I can say from first-hand experience that it’s definitely not easy being queer in a conservative Christian household. I know I’m not alone in this experience: the majority of my queer friends grew up going to church every Sunday. However, media that explores the nuances of coming to terms with identity in a context that provides no space to do so is hard to come by. How do queer youth navigate, survive, and transcend these spaces that they may or may not choose to be a part of? And why are Christian contexts specifically so problematic for queer kids? The Eisner-nominated webcomic AS THE CROW FLIES provides insight into this circumstance.

AS THE CROW FLIES, created by Melanie Gillman, follows Charlie, a black and queer teen who spends a week at a Christian wilderness retreat. Although Charlie is actively questioning her sexuality and gender, she is not at this camp against her will. Over the course of the week, she and her fellow campers grapple with the hypocrisies of Christianity, all while embarking on a journey of spiritual self-discovery.

READ: Want to read AS THE CROW FLIES as a physical book? Here’s your chance!

Navigating Unspoken Bigotry

Being both black and queer, Charlie faces a double-whammy of discrimination. Not only is she queer at a Christian camp, but she’s one of the only people of color in attendance. Nothing outright racist or homophobic has been said to Charlie. The bigotry she faces is subtle, almost unrecognizable. A lot of this is embedded in the language employed by her camp counselor, Bee, and her fellow campers. For example, one of the girls calls something “so gay, ” and Bee discusses purity in terms of “whiteness.” Charlie struggles with whether she should call out this language at the risk of ostracizing herself or remain silent and uncomfortable.

Image from AS THE CROW FLIES by Melanie Gillman.

This choice whether to speak up or not is something minorities face in all kinds of contexts: at work, in school, among family and friends, etc. Choosing to not speak up isn’t just the result of a fear of making other people uncomfortable. Speaking up can literally put people’s lives in danger. The language that Charlie faces is even harder to call out since the bigotry is not blatant and not intentionally hurtful.

Sydney, who eventually comes out to Charlie as a trans girl, is a perfect example of how to call-out this rhetoric. When a camper calls crafts “so gay,” Sydney tells the camper that she fails to see what’s “homosexual” about crafts. The camper does not know how to respond. When Penny, Bee’s daughter, calls Charlie and Sydney “dudes,” Sydney corrects her with “lady-dudes.” Although it might not offend a cisgender girl to be called “dude,” for a trans girl, it’s a very similar experience to being misgendered. Still, Sydney understands that different situations and dynamics call for different kinds of corrective responses. Sometimes people’s language is intentionally malicious, sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes Vague Language is Intentional

However, this language should be addressed regardless of the intent behind it. Coded language is purposefully employed in religious contexts and by politicians to appeal to a religious constituency. For instance, in the 21st century United States, many churches are not outright homophobic. Pew Research Center studies reinforce that most Christian organizations have slowly but steadily improving attitudes about same-sex marriage. Most pastors will not straight up tell you they think people go to hell for being gay.

However, the language still implies a value judgement. Anti-gay sentiments are addressed under the umbrella of preserving “traditional family values.” Although the bigotry is not outright, it is implicit. This language reinforces homophobia without being openly anti-gay. And like it or not, us queer kids are picking up on this. You don’t need to carry a sign that says “God hates f*gs” for us to figure out that’s more or less what you’re getting at.

READ: LONG EXPOSURE is another great queer webcomic!

Apparently, God Doesn’t Just Hate F*gs

Even as mainstream Christianity tones down its rhetoric against queer people, it’s hard to say if it can ever be fully accepting of them. After all, Christianity has a rocky history when it comes to a lot of social justice issues. Before the bible was used to rail against same-sex marriage, it was used against interracial marriage. Prior to that, it was used to justify slaveryThis isn’t a history that should be easily forgotten or taken lightly.

AS THE CROW FLIES is sure to remind us of this history. On the retreat, the campers are tracing the path of a group of women from the 19th century who left their husbands and children for a week to worship God in the mountains. After asking Bee a couple questions, the campers find out something disturbing. They learn that the original women were only able to abandon their husbands and children for a week because they had black servants to take care of their families in their stead. Instead of fully addressing this horrifying fact, Bee brushes it aside as just historical circumstances.

Bee, whose job it is to teach the girls, doesn’t encourage them to explore this hypocrisy. Instead, she’d rather they just forget it. Bee doesn’t want to talk about how the women she’s touting as heroes justified enslaving other women. However, knowing the history Christianity has in justifying slavery, these women probably didn’t view this as a conflict of interest. Without acknowledging the damage that Christianity has done, we cannot learn from those mistakes. Unfortunately, Bee seems unable to acknowledge that the Christians of the past have been less than perfect in their interpretation of scripture.

