Guest Post: Staying In: Growing Up Lesbian in Evangelical America

A guest post by Liz. 

Let’s start somewhere familiar. In high school, I had an all-consuming crush on a girl. She was pretty, smart, and just screwed up enough to make me want to don my shining armor, mount my faithful steed, and save her (unsurprisingly, I was also a bit of a geek). And, like billions of teenagers before me, I never told her—though, as I was fifteen at the time and hardly a master of subtlety, she probably knew. But unlike some of those who came before, it wasn’t fear of rejection that stopped me. At least not her rejection.

Did I mention I’m a girl?

It’s not easy being a gay, atheist teen in the evangelical church and a conservative Christian school. Honestly, most of the time I struggle to find the words to describe what it was like. Part of that struggle is the effort I put into not overstating the emotional acrobatics that defined most of my pre-college life, not demonizing those who caused me so much pain. I recognize that I was, by and large, an extremely privileged and fortunate child.

But when it comes to my emotional scars, I can’t deny that Christianity has played a key role. Even now, I find it difficult to express some totality of my experience. Just like the pain, the memories are flashes: bubbles of time, fragments of conversations, snapshots of judgment and exclusion.

One day at school, the chair of our science department told a class, “I had a gay friend once. He had so much buttsex that he got herpes and his anus disintegrated.” Way to go, science guy. Educate those impressionable minds—I’m sure Jesus would have lied too, to protect children from the evil influences of The Gays.

When I was quite young, I found out my mom was reading a book that was the memoir of a Christian mother whose gay son had died from AIDS. This was the first time I was heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I knew there was something very wrong with it, but was not yet old or articulate enough to explain how it made me feel.

We weren’t allowed to go to my aunt’s “commitment” ceremony because my parents were afraid that celebrating with a family member on her not-quite-wedding day might be construed as condoning her “lifestyle choices.” The weird thing was we spent plenty of time with my aunts and, later, their adopted children. You have to share the love of Christ through your behavior, but only when people aren’t actively sinning, I guess.

Once I wrote a sort of op-ed criticizing the global Church for its intransigence on social issues such as gay marriage and was called in to talk to a few church muckety-mucks (I was about to leave for a missions trip, and church leadership was concerned my progressivism might reflect poorly on them). One woman quite calmly told me that gay people couldn’t be trusted to make their own decisions, so it was the church’s responsibility to make decisions for them—they were like children who didn’t understand the dangers of their urges.

All these things hurt me, and even more than that, they made me angry. But I was terrified of losing my place in the only community I’d ever known. I already thought that being an atheist could get me kicked out of my school—I’d signed an explicit statement of faith on which my attendance was conditional. I had never been directly told about what would happen to an openly gay person at my school, but considering that you could supposedly get kicked out for not being discreet enough about your regular (boy-girl) sexual misconduct, I figured that being gay was definitely expulsion-level stuff. I still don’t know whether official action would have been taken, but the point is moot; I knew enough of the community to know I would at first be encouraged to “submit” my unhealthy sexual appetite to God and pray to be changed (you mean that God I don’t believe in? Whoops), and would eventually be ostracized when it didn’t work. This was not one of those tolerant Christian communities that said being gay was just as sinful as all other sin and we’re called to leave judgment to God.

What made this deep-seated prejudice against the gay community even more impossibly hurtful was a carefully maintained demeanor of caring and superficial compassion. At least the “God hates fags” sign-wavers are simple to figure out. But, to this day, I cannot think of a phrase that wounds me more than “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I still can’t figure out whether the love or the hate has had a more profound impact on me (I’d like to believe it’s the former). Needless to say, the least confusing thing to do was to graduate high school and get the hell out, which I did.

And most days, I think I’ve escaped.

But then I feel that all-too-familiar wrenching in my chest, the sudden shock of pain that seems almost physical because it cuts so deep. Maybe it’s just a post on Facebook. Maybe it’s an offhand comment on the news. Maybe it’s two of my friends’ parents casually bashing the “homosexual agenda” as they enjoy light snacks on the porch swing at a little boy’s Thomas-the-Tank-Engine birthday party.

They can’t know, I think. They can’t know that what they’re saying is so hurtful. Certainly these people, the people I’ve known all my life, wouldn’t be able to swing in the sunshine and talk about human beings that way if they just knew the pain it could cause.

