Photos by Laurel Golio
I first met Elyse Ambrose last June when I was moderating a panel called “Lost In Lust” at the Brooklyn Public Library. Held on a beautiful summer night, in a strange, inflatable bubble-tent, the panel brought together a Buddhist, a Lubavitch kabbalist, a psychoanalyst, an imam, and my co-host (comedian Ophira Eisenberg). We questioned the panelists about desire, faith, and how to reconcile our horniness with our spirituality.
Also, there was Ambrose, a former reverend, representing a Christian perspective. While everyone on the panel was kind and respectful of each other’s beliefs, there was still some friction. When any kind of sexuality outside of marriage between a man and a woman was brought up, the more conservative panelists seemed to regard me (a single gay man) and Ambrose (who identifies as queer) with that “love the sinner, not the sin” vibe.
So, as it has played out for most of my openly gay life, I felt instantly excommunicated, heretical and irreverent for even bringing up my gay orgasm. It’s been hard for me to find a consistent spiritual practice, and when that discomfort was once again confirmed, I did what I always do when in the room with religious leaders: I became nervous, obsequious and overly talkative.
Ambrose, on the other hand, remained steady. When it was her turn at the mic, she calmly explained how her sexuality and moral compass were not at odds. Without being defensive or argumentative, she exuded a confidence in her belief that her relationship with God and her queerness were bound together.
I caught up with Ambrose recently in her studio apartment in New York’s Upper West Side. Her space is incredibly orderly — besides a yellow candle burning on the desk (“it’s a candle of Oshun, a Yoruba orisha of love, beauty, and sweet waters/rivers. I decided I needed a little more love in my life”), the room was relatively spare of iconography.
“When we were in the bubble, I was like, here I am in this body, this black body, queer body, young body … I don’t know what they were seeing me as. It’s more to do with about how they are processing me than I can help.”
What does help is how much inner work Ambrose has done to reconcile her faith while being a queer person of color. After more than a decade of study and work in the church, she is making it her mission to help marginalized people reconcile their spiritual and sexual selves.
Calling herself a “sexual ethicist and educator,” Ambrose has created phoeniXspark, a series of classes, gatherings and workshops that center on black women and queer and trans people of color to co-create ritual “for spiritual, emotional, mental, and communal healing … particularly as it relates to sexuality and gender.”
Ambrose also co-hosts the podcast “Black Queer Love” with her partners, storäe and Jé, with whom she is in “a polyamorous family.” The three chat about love, sex, ethical nonmonogamy, the ups and downs of being polyamorous, and how the soulful and the sexual can be united.
Ambrose wasn’t always queer-identified. Growing up outside of New Orleans, she began her undergraduate studies at Howard University in 2003 on the heterosexual normcore track. “I studied business, minored in fashion. My basic focus was ‘how am I going to make money.’”
But in her last weeks at Howard, she had an unexpected religious experience. A friend invited her to a “particularly rigid” Pentecostal church service. Listening to the sermon, Ambrose says she was “deeply put off by the spectacle.”
“Why is [the preacher] loud? Why is he yelling? Why is he talking about hell? I don’t like this,” she remembers asking herself. At the end of the sermon, the preacher invited people up to the altar. “For some reason,” Ambrose recounts, “I went up there.”
She had a moment. “It felt like a realization, a deep realization of God’s presence and God’s investment in my life, a concern about how I would use this life.”
Despite the surroundings (the congregation encouraged her to speak in tongues), Ambrose connected with a higher power. “I feel like this kind of speaks to my journey. This whole Christian thing is happening around me, in these rituals and ways of being, and I feel slightly detached from it, but I am experiencing divinity in this moment.”
Three years after graduating from Howard, Ambrose enrolled in the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, a consortium of five predominantly African-American Christian seminaries. While there, she also worked with the nonprofit Open Doors. She met a fellow seminarian, married him, and after graduation, moved to New Jersey to pursue a Ph.D. in Religion and Society at Drew University.
That’s when things shifted. She began attending a queer-friendly church in the West Village, and eventually was invited to become an assistant pastor and later an associate pastor. It was during this time, when Ambrose began meeting queer people at the church, that her sexuality began to blossom. She stepped down from her position at the church in 2017 to focus on her dissertation and phoeniXspark.
In a way, Ambrose found her queerness through her faith, not despite it — an arc you don’t hear of very often. Perhaps that is what makes her so committed to creating ways for sexuality and spirituality to coexist. “I don’t ask if I am a good person anymore,” she says. “I ask: How am I being in this world?”
So apart from that first conversion experience, you were still relatively traditional-minded when you started seminary in Atlanta?
It was definitely an evolution. [Seminary] introduced me to Black liberation theology, Latin liberation theology. It troubled the foundation of my religious thinking. These were people experiencing marginalization, not starting with God far removed in the sky. The primary aim isn’t the salvation of souls but the liberation from oppression.
And you were straight then?
I found a woman who was attractive and thought if this is allowed now in my new understanding of what God is, I should check this out. But I never did. I don’t even know if that girl was straight. It was an intentional community, and no one was alone, so I couldn’t even have a conversation.
And then you got married?
Met a man, got married. I was reinforcing cultural types: “What are women looking for? A good man.” And it was a good relationship, but something was missing. I did tell him I understood myself to be bisexual.
We got married, but visiting NYC and being a part of a queer-affirming church was the first time I was engaging with openly queer people in my life, and so seeing that glimpse of life made me desire to know myself as an LGBTQ person. I didn’t know what that would look like, but it made me reconsider: He wants to have kids, do I want to have kids? No. Do I want to be that first lady kind of wife? No. So practically we shouldn’t be together. We are good friends now.
Neither of us can recall exactly what you said that night last summer in the bubble. But I just remember you very calmly talking about your beliefs and sexuality in a very centered way.
