CHICAGO — Religious communities have started to include drag artists in their faith traditions more frequently, allowing space for LGBTQ+ people to heal from religious trauma and the broader community to learn from their experiences.
A few churches throughout the city regularly invite drag artists to perform in their sanctuaries, help lead worship services and read storybooks to children.
Drag artists say that these experiences have helped them to better connect with their spirituality through safe community spaces. Church leaders say developing a more inclusive community has attracted more parishioners and helped to counteract traditional church structures that have harmed people for centuries.
Pastors at Urban Village Church and Holy Covenant United Methodist Church attended a Drag & Spirituality Summit in Chicago last year, where they learned how to better support and celebrate the drag artists in their communities.
“God is calling on us to expand our circles to include drag queens, who are being attacked right now,” said Juan Pablo Herrera, the pastor at Urban Village Church’s Wicker Park location. “They’re created in God’s image just like anyone else. It’s about redefining what drag is so people can open their eyes and see it’s a beautiful expression of an inward feeling people have. It’s not scary or obscene, like people make it out to be.”
Throughout the three-day summit, drag artists spoke about how their art relates to their own spiritual practices and how bringing their full selves to religious services has helped them to heal from trauma caused by unaccepting religious environments.
Bonnie Violet Quintana, a queer chaplain who created the summit, wanted to bring drag artists and religious leaders together so that they could learn from each other’s experiences through spirituality.
Quintana wanted to help drag artists “create integration and wholeness” within their experiences, she said. And she wanted religious leaders available to “provide spiritual care for drag artists healing from religious trauma” while they learned from their experiences.
“For some folks, it was the first time ever they were existing in drag and also talking about spirituality at the same time,” Quintana said. “And it was an opportunity for people to hopefully understand that there’s more to us than the ‘ooh la la la’ on-stage performance kind of persona.”
Jennifer Stephens, pastor at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church in Lincoln Park, said the summit helped her better understand the ways churches “ostracize” gender non-conforming people and how “allowing people to be their authentic selves” can “heal and liberate” people from those painful experiences.
“When we invite more people into the church and say they can not only be who they are, but also lead worship services, it begins the process of healing,” Stephens said. “It’s a way to reclaim spaces that were toxic, that said, ‘You can’t be here’ or, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
Drag Performers As ‘Spiritual Leaders’
Growing up in rural Idaho, Quintana loved going to church because it was a place she felt safe to “let [her] walls down,” she said. When Quintana realized she was queer and transitioned, queer nightclubs replaced church as her “sanctuary,” she said.
“There was beauty in that, but because there’s so much drugs and alcohol and so much pain, it’s not always the best place for us to be so vulnerable in,” Quintana said. “I think that’s why it’s important to create church spaces that can hold us differently.”
Coming up in queer nightlife spaces, Quintana recognized the similarities between drag performances and religious services. She started to see drag performers as “spiritual leaders in the LGBTQ+ community.”
“They were the folks on stage with the mics, putting on shows, sharing stories, raising money, telling us what’s going on in the community,” Quintana said. “I felt like they were doing a lot of the things that I always thought were great about church.”
Quintana began speaking with drag artists about their experiences. She has interviewed more than 45 drag artists about their relationship with spirituality for her podcast Drag & Spirituality.
Quintana learned that the majority of her guests had been rejected by their religious communities because of their identities and self-expression. Despite that, they had each found ways to continue connecting with spirituality through art, dance, music and sharing space with each other.
“Most queer folks would never say that they’re a drag queen and a spiritual leader. Some would probably cuss you out if you were to say that,” Quintana said. “But from my perspective and in my experience, what’s more spiritual than creation that helps to lift people’s spirits?”
“I love when I get into drag and there’s people looking at me because you can just see them light up, you can see their spirits lift even if it’s just for a moment,” Quintana said. “That’s what this is all about. As humans, we have spirituality always and we’re always tapping into our spirit as long as we’re alive.”
‘A Great Way To Begin The Healing Process’
Chicago drag artist Coco Sho-Nell was invited to perform in drag in several churches before the pandemic and she agreed because she felt it was “a great way to begin the healing process for so many people who have been harmed by religious institutions,” she said.
“I really enjoyed blending these two worlds together because I always say that performance is about creating a higher connection,” Sho-Nell said. “I always feel like actors, drag performers, or any kind of artist is connected to something other than the physical realm and that’s what I feel spirituality is.
“I think it’s important to understand that drag is a part of who people are and it’s a way of connecting to a part of one’s self that is important to showcase,” Sho-Nell said.
