God Cares About The Most Marginalized Bodies with Shannon TL Kearns

Welcome to our LGBT podcast! In this episode we’re talking with the Reverend Shannon TL Kearns (he/him) about Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Rev. Kearns was raised fundamentalist Evangelical, however he went on to become the first openly Transgender man ordained to the Old Catholic Priesthood. Our wide-ranging discussion includes how Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit helped him reconcile his gender identity, sexuality, and faith tradition. We also talk queerest stories on the Bible and I ask Shannon if Christianity needs Queerness to survive into the future.

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All social media platforms: @shannontlkearns
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Credits

Host/Founder: J.P. Der Boghossian
Executive Producer: Jim Pounds
Associate Producers: Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olila, Joe Perazzo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith
Patreon Supporters: Awen Briem, Stephen D., and Thomas Michna.

Transcript

J.P. Der Boghossian: The Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis presents The Menu with Anya Taylor-Joy. It’s a horror movie, it’s a comedy, it’s strange, and weird with an exotic setting, crazy rich people, and an 89% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
For show times and to purchase tickets, visit riverviewtheater.com

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J.P. Der Boghossian: On today’s episode…

Shannon TL Kearns: In particular trans folks, because we’ve had to think about our bodies, and grappled with what it looks like to make peace with our bodies, how our bodies might be holy. That talking about that, and going into Scripture and saying; like what actually are the messages about bodies? Oh, it turns out there are a lot of positive messages, where God cares about bodies. God particularly cares about the most marginalized bodies.

J.P. Der Boghossian: I’m talking with Reverend Shannon TL Kearns about the award winning novel Oranges are not the only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. In the book, our narrator, also named Jeanette, is a coming of age evangelical who is coming to terms with her sexuality and trying to balance the peace of this realization with her God-fearing mother and household.

There’s so much to unpack here, so let’s get right to it. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

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J.P.: As we’re getting started today, I want to thank Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis, they are a promotional sponsor for our podcast and they’ve been so supportive in getting the word out and sharing episodes. For those folks listening today who don’t know who Quatrefoil is, they are a community center based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and their mission is to make accessible LGBTQI plus materials for education and inspiration. You can go to their website qlibrary.org and you can check out their Queer reading lists, lending library, Queer book clubs and community events plus all sorts of amazing Queer stuff.

Ok! Shannon, would you like to introduce yourself?

Shannon TL Kearns: Thank you for having me, I’m really thrilled to be here! I usually introduce myself by saying, I was raised fundamentalist Evangelical, however I went on to become the first openly Transgender man ordained to the Old Catholic Priesthood – which is usually enough to raise some eyebrows and get the conversation started. But I’m also a playwright and a storyteller and I feel like all of my work, both religious and secular, is all about making meaning through stories.

J.P.: Well Shannon, what is the book that saved your life?

Shannon: When you ask me this question, the first book that came to mind was Oranges are not the only Fruit by Jeanette Winterston which is such an interesting and fascinating book. I feel like there are many books that have saved my life but that was the one that, if I had to pick one, there was something about that book that did it for me.

J.P.: How would you describe it to folks who haven’t read it yet?

Shannon: It’s a strange story of a young person growing up in a very religious home in fact a very authoritarian, religious home: probably being abused by family and church who discovers and uncovers her Queerness which puts her in tension with her mother, with her religious community and with her community at large.

J.P.: When did you first read the book?

Shannon: I must have been pretty early in my coming out journey. I went to an evangelical christian college and I started to come out first as Gay because I had no language around gender identity. We didn’t really talk about that in the world. This is in the early 2000 s. There were no Trans people on television or in the media. The only language I really had was about being Gay I started to come out but I had no interactions or connection to the Queer community. The only folks that I knew who had come out had gotten kicked out of college. I was really hungry to find myself and I finally came across some young folks who had been out much longer than I had and they started to pass me books and some music saying I think that you should read this and one of them passed me Jeanette Winterson’s book and said, I think that there’s something about this book that would resonate with you. So I read it and was still closeted and was still living at home with my mom at the time and just felt so seen in a way that I hadn’t felt seen in other art.
It was just a really impactful moment for me and it found me at the perfect time right? To find this book talking about religion, talking about church homophobia at the time when I was dealing with all of that was really huge.

