Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Shannon TL Kearns. A playwright and published author, Kearns first piqued my interest when I learned that—on top of his writing accomplishments—he is also the first trans, ordained priest of the Old Catholic priesthood.
In his plays, Kearns uses his insights and personal experiences to write about the intersection of queerness and religion—a topic not widely touched on. This past August, he published his first autobiography, In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture (Eerdmans, 2022).
As for his religious work, Kearns continues his work as a priest, and is the co-founder of QueerTheology.com, an online community and resource for LGTBQIA+ Christians.
Recently, I had the opportunity to question Kearns about his unique path and how it has shaped and inspired the stories that he tells.
JULIA STIER: You are the first openly trans priest to be ordained into the Old Catholic priesthood. What inspired you to take that path?
SHANNON TL KEARNS: Since I was a young person, I’ve been involved in the church. Much of my life I’ve felt at odds with the systems I’ve been in, and wondered how we could make spaces more welcoming. It was important to me to be in a tradition that didn’t put limits on who could be ordained and that was focused on ministry that was about centering those most marginalized. It’s been an honor to be the first openly trans man, but also an honor to not be the last.
JS: Take us on the journey from priest to playwright. Which came first, and how do your two roles influence each other?
SK: These two roles really grew around each other. I grew up in a really conservative church, and I started writing as a way to make sense of the world around me, and of my growing discomfort with myself and the culture I was in. As I got older, different roles have taken center stage at different times, but now they remain intertwined. My work as a priest is all about making space for people, trying to create experiences where we can connect with one another, make sense of the world we’re in, fight for justice together, and connect to the Divine. And I see my work as a playwright to be the same. To tell stories that allow people to see themselves, to develop empathy, to get in touch with community, and to dream about a new way of being in the world.
JS: In your play, BODY + BLOOD, one of your characters is a priest and a bartender. You yourself worked your way through seminary school as a bartender. What was that experience like? Did you face any backlash for that?
SK: The experience was great (albeit exhausting)! I didn’t get any backlash for it, but I learned a lot! One of the things that was so fascinating was I felt I was learning more about pastoral care at the bar than I was at the church. Bartending often felt like listening to confession. So many people wanted to be heard, to have someone connect with them, to have someone see them. I learned a lot about listening without judgment and simply being present with people. It made me think a lot about why we couldn’t have that same level of honesty and vulnerability in our churches. Those threads are what I wanted to explore in BODY + BLOOD.
JS: What is a major misconception about your work as either a priest or a playwright that you would like to address?
SK: I think often there is the idea that work that explores religious themes either has to be preachy or snarky, and I’m trying to create work that grapples with both the harm Christianity, in particular, has done to queer/trans people, and to explore why some folks might want to stay in it. I think, too, people assume that as a priest I can’t, or won’t, critique Christianity, or that I’m trying to get people to convert, but really what I want is for folks to find whatever tradition and spiritual practice is life-giving for them. Honestly, a lot of my work is about walking with people who are needing to leave Christianity to be whole, and I want to work with them to do that well.
JS: How do you use your work as a playwright to explore the intersection of religion and queerness?
SK: I think all of my work is about trying to make meaning by telling better stories. Stories where people can see themselves represented. Stories where people can connect with something bigger than themselves.
JS: What is the best piece of advice you have received about playwriting?
SK: On the writing side: Get it written! You have to be able to have something to revise. And on the business side: Submit. A lot. Keep putting yourself out there.
JS: What is the best piece of spiritual advice you have received?
SK: The thing that has most shifted how I approach my faith was learning to read the Bible like scholars do. It opened up new ways of seeing that allowed me to relate to God differently. When you start to understand the Bible as a library of books written by particular people, in particular places and times trying to make sense of their relationships with God, with one another, and with the world, you start to understand a lot of the harder passages, or the ones that don't make sense. And you start to see how you can bring your own particularities to the text as well.
JS: What inspires you to write?
SK: To tell the stories that I never got to see growing up. I keep wanting to find new ways to tell better stories, and that keeps me going back to the page over and over again.
SK: Who are some playwrights and theologians who inspire you?
JS: For playwrights: I'm deeply inspired by the work of Darcy Parker Bruce and Sharifa Yasmin. They are writing about queer and trans characters with such love and joy, and are bringing in religious themes with nuance and grace.
For theologians: I've been impacted by the work of Dr. Patrick Cheng, who has written the best introductory material on queer theology. Dr. Christina Cleveland's God Is A Black Woman, and Cole Arthur Riley's This Here Flesh, have been recent reads that have inspired and encouraged me to think differently.
JS: Take us through your playwriting process. Which aspect—character, plot, theme—do you tend to lead with?
SK: I generally lead with a question that I am trying to answer for myself, and then populate that question with characters who are impacted by it. I'm a notorious over-writer. I have to get in there and just go and go and go until I start to figure out who these people are, and how they talk and behave, and how they might answer the question I'm trying to answer. At some point, I start to get a hint of a resolution, and THEN I outline, fill in the gaps, and then go back and cut a ton. It's messy, but I'm learning to embrace the mess of it.
JS: Can you tell us a bit about your work with QueerTheology.com?
SK: QueerTheology.com was started in 2013 because the conversations about LGBTQ+ issues and Christianity, even in progressive spaces, was stuck in "Is it OK to be gay?" and, "How do we prove that it's OK?" and we knew there was so much more to the conversation. We took "of COURSE it's OK to be LGBTQ+” as our starting point, and over the past 10 years have created the longest running LGBTQ+ Christian podcast, taught hundreds of people how to read the Bible from a queer lens, created resources and workshops, and reached over a million people all over the world with this lifesaving message. We have an online community of over 400 people who are journeying together to better integrate their sexuality and their spirituality. This work has been a gift to be a part of.
JS: How can members of the queer community deal with hurt from Christianity?
SK: There are a couple of things I would offer here:
1: You don't have to stay in a place that doesn't love all of you. If your church can't fully affirm your identity, or if they refuse to get your pronouns right, or if they say they are welcoming with words but not with actions, it's OK to leave and find a church that loves all of you.
2: You don't have to stay in church at all. If Christianity has caused too much trauma in your life, you can leave it behind. You can also take a break for a while if you need to. It's better to leave and to find a spiritual practice that does nurture and feed you.
3: If you DO want to integrate your sexuality/gender identity and your Christianity, it's not only possible, but it's deeply moving. We talk more about the how of that on our website, but just know, it's possible.
JS: What’s next for you?
SK: Right now I’m in the Humanitas New Voices Fellowship, so I’m focusing on a television pilot about transgender men in New York in 2008 that I’m really excited about. I’m also working on a new play about masculinity, called Laughing, Flexing, Dying as part of The Road Theatre's Under Construction Lab.
Follow Shannon TL Kearns on Twitter.
*Feature photo by Bre McGee/Uncommon Collaborative