Sho-Nell feels connected to spirituality when she’s sharing space with her audience during a drag performance and allowing herself to be fully present in the moment with them, she said.
“It’s like we’re on a journey together, enjoying the song and experiencing this moment in time,” Sho-Nell said.
A good example of this feeling was when someone came up to speak with her after she’d performed a gospel disco song called, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester. They told her that her performance made them feel like they were 18 again, and they were enjoying the song for the first time with their friends who had since passed away.
“That’s what I mean when I talk about performance connecting us to a different plane,” Sho-Nell said. “I was able to bring out that sensory memory in them and bring them so much joy. That’s something that we performers get to do, bring so much joy and life to people who need it.”
Religious communities can embrace drag artists in a variety of ways, including inviting drag performers to read children’s books, lead worship songs or speak about their experiences with spirituality.
Drag Worship ‘Changes The Narrative’
At Urban Village Church, Pablo Herrera started by inviting drag artists to perform their own versions of Evangelical hymns at weeknight gatherings, then speak about their experiences with the church and spirituality. These events were so popular that Herrera began inviting drag artists to perform at Sunday services.
“It was just really interesting to get close to people,” Herrera said. “You see drag queens’ makeup and wigs, but underneath all of that is a person who cares deeply about their spirituality.”
Stephens invited a drag artist to read a children’s storybook during Holy Covenant United Methodist Church’s Easter celebration and plans to incorporate drag artists’ talents in services more regularly.
“The story that was read was about a little boy who had a favorite dress, and I had one of the children share with me that they have a favorite dress as well,” Stephens said. “I don’t know if that ever would’ve come up otherwise. It’s important that kids are seeing this for themselves and that they’re able to understand God loves us no matter who we are and that it’s okay to always bring your authentic self to this space.”
Attending regular services at Urban Village Church helped Quintana heal from the religious trauma she experienced when her childhood church community rejected her.
“There was some very important healing that happened in that space just from me being able to exist as who I know myself to be today, in a space that at one point in my life didn’t honor or respect the person I was becoming,” Quintana said. “It was helpful to be in a space that wasn’t just for queer people, that it looked like the churches I grew up in.”
Welcoming all kinds of people into sacred spaces also provides opportunities for religious communities to engage in larger conversations about social justice and shows the entire congregation that it’s safe to be who they are, Stephens said.
“It’s a way to heal wounds caused by toxic masculinity and misogyny, that are inflicted not only on drag artists’ bodies but all of our bodies,” Stephens said. “It’s a rebellion against the patriarchal system that continues to try to put us in boxes and tell us who we can and cannot be.”
“For us to be able to say, as a church, drag worship is welcome here, it changes the narrative,” Stephens said. “To believe that individuals deserve to be their authentic selves so much so that they’re invited to teach our children takes away from the hateful narrative the government is trying to push down our throats.”
Committing To Inclusive Policies
Religious communities that shun certain people not only cause harm, but also miss out on important perspectives, Sho-Nell said.
“I’ve always felt that you shouldn’t cast someone out just because they’re different,” Sho-Nell said. “Instead, let’s try to incorporate them because they can probably teach you something you didn’t know about yourself or show you another kind of world.”
Quintana’s best advice for religious communities that want to incorporate more drag into their services is to “work from within,” she said. She advised leaders start by talking with queer people who are already a part of their community and see if they can help foster connections with local drag artists.
“Part of the challenge is that there’s so much trauma and harm that’s been done,” Quintana said. “You don’t necessarily want a straight pastor wandering into a gay bar to start talking to a drag queen about God, but they might already know a queer or trans member of the church who would be more equipped to have that conversation.”
If religious groups are serious about welcoming drag artists, they should commit to incorporating inclusive policies that help ensure the space is safe and welcoming so that they don’t cause further harm, Quintana said.
“You’re better off letting drag queens think that you’re just horrible people than welcoming them in, saying you love them and stabbing them in the back,” Quintana said. “It might not even be people’s intent, just that they haven’t thought about how it would be hurtful that a drag queen can’t become a preacher or run a small group or read the Bible aloud in the sanctuary because these things are so ingrained.”
Sho-Nell encouraged drag artists to “have the strength to find what works for you,” even if it’s difficult.
“It’s okay to be apprehensive, but take your time and just know that there’s a home for you,” Sho-Nell said. “Maybe you grew up in a certain church, but that might not be your true journey. Just keep searching. It can take a year or 10 years, there’s no time limit. Just be vigilant in your search and know there’s a community waiting for you.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: