In November 2006, a force that could be called fate, karma or just plain luck introduced Salt Lake City therapist Jerry Buie and yoga/movement teacher John Cottrell. Both men were passionate about spirituality and creating spaces for gay men to explore their unique spiritual blessings, trials and goals.
“We put our heads together and realized we had similar vision for a spirituality-based community,” Cottrell explained. “We both had ideas where we wanted to see our community of gay men grow.”
Together, Buie and Cottrell founded Queer Spirit, an organization dedicated to helping queer men explore their spiritual issues in a safe, non-judgmental space that respects all religion while still challenging members to explore their relationship to their religion of choice or upbringing. The group holds monthly gatherings on the fourth Thursday of ach month that can include workshops, discussions, film screenings, guest speakers, or less formal events such as barbecues.
In addition to the gatherings, Queer Spirit also holds weekend retreats for gay men at the Windwalker Lodge in Spring City, Utah. Their latest retreat, and the first-ever to be held in the winter, will take place on Jan. 11 – 13.
“Retreats in particular are important because they give us an opportunity to get away from everything and everyone who wants to hold us down to a label,” Buie explained. “They let us explore free of guilt and shame.”
And how do the participants in a retreat do this exploring? Cottrell said that a typical Saturday at the ranch could include a morning yoga session to allow the men to stretch, relax and give them “permission to be open to new experiences.” A meditation session can follow, and then more movement work.
For example, Cottrell may lead the men (an average retreat typically numbers between 12 and 15 participants) through an exercise designed to help them talk about current struggles in their lives. To start such an exercise, he’ll break the men into discussion groups and ask them to talk about a recent problem they’ve experienced in their professional or personal life. He’ll then ask them to create a simple movement to express that struggle.
Next, Cottrell will give the groups a lighter topic to discuss – such as a favorite color – and ask them to go through the same process. Then he will ask each of the groups to put their movement pieces together and create a dance. If any members feel uncomfortable with the activity, they are encouraged to talk about why they were resistant.
But Cottrell added that this is just an example. “When we come to the actual retreat I couldn’t tell you what we’ll do, because it always evolves into what people need it to be,” he explained.
One thing the retreats always include, however, is a sweat lodge, a Native American rite of purification and receiving vision. Although Buie is not Native American, he was taught to pour Sweat – that is, to conduct the Lodge – by Ute leader Carolyn Sanders and closely mentored by several Elders. He has participated in Lodges for 12 years and has poured them for nine. He regularly pours “two to three” times each month for the Utah community.
“At the retreats, we build up to the Lodge by spending time looking at what restricts us and confine us,” said Buie. He always instructs the men to approach the Lodge with respect and reverence for its traditions and rites.
“Most of the men have very profound experiences there,” he said.
Although Queer Spirit and its retreats are a Utah phenomenon, Buie says they have received national attention from the start. The retreats have frequently included men from across the country, and Buie regularly gets requests for information as far away as Boston.
Thanks to this widespread interest, gay cable network Logo contacted Buie and Cottrell about filming a half hour documentary on the retreat, centered around a participant from San Diego who will be participating in a retreat for the first time in January. Buie gave his permission for the documentary on the conditions that the director and crew take part in the retreat and refrain from filming the Sweat Lodge. Buie also insisted that they focus their attention on the San Diego man’s experiences instead of the spiritual trappings.
“This is about transformation,” he said. “I think lots of gay men get stuck in these archetypes of victim and martyr instead of finding the magic and power in their lives.”
The documentary is scheduled to air on Logo in February.
Buie encourages men who can’t participate in the retreats to join the Queer Spirit Yahoo group and to visit the group’s Web site, which has a number of articles and book recommendations to aid them in their spiritual journeys.
He will also be teaching a twelve week workshop beginning in January in which men and women may participate. Called “Finding your Inner Wizard” and structured around the theme of “creating magic in our lives,” the workshop will build upon principles in books such as The Four Agreements.
Ultimately, Buie said he hopes that everything Queer Spirit does, from Sweat Lodges and retreats to workshops and discussions, helps gay men to reclaim their spiritual power.
“Anciently, queer people were very much a part of many indigenous communities,” Buie said. “It was a common belief that we held sacred intuition and awareness, and somewhere that got lost.”
For more information about Queer Spirit and its retreats, visit queerspirit.org.