bathroom.

A few years ago, I was in a mall bathroom, waiting to go into the stall. I’m used to looks and double takes from people. But standing near me was a woman and her two children — a boy and a girl. The young boy taps me on the shoulder and says, “You’re not supposed to be in here.” I was shocked and upset. A boy — old enough to maybe not be in the women’s bathroom anymore — telling me, a girl, she wasn’t supposed to be in the women’s bathroom. It was telling of just how much social construction kids learn and how quickly they learn it.

Recently, I was at the Mohegan Sun Casino, in Connecticut, for a game. I walked into the bathroom and there’s a large mirror that lines the wall. I’m washing my hands, and behind me is the bathroom entrance. An older woman walks in and looks up, not paying close attention. She startles and rushes out of the bathroom — like she walked into the wrong one. I can’t see her anymore but I can hear her. She’s gone around the corner to check the sign. When she sees that, yes, it is the women’s bathroom, she walks back in.

I laugh more about these encounters than I used to but they’re reality checks — constant reminders that I don’t fit in anywhere.

I’ve had to reconcile all of these intersectional identities in the real world but also in the sports world.

I was drafted No. 9 overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever.

There’s an assumption that if you are a woman and you play basketball, especially in the WNBA, that you are gay. That stereotype certainly affects our league’s marketability. For a long time, our league didn’t directly market to the LGBT community due to the gay stigma and need for big brand dollars. That’s slowly changed. The league now recognizes the LGBT community because many of them are the ones filling the seats, buying the tickets, tuning in and spreading the word. Lest we mention it’s the right thing to do. Now, in June, in honor of Pride Month, the teams host Pride Night. It’s a night not just to recognize the LGBT community, but to also raise awareness around all of the issues within that community: suicide rates and homelessness among them. It’s a universal cause for life — not a cause for homosexuality.

For a league with so many openly gay players, you’d think this would be readily celebrated. It’s not. There’s a sense of a divide between the players.

Last season, our team and many across the league were going to wear t-shirts acknowledging Pride Night. I was excited that the community was finally being accepted. Hours before our game, a few of us were wondering, Where are our shirts? We were told they were cut from the evening and they didn’t have them. What do you mean? The league had done away with them. There wasn’t enough time to ask more questions. We played the game but I looked for answers later.

We were told that there were players who didn’t feel comfortable wearing Pride t-shirts; it was against their moral beliefs. My own Christian family, who believe in the same message of love and acceptance, morally objected to a t-shirt. Instead of having negative press surrounding the issue and perhaps opening a much larger dialogue around faith, the league just decided to not send the t-shirts out.

In some ways, I’m glad the league handled the situation as they did. I wouldn’t want negative attention given to moral objectors during what was a very positive month of June. Still, a small subset of people owned the religious microphone and decided for everyone else. The Church has a rich history of homophobia, which has inflicted so much harm on so many lives. I took this especially personally because I am a Christian who often needs to prove her faith because of her sexuality. How could my fellow believers be the ones to exclude any walk of life? As leaders in faith and the league, I expect my sisters in Christ to fight for inclusion. That’s what we should be doing — that’s the right thing to do. Isn’t that the message?

Christians have used the Bible to condemn and enslave multitudes, and now they’re using it again. There are minorities in this league who are oppressing other minorities. There’s no place for the binary between believers and non-believers — even between believers and believers — when it comes to social justice.

Here’s the truth of it: this was an issue because only when it comes to LGBT activism is there a moral stigma. When we’re talking about the gay community, that’s when people want to start talking about right and wrong.

Everyone is quick to put on a pink jersey for breast cancer awareness or wear green for environmental awareness. But for Pride? The moral issue is the barrier.

This isn’t about sexuality or God. This is about social justice.

The LGBT community doesn’t often get identified as one that needs help — but the statistics are staggering. We have to humanize these people. We have some of the highest suicide rates, particularly when you intersect that with racial identity. We need money for suicide prevention, for LGBT community centers, for homeless shelters. It all starts with awareness. Do you know how to make people aware?