When I am in public and I am talking about sexuality, what I try to affirm is that your sexual self is a big part of who you are, and it should not be held outside of you any way. You should be an integrated being. Your sexuality and spirituality should not be working at cross purposes.
These negative ways of looking at sexuality only lead to more harm, probably to more cheating, probably to having children you don’t want to have, marrying people you don’t want to marry. We owe it to ourselves to do a thorough analysis of where our spirit is leading us. How do I live who I am without bulldozing everyone else?
I do remember you talking about harm, how you live by an assessment of how something you do may harm others. What is harmful to you?
Consent is, of course, a big issue. But I don’t even call that sexuality as much as an abuse of power.
When I think about the harm that could occur, it could be as small as not being honest enough with yourself to say “Hey I don’t receive orgasms in this way when we are together.” If you don’t state what you want, you dishonor yourself. And you dishonor your partner because you are not bringing your full self in that experience.
Personally, I often feel cast out of religious experiences because of my sexuality. The repercussions for queer people is much more damaging than you first imagine. Just saying “I’m an atheist” can only go so far, in my opinion. Not allowing yourself to have a rich inner life is damaging for queer people.
I think it’s most damaging because it’s a reaction rather than a rational conclusion. God is still in the room, but you are choosing not to affiliate.
There is a “the” in Atheism, a God. And in that way a lot of queer people have unfortunately experienced a disintegration, ignoring a vital part of themselves that is the spiritual self. It doesn’t go away. You are still a spiritual being, and that goodness in you is what connects you to this earth and to your fellow humans. You are life. If the spirit is the house of life, you are squelching the life in yourself to deny the spirit. We shouldn’t let anyone exert power over us to deny ourselves.
I’d like to come at this from another angle. As a gay guy, I know so many people in open relationships. And I gotta say, some of them can be kind of toxic. I feel like they can be just as detrimental.
I’m an ethicist, that’s sort of what I do, and it is not to impose the universal norm. But people tend to have very non-well-thought-out sexual ethics. And when more people are in the mix, that lack of sexual ethics is just compounded. So the more people you add, the worse it becomes.
A lot of us haven’t been taught to be morally reflective for ourselves. We have listened to the church, we have listen to mom and dad, to what our 3rd grade teacher said. These messages take hold of our minds. My work is to revisit those messages and begin undoing and discarding the ones that do not work for us before discovering what works for us. A lot of people discover new ones and add it right on top, but you haven’t done the undoing that can make this new thing flourish. So you are adding crap on top of shit.
In a recent episode of your podcast, you have a fascinating chat with Dr. Amber Johnson, a professor and the creator of The Justice Fleet, a mobile justice museum. You mention something that I have seen often in your work: that we are stories, and that you may be repeating your story because you haven’t learned the lesson. You make that comment that “The universe is trying to tell you something.” I feel like that phrase resonates, but it is also overused, especially in our culture that tells us if we just “focus” and “secret” a wish, it will magically appear.
Because every other system has failed us, it’s like “lets believe in ourselves” becomes the reigning mode. “The universe” is a stand-in phrase for me while I figure out my new understanding of divine things. As an African-descended person, I am thinking of my ancestors, whoever it is I am communication with, the energies of this earth that I think are benevolent and that seek to help us humans come to some full realization of ourselves.
You and Dr. Johnson talk about sexual pursuits, about how to get your rocks off without being harmful. You call it “ethical wilding.” I know you were joking, but what does “unethical wilding” look like?
When I say “ethical wilding” I’m trying to reorient people away from repression and create intentionality. When we approach our own sexuality with suspicion, I don’t think it’s fruitful. Many people go through life without some future of themselves in mind. If I can use a metaphor, maybe it’s thinking like: Hey, last time when I ate ten Oreos, I got a little sick, maybe this time I’ll eat five.
And that takes some inner work. You only realize you are depressed from a one-night stand until you know that you are sad.
Yea. And maybe that’s part of the spirituality of it for me. I don’t take my inner work as a purely rational process. I take it as a part of my spiritual and holistic well-being. When I check in, I say ― “Hey, I don’t like the way I treated that person, what can I do next time I engage with someone?”
While I am in this open configuration of a relationship, I think how can I not set up people for failure. How do I not create harmful situations for others. How am I being in relation to others and to myself? And if I look at that and I don’t like it, then I need to change it.
In another podcast, Jé talked about “putting the hands on the body to find the space for love.” I really liked that. He was commenting on the physicality of love.
I’m sure he was. Jé is always saying great things.
Tell me about your relationship with storäe and Jé .
We are a family, storäe is my partner, my beloved. storäe and Jé are also life partners, they’ve been together for 9 years. Jé and I are also partners, but he and I are platonic partners. He calls me his love partner. But we’re family. Me and storäe’s anniversary is in a couple of weeks. We’ve been together for two years. We are going to Miami!
I’m obsessed with people’s rules in relationships. What are your rules with storäe and Jé? Have you come across a system that works for you?
I know Jé loves to say that one rule is that we don’t compromise. He likes to be subversive like that. Where everyone says “oh you need to compromise to make a relationship work,” we say that enough compromises will lead to resentment at some point.
As a woman, I think I have been taught to accommodate inherently, so it takes some advocating for yourself. Another quote from within our familial thing: “Nobody knows what you’re thinking, nobody knows what you want, you have to advocate for yourself.” We are not people who find selfish to be a horrible word. Who else do you have control over but yourself?
I think for me what makes this an enterprise is the belief that we have one another’s well-being at heart and best interest. We are three brave souls engaged in an experiment of trial and error.
CORRECTION: This article previously referred to Ambrose as an ordained minister. She was a reverend in a mainline Christian denomination and is no longer.