Today, LGBTQ+ Pride is everywhere — products, workplaces, social media and more. Although June is traditionally Pride month, Charlotte enjoys a double shot by celebrating in August. And while COVID-19 has led to the cancellation of in-person Pride events in 2020, the LGBTQ+ community has responded by hosting virtual events all spring and summer. Pride runs year-round, as it should. But it wasn’t always this way, and shame leveled by conservative religious communities has played a major role in keeping people locked tight in their closets.
When I first heard about LGBTQ+ Pride as a newly out gay man, I struggled. Before I could embrace Pride, I had to untangle the religious teachings that said being gay was shameful. Beyond that, pride itself was a sin, ranking as one of the “seven deadly sins.” I was taught that any expression of pride was at best problematic, including pride in my appearance, my talents or abilities, or my favorite sports team (not that I had one!). My less-religious friends had an easier time embracing their LGBTQ+ Pride while I had to shed layer after layer of suffocating and destructive shame.
Many LGBTQ+ people who experience such harmful indoctrination reject religion altogether, and I don’t blame them. However, religion offers many people like myself inspiration, meaning and beauty. When embracing our LGBTQ+ Pride, I think religion or spirituality can guide us as we sort out what it means to be proud. All pride isn’t bad. Examples of healthy pride include pride in cultural traditions like recipes or crafts, pride in securing a dream job or being recognized for a job well done and pride when someone we love achieves their goal. I think we know harmful pride when we see it: arrogance, an unwillingness to listen to or learn from others, exaggerating our accomplishments or taking credit when someone else has done all the work. Too often, religious teachings confuse us by setting up a false choice between pride and humility. However, these two qualities go hand in hand. I can be proud of my accomplishment and also humble enough to recognize the people who helped me along the way. We can be proud of being LGBTQ+ because of the perspectives and contributions we bring to society while also having the humility to recognize that there are other groups who have their own valuable contributions to make.
Our religious communities need to focus more on teaching what healthy pride looks like than on emphasizing its harmful side. As a Pagan spiritual practitioner, I want to share some ways Pagan communities support and encourage a healthy view of pride. In general, Pagans strive to embody specific virtues in our lives rather than adhering to strict commandments or prohibitions. Depending on the tradition, these virtues may include hospitality, honesty and courage. Pride isn’t singled out as bad; in fact, it is often celebrated during special rituals or holidays.
Pagans in Norse or Germanic traditions may practice what’s called a sumbel, which is basically a social drinking ritual. The point isn’t to get drunk but rather to take turns sharing stories about the gods, our families and ancestors and ourselves. Think of it as a boast and a toast to foster community. A seasonal time for pride in Druidry and Wicca occurs at Lughnasadh, the Pagan holiday in late July/early August. Inspired by the agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting, Lughnasadh rituals give participants an opportunity to boast about what we’ve accomplished since last year. The achievement can be anything from breaking a bad habit to learning a new skill. I always find these rituals refreshing because it’s inspiring to hear what other people have done, and it gives me permission to remove another old layer of shame. And inspired by LGBTQ+ Pride, Pagan Pride festivals are held nationwide, including across the Carolinas. These events provide safe spaces for Pagans to celebrate our perspectives, contributions, communities and achievements.
LGBTQ+ people have experienced enough shame, but it continues in some corners even today. Thankfully, more and more religious communities celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride now than ever before. Does your spiritual home fully accept you as an LGBTQ+ person? If not, I hope you are able to uncover the pride needed to go where you are accepted. If, like me, you’ve found that home, then join me in a virtual toast and boast — to Pride!
Rev. Wes Isley is a Pagan minister living in Charlotte and a Disaster Spiritual Care volunteer with the American Red Cross.