J.P.: Unpack that for me because the primary relationship I would say in the book is between the main character Jeanette and her mother. So you’re reading it while you’re living with your mother. Unpack that moment for me. That’s part of your life journey.

Shannon: I think for me reading it at that point in my life I had not met any other person who was really serious about their faith in the way that I was. I’m coming out of fundamentalist evangelicalism and also was grappling with sexuality and so to read a story where someone is talking about church and faith and at least in the beginning is really wanting to stay connected to that community and that faith was huge for me. It gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone in the world when up to this point I had very much felt alone in the world and that there might be a way through it. Whether that meant staying in religion or not but that there was a way to grapple with these things together. There was a way to put them in conversation with one another and there was also a sense of feeling like someone understood what it was like to be in this repressive religious space because the Queer folks that I was meeting at this point were not folks who were religious right? They had this understanding of that piece of my identity but they couldn’t grapple with why do you even want to stay in the church? What does it even mean for you to be a person of faith? That wasn’t part of their consciousness. This book really gave me a window into a sense that there are other people who are grappling with this work. The story between Jeanette and her mother is not a happy ending. That wasn’t necessarily comforting but it also was like okay well I can survive that too! It gave me a sense of even if coming out goes badly at some point there is life on the other side of that. It can be survivable. I think in that moment in my life, I was still in a space of I’m not sure that coming out will be survivable. Even as difficult as the ending of that book was, it still gave me a sense of hope.

J.P.: Did I read that you went to Liberty College?

Shannon: No. I went to Grace College which is a small evangelical christian school in Buonta Lake Indiana. I had gone to Liberty’s campus at the end of a mission trip that I did in high school. I just recently went back to take a walk around and see what it was like these days.

J.P.: Your career and your life story is about bringing gender identity Queerness and theology together. Would you say that this book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit started that path for you and gave you an opening into that or do you feel like you were going to be headed in that journey regardless of the book?

Shannon: That’s a great question. I think that this book definitely gave me a moment to say it’s possible to put Queerness and faith in conversation with one another. It’s possible to make good art that grapples with both. I think up to that point I had done a lot of, and I say this with affection, a lot of religious propaganda. I was writing pieces where everyone’s got to get saved at the end because that’s the world that I’m in. To have someone give an example of writing a book that is so complex and without any easy answers where people are messy and flawed and grappling with really difficult things gave me a window into a different type of art and a different type of religious art. The fact that it dealt with religion so honestly gave me a window into a world in which I might be able to create something that wasn’t propaganda and that was honest. Something about this book planted itself in my psyche and I’m sure it continues to have reverberations, even now.

J.P.: You said you were growing up in an evangelical fundamentalist household. I was the same and something I think about a lot was that I didn’t have choice right? It was just there. It was the water that I was swimming in. What was that like for you? When I would do all the major things of baptism and accepting Jesus into my heart, there was a complication. It was just expected. That is what you do right? There is no option of no to this right? There’s really no option of critical thinking to this. What was your experience like with critical thinking while understanding who you are? Did you have a sense of yourself as Queer early on and then we’re beginning this conversation with your faith tradition.

