A Matter of the Heart: Talking to Gay Christian Rocker Jennifer Knapp

In 1998, Jennifer Knapp stepped out with her first album, Kansas. The grit and honesty in her music appealed especially to young evangelical college students and made her an instant hit: the record went gold, selling over half a million copies, no mean feat in the niche Christian music industry. Though she wasn’t entirely comfortable with her status as “Christian music artist,” she became the genre’s biggest star between 1998 and 2002, when—citing burnout—she walked away from the industry.

Eight years later, Knapp returned with a mainstream rock album called Letting Go. And she came out publicly as a lesbian [as Douglas Harrison covered at that time, here on RD –Eds.].

Recently, I caught up with Knapp to discuss what motivated her to return to music and what she struggles with being both gay and Christian. We also discussed the public’s surprisingly positive response to her comeback and what she’s learned from it.  

KR: What motivated you to come out?  

JK: There were rumors that swirled around for so long. It became obvious to me that people were not going to stop gossiping. And I’m not a fan of hiding or lying about myself, so I thought, “All right, you want to talk about it? Here it is. Let’s talk about it.”  

Did you realize how big it would be in the media?

To be honest, no, I really didn’t. For so many LGBT people, the experience is that you can’t have both [sexuality and faith]. You’re under pressure to choose one or the other, and I anticipated that. But it was such a personal journey for me that I didn’t really think about the impact that it would have on a public level. It was definitely an empowering decision to make, but I had no clue about the impact it would have. That such diverse people would show up at shows or that I’d get this press attention. Or that I would meet so many clergy who say, “Listen, we don’t see this as retarding your journey at all.” It’s definitely been a learning curve.

And I’ve had many opportunities to listen to people’s stories. It’s been amazing. I didn’t anticipate that. I don’t think I could’ve. You just have to wait sometimes for people to tell their own story and listen to what they’ve been through. I hope I’ve helped open a door for us to just share and talk.  

So, it sounds like the response has been largely positive. What’s the other side of that coin? For example, I saw the Exodus International statement and wondered how pervasive that perspective had been?  

It’s certainly around. The truth is that those were the types of responses I expected, so they’re not surprising. It’s easy to write headlines about bad news because we like to watch the car wreck, but the negative experiences really are outnumbered by the positive ones. The biggest story out of this for me has been how much overwhelming support and acceptance I’ve had, not only as a person of faith who is also a lesbian… But so many people who aren’t personally affected by this have said, “It doesn’t make sense that we wholeheartedly reject people because of who they love and experience the fullness of joy with.”

It’s easy to talk about unsupportive dissenters, but I don’t think this has to be about being frustrated or angry with those people who haven’t yet had the experience of seeing LGBT people who are living out their faith with joy. These days, more of us are becoming visible in our faith communities. The more this happens, the more we can enrich the lives of people who’ve never met people like us. When this happens, it shows people that we’re all around, that we’re contributors to our communities. And we’re learning lessons of love that we all hope to learn as people of faith.  

Do you see a shift within the church on this? You sound surprised by the positive responses.  

I don’t know if I would say there’s a shift. Many mainline churches have been open and affirming for years: the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and the more recent development of the Metropolitan Christian Church. We have existed for a long time. And our faith communities have been quietly, and sometimes loudly, moving [toward acceptance]. 

I think there’s a change in the evangelical community worth praising. I believe many evangelicals would argue that the conservative viewpoint that evangelicals are known for has been shifting for a while. A number of people are struggling with the fact that their churches haven’t looked very inviting to many people for a long time. There are young people who are saying that they view their tradition in evangelicalism as one that should be inclusive of LGBT people. That’s encouraging.  

Have former fans come back?  

Yeah, the grassroots fans that I’ve always believed held me up and supported me—they’ve come back. It’s surprising, and I think I underestimated them at some level. I assumed that when I moved into the mainstream marketplace, I may have to totally retool and build a new audience. In fact, these folks are not just showing up, but bringing more friends along. I think this [mainstream focus] has made the shows more comfortable for people who don’t necessarily feel at ease within the four walls of the church.  