Wear a t-shirt.

It’s not about morality. You could save a life. You could make some long-suffering kid — who’s been made to feel less than, discriminated against and possibly full of self-hate — feel seen. And maybe, for a second, feel loved. It could give them hope and maybe something like faith.

Isn’t that the point?

We have Faith and Family nights, too. As a Christian, I care about being in attendance. My faith should be accounted for as much as any. But is it a safe space for me? Is it a safe space for any other LGBT person? Is it just one representation of faith that we’re really discussing here? It’s safe in that, no, they’re not going to kick anyone out. But I’m asking about safe as acceptance — safe as a feeling. A straight person of faith could say, yes, we’re accepted and it’s safe, but they don’t understand what it’s like to walk around these spaces. Maybe I’m not going to get bullied. But am I going to feel welcomed enough to truly experience the fullness of the event? What if the pastor conversationally detours into marriage?

Few people are aware of such issues unless they have that identity. Black people are very much aware of black issues because it’s their ever-present reality and consciousness. It’s not necessarily my job to be the person who’s always asking questions about inclusion or being mindful of others’ spaces and identities, but someone should. It should come from our leadership. Are we making these spaces safe for everyone?

So many people in our league are LGBT and we’re not having these conversations. It’s a shame. It might come down to having more voices like mine, leading, but with respect to everyone else. We have to be involved. And others, especially those who identify as straight and Christian, should be open and vulnerable enough to listen and grow. Ask questions: Who’s the team chaplain? Does the Union pay them or are they volunteers? Is that person inclusive?

In his article, Arian discussed prayer before games and how he, as a non-believer, doesn’t fit into that space. He thinks about the issue because if he chooses not to participate, he’s the outlier — the contrarian. If he does participate, he’s uncomfortable. Christians don’t have to consider this — they pray because that’s an act of their faith. It’s a common locker room routine. Even though I’m a Christian, I still hold the space in-between.

Before a game, my team will do the scout on the board, and then all hold hands and bow in prayer. I recently thought, is everybody okay with this? We’ve never really asked anyone if they were comfortable. We just assume that’s the case. We didn’t make any announcement before the season like, “Hey, are you okay with praying? We can figure something out for you if not,” or “We need to talk about this,” because for someone to have to stand up and speak out about not praying before the game would be really isolating. If someone doesn’t believe, sure, they can stand in the circle and close their eyes like everybody else. But why not show them the same respect? Consider where they stand.

It’s our league to be more involved with, but it’s not just about the WNBA. These are conversations we should have across all sports and leagues. How many of these traditions potentially exclude LGBT athletes in other sports, particularly men’s leagues? This is about religion and discrimination in sports generally, and the lack of education therein. We can shape the future and the conversations around these issues by asking tough questions, and giving a voice to the minority.

I’m starting in my own way. I went back to The Way this past offseason for an LGBT internship approved and funded by the WNBA. I led the first LGBT Bible study the church ever had, which was an incredible experience. I want to extend those conversations about gay acceptance and social justice in Christianity beyond those doors. Diversity should be celebrated, particularly diversity within the Christian faith. We need more representations of the Christian faith.

The beauty of my whole story is that, for all of the tension between my social and racial identities, faith is what grounds me — even as I work to rectify all of these parts of myself. I feel free of all the identities. If I weren’t gay and black and non-cisgender, I wouldn’t have the same relationship with God that I do. It’s what pushed me to ask questions and seek him in ways I wouldn’t have done otherwise. It’s the one place — my personal relationship with God — where I always feel safe and included and welcome. It’s the place where I don’t have to carry the burden of being black in America. I don’t have to carry the burden of walking into a bathroom and being mistaken for male. I don’t have to carry the burden of wondering whether people are judging me morally for being gay or not.

I feel freedom and love. That’s God.

Layshia Clarendon
New York Liberty