Is having to pretend at church worth being accepted?

In high school, I was secretary of our newly-formed Bible club. Every Wednesday I would wake up at five a.m. in order to get to the school by six, so that the club could meet before class started. I was already the odd one out for being the only Catholic in this group of born-again Christians, so I always felt this weird drive to try and fit in with the rest of the club.

One day the teacher who led the group announced that we were going to do a special project: write letters to a gay group informing them that being gay was a sin.

I was thunderstruck. How did my innocent little school group go from Bible study and Bible Pictionary to political activism (that it was presumed we all agreed with)? My classmates hopped to it: to my eyes there wasn’t one who hesitated. If I said I didn’t want to write such a letter, I felt certain they would all pounce on me with Leviticus lectures, as surely as if I had marched in there waiving a rainbow flag and then kissed another girl.

I should mention that at this point in my life, I was so blinded by “Christian” dogma that I couldn’t even admit to myself that I was gay. I was repulsed by boys, confounded by my boy-crazy gal pals, and cried the first time a boy tried to kiss me. But I was Christian, so couldn’t possibly be gay! So it wasn’t for myself (at least consciously) that I was hesitant to write the letters. My hesitation was based on the moral principle informing the project; I didn’t agree with its overall assertion. It was also based on my one bisexual friend, whom I knew to be a good person; it didn’t seem to me that she was inherently a sinner just because she liked women as well as men.

However, with everyone diligently writing away, and the teacher noticing my lack of participation, I caved. I did not want to be the freak show in this group any more than I already was. I did not want to be singled out.

My letter said something about how the only time anybody is supposed to have sex is if they are married and actively trying to make babies—which meant that not only priests, but any unmarried Christian person was therefore called to chastity. So, I argued, it’s not gay love that’s the problem, since Jesus taught love, but just the sex, which is a problem for everyone.

Shame-faced, I gave the teacher my letter. He was “approving” them before sending them off to whatever unfortunate group received them. It turns out I was singled out after all—for, in his words, writing the most thoughtful and well-argued letter of the bunch. I was praised for how well I had betrayed my own ethics.

I remember wishing that whatever group got those letters would just toss them unread into a fireplace.

It wasn’t until years later that I was able to admit to myself that I was gay—and that was the happiest, most liberating experience I’ve ever had. Of course, I had years before then left any form of Christian church. Now I’ve been testing the waters on an attempted return back, secure enough in who I am to not let those same negative attitudes that drove me away the first time cause me to lie to myself any longer.

But it still hurts to know that I will never be fully accepted for who I am by those I would like to call “family”—that is, a church family. Other members can talk about their significant others, their kids, their weddings, their anniversaries. When they do I smile and nod, the same as I did in my high school Bible club, and let them tell me with condescending smiles not to worry, that one day I’ll find Mr. Right.

Is it worth it to have the peace that church brings me, if that peace is counteracted by the play-acting I have to undertake in order to be welcome there?

This is one of the letters in my book “UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question,” available in print, as a Kindle book, as a NookBook, and directly from me, signed and inscribed according to your directions.

Print Friendly

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Mayo

    I really love these insightful letters, providing a window into a world I’m really so clueless about. Earlier in my life I was confident in my assessment that gay folks were sick or broken… it’s convicting but so freeing to find such love and compassion now in my life for the gay community. It’s really not because of any doctrinal breakthroughs that my assessment changed, it’s because of the access to the gay community I never had previously. It’s letters like this that open my mind to the fact that gay or straight, we all struggle and aspire in the exact same way. I obviously still have a lot to learn, but I’m really so grateful for the ministries committed to opening the hearts and minds of others.

    • James Walker

      the book John excerpted this letter from, UNFAIR, is a great read and I highly recommend picking it up from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

  • Kristen A.

    ‘Is it worth it to have the peace that church brings me, if that peace is counteracted by the play-acting I have to undertake in order to be welcome there?” You just described pretty much every aspect of my life. I work for a real estate agency in a small town where everyone knows your business and my coworkers are all at least twice my age. I’ve opted to keep quietly to myself about my sexuality, but it always becomes uncomfortable when they start asking me about why I’m single, joking whenever a young man walks into the office about how I should flirt with him, or implying that I need to get a move on with finding the right man. But I just can’t see a situation in where it’s worth it to come out and become “That girl” at the office. So I’ll continue to grin and bare it. Same thing at church. I know I wouldn’t be kicked out of my church, it’s far more accepting than that. But I don’t want to be instantly identified and categorized by my sexuality, discounting everything else about who I am.

    • BrambleTree

      “But I don’t want to be instantly identified and categorized by my sexuality, discounting everything else about who I am.”
      This is what is so confounding to me right now. Why are some people so fixated on sexuality? I feel so badly for you. While I am straight and have not been singled out for my sexuality, there are times where I have been “that girl” for other reasons, branded simply by one characteristic of my life while the rest were ignored. It’s not fun and certainly didn’t make me feel welcomed. Blessings on you and I pray you find a place to truly belong.

