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Singer Jennifer Knapp Shares Her Story of Being Christian and Queer


Ahead of headlining at our UltraViolet Arts Festival, award-winning recording artist Jennifer Knapp shares a little bit about her music and her advocacy for LGBTQ people of faith in this exclusive interview with Spectrum.

Question: You are the headline artist at our Spectrum UltraViolet Arts Festival September 12 and 13 in Glendale, California. Thank you so much for being a part of our event! What can fans expect from your concert on Saturday night?

Answer: I’ll mostly be playing songs from the “SET ME FREE” record, but I’ll also include some older music. Whenever I’m in front of an audience that is familiar with conversations of faith, I open up quite a bit about the spirituality within the songs. 

Being a queer person of faith comes into play as well, so elements of the concert will be in narrating what that journey has been like through the music. 

You are also scheduled give the keynote talk on Sunday during the festival. Without giving too much away, what do you plan to talk about?

I’ll be speaking more in depth about being LGBTQ inside of faith community. I’ll share about what my experience has been like, while also highlighting the importance of the support that needs to come from faith communities.  

You have toured all over the US, and played all kinds of venues, from churches and bars to big events like 1999’s Lilith Fair. What are your favorite kinds of concerts to play?

I truly enjoy playing intimate environments like clubs. They are usually small, packed, sweaty and very conversational. We’re all so close together, we can really connect with each other during the concert. 

But really, wherever I play, it’s the days when I get to meet people and feel like we can really hang out that are the best. I find that playing a gig and being a diva is all well and good, but it’s much more fulfilling when the circumstances allow us all to truly discover something about each other.

For any readers who are less familiar with your music, what are the three songs they should listen to? And why?

Oh, how do I choose? I suppose in the songs I’m playing right now, I’d pick “Remedy,” “Set Me Free” and “Mercy’s Tree.” In that order, it’s almost a cross section of my biography. Where I’ve come from, what I’ve been through to get here, and where my hope lies going forward.

After two hit records and a Grammy nomination in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you took a seven-year hiatus from music, traveling the world, including a long stint in Australia. You said you needed a break after an intense recording and touring schedule. Why did you decide to come back?

To make a long story short, I left having imagined that I had completely retired from music because I was, for the most part, convinced that I had nothing left to offer. My retirement, as it were, really just ended up being an exercise in choosing not to use my my gifts. It took seven years to figure it out, but I discovered that music was as vital as having air in my lungs. It’s a part of me. 

It finally dawned on me that I was spending a lot of energy in ignoring what I was inclined to naturally do, mostly because I was afraid that it would lead me into public spaces again. 

My sexuality was definitely one of the hurdles, knowing that returning, I’d be inclined to reveal it. I can’t imagine songwriting without a healthy transparency, but I needed time to get comfortable about being so public about something so intensely private. 

It’s a funny thing. Songwriting seems to consistently lead me on a journey toward social connection and vulnerability.  I think that after I’d somewhat regained my energy, and renewed my own confidence in what I had to offer the people around me, it was easier to open the guitar case back up. 

You were known as a Christian recording artist, but the two albums you have recorded since your return, Letting Go (2010) and Set Me Free (2014) have not been marketed toward Christian radio. Why the change? You have said that your faith is still important to you. Are you still asked to perform primarily at Christian events?

The most basic change is that I’m simply not writing about Jesus in every song, nor do I see my purpose as being exclusively “Christian.” 

When it comes to the specific genre and market place of Christian music, simply being a Christian isn’t enough. There’s a real necessity to have the content always pointing toward a language that is specific to Christianity. For me, personally, I feel the pull to rise to the challenge of couching the spiritual lessons I’ve learned into a broader perspective. 

I left Christian music, in part, because I didn’t feel comfortable creating music that predetermined a path of spiritual resolution for another person. Life is messy and getting through it, celebrating it or even challenging the status quo is part of growing as a human being. 

For those who are familiar to concepts like grace and forgiveness, I hope they can continue to see these common themes in my music in uncommon ways. And for the times that I speak more openly about my faith experience, I hope to leave space for the experiences of others. 

All that being said, these days, if and when you find me in a church, I’m largely talking about LGBTQ issues. That’s not a music career decision, it’s a personal choice I’ve made to engage my faith community in a very specific way.

You came out as a lesbian, and spoke of your long-term partner, in 2010, which sparked a lot of conversation in the Christian music industry. In the five years since then, I’m sure you have heard various reactions from your fans and others. Have they mostly been positive and supportive, or negative and condemning?

There was condemnation and it still comes across my radar in a fairly consistent trickle, but what is interesting is that it largely comes from faceless, anonymous voices. It lacks the potency of sincerity when you compare it those who are willing to be visible and positively supportive. As far as the ratio, it’s truly far more positive, audible, and visible support I’ve received that far outweighs the negative. 

I think what most people tend to rally around is the idea that it’s tragic to shame anyone into believing they are worthless. Religion or not, there’s really no excuse for limiting the potential of another human being. I’ve been so fortunate to have a fan base that lifted me up during the worst of the storm. They remind me daily that there is more to life than arguments over sexual orientation. They really care about the journey I am on and they are very, very vocal in celebrating the fact that it takes a lot of courage for any person to reveal their true identity to the outside world. 

You don’t have to be gay to understand what it’s like to be rejected by those you rely upon to love you. Nor do you have to be Christian to understand what anyone means when they say that God hates who you are. All I know is that, as a pessimist, I’m never truly surprised when I see the ugly side of people; but the upside is the exhilarating realization that we all have the ability to rise to the occasion to be agents of love.