Shannon: I had no sense of myself as Queer really until puberty I think when puberty hit for me and my body started to change I would not have labeled any of the things that I was feeling as Queer feelings but it was, I remember, a level of discomfort that was not the level that my peers were going through. I definitely felt more drawn to women but looking back, I also found guys attractive. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I have no language! I do remember that when Ellen Degeneres came out I was 17 at the time. I do remember that was a moment where I was like huh because I had really looked up to Ellen right? Ellen was someone who hung out with women and wore boys clothes and was really happy being single and I was like oh yeah that could be me. I could hang out with my girlfriends and always be single and dress like I want and then when she came out I was like oh shit! I do remember having a feeling like I wonder if people are going to see in me what they see in Ellen. That was a real moment of fear for me. I do remember that when she came out, my family boycotted the show. The pastor called her Ellen degenerate from the pulpit. right? It was then that I started to feel like maybe there’s a name for some of the things that I’m experiencing. I had no language around gender identity. I was really invested in my church growing up and I didn’t have a sense that I wanted to not be a part of it. But even as young as junior high I do remember sitting in my congregation and being like I don’t know man, we talk a really good game about how much we want to welcome people and how much we want to be a space where people can experience Jesus. I’m looking around my congregation and everyone looks like me and there’s no real room for difference and we don’t make space for people to talk about hard things or ask hard questions.

So for me, I am starting to see that something is not matching with who we say we are and how we’re behaving. I became a bit of a rabble rouser trying to push the boundaries of what we would talk about in our church which for me wasn’t about challenging the faith that I was in but it was about challenging the culture of and the way that we were living out that faith which I think has been a really interesting piece of my journey and has always been part of my journey I’ve always been someone who is asking the hard questions and really pushing the boundaries and that put me into conflict with a lot of people that were in charge who were not ready for this mouthy teenager. Maybe we should be talking about hard things. Maybe we should be making space for conversations about mental health. It was this sense of critical thinking and not about theology at that point but about how is it that we’re actually living out our faith which I think then shaped a lot of how I did ministry and how I showed up in the church and how I was perceived and received. This coupled with the fact that I was clearly a Queer kid. I mean everyone who looked at me was like this child, it’s Queer right? I might not have had language for it but you can look at pictures of me from when I was 15 or 16 and it’s like oh yeah, that’s a boy like duh, everyone can see that. I think those two things really made me a target for a bunch of leaders and then that I think ended up pushing me to even ask more questions which then eventually made me question the whole structure.

J.P.: Did you read Oranges in undergrad or grad school?

Shannon: It would have been in between so probably just after I had graduated from undergrad within like two years I was reading it.

J.P.: When you’re in grad school because you’re pursuing the ministry, at that point you were going to become ordained. Did you come out in that process? Where were you on your journey of understanding who you were, your gender identity and your sexuality as you were in grad school?

Shannon: By the time I started seminary, I had come out as Queer. I was still not really dealing with gender stuff. But I had a very strong sense of something about this isn’t right. Naming myself as Lesbian is not solving all of the problems that I thought it would. There’s still something else here. But I ended up coming out as Trans my second year of seminary and started my transition while in seminary. Ientered seminary out as Gay and then came out as Trans in my second year

J.P.: How did that go?

Shannon: Surprisingly well you know. I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York which is a fantastically liberal and progressive institution. It was a mixed bag in some ways in that I was only the second student to transition while in seminary. So there just weren’t any policies or procedures in place. They wanted to be supportive and they were supportive but they didn’t really have anything set up so I ended up having to do more education than I should have had to do. But for the most part, both professors and my peers were really welcoming and accepting. There were a couple folks that refused to use my pronouns.
One professor that was an adjunct who went on a Transphobic rant in class and so I had to report him to the Dean so that wasn’t great, For the most part, folks were were not only really welcoming but also made space for me. Then I started to do theological work from a Trans perspective which was really such a gift.

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J.P.: Welcome back, I’m talking with co-host of the podcast Queer Theology as well as the writer of the new book In the Margins A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture Shannon TL Kearns. We’re talking about the novel Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Shannon the relationship between our heroine and the mother is so central to the novel. May I ask during this time how was your relationship with your mom?

