Christian

Join me in Fredericton for The Walrus Talks!

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I always knew I would share my story publicly in some way, but I had no idea the places it would take me, the people I would meet and the ways I would grow. I've been privileged to speak on many stages across the country on the challenges and complexities of being a queer Christian woman of colour.

I'm excited to continue this dialogue when I speak at The Walrus Talks in Fredericton in April. From March to June, the Walrus Foundation is hosting national conversations across the country featuring 50 Order of Canada recipients and 50 young leaders.

As you may have guessed, I'm one of the "young leaders" and will be speaking on the intersections of sexuality, faith and race.

I've struggled deeply with these parts of my identity, silencing and hiding different pieces at various times. It has been exhausting to live a fractured life, wondering which part of me will be accepted.

As a result, I've spent most of my life trying to make sense of who I am. I no longer live in silence, and I want to encourage others to see the power of their stories and realize they aren't alone in their experiences.

But it has been a deeply painful journey.

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I recently went through some of my old journals, revisiting a chaotic and challenging time in my life, including the first time I admitted I was gay: "It makes me feel sick to actually acknowledge this part of me I've been trying to hide and push away, but it's eating at me. I can't concentrate. I'm getting headaches and I just need to get it out. I think I'm gay."

There were so many entries where I spoke about this part of me as if it was disgusting, broken and untouchable – as if I was disgusting, broken and untouchable. Shame and self-hatred filled many pages in my journals. I wondered if I would ever be okay with this part of me, let alone be proud and celebrate my sexuality.

My journals took me on a journey where I eventually got to witness healing, freedom and growth. One of those moments was sharing my story publicly on my blog several years ago: “I never thought I would get here. I’m happy with who I am. I’m proud of who I am. I’m free.

This was an important time where I needed to tell my story for me, to find and speak my voice again.

These questions and challenges have caused me to advocate for and with other LGBTQ+ people who are trying to survive their Christian and Catholic communities. Although I've seen many changes in schools, churches and the media, heteronormativity is still prevalent in our culture.

I've spoken to many other LGBTQ+ Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith, sexuality and gender orientation. There are still many communities that aren't affirming or open to having this dialogue. For those of us who are also racialized, intersectionality is deeply lacking. We aren't represented in those spaces and our stories aren't included in these conversations.

But we are here. We exist and we will continue to fight.

If you're in Fredericton on April 24, I would love to have you join this conversation and hear from others who are doing great work around the country. You can get a free ticket here, and the talks will be filmed and shared online at a later time.

I can fully be myself: Windsor-Essex Catholic's first GSA conference

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"This is the first time I've come out as queer and can fully be myself."

I hold onto these words from a student who recently shared at Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board's first GSA conference, WEshine. It was a day to support and celebrate more than 100 LGBTQ+ students and allies across the board.

I saw the weight of this day for many LGBTQ+ students. I saw them relax. I saw them laugh. I saw their courage in showing up and being fully seen.

It was incredible to witness these moments and hear how much the culture has shifted in Catholic schools since I was a student. They could share their stories, including letting me know they were here because they were "really gay." I was amazed they could speak so nonchalantly in front of their peers.

A former student in the Windsor-Essex board, Eli, also shared his coming out story publicly for the first time. If he could share his story so openly only a few years after graduating, what would that mean for the next generation?

"Those who identify, you have an amazing community of support... You are loved by God and the community. We want you to feel that every day."

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It often brings me to tears to hear words like this and see educators stand in support of their LGBTQ+ students. Many educators, students and community members have been advocating and working tirelessly for years to have these spaces.

It matters for these students to know there are people who love and support them in their Catholic communities. This saves lives.

When I asked if they believed it was possible to be LGBTQ+ and Catholic, many students put up their hands. They shared stories about family and friends who are out and still practicing their faith.

These young people have representation in a way I never had.

But I know it's still hard for many of them. I know there were students there who are struggling deeply and haven't found the words to say their stories out loud. They're afraid of what their family, friends and faith communities will think.