I wonder if they have any inkling one of “them” is right here, hiding in plain sight. Does it even cross their minds that on any given Sunday afternoon, not all of us are out on the pride parade route in gold-lame hotpants, or sitting at wine and cheese parties bashing Republicans and family values, or lurking deep in our shadowy yet tastefully appointed homosexual lairs plotting the downfall of America? Does it cross their minds that some of us are just eating watermelon at our good friend’s son’s second birthday party?

But instead of making a fuss, I recite a familiar litany in my head. I’m happily married to a man. My parents love him. Why should I upset the balance? Why should I cause them the pain I know they would suffer, both at the hands of the community and their own consciences, if one of their children came out as gay? I don’t live in that community anymore, and they do. I don’t have to deal with the day-to-day consequences of coming out in the Christian community. It’s the thoughtful, responsible, compassionate thing to do, staying in the closet. But every time I have to convince myself of this again, it gets a little more difficult. Every time, I begin to suspect more and more that I’m just protecting myself.

I still live with shame, though it’s not shame for being gay. I feel great shame that when I was a part of that community, I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to speak out, to exhort the professing Christians around me to take a closer look at their beloved Bibles, to encourage them to scrutinize their words and actions more closely. I was a coward, and I’m a coward now.

Some of these days I wonder what would happen if I told them. Would they continue spewing their hate to my face? Would they pause for the moment, then simply get back to it when I left? Or would they let me tell my story?

I’m not sure I’ll ever know. On all of these days so far, I haven’t been brave enough to find out.

———

Liz grew up in a conservative evangelical community and married young to avoid the condemnation associated with “living in sin.” She knew from a young age that she was gay, but attempted to convince herself that it was just a phase and she would grow out of it (she hasn’t). Since moving far away to attend university, she’s come out to almost everyone, but has decided to stay in the closet when it comes to her parents and most of the people in her hometown. She is, oddly enough, very happy with her husband: When people try to make her decide whether she’s gay or bisexual, she mostly just shrugs her shoulders. She has long advocated for gay rights in the Church from the position of straight ally and wishes she could tell her own story to the people she grew up with, but she guesses she’s just too much of a ‘fraidy cat.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Lavandula

    Hi Liz–so many parts of your story are so similar to mine. The evangelical church upbringing, the high school crush, the missions project and being singled out as possibly too subversive. I went to a Christian college, dated men, stayed undercover with my doubts about Christianity, but then I met the woman I’m now married to. I wish I could say that meeting her gave me the courage to be out and proud, but it didn’t. I operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for years because I was a fraidy cat. I’d like to say that my friends and family were 100% accepting, but they weren’t– my parents aren’t getting over it. My oldest friends dont say anything to my face but through the wonders of Facebook, I’m able to see what they really think. Like you, I kind of shrug my shoulders at the lesbian v bisexual question. I don’t have any helpful advice for you– I can’t say “do as I did” but I wish you the best on your path forward

  • The_L

    “This was not one of those tolerant Christian communities that said being gay was just as sinful as all other sin and we’re called to leave judgment to God.”

    No offense, but that doesn’t sound particularly “tolerant” to me. “This part of you that I don’t like is objectively wrong, but I’ve done bad things too, so I’m in no place to judge” is still a form of condemnation.

    • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

      It’s still more tolerant than what I got:” “God hates you. We hate you. You are an abomination before God. You are personally responsible for everything wrong in America today–from double-digit inflation to Tip O’Neill–and even helped us lose the Vietnam war, despite the fact you were 8 went it ended.”

      Liz, the best of luck as you walk onward in your life. And sometimes, the closet is a kindness for all involved. My mother is dying. And she will go to her grave not knowing I’m queer. Because the knowledge would not improve her life or mine or our relationship.

      Me, I’m bisexual. I’ll never marry another man though, because I am done with all their baggage.

      • reasoningbeing

        Hah! I get this too from my own mother. She most recently told me that gays/lesbians and atheists are responsible for the severe weather being caused by god-wrought climate change. No, there’s no way it could have been the gas guzzling vehicle she’s been driving to church for decades. Best thing I ever did was to come out of the closet (though far too late),the burden of her point of view should fall on her, not me. It’s clear my mother will never have any empathy for or understanding of me. While she would claim that she loves me, love doesn’t feel like love without empathy or understanding. So I can’t bring myself to have anything more to do with someone who is so into misogynistic slut-shaming, gay bashing, and atheist scapegoating. I’m greatly relieved by finally coming out, though she’s even more distressed than ever (where is that xtian peace that passes all understanding?). I was emotionally abandoned by my mother long before she ever knew who I was. I wish I had not wasted so much emotional energy fretting over how she would react. It is her religion and personal fears and bigotries, not me, that have put her in this bind that torments her. I can’t fix it for her. She has to think her way out of it on her own. I sacrificed enough of my life and mental health for her to not be in anguish. I’m a martyr no more.

