Jennifer Knapp has a story to tell. It’s her story, but it’s also our story. On the surface, it’s seems like a story about faith and identity. But, really, it’s a story about life and love. Through her new album, Set Me Free, and new memoir, Facing the Music, Knapp tells more of this story than she ever has and she does so with compassion, humor, intelligence, and honesty. Knapp is putting her story out there in so that each of us can find ourselves in it, too, and begin to come together in the space between the notes and between the lines. The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Knapp is already there… waiting for the rest of us to show.
The way people of faith pick and choose which scriptures to take literally, without any practical, contemporary context must just make you absolutely crazy. Poly-cotton blends and Sunday football are okay, but gays and, of course, pre-marital sex aren’t.
You’re right. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. One of the things that has helped me understand that is getting to know a bit more of the history of Christianity. That might sound like a really nerdy or academic way to approach it, but there’s just a wild diversity of how people approach Christianity. I grew up in the Midwest where I became more of a day-to-day practicing Christian, and the implications of that with a rather Evangelical point of view. Initially, when I started this whole journey, it was all just one thing because everyone surrounding me was this one way. And then I began to travel, particularly because of my faith experience. I was going to different churches and different parts of the country, different parts of the globe, and I started really getting a picture of how incredibly diverse Christianity is… anywhere from the idea that you’ll go to hell for having a sip of whiskey to “It’s fine. Let’s pray over this whiskey. It’s a gift from God.” [Laughs]
So, as a young Christian, I really had to get my head around that. Traveling, 20 years later, and coming out and dealing with that, coming to terms with the diversity of the way people practice Christianity was really helpful for me in navigating that. It’s really easy, I think, to be critical of it, to say, “These guys are hypocritical. These guys are cool because I like them and they travel the way I travel.”
And the other side is that what we tend to see, either from the outside looking in or from the zone of where we sit, we get the idea that Christianity is not that diverse. The headline is conservative and, the way we see it in the media, it’s a largely Evangelical voice — it’s the Jerry Falwells that make headlines and, nowadays, Franklin Graham. I think we very often get a mindset of what Christianity is from its most conservative viewers. And, when we see people stepping outside of that, we also hear those voices pick up. It’s been helpful to me to see the diversity and understand the tensions between that. These days, I don’t take that as personally as I used to because it does come across. If another Christian sees you living in a way that’s different from them, it’s in the history of Christianity that we kind of eat our own young. [Laughs] We fight in and amongst ourselves about how we do that.
One of the things I always point to is that there are over 34,000 different Christian denominations. Everything from Presbyterian to Catholic to lesser-knowns whose members are only hundreds strong. People use the smallest of fractions to delineate what kind of Christian they are. In that sense, I understand — at least historically — why the kind of Christian that I appear to be in public as a gay person of faith attracts the kind of attention that it does. It doesn’t lessen the blow of it, but it does lead me to a sense of confidence that I didn’t create this conflict. It wasn’t my fault. [Laughs] I’m not the first person to absorb this kind of blow. That happens all the way across the board. It is, in part, one of the traits that you’ll see happening again and again in Christianity.
Does that make it okay? That’s the other argument in the LGBT faith conversation that I tend to be knee-deep in all the time. That’s part of the challenge and the point of the conversation that any of us have in understanding our own identity. I’m a gay woman. Does that mean that, when I came out, I was going to instantly get on board and start marching in Pride parades in my underwear? No. That doesn’t work for me. And, yet, I will find that there are people inside my LGBT community who are astounded that I would even remotely go near faith, for example, because it’s been so historically bad in public and in personal experiences.
And that’s where I go back in the Book, trying to read between the lines a little bit. All of us have this unique journey. All of us have this unique experience of where we draw encouragement from, where our gifts are. We don’t always fit the mold. All of us aren’t always able to check off the generalized boxes of the identities that we have. I don’t always check off the identities of what it means to be a lesbian woman any more than I do in the Christian experience. But those things are part of my life and part of my heritage. That’s one of the things that’s interesting to be part of while we’re establishing our identities and laying claim to those and having confidence in “Will I do that in a way that polarizes somebody else’s experience?” That’s, really, the gist of what I often get to in these conversations.
Yeah, Christianity has a bad rap. It does point to one scripture over another. 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.
For me, it’s part of understanding how that mechanism works. It’s not just Christianity that does it. 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.
Absolutely. Within the LGBT community, everybody wants the right to self-identify. But, if you identify in a way that doesn’t make them comfortable, they come back at you. They don’t understand how you can be gay and Christian. And, on the other side, there are many people of faith who go back to the core teachings of the Golden Rule. If we could all do that, we’d be in a great place.