There were also students who struggle to see themselves represented as queer people of colour. Several racialized students approached me to talk about the challenges of being in predominately white communities.

How do they share this part of themselves? Who are the queer and racialized Christians and Catholics they see?

I was impressed they were already thinking about intersectionality, exploring these different parts of their identity in such a nuanced way. I was never in a place to come out in high school, let alone think about how my racial identity intersected with queerness, gender and faith.

The culture is shifting in these spaces. Sometimes, it feels really slow. Other times, I'm shocked at the changes that have happened since I was in high school.

It's exciting to be part of this movement and to see the ways LGBTQ+ students can be seen, heard and fully be themselves.

You can see what happened at WEshine in this video by CTV Windsor.

My latest Huffington Post piece: why GSAs in Catholic schools matter

TCDSB Inclusion and belonging: words that don't often come to mind for LGBTQ people in the church.

But this space was different.

I recently spoke at the Toronto Catholic District School Board's Inclusion and Belonging Retreat, which you can read about in my latest Huffington Post piece. It was a beautiful space where high school students could come as they are, encourage one another, share their struggles and know they weren't alone.

This retreat opened up inclusive spaces for Toronto students involved in gay-straight alliances (GSAs), a place where LGBTQ and straight students come together as allies. It's pretty incredible this student-led space existed, let alone for the second time this year with more than 170 students.

When I went to a Catholic high school more than a decade ago, I could have never imagined having a GSA at my school. Homophobia was alive and well, and those who were out or suspected of being gay were often marginalized, mistreated and shamed.

I wish I had the courage to speak up and be visible.

But I wasn't ready and it took many more years to accept and come to terms with being gay and Christian. These students, however, are living in a different time where they can exist, be visible and share their stories. The students give me courage to keep fighting and believing LGBTQ people could feel safe and belong in Christian communities.

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Right now, there is much debate in Alberta on Bill 10, which would allow school boards to rejects students' requests to create a GSA. There are no GSAs in Catholic schools in Alberta, which I hope will change as we have seen in the Toronto board.

It won't be an easy road ahead, but to see students know they belonged -- even if it was just one day -- is worth the fight.

I don't hate the sinner, I hate the sin (poem)

Have you ever heard a Christian person mention, “I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin” Can I tell you how annoying that comment is? And I grew up Christian.

(Michael Vidler)

I recently had the opportunity to film one of my poems, I Don’t Hate the Sinner, I Hate the Sin, in a Vancouver church. I’ve wanted to film one of my pieces about being gay and Christian in a church for several years, and I finally had the opportunity during my Vancouver Biennale artist residency over the summer.

It was an interesting experience to film in a place that has become foreign and scary to me. I had many thoughts and feelings of belonging (or lack thereof) while I was there.

It brought me back to the place in which I had written this poem. It brought me back to harmful comments that many Christians say to people who are LGBTQ without thinking twice.

It was a place of hurt, pain and shame.

One of the most common phrases is, “I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin.” Christians often say they don’t hate LGBTQ people, but their “lifestyle." It's a shame that same-sex love is somehow reduced to a lifestyle and not simply love.

But this poem reminds me that change can happen.

Since writing this piece, I’ve grown in loving myself and accepting my story. Others have also grown in listening and understanding my experiences. We may have different perspectives, but I know how much they love me and our hearts are softening.

It would mean a lot if you checked out this personal poem when you have a chance. Thank you to Michael Vidler for producing this video, and Canadian Memorial United Church for allowing us to film in their sanctuary.

Let’s keep chatting, breaking down walls, hearing each other's stories and living in the grey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmxT4hhGc6M

To be or not to be a minority - that is the question (poem)

To be or not to be a minority – that is the question A question I have been revisiting and trying to comprehend From the outskirts, being a minority doesn’t seem like the ideal position Being different, perhaps a dissident, maybe exotic And I’m all too familiar with these words and trends Having used them, even in my favour. But as I have come to understand and accept my story This minority status has become a fallacy A malicious status imposed on me The dominant norms and ideologies that have bruised and broken and beaten me Boxing me in to this tiny crevice of being a minority.

