Jennifer Knapp, a Grammy-nominated musician whose records have sold more than a million copies, once rocked the contemporary Christian music billboards. In 2010, she rocked the industry when she came out. Since then, she has released a mainstream music album and is touring the country with her Inside Out Faith series, advocating for LGBTQ issues in faith communities. Weld spoke with her before her Saturday performance and Q&A at Southside Baptist Church.
Weld: Tell us a little about how you got started playing music and advocating for LGBTQ faith.
Jennifer Knapp: I never really planned on growing up and being a rock star. I just started writing about my faith experience in music. I had no idea that there was Christian music out in the world…I was just writing as an expression of what I was going through at the time, and God ended up taking me from one church to another. I was paying my way through school, and before I knew it, I had a record deal and was hanging in and out of Nashville.
Fast-forward 15, 20 years: I came out as a lesbian. That creates all kinds of controversy. … Now I’m finding this second career as an advocate for LGBT faith issues. In Birmingham, I’m doing an Inside Out Faith event, which is me talking about my own story, my experience, what’s it like to actually be gay in the church, to actually have that coming out process. In a lot of church environments, particularly in the South, it’s not a side of the story most folks have heard much about. I think there’s an assumption that gay is something that happens to you when you lose your faith, when there’s something wrong with your faith. Really most people rely on their faith to get through the social difficulties of that.
Churches wanted to show their support [when I came out]. So did people that I’d played with or people who had grown up listening to my music. It was really beautiful, all these people asking me to come play. … I didn’t know if I was capable of walking into a room and having someone yell out, “Turn or burn,” but yet here are these churches were calling me. … I started to realize that this was really important. These churches were asking me to tell me story. They were trying to say, “Not everybody’s like that.” There are communities that have been and will continue to invite everybody they possibly can into having whatever kind of faith experience they can.
Weld: What made you come out publicly?
JK: I came out publicly in 2010. … But in my own private life, because I don’t get followed around by paparazzi, it was more of a normal, gradual, more comprehensible experience. I mean, I met my partner; we fell in love, met each other’s families, kind of the way you do in any relationship. I never really had the experience of being in the closet.
I didn’t really have to confront it on a public level ‘til I came back [to the U.S.], wanting to work again. When I was recording my last record in Nashville, people were asking, “Well, what is this about?” My partner and I live in the city; we walk around. It’s no secret. … It was really important to me that people knew I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed about who I am. Since it seemed so important for everybody else to know that part of my life, I was willing to share it.
I don’t think there’s any question that religious environments have a conservative attitude about how they want to approach LGBT people in their community. I knew that that was going to be a severing point for a lot of my relationships in terms of my past history with Christian music. But you just don’t really know until you get it out there. And that for me was the deciding factor. I would rather have faced it and been honest, and that was why I came out on a public level.
Weld: What would you say the reaction of the contemporary Christian music industry was?
JK: The best parts of it were that I was just absolutely surprised at the amount of support that I got. My impression was that when I came out, and especially so publicly, that there was likely to be some kind of public burning at the stake. And some of that did happen. You get the anonymous posts and terrible letters. The most disappointing part, though [is] there’s a little bit of positive, a little bit of overtly negative, and then this big, black hole in the middle. It was basically a silence, a shut out. That was the part of it that was, and still is, the most interesting and most disconcerting. I think that’s a pattern around controversial issues—that everybody kind of shuts down and doesn’t actually deal with reality. That there are gay people that are in churches; there are gay clergy, gay leaders, gay Bible study leaders, gay musicians, gay people working at record labels, gay people who work on radio stations. It’s pretty average. There are gay people everywhere we work inside our faith communities, and we have an opportunity to talk about it.
The bigger issue that intrigues me is what that tells all of us who have that kind of experience. When some of the most faithful, some of the supposedly most compassionate people, people whose faith encourages them — when we’re talking in faith communities about learning to love one another, to be worth the Passion, to be agents of grace — these are the same people who, when we have the opportunity to act that out, decide when and where we give that based on what our personal morality assessment is. And that’s what disconcerting. Every gay kid who grew up listening to Christian music gets this message over and over again: You’ve got no future in your church. You’ve got no future in this place. I’m now reengaging in my faith community about this issue.
Weld: Why do you think this attitude exists?
JK: I don’t know why. I wouldn’t even venture a guess. What I can say is about my own experiences. This issue has absolutely blown up in faith communities. Somehow along the way — in terms of “Is gay a sin?” or “Is gay not a sin?” — whichever way you vote has become the determining factor between who is a real Christian and who’s not a real Christian.
It’s a controversial issue. When we’re in a large group, it’s hard to express, “Hey, my uncle’s gay, and I really love him a lot.” And that’s just the end of it. Somebody says that, and all of the sudden when someone speaks up, there’s this idea that you’re condoning something that someone else wants you to disagree with. There’s this guilt by association. If we love someone who’s gay, then what we’re doing is supporting a theological idea.
It’s really polarized. You go to Chick-fil-A because you support anti-gay legislation or you don’t go to Chick-fil-A because you support gay people. As a person of faith, I step back out of the fray, all the shenanigans. At the end of the day, what my faith has taught me, pleaded with me to do, is regardless of what I think, my job is to love my neighbor. Period. Love God. Love my neighbor as myself. As a Christian, it doesn’t get simpler than that.
At the end of the day, that’s the challenge that we have inside of faith communities. But more than that, that’s the challenge that a lot of people have in understanding what it’s like to really be yourself and be honest about who you are. And that’s not just a religious message. I think that’s one of the biggest social messages of our time. We tell the world so much about ourselves on Facebook, on Twitter. It’s all about expressing who we are. But when you put that out there, people start telling you what’s good, what’s bad, making their judgments. When instead we should be cheering each other on, giving each other an opportunity to succeed.