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Shannon: it’s complicated right? When I came out as Gay, my mom was more affirming than I expected her to be in that she didn’t immediately kick me out right? That was the level that I was expecting.but was definitely not thrilled and had a lot of moments of oh maybe this is going to be okay then saying something really hurtful to you know, kind of across the board. So It felt like a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Coming out as Trans was much much harder I think both because it was not something she really understood and also I think she had been really invested in having a daughter and so my transition not only felt like sinful behavior but felt like permanently changing my body in her mind in a harmful way. It also took away this connection she had with the person that she thought I was. She was coming from a super conservative background too. I’m sure you’ve had this experience too that you never get to be an adult right? Children are expected to just remain children and obey every command forever and eventually then you get married but your parents are still really the boss of you. I’ve done my own research. I am my own person. I have my own beliefs. She wasn’t equipped to handle that. I was still grappling with being a people pleaser.I was coming from an environment of always being told what to believe and what to think.I couldn’t quite push back. It took a long time for me to really set the right boundaries that I needed to protect my own self and so our relationship is really strained now because of her unwillingness to accept my identity.

J.P.: I’m sorry to hear that as someone who is estranged from my parents right now with almost no contact so I am feeling for you. I don’t want to say that I know what you’re going through because I don’t but I’m feeling lots of empathy right now.

Shannon: Thank you. It’s so hard right? I think hopefully we as Queer and Trans folks get to a point where we understand that we deserve better right? Our parents should have loved us. It’s okay to also protect ourselves. I think especially for those of us who grew up in conservative environments where we were taught not only it’s not how to set boundaries but that setting boundaries was bad. I think the idea that we are allowed to prioritize our own health and well-being is important. Is is mind blowing for some of us and it takes us some time to say oh, I am allowed to do this and the hurt that is on the other side I am not causing that hurt. to. It’s okay for me to set boundaries even if those boundaries cause someone to perceive hurt.

J.P.: In Oranges, there is a Lesbian couple who provides some shelter for Jeanette. Did you have anyone like that as you were in your coming out process? Did you have someone that you could turn to who was part of the Queer rainbow?

Shannon: Yes, but it took a while. I graduated from college and immediately went back into the closet and took a job as a Baptist Youth Pastor which you can imagine is complicated. It was an American Baptist Church so they were slightly more liberal. The very first summer I was there one of the kids in the youth group came out and his family was totally supportive. His family had been in this congregation for generations. The pastor and the family were like well why don’t you take him since you’re his youth pastor. Why don’t you take him to these like Queer youth groups and to pride and so here I am not out taking this high school student to all of these Queer groups and of course like I’m there as an ally and all of the kids in the group are like you’re just a really good ally! We’ll be here when you’re ready to come out which was very much the experience. I’m hanging out with all of these high school kids who are out and who are proud of their identity and who are much further along in the journey than I am. It helped me to be able to come out and introduced me to the community and films and music and all of these things and that was really fantastic. It wasn’t until I was really getting ready to leave this job at the church and I ended up in a relationship before I quit the job and that was my first entry into a larger Queer community because the person that I ended up dating had been out for a really long time and had tons of Queer friends. That started to help me get introduced to more people and we went to Pride together for the first time. I remember being at Pride for the first time and being completely overwhelmed. Not only are there millions of us, but there are people of faith here and there are parents who support their kids. They gave me a window into a world that was just incredibly full of possibility in a way that I hadn’t known existed. I also have to give a lot of credit to straight Cis folks who saw Queerness in me and made space for it to grow without forcing me to be or to do anything but simply kind of encouraged me to keep exploring. They did in a lot of ways provide that kind of safety net like you’re going through it and we’re here for you and we’re not going to make you name yourself until you’re ready. But here are some people that you might want to meet or here’s a book that you might want to read. That also, I think, really served to save my life especially in a time when I was still deeply dependent on the job that I was in and on living with my family because I had no money to protect myself in that space while figuring myself out and building the courage to come out.