Surviving an Inherently Patriarchal Institution

The girls have a moment by the lake where they question why God has always been gendered as male and typically depicted as white in Western cultures. It’s clear that they understand that this conversation is subversive. They know not to bring this up around Bee since she will not concede their point.

Image from AS THE CROW FLIES by Melanie Gillman.

At its core, Christianity discourages questioning authority. Blind faith is a virtue in many biblical stories, from Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to Peter walking out on the water after Christ. Unfortunately, this blind obedience is not a virtue in everyday life. To assume the people in charge know best is to relinquish one’s ability to reason. Those in power need to be actively questioned and held accountable for their actions. These are principles that democratic societies depend on. This anti-intellectualism makes Christianity inherently patriarchal and perhaps inherently problematic. Patriarchal societies are dependent on certain members being subservient to others, and Christianity reinforces this as a valid paradigm. In Christianity, being subservient to God without question is virtuous. In a similar fashion, men traditionally have expected their wives to be subservient to them.

LISTEN: For Pride Month 2017, ComicsVerse did a podcast on homosexuality in comics!

Faux-Feminism without Queer Theory

Bee’s seemingly feminist take on Christianity creates mixed signals for all of the girls. The whole retreat is touted as feminist, given the campers are tracing the path of women who left their families for a week, something that was considered radical in the 1800’s. Unfortunately, Bee’s version of “feminism” manifests mostly as disdain for men. These comments only make Sydney uncomfortable. On some level, Sydney understands that she must keep the fact that she is trans a secret because Bee will not accept her as part of the group of girls otherwise. Although trans-exclusionary feminism is typically a liberal movement, this toxic version of feminism is not uncommon in Christian circles either. Ultimately, Bee’s understanding of feminism is incomplete. You cannot eschew patriarchal control without an alternative mode of thinking. And in many ways, that alternative is queer theory.

Image from AS THE CROW FLIES by Melanie Gillman.

Breaking down our concepts of gender is essential in putting men on the same level as women. Our ability to do so demonstrates that there is essentially no difference between these two groups. This is a large part of what queer theory does. If gender assignment at birth is arbitrary, it follows that all gender roles learned after the fact are as well. In Bee’s version of feminism, men and women are inherently different. Many contemporary Christian institutions now want women to be equal in a sense. However, they do maintain that women have inherently different roles than men, roles that are often subservient to men. There are, of course, biblical precedents that reinforce this: Genesis 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and Ephesians 5:22-24, just to name a few. Unfortunately, this cannot lead to true feminism or true liberation. Sorry, Bee!

WATCH: Andrew Rivera discusses “queer-baiting” on his show INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY!

Queerness and Spirituality

Charlie and Sydney do not outright reject Christianity. In fact, they both seem to be on the trip by their own will. When Sydney wrenches her ankle, she doesn’t seize upon this as a chance to go home. Both girls want to be on this retreat, despite the fact they know Christianity is not perfect and that they will have to fight for space in this institution.

Image from AS THE CROW FLIES by Melanie Gillman.

In AS THE CROW FLIES, Charlie is a spiritual person. Through her internal dialogue, it is clear she believes her life is being guided by some external force. However, her desire to be spiritual does not blind her to the problems of Christianity. Charlie is able to pick and choose the elements of religion that work for her.

When raised in a religious context, it’s pretty difficult to shake spirituality as an inherent part of life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The presence of spirituality in some form unites all cultures throughout human history. However, it’s important that we have religion on our own terms. Otherwise, it’s the destiny of institutional religions to remain patriarchal.

READ: You should be reading GALANTHUS, another adorable and queer webcomic!

AS THE CROW FLIES Represents a Highly Specific Queer Experience

When we think of queer kids in Christian families, we tend to think of that highly dramatized moment in which they come out. However, before queer kids must face with this, they must come to the realization that they are queer. They must also reconcile this with what is an often homophobic upbringing. AS THE CROW FLIES perfectly demonstrates that the queer Christian experience isn’t necessarily a binary one. Queer kids don’t always completely reject their religious upbringings once they realize that they’re queer, nor do their religious families always reject them for being different. Instead, this experience is a journey of self-discovery, compromises, and endurance.

Being queer and Christian is undeniably confusing. However, queer kids find ways to reconcile their personal identities with their spiritual beliefs. Until Christian institutions are capable of confronting the bigotry that festers within their ranks, media like AS THE CROW FLIES will be there to assure queer kids that they’re not alone and that they can, in fact, survive these circumstances.

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