You have said it can be hard to hold on to one’s faith, and to the person one loves (of whatever sex) at the same time. Why is that?

Maybe it’s just me, but somewhere along the way I think I was taught to believe that loving God and loving people were in two different categories. As if the love of another human being requires an entirely different skill set than that required in learning to love God; or that perhaps we must concede one for the other.  All I know is that if falling in love has taught me anything, it is that I would have never been capable of it without an insight into the love I had learned from a divine perspective. And at the same time, I don’t think I would have understood just how life-changing faith can be without the tangible, physical connection with other human beings. 

In a lot of ways, I feel like I m learning to undo a teaching that has challenged me to see love on earth and divine love as in competition, when what I have started to experience is that love is love. It is fragile, requires kindness, patience, faith — and the occasional reward of being able to touch the source of inspiration.

You have launched an advocacy organization for LGBTQ people of faith called Inside Out. Can you tell us more about that organization and your involvement with it?

The principle goal of Inside Out Faith is to advocate for the expression and inclusion of LGBTQ people in their respective faith communities. 

One of the challenges of facing faith communities is simply getting exposure to what it’s actually like being LGBTQ. The thought has long been that gay people are gay because they’ve lost their faith or that they’ve left their church because they’ve lost some spiritual battle. What we’re finding is that people leave their churches because their churches have exiled them, silenced them or have grown weary of being treated as less than. The reality is that losing a church is not the same as losing one’s faith. There’s also the opportunity to draw attention to those churches who have known this all along. 

These days, there is a a growing willingness from the pews to the denominations as a whole to be seen as actively inclusive. Inside Out Faith helps to put the face on the issue by using social media and speakers who are willing to live out what love can look like when we support our LGBTQ community.

IOF was born out of a need. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but when I came out, there were (and still are) so few people willing to risk offending their conservative peers by expressing both their faith and their sexual orientation.  Like so many others, I personally had to weigh the option of whether to leave or stay involved in faith community due to others’ reaction to my sexuality. As a former Christian artist, it was a shock to many that I would even show my face, let alone claim my faith. But what I discovered by opening up and talking about it was that I wasn’t just an anomaly. There have been faithful, spiritual LGBTQ people and their allies worshiping together for years, but in times of crisis, it can be dangerously stressful trying to find the spiritual support that’s needed if there isn’t a clear invitation. The sanctuary should be exactly that: safe and a place of refuge for all who enter.

What message do you have for Christians (especially young people) who identify as LGBTQ or have questions about their sexual orientation?

I think the first is to give yourself permission to be honest with where you are. You don’t have to have everything figured out in one day. It often takes a little time to for things to feel like they make sense enough to start talking about them with others. It’s also important to find someone you feel safe to talk to. 

There’s no timeline on coming out. You might be a teenager, or much, much older. I was a “late bloomer.” It took me a long time to figure out what was going on. Once I had a good handle on what my sexual orientation was, I started to educate myself. I read…a lot. I read up on what the Bible said and what some Christians say that it says. All across the board, Christians disagree with other Christians about a lot of different things, but one thing that should never be argued is that you are beautiful and worthy of love, just as you are.

Do you feel that the attitude of Christian churches toward LGBTQ members is changing? What do you think churches and church members need to do for the LGBTQ community?

I think that if we’re going to define a trend of “change” it’s not so much a theological shift from sin to not sin, but rather a willingness in faith leaders, believers and denominations to be abundantly clear of the affirming positions that they’ve previously kept close to the chest. 

Theological evolution is a touchy subject for some, but experience and contact with human need has a tendency to open the door to compassion. It’s not just that LGBTQ people of faith are coming out, it’s that their straight brothers and sisters are coming out as allies along side them, unwilling to leave them to exile.  I love what Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert has said, that ultimately he’s compelled by the Gospel to err on the side of love. “It’s possible that I could be wrong…but I doubt it.” 

As far as the direction we can go as church and church members, there’s the concept we have long valued in the form of testimony shared by people who have discovered faith. We don’t just encounter God in terms of religious tradition or solely inside the four walls of the church — we do so by the experience of living. We’ve silenced the story of our LGBTQ people of faith for so long, maybe it’s time we started to listen to the overwhelming stories of hope and faith and perhaps find something that can lift us all up?

What does Christianity mean to you, personally?

Even after 20 years of being on this journey, all I can say is that the word “Christian” is a single word that still challenges me perhaps more than any other. From the day this all started, I’ve wrestled with the expectations of the religion and suffered long episodes of complete doubt and skepticism, but I cannot escape the life-changing experience of having understood just a portion of the grace through the lens of Jesus. 

I am, to this day, compelled to be inspired to follow on if by nothing else, than by faith. That if I continue to seek to love as Christ is said to have loved, that it may, in fact, turn out to be Divine.

Singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp has multiple Dove Awards and two Grammy nominations to her credit, as well as a memoir called Facing The Music: My Story (Howard/Simon & Schuster).

Since coming out as a lesbian — a noteworthy story that made her the featured interview subject of an episode of Larry King Live — Knapp’s willingness to speak on behalf of LGBT people of faith has created a new role for her as one of their foremost advocates.

Everyone reading this interview is invited to attend the UltraViolet Arts Festival and  Jennifer Knapp’s concert in Glendale, California. For more information, and tickets, click here. Hear Knapp’s music live and listen to her talk about her journey. Accommodation is available.

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