The Queer Pastor Riling Up Conservative North Carolina
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because at some point we’ve got to stop talking past each other.
This coffee shop is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s local haunt, all laminate wood, distorted murals, black-and-white photos. Melancholic, slow rock plays behind her as she nurses a coffee. This all might read quirky elsewhere, but here in Asheville, the eclecticism is an almost tired trope. And, here at least, Beach-Ferrara herself isn’t totally out of left field: a queer pastor in a purple state recently known for battles over which gender can use which bathroom.
Raised in Chapel Hill, Beach-Ferrara hails from Tar Heels, Panthers and Bible country. She raises those Southern charms often in her fight for LGBTQ equality: After founding the Campaign for Southern Equality in 2011, Beach-Ferrara played a pivotal role in overturning the Tar Heel State’s same-sex marriage ban, eight months before the Supreme Court followed suit in 2015. “The work Jasmine did was essential in highlighting that these LGBT families had always lived in the South,” says Adam Polaski, deputy director for LGBTQ rights group Freedom for All Americans. The Center for American Progress named her a Faith Leader to Watch last year, and, in November, the 40-year-old was elected as the first openly LGBTQ-commissioner in Buncombe County. “She represents a very new kind of politician for us,” says Dwight Mullen, a political scientist at UNC-Asheville. “When Jasmine got elected, I said, ‘We’re not experimenting anymore. We’re doing things.’ ”
Because what good is it if someone has faith but not works? While Beach-Ferrara has earned praise for seeking common ground with her cause’s critics — in line with her activist idols, from Bishop Desmond Tutu to Nelson Mandala and Dr. King — the United Church of Christ minister’s actions have defined her. On her plate today are two active lawsuits, one opposing Mississippi’s HB 1523, a so-called religious freedom bill that would legalize faith-based discrimination against queer people, and another against North Carolina’s HB2, more commonly known as the “bathroom bill,” which would restrict transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Her mobilization strategies are informed by her time as an Obama ’08 organizer in Boston — and her time spent at Harvard Divinity School.
She is pro-choice yet believes the decision to terminate a pregnancy is always tragic.
Not everyone in the queer community wants to turn the cheek, so to speak, and Beach-Ferrara understands that: “Sometimes there’s a conflation that to empathize is to cede something or submit.” The “ethical opposite” to queer persecution, she says, is empathy, not hate. That nuance shows on the issue of abortion, where she is pro-choice yet believes the decision to terminate a pregnancy is always tragic. “Part of it is about acknowledging that’s what people believe, wonder and wrestle with, and what might be the root of their fundamental opposition. That doesn’t make them an enemy to women.” As commissioner, she aims to fight opioid overdoses by giving first responders more life-saving equipment and to address child poverty by increasing funding for K–12 education, lessening the burden of childcare costs. Her plan is to create a model for good democracy through sound policy, transparency and civility.
That won’t be easy, particularly with a Republican-led state government that has recently eschewed those ideals through gerrymandered districts, minority-targeting voter-ID laws and hastily arranged midnight sessions aimed at neutering Roy Cooper, the new Democratic governor. There is a concern that no matter what Beach-Ferrara accomplishes in her Asheville district, it won’t have lasting effect beyond her liberal borders. “For our very short-term future, we’re playing defense,” she admits. And that holds true locally too — while her commission has a liberal majority, conservatives will oppose a Beach-Ferrara-backed, Charlotte-style ordinance explicitly protecting queer folks against workplace (including bathroom-related) discrimination. “That would be met with absolute ferocity,” says Asheville Tea Party chair Jane Bilello. Other goals, such as increasing paid leave for county employees, will face similar skepticism, says Bilello: “Do the people in Buncombe County feel like these justify an increase in taxes?”
When speaking at Moral Monday protests, or at the White House prayer breakfast, as Beach-Ferrara did last February, she dons the black suit and white collar of her profession. But today at the café, she grapples with issues of God and governance in lay garb, touting thin hoop earrings, a billowing green jacket and thick-rim glasses above a dimpled smile. She recalls being raised by her single mother, active in youth groups, and then coming out at 18 and no longer feeling quite at home. “At that point, the Presbyterian Church wasn’t quite there,” she says, and so began a decade that included getting her English degree at Brown University, working at a women’s clinic in San Francisco and then returning to teach classes at North Carolina colleges and prisons.
— Jasmine BeachFerrara (@jbeachferrara) January 26, 2017
Through those college years, and her early twenties, Beach-Ferrara struggled spiritually, and yet she often encountered the United Church of Christ: an offshoot Protestant denomination that formed from the merging of two church traditions in the mid-20th century. The UCC emphasizes local control of churches rather than a top-down organization — a philosophy similar, actually, to conservative ideals of government. Its local chapters, called “settings,” often “speak to, but not for” each other, according to church doctrine, emphasizing an autonomy of belief that lends them to adopting nascent movements, such as early LGBTQ and civil-rights activism, under their roofs.
In those friendly services, she found comfort once more. Faith did not always persist easily: She “wrestled with Jesus” on why God would allow suffering. And on the complex issue of Christ’s divinity, she long felt unable to bend. “I just held on for dear life to this logical framework,” she says, until finally giving in and letting herself just believe. One quality of accepting faith is it allows you to imagine possibilities that aren’t quite real yet — a skill that suits her as progressives imagine their next steps in North Carolina.
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