Yeah. It’s a great, fundamental place to start. I think that’s something we sometimes forget.
I’m from Kansas. I grew up with this overwhelming sense that people from Kansas are stupid and they don’t amount to anything. Yet, I’ve traveled a lot. But I’ve felt that the joys I’ve gotten, the ways that traveling has changed me, when I go back home, the people that I come from and get pride from are going, “You’re different. You’ve been affected by the world around you.” And it’s like, “Yeah, but I still love home. It’s still a part of me.” I mean, the Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs and I’m going off my nut. But the fact that I’m sitting down, eating sushi, and drinking an Australian beer or having a really great single-malt Scotch while I’m enjoying the game is really bizarre from the way I grew up with cans of Bud Light and nachos. It’s easy to judge that on the surface.
But that, to me, is just one of those universal things that I go back to… taking the time to appreciate the person sitting across from me and the things that make their life valuable… when you listen to the person across from you say, “This is my story. This is why I’m here. This is why I’m confident today and this is what gets me up in the morning.” Those are the valuable things. And how hard it is for us to sometimes find the confidence in the experiences that we’ve had because another person doesn’t see it that way. Somebody could easily write me off with my hillbilly Kansas roots and think that I’m not serious or smart enough… or the fact that I’m gay, and how much it’s taken for me to stand up and claim that. And not to be confused that, in claiming that, it’s not an overall identity that means I’m trying to take the world by storm and I think everybody should be a lesbian. That’s just ridiculous. [Laughs]
But it’s hard. And, for those of us who have tried so hard to gain the ground of self-confidence when anything threatens to push you off that, it becomes a real battle for your pride. Pride parades are important, in that sense. When you think about the history of that from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s — the generations of LGBT people before us who wouldn’t dream of being able to walk down the street and celebrate their sexual orientation openly for fear of retribution. And, now, it’s important for us to understand where that comes from, the value in that, rather than judging it.
I felt criticized when I first came out. I did an interview early on and somebody was upset when I stumbled saying I was 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. 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. They are truckers, businessmen, Republicans, drag queens, rock stars, and cowboys. There’s no one thing you can pin down and say, “Oh, you’re going to be a great interior decorator.” It’s ridiculous! [Laughs]
[Laughs] You could be an NFL football player, if the team would keep you…
[Laughs] Yeah, right. Absolutely! 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.

Obviously it’s a personal choice, but what’s your philosophy on public figures and being out in terms of the visibility?
I always feel two-sided because, on one hand, there’s no obligation that any of us have to walk into a room and proclaim our sexual orientation.
Right. Of course.
On that surface, it’s just weird. I don’t walk into a room and tell you what party I declared last election cycle. It’s a little bit more complicated than that.
But I’ll go on the other side and say that I think there’s a lot of value anywhere from an every-day person going into work and saying, “Yeah, I’m gay. This is my partner. This is my family.” to Ricky Martin or Chely Wright or myself coming out in public.
One of the decisions I had at that crossroads was that… I wasn’t hiding. I wasn’t in the closet. All my friends knew I was gay. It wasn’t a secret. But, when I got on stage, the impact of that was palpable. When I went on stage — before I was out — and everybody knew I was gay and they were waiting for me to say it or trip into it accidentally or do something that was untoward, I felt like there was this thing that I was not acknowledging that everyone was waiting for me to acknowledge, this elephant in the room.
It wasn’t until I actually came out that I realized the ultimate value of that. Especially right now in our social climate, me not saying anything gave the air that I wasn’t proud of who I was or that I thought there was some secret to keep. For that reason alone… It was like, “There’s no secret here. This is important to you? Okay, I’m happy to own it.” In that — and I didn’t even realize — was the confidence I gave myself that, in a lot of ways, made me feel like I was ashamed of my sexual orientation which I never was.
To be able to claim that out loud is not only valuable to one’s own personal experience — to have confidence to address parts of our character to other people — but the watershed moment when public figures share that, it’s an experience that a lot of people don’t always know they have the confidence to do themselves… “If that person is able to do it under a spotlight and under a lot of scrutiny, then maybe I can do it with a smaller circle of friends that I have here that really do need to know this thing about me.” It builds genuine relationships. And I think the power and the impact of that is big.
I didn’t want it to be. 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. When I go play a show, especially early on even before I came out, I’d have a line of 20 or 30 LGBT people saying, “If you’re gay, just please come out. It’s important. It matters to me. The safety in numbers and having people have my back — I need that. Can you do that?” That’s a really hard thing to turn down. So I was like, “Yeah, man, I’ll walk beside you. I’ll take your hand. It’s cool.” It’s an honor and a privilege to be in a position like that. I think all of us have a chance to do that, at some point in our lives, in one way or another. Whether it’s a mentorship as a musician or whatever it is you do at work, to be able to show that you’re on board and willing to walk beside somebody who has a similar journey as you is part of what coming out is all about, I think.
