LGBTQ people have struggled to find acceptance within major religions for centuries, but in Greenbelt, created during the New Deal as a solution for Depression-Era city slums, community members are fostering a more inclusive religious environment. Throughout the area, LGBTQ-affirming religious communities are becoming increasingly commonplace. Greenbelt Community Church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale, and Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi welcome all faith-seekers regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Shifting demographics play a role in the push for inclusion. As younger generations drift further from faith communities, religious congregations seek more ways to reel them in. “The future is diversity,” Hillary Howes, the president of GreenBeLT Pride, tells me during an interview at the New Deal Cafe.
Howes, an activist for transgender rights and a supporter of inclusion in the Catholic Church, is a member of the Catholic Community of Greenbelt. Though she’s heavily invested in her faith today, Howes didn’t always connect with religion. Howes wasn’t raised Catholic nor was she the most likely person to convert. “[Transgender people] who have remained Catholic through transition or who have become Catholic after transition are a very small minority,” Howes tells me during our discussion. “I would say most transgender people are so scarred by their Catholic church and their messages that they’ve left religion altogether or gone to a different denomination.”
Though her wife attended services throughout the 80s and 90s, Howes didn’t enter the Catholic community herself until moving to Greenbelt in 2000, roughly five years after her transition.
Howes managed to find a home in the Catholic community in part because of the congregation she joined. The Catholic Community of Greenbelt is an Intentional Eucharistic Community (IEC), which differs from a mainstream Catholic church in that it was set up by its members rather than a bishop. IECs are also lay-led meaning there is no ordained minister and all members of the congregation are encouraged to share their interpretation of scripture readings.
LGBTQ Greenbelters are also making personal efforts to promote the acceptance of sexual and gender minorities within the religious community. Howes promotes transgender inclusion and acceptance on her website TransCatholic.org. Though it functions as a resource for transgender Catholics, the website primarily serves Catholic allies and family members of transgender people. For those who may be in the dark on transgender topics, TransCatholic provides information on the distinction between gender identity and representation, mental illness and violence affecting the transgender community, rights and protections for transgender students, and more. The site also includes first-hand accounts from trans Catholics, Bible readings related to gender, and a checklist for those who wish to foster a trans-inclusive church environment.
Robin Gorsline, a writer and poet living in Greenbelt, creates similar online content to address different points of contention. As the coauthor of the blog SexBodiesSpirit.net, Gorsline publishes articles addressing spirituality, body politics, and religious attitudes toward sex. For roughly a decade, Gorsline also served as a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) pastor in Richmond, Virginia. The Metropolitan Community Churches, established in the late 60s, are a collection of churches based around the globe that recognize the needs of those who face prejudice because of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability status, etc.
LGBTQ Greenbelters are also making spiritual self-discoveries. GreenBeLT Pride, the city’s primary LGBTQ resource, has given many Greenbelt residents confidence to embrace their LGBTQ identities. Apart from groups and organizations, locals have also been more inclined to explore their own identities simply because of the city’s atmosphere. “There is a way that the general ethos allows people to express themselves,” Gorsline mentions following the Stonewall 50th Anniversary Commemoration this past month. His husband, Jonathan Lebolt agrees about the city’s inclusive atmosphere.
Though many of the city’s religious congregations welcome LGBTQ folk, there are still a handful of churches lagging behind. St. Hugh of Grenoble Church and the Greenbelt Baptist Church have stood in opposition to LGBTQ matters including homosexuality and marriage equality.
Anna*, a Greenbelt resident who has only recently come to question her sexual orientation, describes her friction with religion during a phone interview. Until 2016, she was a member of Mclean Bible Church, a nondenominational megachurch with locations throughout the D.C. area. During her time there, Anna was exposed to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric labeling homosexuality a natural sin. Since leaving, Anna has begun to embrace her LGBTQ identity and accept herself, but as she tells me, “Two years ago I would have given you a different answer.”
Anna’s message is one to keep in mind: attitudes toward gender and sexuality are changing, but they’re still relatively new. It wasn’t long ago that same-sex marriage remained illegal in some states. Without the constant pressure placed on systems of prejudice by members and allies of the LGBTQ community, progress is unlikely. Greenbelt stands out from many communities for its inclusiveness and accepting religious congregations.
* Name changed for privacy