Jennifer Knapp’s story is one that many in the LGBT community can relate to. Growing up in small-town Kansas as the sister of a twin and the daughter of divorced parents, she sought refuge in the pages of a journal that she wrote in code so no one could read her deepest secrets. But a writer’s secrets must, eventually, be told. And, so, Knapp took up songwriting, setting her story within the framework of her Christian faith. After two independent releases and lots of church shows, Knapp’s Kansas album sold more than 500,000 copies. Two Grammy nominations and two more Christian music records followed.
It was all well and good, but it was all too much. A move to Australia, a hiatus from music, and a new relationship filled the years between 2001’s The Way I Am and 2010’s Letting Go. In conjunction with the latter release, Knapp came out publicly as gay. “I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll come out and that’ll be the end of it.’ Well, it’s not. It’s a big deal.” And it’s a big deal in two of the communities that Knapp brings together with her very existence: Christians and queers.
When she first came out, Knapp was criticized by some in the LGBT community because, in an early interview, she stumbled when she called herself a lesbian. “It was just weird for me to say because I was just me. And, for a lot of other LGBTs, for them to see me stumble in saying that, was an assumption that I had a difficult time with my own identity and calling myself a lesbian,” Knapp recalls. “How well we take on a moniker or an identity and how we live that out becomes different, especially the more we get comfortable with it, the more we see the wider diversity of LGBTs. … That diversity is long and wide. And I think that’s part of the challenge that we have is, any time that we understand our own identity, to not assume that everybody carries the same journey behind them as we do ourselves.”
In 2011, Knapp set up the Inside Out Faith foundation to facilitate conversations between and about Christian communities and their LGBT members. To expand her reach, she also released an album, Set Me Free, and published a memoir, Facing the Music, late last year. Through it all, she remains a devout Christian and a proud lesbian — two potentially conflicting facets of herself that she has internally reconciled. So, how does she reconcile the Christian community’s steadfast upholding of one scripture’s literal meaning, but not another’s? Very carefully. “Christianity has a bad rap. It does point to one scripture over another,” she concedes. “For some people, that really works for them and it’s really important. But, in holding to that idea and how a person should practice that, do we alienate other people for the sake of our own identities? That’s where it becomes a real problem and can be really damaging to a lot of people.
“It’s not just Christianity that does it,” Knapp continues. “We do it in all kinds of ways, any time we’re talking about really strong identities that are tied up in some very important things… like faith, like our sexual orientation, like where we grew up. These things are the core values of who we are and when someone starts to insult that, it gets really personal really quickly.”
Because some of the believers are stuck on the notion that homosexuality is not only a sin, but a choice, oftentimes the conversations can’t even get to more immediate issues like marriage equality. Knapp says, “When I’m in the space with somebody who’s having such a hard time understanding the normalcy of LGBT people in the universe, that’s so far beyond their grasp; it’s not even a debate that I end up having most of the time.” But she sees the tide turning right before her eyes as the wave of marriage equality continues to wash over us. “The interesting thing about that, though, and a lot of conversations that I have in community environments that are really wrestling with this, is trying to put sexual orientation in a context of love as opposed to sex,” she notes. “Funnily enough, I think that marriage equality is going to shed a light into some more religious conservative audiences to see that what we’re talking about here is not about sex; it’s about love and healthy relationships and family building.”
She continues, “And I think the more we see that, the more we see healthy relationships — Neil Patrick Harris is a great public example of that; Chely Wright and her family are a great example of that — we start to see how incredibly mundane and normal that is. And how incredibly powerful that is. That, to me, is what’s really interesting about gay marriage. And, for environments that have that really difficult time, they have to get over that fairly quickly, or they’re just not engaging in that conversation at all. And that, again, goes back to the sinful nature in which an LGBT person is viewed in conservatism. If you can’t get over that, then you’re not seeing the forest for the trees, a little bit.”
Whether through her conversations, her music, or her memoir, Knapp’s storytelling uses love as not only its language, but also its muse: “Love is universal, that’s why you see it so much in the music that we have… where it contracts and where it succeeds and where it fails. It’s the greatest muse for any musician in the history of writing because everybody knows that experience. And that is what art does — it connects people. To me, succeeding means being able to connect a diverse range of people to a universal experience. I’m grateful for music, in that sense.”
As she turns the page in this latest chapter of her life and work, Knapp returns to the same pages she kept so guarded as a child and, there, she continues to hide her deepest secrets. Now, though, there’s no code, only connection. “Obviously, I have a lot to say about LGBTs and the faith conversation because it’s affected me personally. But, when I’m exhausted by being ‘Jennifer Knapp: gay/lesbian ex-Christian rocker whatever,’ I’m just happy to be able to pick up my guitar and play a song about love,” she says. “At the end of the day, we all have our own story and our own experience. As a songwriter, that’s all that’s ever really mattered to me — being able to write about what it’s like to be alive, to love, to fail, to succeed, to be spiritual, to doubt… all of that stuff is the gasoline that’s running the engine of what I get to do.”
This article originally appeared in Curve magazine.