A Lesbian & the Virgin Mary
Two years ago, I was co-pastoring a little church in inner-city Vancouver. That Advent season, my co-pastor was leading us in imaginative storytelling: we’d take turns choosing a person from the Christmas narrative and telling the story from that character’s viewpoint. I enjoyed listening to other people’s reflections, but whenever I tried to decide which character from the story I could best identify with, I lost focus.
My brain kept getting snagged on the fact that this would be my last closeted Christmas.
Let me back up a bit. Seven years earlier, I had moved to Vancouver to study theology at an evangelical grad school. Although I had hoped seminary would provide a pool of potential Christian husbands, I ended up slowly falling in love with my female roommate and classmate, Danice, who had introduced me to the ocean, good music, and good beer, and who had also fallen in love with me. This unexpected turn of events shed unavoidable light on our lifelong attraction to women, which, like good Evangelicals, we’d both semi-successfully repressed.
Eventually we completed our MDiv degrees and found jobs in two Baptist churches, all the while living together as mostly-closeted, celibate roommates. I spent my free time devouring every book I could get my hands on about homosexuality and faith. Discovering good hermeneutical points in both the affirming and non-affirming camps, I doubted whether I’d ever land conclusively on either side of the fence.
After seven years of this uncomfortable fence-sitting, a couple of things were becoming clear. Our ministry was suffering because we didn’t feel free to be authentically ourselves. Our relationship was suffering because we were in constant flux over how to ethically express our love. Despite our lack of theological certainty, it was time to make a decision.
As we waited and prayed about whether to pursue marriage, our sense of peace and confidence in God’s blessing was strengthened. We agreed to spend the following year coming out, culminating in an announcement to our congregations, with full knowledge that our intent to marry would mean the loss of these pastoral roles.
There I sat in our circle of plastic church chairs, quite distracted by this imminent and ominous “year of coming out,” surrounded by beautiful people who would sadly no longer be my congregants come next Christmas.
In that moment, I did not expect to be drawn to Mary.
Honestly, up until that point in my life, Mary had been very domesticated. Sure, she got some airtime around Christmas for the Magnificat and the whole “birth of Christ” thing, but most often Protestants kept Mary safely tucked away, lest our interest in her reach unhealthy (read: Catholic) levels. Plus, I was coming out as a lesbian, one without a noticeably ticking maternal clock, so it seemed even less likely that I’d be drawn to this consummate heterosexual wife and mother.
But the more I thought about Mary and her role in the plot, the more I found links between our lives.
Mary had not asked to be pregnant with God. I had not asked to be gay. Fear and alarm were all too present as both Mary and I processed how these unusual, unearned expressions of God’s favor would play out in our lives.
To Mary’s credit, she received her gift from God with far more willingness and promptness than I did mine. It took me years to name my sexuality as a divine gift to be accepted rather than a curse to be broken, an illness to be cured, or a disability to be tolerated. Finally, haltingly, I was able to accept myself as gay, to receive this weighty gift from God, to echo Mary’s “May it be to me as you have said.” More and more celibate and partnered gay Christians are doing the same; this self-acceptance is freeing us to shift our focus to the new life God is bringing in and through us.
Sadly, although we are highly favored by God, receiving His gift puts us out of favor with many of His followers. I can’t fathom the societal rejection and religious condemnation Mary must have weathered as an unwed teenage mother in her day and age. Luke only writes that Mary skipped town in a hurry, but I wonder whether she wasn’t running from the pointing, the whispering, and the scowling as much as she was running to her aunt’s house.
God got Mary into a real scandal, and He didn’t step in to protect her from accusation. As I sat there pondering this, I dreaded the scorn I would encounter when I, too, revealed myself as having infringed my religious tribe’s sexual norms and expectations.
In the end, I encountered very little overt hatred compared to most of my LGBTQ+ Christian friends, some of whom contemplated suicide to escape their constant condemnation. Those among us who survived rejection – or even just their fear of rejection – have often gratefully realized they no longer worry as much about the approval of others, having learned to lean instead on the unfailing love of the God who truly sees them. I’m curious whether Mary was able to do the same in the midst of the blame cast on her.
Part of Mary’s predicament was the privacy of her experience of God, a problem I also shared. The angel met Mary alone. She had no witnesses or corroborating proof to legitimate her unlikely story. Today we grow up hearing the virgin birth linked to Isaiah’s prophecy, but even if Mary had had the ingenuity to draw those parallels, as a teenage girl, what authority did she have to convince a rabbi she was the chosen virgin? I wonder if she herself doubted at times whether she’d dreamt up the whole crazy angel episode, at least until her fiance had his own crazy angel episode.
Like Mary, I knew that I could not convince everyone of my biblical interpretation, though I had pored over the relevant scriptures for years. After all, what had tipped the interpretive scales for Danice and me was our experience of God’s blessing in our relationship, our experience of God’s presence in the lives of our partnered gay Christian friends, and our experience of God’s peace as we prayed about marriage. Human experience of God is a shaky foundation to build on, but it was all Mary had, and it was all we had.
Thankfully, like Mary, we had Elizabeths in our lives. God provided people we could run to, friends who would joyfully greet us, saying, “I see God in you, and I’m blessed to know you. I know how hard this is. Keep going!” Without Elizabeth’s validation, would Mary have mustered the boldness to sing her radically prophetic song about God’s upside-down kingdom? With the help of our friends, Danice and I mustered our own boldness to come out publicly that year.
We were married this past May.
Today, Danice and I are privileged to work for a Canadian organization called New Direction, which seeks to nurture safe and spacious places for LGBTQ people to explore and grow in faith in Christ. Now we get to tell other queer Christians that we see God in them, and that God will surely bear fruit through them, whether they discern a path of celibacy, or of marriage. Their coming out journey will bring them moments of exquisite acceptance that they will ponder and treasure up in their hearts, as well as agonizing moments like a sword piercing their soul.
Through it all, like Mary, they will endure. For they, too, are highly favored, and the Lord is with them.
Beth Carlson-Malena grew up in the Canadian prairies. Her and her wife recently moved to Toronto to take on the role of Director of Community for New Direction Ministries. She also writes her own blog at, bethblogever.blogspot.com.