Well, it takes the shame element out of the equation. That’s what people who are homophobic are holding on to, the idea that it’s something to be ashamed of, that it’s something that’s not right about people. So, when you take that out and say, “I’m just like you. I’m your neighbor. I’m your coworker, your friend. I’m your rock star. I’m just another person…”
Yeah. It reminds me of the implications of Harvey Milk standing on a pulpit in front of people and showing the value of coming out. It’s looking back in history and looking at this idea that coming out isn’t just a claim or a political statement; it’s a willingness to be vulnerable and let somebody know something important about you. And it invites people to let that become their burden, as well.
All the coming out in the history of recent decades and appreciating that… we thought, for a long time, the myth of LGBT was the shame that was in that. And what we found is greater mental health in coming out, greater understanding of human sexuality — not just LGBT sexuality — but the whole spectrum of the human experience. It’s taken all that we don’t talk about with sexuality and turned it on its head because, once we figured out that it’s okay for us to say something about ourselves that is vulnerable and we see that there are other people who share in that vulnerability, it levels the playing field. It’s not about sexual orientation. It’s about confidence of any human being.
In any of the ways that we consider ourselves different or unique in a social context, we find out, when we walk over that bridge, there are a lot of other people like us. To be the first guy to do that can be scary, but you start meeting other people who are experienced in a world similar to yours instead of alienating yourself or doing any of the things that we do when we feel weak or scared or shameful about stuff… we start hiding and it just metastasizes into this awful place. It doesn’t just happen to LGBTs. It happens to us all the time. In human psychology, when we’re not living authentically as ourselves, it has negative consequences. Now that we’re finding a lot more openness about it, I think it really helps people on their paths to find whole, healthy, and happy integrated lives, whatever the challenges of their individual experience as them.
I’m guessing you’re often forced to talk about marriage equality with people who are on the “one man-one woman” bandwagon. What do you say to that?
Oddly enough, it’s not something that’s come across the board. And I’m surprised it hasn’t. I don’t field the marriage equality questions very often, actually. That could be, in part, that most of my time is spent with Christian audiences in conflict about homosexuality being a sin or not a sin.
Gotcha. So you’re not even getting to the next step.
Maybe not. That might be part of it. I’m really interested in the next coming months because of this watershed event that’s happening with marriage equality in the last year. I think that conversation is shifting some. But it’s shifting so far that it’s almost not the real point. I would’ve told you, four years ago, that I just didn’t want anyone to ask me that question at all. I didn’t really know how to bridge that for people who couldn’t get over the fact that homosexuality is a sin in a religious context. 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.
Right. They’re still stuck on homosexuality being a choice.
Yeah. But 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, right? 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.
For most people, when you start to ask them, “Think about the people that you would break your arms and legs to cross the street for. Think about the people that you honestly love and would do anything for. The part of you that has no words about compassion and how much you want to see them succeed in life, how much you want to be a part of every tragedy, every joy…” That, to me, is the thing that is really very helpful — to move beyond the idea of what we do with the plumbing. It’s not about that at all. It’s about nurturing these relationships that we have.
That’s where it starts to become interesting, when people start to entertain the value of why marriage equality is important, that’s where they begin to connect — through the universal language of love, the universal language of companionship and support and how tenuous that is on the best of days. I mean, ask anyone who’s been in a marriage for more than 10 years. It’s hard, hard work. And it is something that is one of the most amazing experiences to have in your life to be a companion to someone and say you’ll be there through the thick and thin. And how much love and joy it takes to really do that. And how little sex has to do with it. It’s helpful. It’s a great benefit. It’s awesome.
But, on the other hand of it, it’s not enough to make those relationships last. It’s not enough to make the premise for marriage equality. 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.
They’re not seeing the person for the plumbing, as it were.
Yeah, for the real life experiences and who they are and the same things we all want. We all want to have a roof over our heads, a family that loves us, and somebody we can love back. That’s not an LGBT thing. That’s a worldwide, universal experience. When you tap into that, you tap into the mirror of that life. As an artist, and somebody who gets to speak on the subject, and as a person of faith, that’s what I really get impassioned by is people being able to tap into the mirror of that life and find joy and adversity and companionship to share with it.
And what’s so interesting and wonderful is the way you translate all of this, to get it out through your music. You’re just telling your story. It’s all very personal. Even though it’s also, essentially, political, you’re taking the personal approach instead of knocking people over the head with some overt message.