Do fans feel more comfortable inviting their LGBT friends?  

Yes, and it has been amazing to watch. When I think about what I want to accomplish as an artist: I’ve always wanted to create music that allows a diverse group of people to enjoy and participate. I’m so glad that more people feel they can come and be honest about who they are. I did a show at a lesbian bar in which a couple came up to me and said, “We’re fiscal conservatives, and we’re evangelical Christians and we’re so glad to be here.” There is so much joy in bringing our gifts to diverse communities, and I’m grateful and honored to be able to watch that every day.

Let’s talk a bit about the album. The track, “Fallen,” contains the lyrics: “Even though they say we have fallen/Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice.” Was that written in dialogue with the evangelical community?  

That’s a fair charge. I wrote that song without really knowing whether or not I would return to music, but I definitely wanted to start writing because I missed it. When I stumbled on that song, I was contending with myself. How was I going to write? Would I write music centered around my faith even though I didn’t really want that? At the same time, I wondered about my motivation. Was I avoiding Christian music because people pushed me away, or did I think I couldn’t do it because I’m a lesbian?  

With “Fallen,” I focused on the relationships that were really important to me, and that’s the song that came out. I really wrote it to the voices in my own head and my own heart. I tend to be confrontational with myself at first—and then deal with others. But in writing it, I realized that I was dealing with expectations others placed upon me, not my own. And I’m proud of what I came up with in that process. I feel like the song works as a celebration, a reminder that love is extremely valuable and that it’s not temporary. Writing the song was a really powerful journey for me, and so was sharing it with others and realizing I wasn’t alone.  

On another track, “Inside,” you sing: “They’re gonna bury me/Before they hear the whole story/Chalk it up to a mistake/Or God forbid they give me grace/Well, who in the hell do they think they are?” What motivated the more confrontational lyrics?   

Well, I think “Fallen” was the softer side of it, but “Inside” is the other side of the coin. It’s the side that gets you frustrated and motivated into action. As a person of faith, I have experienced a wide range of emotions, beginning with sadness and just wanting to go on with my life… But then there’s another side of it in which you do have anger and frustration. “Inside” came from those feelings, and I wrote it more directly to other people. But I think there’s power in that, and I hope that song doesn’t translate into the kind of anger that destroys, but the kind that gets us charged up and moving toward engaging and dealing with others.

I noticed in the Larry King interview that you deflected the question, “Were you born this way?” Why?  

I don’t think it’s the right question. It starts with a premise that I don’t necessarily agree with or feel that I can follow through on. If there isn’t some kind of scientific reason we can nail down to explain why people are gay, then it stands in logic that we shouldn’t accept LGBT people. I have difficulty with shaping my acceptance of any human being based on whether or not I think it’s scientifically provable that they’re worthy of acceptance.

The fact of the matter is that we are people of faith who have a legitimate journey and a legitimate right to claim that process. I love my partner. I love the relationships that I’ve built. I could ask myself whether or not every aspect of my identity was inborn. I believe the question narrows the experiences of so many, to the extent that we forget the whole human being. My sexuality is just one element of how I face the world. 

I believe I’m called to love and respect all people no matter where they come from or how they’re made. And I think that’s what we need to be looking at: How can we respect our neighbors as they come, as their whole selves—and learn to love each other despite our differences? No, I don’t like that word, “despite.” How can we be more inclusive of everyone? That’s really what it comes down to for me.  

Even the question as to whether or not homosexuality is a sin is not the point. I realize for some people it really is, and that’s a starting point. For me, it really isn’t the point. It’s not that I don’t respect the processes of other people. It’s just that when I look at my own experiences…

Journalists seem to have made the assumption that you really struggled with whether or not this is sinful. 