J.P.: Okay, Queer Theology. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is dealing with the main character, Jeanette’s relationship to her faith right?. Talk to me about Queer Theology. You have this amazing platform. I mean there’s the podcast and there’s your writing. There’s both nonfiction writing and then playwriting. I don’t know how much of this plays into the screenwriting that you’re doing as well. Give us a sneak peek I guess of the work that you do putting Queerness and Theology into conversation with each other in a way that’s healing and not….fraught.

Shannon: Queertheology.com is about to celebrate our tenth anniversary next April which is just mind blowing to me.

J.P.: Wow! Congratulations!

Shannon: Thank you. We started the conversation in the US of was it okay to be Gay and can we have Gay people in our church! Brian and I were just looking around at the resources that were being distributed and the people that were speaking and we’re like this is so. boring. Yes of course it’s okay to be Gay and if we just take that as our starting point then we can actually get into something that is interesting and that is lifegiving for folks. Something that doesn’t rely on defending ourselves all the time. We were seeing that work happening in academia but the work that was happening in academia was really inaccessible to people. I mean like this theological work is dense and so most folks were not reading it and so we created. Crythology.com to simply take yes, of course it’s okay to be LGBTQ plus and christian as a starting point. Then also what happens when we read scripture? When we do church, we look at faith from a Queer and Trans lens. What does that do for the Queer community? How does that open up beautiful horizons for the church and the world as well and so we started with an online course. We’re now the longest running LGBTQIA + Christian podcast and we’ve been going like you said for eight, almost nine years. We have tons of resources. Much of that work is creative storytelling. It’s nonfiction. It’s putting our stories in conversation with scripture. But that also then bleeds over into all of the fiction work that I do and when I started playwriting I was really trying to not write about faith and it just kept appearing and so finally I was like listen I just had to embrace the fact that the fate stuff comes out of me. I can’t help it. And, so what? What I’m trying to do with all of my work is to find what are the stories that aren’t being told.

From my perspective they are Trans masculine stories. We’re just not seeing a lot of those. We’re starting to see more, especially in fiction. Where is the place for people who want to grapple with faith and who want to stay in the church? What are the complexities in that? It becomes an exploration often of how do we? How do we be in conversation with people we disagree with? What does it look like to be in communities and spaces and institutions that don’t want us? That comes out in my playwriting. It’s coming out in my screenwriting too. I’m just starting to really lean into that and be like we need more stories of Queer and Trans people of faith who are grappling with all of this. right? Stories that aren’t coming from a place of you have to stay a christian and if that’s not good for you, leave. That’s totally fine. But if you want to stay, here are some ways to think about it and think through it and this is what it can look like to have a healthy faith. This is how your Queerness and Transness can enrich your faith. It’s not just like yeah it’s it’s okay to be Queer and Trans. It’s that actually your Queerness and Transness does something really important to the way that you live out your faith in the world and to the way that you read scripture and that’s a gift not just to you but to the church too.

J.P.: : Can you give me an example of that? How it can enrich the faith tradition.

Shannon: I think about how so many of us who grew up in the church have such a fraught relationship with our bodies and sexuality and this is like not just Queer and Trans folks right? The number of cis folks that have grown up in purity culture have internalized all of these messages that their bodies are sinful and that their flesh is wicked and all of these things. I think the way in particular that Trans folks have thought because we’ve had to think about our bodies is that we’ve thought about and grappled with what it looks like to make peace with our bodies. How our bodies might be holy. Talking about that and going into scripture and saying what actually are the messages about bodies? It turns out that there are a lot of really positive messages where God cares about bodies and God cares particularly about the most marginalized bodies and when we start to do that work because we’ve had to and we talk about it, it opens up a space for other folks to say, oh maybe I’ve internalized something about my body that’s not been helpful. How might I look at it differently? How might I start to see my own body as Holy. It’s like the vulnerability of Trans folks to have those conversations in public and to have them with scripture that opens up a space for everyone to have those conversations and that leads to health and wholeness across the board in really beautiful ways.

J.P.: What’s the Queer story in the bible?

Shannon: Oh man, there are so many!

J.P.: What’s your favorite?

Shannon: I think there’s two stories kind of back to back in the book of Acts. One is commonly called the Ethiopian eunuch story. That’s a story of a eunuch from Ethiopia who basically demands to be baptized and one of the disciples is like ah, sure. It’s this story of ushering in someone who would not have been welcomed right? Someone who is a eunuch, someone who is a gentile. Then two chapters later, there’s a story where Peter has this vision. and as part of the vision God tells Peter to eat all of these animals that would have been considered unclean and God tells Peter don’t call anything unclean that I’ve made and it ushers a space that welcomes more people and that says oh no, this is open to all people and I think that push toward more inclusion: that push toward no, it’s ALL good. It’s ALL holy. It’s ALL part of God’s plan and God’s creation> That feels really Queer to me and also feels just like such a beautiful metaphor for our times or instruction for our times of what does it look like to make more room? What does it look like to welcome in the people that have historically been told they’re not welcome? They’re not allowed to be here. What is our responsibility to make more space but also for the folks that have felt excluded? What does it look like to take up space to demand baptism? To say like no I’m not unclean. I get to be a part of this too.

J.P.: I don’t know where this next question is coming from but it’s just kind of like coalescing in my head. Would you say that Queerness is the future? Christianity is going to need Queerness to keep going into the future.

Shannon: One hundred percent! The conversations that the church is having right now are that they desperately need Queerness frankly. I think that the church as it has existed especially in the United States is not going to survive much longer and I think that’s a good thing. I think that thinking about the ways that Queer people approach the community and the way that we care and the way that we take care about one another is the way that we have embodied mutual aid for all of our history. We’re constantly talking about who’s the most at risk and how might we organize to protect them? These are the conversations that christianity desperately needs to be having and that the church desperately needs to be having if the church has any hope of surviving and of being relevant in the world. It needs to look to Queer and Trans people for the future. I think there’s also something beautiful in the ways that Queer and Trans folks are all about breaking down binaries and living in the here and now. There’s an embodied way that we’re always embodying deep theological tenets in our daily lives all the time in ways that I think can really enrich straight and cis christians lives if they would have the humility to listen. I think that if the church is going to survive as anything that is a life-giving force in the world, it’s going to have to take its lead from Queer and Trans folks and Queer and Trans ideas, like all of it.

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I’d like to thank Shannon for being on the show. He released his first book in August 2022. It’s called In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture. In it, he retells bible stories from a trans perspective and he narrates his own life. You can buy it in our Bookshop. Visit thisqueerbook.com/bookshop.

Shannon’s current book project is about masculinity and how trans men have a window into what a healthy masculinity can be. He was awarded the Humanitas New Voices Fellowship, a screenwriting fellowship, as Shannon looks to writing for television in the near future. His goal is to center trans masculine voices, particularly in rural communities, which we don’t see.
You can connect with Shannon at Queertheology.com and shannontlkearns.com. You can also follow him on social media, he is @shannontlkearns on all platforms.

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J.P.: Cheers for listening today. All of our episodes are Executive Produced by Jim Pounds. Our Associate Producers are Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olila, Joe Perazzo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith. If you haven’t subscribed to our show, you should! Give us a 5 star rating too! The algorithm gods look at those numbers to help queer folks who are looking for new podcasts to find this one!

Don’t forget to listen to Season 1 of our podcast every Saturday morning on AM950 the Progressive Voice of Minnesota.

And in the meantime, stay tuned to this space every Tuesday for new episodes of This Queer Book Saved My Life! and 7 Minutes in Book Heaven. And next week is a new episode of 7 Minutes in Book Heaven with Loren Olson and his book No More Neckties: A Memoir In Essays.

Until then, see you Queers and allies in the bookstores!
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