Have you ever felt different, or that you didn't quite fit or belong?

Most of us have felt that way at one point or another in our lives. It's not an easy place to be, especially when we desire love, connection, acceptance and belonging.

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I've felt different for most of my life and my puzzle pieces never seemed to line up. There was always a part of me that didn't quite fit the community I wanted to belong to. It has been really challenging negotiating the various pieces of my identity and figuring out how I belonged (or didn't).

In some groups, I held back certain aspects of my identity and part of me was missing. In other spaces, I hid different pieces and didn't feel whole. There was silence, insecurity and often shame.

Gay AND Christian? Chinese AND Jamaican? Say what?!?

Many of us never feel like we're enough.

Never forget these powerful words. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Can I tell you how awesome you are? It's true! Many of us navigate these in-between spaces and yet, we often marginalize others who are different. We really need to listen and hear each other's stories, and not be afraid to bring our whole selves.

I'm still figuring out what it looks like to bring all the pieces of Jenna to the table. It's tough and will be a lifelong journey, but I know it'll be worth it. When you have a chance, check out my poem, Minority, and I hope you can connect.

Have you ever felt like you didn't belong? How have you negotiated the various pieces of your identity?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFejUFU8sDo

"Do you have hope for the church?"

(Michael Vidler) (Michael Vidler)

When I arrived in Vancouver a month ago, I wasn't sure where my Vancouver Biennale project would take me. I've led numerous workshops, had a few performances and met some incredible people who have inspired, encouraged and challenged me. My mind and heart have been filled with thoughtful dialogue, as well as powerful stories and perspectives.

In my workshops and meetings, people have raised questions and comments that have caused me to reflect on my project and what it looks like to build bridges between LGBTQ, Christian and feminist communities:

  • “Is this pain worth it?”
  • “I think it comes out as hate, but a lot of the time it’s actually fear… People are just trying to protect themselves.”
  • "I want to step into community that understand me."
  • “I feel really disoriented because I feel like I have to hide parts of myself from different people.”
  • “The healing part is figuring out in all the displacement, how we can find place and hold one another.”
  • “We need to put ourselves in other people's shoes... The shoes may feel uncomfortable."
  • "Do you have hope for the church?"

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(Jarrah Hodge)

When that person asked me if I had hope for the church and these communities, I told him I couldn't do this work if I didn't have hope. I have to believe that change is possible for these seemingly dissimilar communities. I've seen movement and transformation in these spaces, even if it's slow and takes a long time.

Identity is complex and difficult, but I also believe that understanding and reconciliation can occur between LGBTQ, Christian and feminist communities. There's a hunger for these conversations, and a strong desire to find community and belonging.

This project is also timely in Vancouver.

The Vancouver School Board recently passed a new policy that allows transgender students to be addressed by the name and pronoun that best represents their gender identity. The changes also discourage sex-segregated activities and allow transgender students to use whatever washroom they feel most comfortable.

Chinese and Christian parents have been represented as a homogenous group by the media, tying race and faith to homophobia and transphobia. For example, the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente recently wrote about the policy and said, "Many of the Chinese parents, like Ms. Chang, are Christians..." She didn't check her facts because Cheryl Chang is actually white.

I recently chatted with Fiona Chen, a Chinese-Christian mother who defended the new policy and has been outspoken about supporting her transgender child. I admire her courage to tell her story, as well as the stereotypes she is breaking down and bridges she is building. You can hear more of her story in this CBC interview.

Fiona's story and desire to fight for her son has encouraged me to keep fighting. 

This work is tough, but I know it's worth it. It's worth the risk, pain and messiness. Change occurs when we fight and are unwilling to accept the status quo – especially when that marginalizes individuals and tells them they are worthless.

I'm looking forward to my final event where I'll bring together voices from my workshops and various conversations. There will be some spoken word poetry, storytelling and video this Saturday, June 28 at Our Town Cafe at 7pm. There’s a hunger here for these discussions and I hope my time here starts more conversations in Vancouver.