    • Steve

      I think they mostly say it for their own benefit. To convince themselves that they are really nice people and not hateful. As usual, their religion is really only and all about themselves.

      • JMH

        Or they say it to justify their, as Dan Savage says, deliberately ignoring part of their holy scripture, which I find is more often the case. The bible was wrong on slavery, so they ignore those parts now. A lot of people ignore the gay parts now too, but if pressed will go to the “well, it’s between them and god”. It is a way to love a sometimes hateful book, more than to hate a loving person. The people who want to hate are much less ambivalent.

    • Liz

      I guess, to me, in order to tolerate something you have to personally disagree with it but decide it’s neither your right nor your responsibility to change it in someone else–either by trying to legislate it or by shaming that person so much that he/she eventually gives in.

      I have some dear, dear friends (some from that hometown, some from my new home where I’m very open) who still believe that being gay is wrong. But unlike the “love the sinner, hate the sin” people–who use a sickly-sweet condescension to justify what often amounts to persecution–these people have decided to say, “Instead of worrying about whether you’re sinning or not, I’m going to treat you with the love and respect due a fellow human being, and I’ll trust God to convict you if he thinks it’s necessary.” They’ve made the choice that honoring my humanity is more important than reminding me every two minutes of how much we disagree. And I must admit I find that very tolerant–and, honestly, touching and compassionate.

      • Steve

        Of course toleration is better than rejection, but it’s still not acceptance. I guess it’s the best one can expect from religious crazies, but it’s not the best human behavior.

  • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

    “One woman quite calmly told me that gay people couldn’t be trusted to make their own decisions, so it was the church’s responsibility to make decisions for them—they were like children who didn’t understand the dangers of their urges.”

    This woman unwittingly revealed the condescension that passes for Christian “love” in fundamentalist circles. Fundamentalists tend to see LGBTQ people as misguided at best and in need of Christian guidance.

  • TheSeravy

    “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is pure hyprocrisy; it runs contradictory to the popular hip “JC msg of love” that mainstream accepts, so they need something to hide and justify their bigotry. I’m glad at least your marriage worked out but it’s absolutely unfair that you and others have had to live through this bigotry from your own family and community no less since childhood.

    What kills me is this sort of hate is absolutely preventable if religions weren’t so insular and closed to ideas that are actually supported by evidence and research. But I guess religions by default must hate someone; if there are no “sinners”, then they can’t be the special ones with eternal salvation, heaven and the whole nine yards. No “bad” example to contrast with their holy ways.

    • Hilary

      Is it just religion, or a broader part of human nature? Because there are plently of non-religious examples of “In-group good, out-group bad.” It seems to be part of our biological hardwireing to be careful of strangers, people out side of our tribe. Religion can intensify that, or mitigate it, depending on the religion and how it’s interpreted and applied.

      And not *ALL* religions have to hate outsiders as ‘sinners.’ Budhism doesn’t, most Native, First Nations and Indigenous religions don’t, or at least not to the extent that Christianity and Islam does. I talked to my father about this, he is an honorary member of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. Yes we are pure European American immigrent stock, and Jewish, but he’s earned the honorary membership through time and commitment and I’m proud of him for that. There is no equivalent to the Christian belief “Believe the same way we do, or go to hell/ everybody else is a sinner/ We have to convert everybody to save them” in the First Nation tribes, AFAIK.

      This doesn’t even exist in Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic three. One of the things I am most looking forward to on Libby’s “Judaism 101 for athiests” forum is being able to really take the time to explain *why* Jews don’t automatically view all non-Jews as “sinners going to hell not being like us.”

      I get the point you are making; I hope you understand I’m not pushing back to be rude or pick a fight. It’s just that the more I hang out on Athiest blogs, the more frustrated I get with “All religions are . . .” because it’s just not true. ALL religions? EVERY religion, from the Budhism/Daoism/ Shinto/ Confucianism religions of China, Japan, Tibet, Southeast Asia? Hinduism in India, the Druze and Beduin of the Middle East, the Aboriginies of Australia, Tazmania, New Zealand? The variations on Yoruba from Africa and the African Diaspora, the native tribal religions of North and South America? Not to mention modern Pagans and Wicca. Even in the Abrahamic 3 there are significant differences both within each religion by different denominations and between them.