And that’s why I tell you I prefer the title of what I do in that realm is advocate not activist. Not judging one to be better than the other…
But it’s a different approach.
In my personal nature, I’m not the guy who goes out, gets the bullet points, writes it on a picket sign, and stands on the street corner for six hours. I’m glad that there are those people. It’s just not my personality. And I think that was kind of the expectation, too, when I came out… “Oh, so you’re going to get on the bandwagon and champion for gay rights.” And I was like, “Mmm, yeah, that’s important, but I don’t even know what that means.”
In that way, I got a little bit lucky in that what I do and the reason why I get up and breathe is because I love music. I love doing what I do. I wouldn’t have even dreamed of weathering that storm if the value for me and the enjoyment I got out of doing what I was made to do paled in comparison. I love music enough to weather that storm and all the criticism of coming out. Even if I didn’t have a public platform, I’d still be writing now. I would be getting my guitar, journaling, searching for that ‘what is life about’ experience.
What that’s taught me, in the long run — and I’ve been incredibly grateful for it — is that, 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.
What that’s taught me is that’s just as valuable a story inside the LGBT narrative, for example. When we look, again, historically, the LGBT plight has been one to hear the voice. We just haven’t heard from the LGBT people in the past. And that’s what we’re starting to hear more and more of. To be able to have a daily life of that, it kind of normalizes the experience a little bit. I’m not fighting to be an LGBT performer. I just want to play. So I go out and play, I tell my experience, and I acknowledge the things that are actually there. Damn right, being queer affects my life! [Laughs]
But it’s one part of who you are, not the entirety.
Exactly! And, so, I have other experiences. I go home. I reminisce. I have memories and I write about those memories. And they’re not “gay” memories. And, if they are, I write about that. If they aren’t, I don’t worry about it. I think, as a songwriter, at times, you can have an agenda and I think that’s important. Any art or music is, ultimately, revealing something not just about the person who writes it, but maybe of the world around them and the cultural experience that they’re having.
But I get really hesitant, sometimes, to use art solely as a medium to move people. That’s one of the reasons I’m somewhat less CCM. I wanted to be able to write a genuine experience so that a lot of different people could find their unique story in one song and not just make that an invitation to the people who knew that one particular experience. I didn’t feel comfortable continuing to just write music that said, “Anyone who’s not a Christian need not apply.” I wanted to have everybody be able to come to that moment and share in that experience.
We talk about love in music a lot. 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, to me, 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.
Obviously, I have a lot to say about LGBTs and the faith conversation because it’s affected me personally. But, as an artist, on the other hand, I’m glad that’s just one portion of the life experience I get to have. One informs the other. There’s a healthy interplay there that keeps me getting up on the days that I’m sick of my job and I’m sick of music and I’m sick of doing interviews. I’m always happy to talk about something that’s really important to me and not just talk about myself. 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. It’s nice to have that balance.
To me, that’s the bridge building. Love is the common language. Music is the expression of that. So, when people from whatever corners of the earth can find themselves in a song by you or whomever, then that’s a common ground, that’s a starting point for a conversation of, “Oh, you are the same as me!” That, to me, does so much more than some of the other tactics. Though, like you said, standing on the street corner is important work, as well.
Yeah, not everybody feels comfortable with that. To ask someone to go out of their element and say, “You’re not doing your part if you’re not standing here.” That’s a big ask for some people. For some people, it will break them. It’s a conversation I have a lot of times with LGBTs in the church. Some people just say, “Look, I can’t go back to church. If I go back and come out in my church, it will kill me. It’s too much stress for me to bear.” You have to say, “By all means, don’t run into something.” There’s no wisdom in being a martyr for the cause. Being happy and healthy and finding your story someplace else may be the wiser decision.
And there are other people who are all about being rabble-rousers. They have thick skin and lots of energy and they can go in there and do that. They can take one for the team and they are honored to be able to do that. Part of what I always tend to go back to is learning your own narrative. Having joy in what your gifts and talents are, having confidence in them, is part of the plan of finding what is the right place for me in the universe. We’re all looking for that. Not all of us imagine ourselves working a career job at McDonald’s. But, for some, that might be the thing. To not de-value that experience and say, “Oh, I just work a career for McDonald’s…” Well, are you happy? Are you in the right place? Is it giving you fulfillment? You know, not self-judging that, but also encouraging the world around us to help us tap into our destinies… being in the right place at the right time that’s in harmony with our personalities and our experiences that we have to be fully alive and aware and authentic in the space and time that we’re at.