    • lymis

      One thing I had to come to terms with in the process of coming out is that people are going to instantly identify and categorized you by your sexuality regardless of whether you tell the truth or not. The question isn’t going to be whether they do so, but whether they do so accurately or not – and whether that accuracy matters to you in that context.

      One thing I came to realize about my closet was that I was making my sexuality everyone’s business, even when they didn’t know it, because I was taking for granted that everyone would judge me negatively, and denying anyone the ability to actually know me. Once I came out, I was able to let the people who were okay with me be okay with me, and then deal with the (relatively fewer) people who had enough of an issue with me that they made it clear. And to allow the others to be my allies.

      I’m not saying that’s the right answer for everyone. But I did that in a small midwestern town, and by and large, it worked out well. I certainly am not sorry I did it, and I’m glad of the results, even though it did cause issues along the way, including being thrown out of my church and costing me a few jobs.

      I realized I was giving everyone but myself a vote in who I was allowed to be.

  • charlesmaynes

    there is always a “risk vs reward” quotient in social groups (which Churches ultimately are) when I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer (AND OF COURSE JOHN SHORE!) my world was rocked to its core though- at that, I determined that God’s love for ALL of his creation trumped everything else, and seeing that all of Jesus’ words were consistent to that changed me forever….. God Bless those who stand up for life, not judgement- because Mercy triumphs over judgement, and Love wins over hate- ever single time……

  • https://www.facebook.com/jean.hoehn/info?collection_token=1524166867%3A2327158227%3A35 Phatchick

    No, No, NO! I’ve been there too and it was not worth it. I hated having to turn into the kind of person I despised in order to fit in. There was ultimately no peace to be found there, just guilt and resentment for not being able to live up to their standards (that I saw through as trying to turn everyone into a RRR clone). It was leaving and being honest with myself about why that finally gave me peace.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James_Jarvis

    If you read the Gospels one thing becomes quite clear. The people who Jesus associated with were the outcasts and the marginalized. They knew they were imperfect and didn’t try to pretend they were anything other than who they were. It was the scribes and pharisees who hid behind their pious masks and proclaimed their holiness that Jesus rebuked. Be yourself, if the church you attend doesn’t accept you for who you are they are not following the example of Jesus.

  • Julia Demaree

    I am Gay and glad to say after years of torturing myself at non denom fundie churches that I am out and loved at my United Church of Christ church…they walk the talk and have since the early 70′s…we got congratulations cards when my wife and I got married in California this year from the women’s group. I also work there as the church secretary…If you do miss this part of social acceptance find a UCC church..I am confident they will love you for who you are!

  • Al Cruise

    Unfortunately these things change over a long period of time but they will change. It takes new generations to make the change. Religious fundamentalism will be looked at like the KKK is today, in the future.

  • lymis

    One nuance that I think can sometimes get lost – often to the pain of those in the actual situation – is that it can make a huge difference how many other options someone has.

    The letter-writer here is talking about a newly formed Bible club in high school. While she doesn’t explicitly state so, I think it’s reasonable to assume that there weren’t a dozen other Bible clubs with varying levels of LGBT acceptance, or that choosing another high school to attend was a workable option. Possibly, today, and possibly, if someone was out to their parents, and possibly, if they were being bullied, there’d be a reason to look for another school. But reading into what was presented, that really wasn’t an option.

    It’s inevitable and understandable for the writer to ask if it’s worth pretending in order to be accepted. But that question really can’t be addressed until what the options actually consist of is part of what’s in our minds.

    In this case, it was perfectly foreseeable that courageously refusing to participate would have not only ended the writer’s welcome in that group, but raised questions that would have dogged the writer for the rest of high school.

    There are times and situations where that’s not as true. When we are out on our own in a stable job, in a situation where there are other options – in this case, potentially, other churches that aren’t so condemning. And even, when it’s possible to make the change without having to defend the choice in ways that cause blowback.

    One of the reasons we treat the people who do stand up and prophetically refuse to participate in hatred or discrimination when it’s so institutional as heroes is that doing so often IS heroic. And that’s wonderful and admirable. But life is also a series of choices, consequences, and what battles to pick.

    A high school kid who hunkers down and weathers the storm until they are in a position to have more options to choose among is in a very different position from someone who already has those options and doesn’t choose them.

    • James Walker

      thanks for this, Lymis.

      it’s nice to “think” that LGBT youth can and should stand up and be heroic but that ignores the very real turmoil so many of those LGBT youth find themselves in. I, for one, was in denial about my sexuality well into my adulthood. not only was it impossible for me to heroically stand up and defend myself (let alone anyone else) from anti-gay bullying, I was often one of the perpetrators of anti-gay sentiments because I was eager to prove to myself and those around me that I wasn’t one of “the gays”. there was not, in my mind, any other option.

  • Ruaidhrí Ó Domhnaill

    The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and many others are welcoming to gays. The church I attend includes several gay couples.
    You don’t have to go through life pretending to be something you are not.

  • Jeannie Boen

    This was so well written. Boy, could I identify. There is so much play-acting involved with fitting in with a contemporary American church.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X