Jennifer Knapp and Me: Coming Out While Evangelical

The audience in the cramped cafe included two demographics rarely seen together: evangelicals and lesbians. I was among the latter, having made the uncomfortable transition from the former a decade earlier. We were all in Goshen, Indiana, to see Jennifer Knapp—the Grammy-nominated Christian rock star who came out as a lesbian in 2010. 

I first heard Knapp’s music as a newly converted teenage evangelical in 2000. For a reserved and depressed kid, meeting American missionaries in my hometown of Minsk, Belarus, was a revelation. They seemedunreasonably joyful: they were kind, had nice teeth, and smiled more over the course of a single day than my parents did in a year. I wanted whatever they had. So, after many talks, Bible studies, and catchy worship songs that I was beginning to hum to myself daily, I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and became an evangelical.

To cement my conversion, the missionaries gave me gifts. I played guitar and liked to sing, so Jessica, who was headed back to Oklahoma, left a Jennifer Knapp CD with me. 

“I think you’ll like it,” she said. 

I devoured the music. I learned English and theology through the lyrics. I knew how to play every track on my guitar and once performed a song from the album at a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. Knapp sang about being broken and in need of God’s grace. The missionaries had instructed me to write and rehearse what they called a “testimony”—a three-minute story of my conversion; the more dramatic, the better. Knapp provided the soundtrack to my life as a young, zealous believer. I wanted to be broken in ways she described, so that God’s salvific work would manifest more vividly in my story. 

I didn’t have to try hard to be broken, of course. By the time I was in college, studying theology to become a missionary, I had growing suspicions about my sexuality. Others had them, too. 

I remember being called into a meeting with the chaplain at my school. I was in the worship band, so I thought we were going to discuss next Wednesday’s music set, but Betsy told me, instead, that she had concerns about my relationship with a female band member. Speaking in euphemisms and generalities, Betsy instructed me to keep tighter interpersonal boundaries so that the friendship in question did not grow into something sinful. I acted like I had no idea what she was talking about, but the truth was I knew. I was falling in love with a girl. That a university employee in a position of leadership was telling me to keep boundaries on my friendship was a strange and contradictory use of power which bothers me to this day, but Betsy was right in her suspicions.

The shame, guilt, and weight of my sin took its toll, and I graduated with good grades but little hope for the future. It was 2008, after Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was exposed for having a gay sex affair, but before Jennifer Knapp came out. I had no role models and no theology to back me up. I had been shocked to hear that some Episcopalian professors I befriended thought that homosexuality was acceptable in God’s sight. I liked them and all, but that was crazy talk. As far as I knew, God was clear on the subject. 

After a bit more research, I developed a sneaking suspicion that the Episcopalians may have been correct. I learned that the real sin of Sodom, for example, was not homosexuality but the lack of hospitality, and that the men who wrote the Bible knew nothing about sexual orientation and certainly did not think about loving same-sex relationships when writing about same-sex acts. Derek Webb, a Christian artist I admired, shared a journal entry about loving someone who was gay, and it spoke to me deeply, but not loudly enough to drown out the many voices that were telling me I was wrong to be gay. The evangelicals had rejected me; I had to reject them in return.

With a Bachelor’s in Protestant theology and an unconventional sexuality, returning to Belarus held little promise for me. So I did the only thing I knew how and applied to a Master’s program to remain in academia. By some miracle, I got into Yale Divinity School, where I would study the intersection of religion with gender and sexuality. When I moved to Connecticut to pursue a secular career, I left my faith and my Jennifer Knapp CDs behind. 

I did not know then that Knapp had been going through a difficult journey of her own. She was at the top of her career when, in 2002, she walked away from music and seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. When she resurfaced in 2010, it was with a confession: she had fallen in love with a woman and moved to Australia, away from the religion that was making her feel isolated because of who she loved. After eight years of silence, Knapp was releasing a new album: this one, on her own terms, and with the full truth of her being—as a Christian and a lesbian.

The pushback from conservative evangelicals was brutal, but Knapp managed to find support among affirming evangelical congregations like Highlands Church, whose pastor Mark Tidd had lost ordination in the Christian Reformed Church for fully supporting LGBTQ people, but found a like-minded community in Denver. Derek Webb invited Knapp to go on tour together so she could acclimate to the scene once again. In 2011, Knapp founded Inside Out Faith, an advocacy organization that seeks to educate and equip religious leaders to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ people. Her faith taught her love, Knapp maintains, so how could loving another person ever be wrong?

It was too late for me, but Knapp’s coming out gave many LGBTQ evangelicals the strength to face their sexuality with courage and grace. Faith and love were not irreconcilable, after all. This is, of course, a truism in progressive Christian denominations, but evangelicals have only recently begun to come around on the subject. For many, the conversation is still a non-starter: as far as they are concerned, God created Adam and Eve, virginity until marriage, and missionary sex for a reason. People who believe these things have rejected Jennifer Knapp 2.0.

So I will hesitantly admit that when I saw the two evangelical-looking women at that show in Goshen, I was judging them. It was a small crowd: three older straight couples, two die-hard straight female fans from Chicago (who, I learned, attend every Jennifer Knapp show in the 600-mile radius of the city), five lesbians, and then them—the evangelicals. They wore long, denim skirts and body-concealing blouses. Their jewelry looked like something from the “True Love Waits” collection I coveted in the early 2000s. When Knapp played an old Christian song about God’s love, they closed their eyes, raised their hands, and mouthed the lyrics with her. 

“This is a lesbian-run bar, for heaven’s sake,” I thought, “enough with your public displays of piety!” 

Not my proudest moment, but the evangelicals had taken so much from queer people; why did they have to pollute even this space—sacred to me—with their devotion?

When Knapp used a curse word during an introduction to one of her newer songs, I half-expected my evangelical friends to get up and leave. But they stayed, singing along with all the old tunes that they could remember. One song was about Jesus’s famous defense of a prostitute in front of a group of zealously righteous men who sought divine judgment against her. For the performance of that song, written from the perspective of the prostitute, the evangelicals got up from their table and onto their feet. Now standing so their bodies could sway more freely, they raised their hands all the way up—unashamed, just as the woman in the story, completely forgiven and accepted by God. 

It occurred to me in that moment that I was both annoyed and happy that the evangelicals were in the room with me. Here we were: with shared histories and divergent paths, feeling a profound connection to the music of our youth, perhaps even to God. That the evangelicals entered this space knowing about Jennifer Knapp’s sexuality during Pride month was an act of courage, perhaps a kind of coming out of their own. Who was I to cast stones? The truth is: their faith is no less a part of them than my sexuality is a part of me. Some days, I wish I had not had to choose one over the other all those years ago. Because of people like Jennifer Knapp, many won’t need to ever again. For that, I am thankful. 

So come on in to our queer spaces, evangelicals; I, for one, will try not to judge.