Check out some photos from my workshops at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House and Heartwood Community Cafe. Heartwood is a beautiful space that focuses on community building and social justice, so check it out if you have a chance!

I'm off to Vancouver: building bridges as a Vancouver Biennale artist-in-residence

I have some very exciting news to share with you. I’ll be taking part in the Vancouver Biennale's artist-in-residence program in June! The Vancouver Biennale is a non-profit organization that celebrates art in public space. Over the next two years, the group is inviting 92 artists from around the world to come to Vancouver to create public art and dialogue. Some of the incredible artists include, Ai Weiwei and Jonathan Borofsky.

The theme of this Biennale is Open Borders/Vancouver Crossroads, and the residency program is inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, I Have A Dream speech.

I have many dreams for change, freedom and equality.

I’m planning to lead numerous creative and hands-on spoken word poetry workshops, which will culminate in a public event and dialogue at the end of the month. In particular, I’m focusing on bringing together voices from lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ), Christian and feminist communities.

There is often a lack of dialogue and understanding between these groups, and I’m interested in helping foster conversations and peacebuilding through spoken word. There are many bridges and connections to be built.

My purpose is to create spaces in which people can openly and freely share their stories through poetry. I also hope the workshops and event help participants see ways they can use their voices as a tool for social change in their own lives and communities. We understand the world around us through stories, which helps us to grow, learn and be challenged.

Let's bring these issues out of the shadows. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

I also want people to sit in the complexities, messiness and ask questions.

This dialogue is not about finding the answers, but living the questions and mutually learning from one another. Change takes time, but I believe it begins when we listen to one another and come to recognize our similarities and common humanity. I really hope participants will be open to having these important conversations.

Change is happening and it’s exciting to be part of the movement and dialogue. 

Last month, I spoke to high school students at the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s first gay-straight alliance (GSA) conference. When I was a student at a Catholic high school, I could’ve never imagined having a GSA or attending one of these conferences. It was amazing to see these students step out in courageous ways, and create safe and open spaces for LGBTQ people.

I'm excited to see what's happening in Vancouver and to hear people's stories. If you are in Vancouver and would like to be part of this dialogue, please be in touch at jenna.tennyuk@gmail.com. I hope we can build some connections and bridges together.

“ I have a dream that one day… we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

My Huffington Post piece: a gay Christian goes back to church

Easter is the most important time for Christians in which they believe Jesus died on the cross for their sins and resurrected three days later. This season reminds me of the last time I regularly went to church. I wept uncontrollably for most of the Easter service several years ago as I was still struggling to accept my sexuality. I didn't believe I belonged there as a gay Christian and left the church.

I recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the challenges and complexities I've experienced going back to church. You can read my post, From Familiar to Foreign: A Gay Christian Goes Back to Church.

Spoiler alert: it’s really, really hard! Despite many challenges and feeling overwhelmed, I've met some really kind people and this community is an important place I long for.

My "church challenges" have been lonely and rocky. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Last year, I started a challenge to go back to church. On one of my church challenges, I caught myself looking around as I entered the building and part of me was afraid of being seen by anyone I knew. I had similar thoughts and fears when I started going to gay bars. I laughed at the irony of the situation and how much life had changed.

How could a place that used to feel like home become so foreign to me?

I’ve become a stranger who sat at the back of the church and planned an escape route in case it was too difficult to be there. I know you don’t need a church building to find God, and I’ve experienced his presence in powerful ways outside of the church and Christian communities. However, I’ve missed having that community and actively seeking God with other people.

Nature is one of the places I experience God. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Spoken word has felt like church to me. (Artemysia Fragiskatos)

The church is so broken, but it has also been a place of love, safety and refuge for many people, including myself. Many of my friends who are gay and Christian long for this place of community again, but many don’t feel welcomed there.

We need to do something different and not be afraid of the tensions and complexities. Let’s be okay to sit in the mess and questions with one another. Let’s remember what Jesus’ message was actually about.

Take this season to reflect on your journey, but also think about those individuals who are on the margins, desiring a place to call home.