Junior Josh Tvrdy talks about Christianity like an accomplished student, passionately gesticulating and speaking in well-informed parallelisms. But interpreting the Bible goes beyond his religious studies minor.
For Tvrdy, it’s personal.
The son of Christian schoolteachers, Tvrdy grew up a member of a devout Protestant community in Tucson, Ariz. He also identifies as gay.
“In that community, everything was kind of black and white: We knew who God was, we knew what morals he put in place,” Tvrdy said. “And so it was very clear that one of the wrongs was having any sort of queer identity.”
But Tvrdy thinks of religion differently now.
He speaks more openly too, even facilitating a Queer and Religious Dialogue two weekends ago.
“The intent behind this [event] was to start to dismantle that oppressive silence, that alienation that surrounds this issue and that really plagues a lot of queer and religious people—and start to fill that silence with our stories,” Tvrdy said.
He wasn’t sure anyone would come, but saw it as an opportunity to share with his two co-facilitators, who also identify as queer and religious, if nothing else. With sophomore Rebecca Katz and junior Micah Wilger, he helped lead a conversation that crowded an estimated 15 people to Seymour Library’s Burkhead Room.
Tvrdy recognizes how far he’s come since entering college.
“From where I was freshman year to where I am now, it’s radically different how I feel about myself, how I see my faith, how I see sexuality intersecting with religion,” he said.
The process hasn’t been easy, nor is it over.
Even before Tvrdy acknowledged to himself that he was gay during his second term at Knox, he found himself frustrated over the literal interpretation permeating the religion that had defined his childhood from daily prayer to the language his family used in casual conversation.
He wondered how God could consider the destruction of people just, but questions like those were not well-entertained at his Christian high school.
“It’s unstable to start to question, ‘How could God do that?’” he said.
Justice also meant judgment when it came to people who didn’t fit the mold of heterosexual Christianity. He described comments from peers about rounding up “all the gays” and bombing them. Then there were the church sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah that likened homosexuality to sin and hellfire.
“But most of the time, it was an incredible and oppressive silence surrounding the issue where there were those moments of condemnation and then there was just utter silence,” he said. “It almost became an anti-identity.”
That silence left little space for honesty.
While Tvrdy did not fear physical violence, he became terrified of excommunication, of being rejected by his home community and family.
When he came out to his parents two summers ago, things went “surprisingly well.”
Still, there have been periods of silence when his identity felt like the elephant in the room. He tries to remain understanding.
“They’re afraid for me. They don’t want my life to be hard here and they also don’t want my life to be damned eternally,” Tvrdy said. “We’re trying to increase communication, trying to maintain relationship through that.”
It’s a process he’s working on internally, too.
Until recently, Tvrdy believed he had moved beyond the anxiety and self-condemnation. He was in a relationship, happy and felt like the healing had begun.
But peering past the activity of his day-to-day life, he found more pain.
“I looked at the gulf I had crossed and I just got hit harder with the anxiety and the shame that I thought was put to rest,” Tvrdy said. “Those are deep, deep wounds that formed me from early childhood.”
On a day spent at a botanical garden with his then-boyfriend, a heterosexual couple walked by with their children.
Tvrdy still recalls his first impulse to pull his hand away, thinking for a second that it was indecent for the kids to see.
He sees his process here at Knox as a struggle to move beyond the pain of his religious upbringing.
“For me, God was a god of fear, God was a god of punishment, God was a very human god,” he said. “But I’ve seen glimpses of a religion that does not exclude, that does not punish, that teaches people how to love and love others well—regardless of your sexuality, regardless of your sexual identity.”
Throughout, Tvrdy has kept his faith. While he gave up attending church for much of his freshman and sophomore years, he never abandoned his belief in the existence of something greater.
Those glimpses of loving, faithful people give him hope.
They include devout classmates whom he sees utilizing religion as a source of contemplation rather than domination.
Associate Professor of English Gina Franco is another. In her class on the Bible as literature this term, Tvrdy is exploring alternative interpretations of the Bible as a treatise on human interaction.
Katz, who also serves as chair and founder of the Interfaith Council, approached Tvrdy with her plan to hold the Dialogue because she knew he could speak articulately on the subject.
She and Wilger envisioned it as a means to create a safe space where people could learn and move beyond the hurt.
“Religion is really a way of interpreting the world and so, when you’re being forced to interpret part of who you are in a negative light, it can be difficult,” said Katz.
They decided to make the event open to all – queer, religious or neither – and hope to hold another like it soon.
“I felt a lot of love in that room and these people were strangers, mostly, to each other,” Tvrdy said. “And so, that’s what I hope for from a church, that’s what I hope from a school, that’s what I hope from the world. We’re so not there—I’m not there, 90 percent of the time. But I think progress is being made. I think people want to speak, I think people want to learn and ultimately, we do want to love each other.”