It’s a tough concept to accommodate in a sound bite. It’s difficult to have an inclusive conversation about it because it’s a theological conversation that not everyone relates to. In all of my struggles in life, regardless of sexuality, I really do think about what I do on a daily basis: in terms of the person I am, and how I relate to my friends and loved ones. I don’t ask if my sexuality is a fundamental divider between God and me, but what does it mean for me as an individual in community with others?  

I want to be the kind of Christian who brings and joy, love, compassion and grace into my community. How do I love my neighbor as myself? How do I love and respect myself? And act in ways that cause me to grow rather than separate me from other people? How do I encourage people in the communities around me? When I speak of struggle in terms of my sexuality, these are the kinds of questions I ask. 

When I frame my struggles this way, rather than asking whether or not it’s a “sin,” it is so much more rewarding. I know that it’s a theological question that the religious community has to confront. But I have to say that time and time again what separates us from God is our unwillingness to be connected. I think it’s a matter of the heart, not of the mechanical things we do each day.  

What’s next?  

I’m aiming to release a new album in 2012. The music is there for it, and I’m playing a lot of it when I tour. Right now, I’m doing a lot of concerts and shows, as well as contributing to these dialogues we’re having. My phone’s ringing off the hook, and I’m participating as much as I can in discussions with LGBT lay people and clergy. There are so many people who want to have a positive dialogue about this. I’m getting to the point that I feel like I can engage at a positive level and contribute to that conversation.

So, did you follow the recent change in the Presbyterian Church-USA?  

They adopted a positive stance on LGBT clergy? Yes, and I think that’s a positive move. I understand that it’s asking a lot of some people, who have not yet been touched by experiences with LGBT people. But many [church members] are quite comfortable with it. It’s not retarding their journey or their faith experience. It’s creating a safer place for approaching faith in unique ways.  

I’ve noticed that it’s sometimes leadership who are the last to change in denominations. There’s a lot going on in the pews, so to speak. Many lay people just think: “I don’t really understand why this is a big deal. Let’s just move on and be the community that we’ve always been.” The pastors and leaders who move forward with this are taking what some will see as a risk—to just love everybody. It’s an honor to watch.  

And the LGBT clergy that I’ve met are amazing, amazing people. They’re inspiring to me every day. Not just because of sexual orientation, but because of what they have had to learn in their own lives about loving [all of] their neighbors as themselves. I am amazed by the kind of enthusiasm and love they have. I think they show that a life of faith, no matter what your path, can be a really fruitful one.  

You’ve befriended a number of lesbian musicians since you came out, Mary Gauthier and Chely Wright, for example.  

I just met Mary in this last year. We did a show together in January, and I just loved her music. It wasn’t until I became friends with her that I realized that she was a lesbian. It definitely broadens the scope of conversation. The artists I’ve met have encouraged me not to fear writing about my faith if it comes up—or of the conversations and experiences that could come of it. I’m a relative newcomer to this public discourse. It’s nice when other artists say, “Listen, just doing your art is important.”  

I’ve had these positive conversations with people in the Christian music industry as well. I have a long history with so many of them, and it’s been nice to reconnect. I’ve received a lot of encouragement from people who just really understand the importance of genuine relationships based on compassion and grace.  

What about the musicians you toured with? And your former Christian label, Gotee?  

It’s definitely a two-sided coin. I’ve talked to some musicians, but not others. Gotee has been fantastic. I’m no longer with Gotee Records because I’m no longer an artist who fits their label. They can’t serve me in the way that I need a record company to serve me, and I can’t serve their record label and brand the way I would like to serve their record label and brand.  

I was 22 or 23 when I first signed with Gotee. I knew that they were going to grow with me. And we were going to be a kind of family, and they really held up their end of that. I can’t say enough about the way they’ve honored this process. Even when I said “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” they let me walk. Then, when I said I wanted to come back and do a mainstream release, they let me do that. And that’s not always the case, and it’s easy to get bogged down in monetary considerations. Gotee made some hard choices in allowing me to function in the way I have. I have felt nothing but support from those guys. I really do love them. They’ve allowed me to run with my art in a way that I never imagined I could.