Over the next couple of weeks Brian and I are going to share more about our personal stories. Where we started, how QueerTheology.com started, and what we’ve learned along the way. This is the first part of my story.
In Eastern Pennsylvania, on a plot of land surrounded by thick trees, I spent my childhood playing baseball, building forts, and reading books. Our lives revolved around the conservative evangelical church my family had belonged to for years. We were there on Sundays and Wednesdays. I went to a summer Bible camp that was affiliated with our church, and when I hit junior high there were Fall and Winter retreats as well as summer mission trip opportunities.
We talked about God, the Bible, and Christianity all the time. I got “saved” when I was four or five, praying to accept Jesus into my heart mostly because I was terrified of going to Hell and being separated from my family forever.
I was afraid a lot as a kid. Afraid I wasn’t really saved. Afraid I wasn’t doing the right things. Afraid my family would be raptured and I would be left behind. Everything I learned at home and in church didn’t do much to alleviate my fear. I was taught God was love, but God also kind of had a temper. There was nothing you needed to do to earn salvation other than believe, but you also better live right or God might smite you. It was a confusing mix of messages that didn’t seem like contradictions because everyone believed them without asking questions.
When I hit seventh grade my mom decided to homeschool me and so my life become even more intertwined with my church. I considered my youth group my “class”. I didn’t have any friends who didn’t go to my church or weren’t in some way religious.
It wasn’t all bad. Church gave me the first opportunities to try out performing; I sang in youth choirs and auditioned for church musicals. I graduated to singing solos and writing skits to perform. I fell in love with Contemporary Christian music and started writing songs. I rapped and wrote raps and learned how to dance (kind of. And not well.).
I wanted to do the right things. I wanted to love God well. I wanted to be a good kid and tell other people about Jesus and learn the Bible and study and pray. But it felt like no matter how hard I tried, there was always something wrong with me. Which was strange because I wasn’t a rebellious kid. I wanted to please my parents. We mostly fought over my math homework, my hormonal attitude swings, and my clothing. I wanted to wear pants more often, but they still insisted on skirts and dresses for Sundays.
It didn’t help that at least once a year (often more than that) we would be treated to a sermon or talk where we heard in excruciating detail what the crucifixion was like and how it was all so that God could look at us because we were so horrible otherwise. As a people pleasing kid, this made me anxious. So I would rededicate my life to God. I would break the one secular cd I bought (one year it was Celine Dion. The horror!) And I would commit to being the best Christian I could.
When I was 16 Ellen came out on her tv show and my family and church boycotted the show. I remember being heartbroken because I loved Ellen. I loved that she wore pants and had short hair. I loved that she had good friends but wanted to stay single. I loved her because I saw myself in her. When she came out I was terrified that other people would see in me what I saw in her. I knew I needed to be careful.
But I couldn’t be anything other than I was. I continue to push to cut my hair shorter and shorter. I continued to push to be able to shop in the boys section. I didn’t have language around gender identity. The internet hadn’t reached our rural town, there were no tv shows about transgender people, I didn’t know being trans was something you could do. But I started to have suspicions that maybe I wasn’t straight. At least not entirely. I told myself that my feelings for my female friends were just normal friendship, that everyone wanted to cuddle with their friends. I didn’t want sex or even kissing, I just wanted to hold and be held.
I don’t remember any anti-gay talks, not explicitly. I think it was just assumed that we all knew that no Christian would ever be gay and so why do we even need to talk about it? But I knew it wasn’t acceptable. I knew it could cost me everything. So I prayed. And I hid. And I ignored the feelings that kept welling up. Not just feelings for women, but my growing depression, my loneliness, my alienation. I pasted on my good Christian smile and talked about how much I loved God.
Then at night I would lay in bed feeling like I’d been punched in the heart. Feeling totally alone and wondering if God could ever love me enough.
I didn’t know any other way to be Christian. I didn’t know any world outside of this very small bubble. I didn’t know if there was any hope for me.
Things came to a head the summer after my senior year of high school. I went on an eight-week mission trip where I was expected to be extroverted 18 hours a day, be bold in my faith, and be equally friends with all 25+ people on my team. I was used to getting along well with adults, being liked by my youth leaders, being considered a good kid and helpful. On this trip, right from the start, the leaders saw something in me they wanted to eradicate.
I was singled at at every turn, watched over and judged, and often pulled aside to be confronted about my “terrible” behavior: things like the way I dressed, spending too much time with the same people, and on and on.
This summer eroded my confidence. I started to believe I couldn’t trust myself. I also started to ask questions about what all of this mission work was about and if we were really doing God any favors by parachuting into communities and strong arming children into praying a prayer they didn’t understand.
But this summer was also the first time that I confided to anyone that I “struggled with homosexuality”. It was the first time I was able to let some of my defenses down.
This summer would change everything, I just didn’t realize it at the time.
How did I go from being without hope to confident in my identity? That’s the story for next time.
For now, I’d love to hear from you: What have been the turning points in your life and faith so far? What were the first cracks when you began to understand more about your identity and your spirituality? How did your experiences as a kid and teen shape your faith and life?