      • Steve

        It’s tribalism and has been with us from the very beginning. Religion just codified it and added extra layers.

      • Sarah

        Hilary, do you have a blog or something? I’m EuroMutt/Jewish too, and my father was very interested in the Dakotas. He was offered a teaching position on a reservation, but died before he could accept. I would love to hear more about you and your father.

  • jose

    There’s a quote by singer Alix Dobkin that says homophobia and lesbophobia are as different as men and women are. Any thoughts?

    • Isaac

      That comment is only true in a cultural context that creates large differences between men and women. I don’t see any scientific evidence of major, innate behavioral differences between men and women, but culture can certainly create them, and in that context, your statement could be said to have validity. Objectively though, no.

      • jose

        I wasn’t talking innate anything. Homophobia and lesbophobia are social phenomena. Just because they’re cultural and not innate doesn’t mean they aren’t objective or real. And our cultural context does create large differences like you said. Hence my question.

    • Kate

      Do you mean the difference between bigotry against gay men and bigotry against lesbians (since “homophobia” covers both)? Well, in my experience, there are definitely people (mostly straight cis guys) who are disgusted by gay men, but turned on by “girl-on-girl”—as long as said girls meet their definition of “hot” and are basically performing for their pleasure. There are homophobic people who focus most of their hate and disgust on gay men and all the deviant sex they are having while generally ignoring lesbians.

      • jose

        Thanks.

      • Clea

        And then there are those that deny the existence of lesbians, saying that they just need “a good dicking”, maybe in the form of corrective rape. Or that women are all “naturally bisexual”, and again, belong on their penis.
        I definitely think the way misogyny and homophobia intersect has different effects on queer men and women. Withn women it has a lot to do with the obligation of being sexually available and pleasing to men.

  • Steve

    >”Certainly these people, the people I’ve known all my life, wouldn’t be able to swing in the sunshine and talk about human beings that way if they just knew the pain it could cause.”

    You are underestimating the immorality, inhumanity and callousness of fundamentalist Christians (or religionists in general for that matter). The problem is that they have completely lost any perspective on what’s hurtful or loving. They are masters of Orwellian doublespeak and constantly redefine words. They could insult you to your face and still think with an earnest face that they are loving. As you indicated they would tell you the most horrible things and deny your humanity while professing that they are only doing it to “save” you.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com Lana

    No one can talk real at most churches worldwide. It sucks.

  • http://amethystmarie.com/ Amethyst

    I think the worst thing about Westboro Baptist Church is that it gives homophobic mainstream Christians to point to and say, “Hey, at least I’m not that.” Yeah, good for you, Mainstream Conservative. You’re not like the Phelps family. *You* vote against my civil rights because you care about family values. *You* don’t believe God hates me, just that he hates a fundamental part of my psyche, which he supposedly designed in the first place. *You* either kick me out of your churches or lure me in as a covert way to change me because you love me and want God’s best for me. Congratulations. Have a cookie.

  • http://manojpontificates.blogspot.com/ Manoj Joseph

    Liz, if you are reading this, I wanted to send you a virtual hug.
    Manoj

  • Mario Strada

    If you will take the advice of a 50 something white straight guy (albeit not an American born one if that helps) you were not a scaredy cat. You were and are simply surviving. Sure, we all feel pride when we hear of these rare people that are willing to throw away their entire lives for their principle, but we don’t have to match their example. No one can tell you that you were a coward (because that’s what I think you are telling yourself). You did the best you could under incredibly crushing circumstances.
    I think it’s a minor miracle (no pun intended) that you came out of that experience with your sanity more or less still in one piece, an atheist and someone that, after all, is still living her life the way you want.

    The people you describe are despicable and mercifully, they are on their way out. Every year, every day, every second, someone else is born that will not live their lives hating others because they are different. Of those that are still around, many have softened their stance, some have even crossed over and so many of the “undecided” have recently decided that being gay, marrying and loving someone else are rights we all have. More of them will cross over and the people you left behind may or may not make the leap, but regardless they will be condemned to live their own lives hating and despising others. What a way to live. I think you should pity them because they are most definitely on the wrong side of history and the day will come when even history will despise them.

    Speaking of despise, “Hate the sin, Love the sinner” is a vile phrase. What they are really saying is “Hate the sin, despise the sinner”, but then even they would have a hard time calling each other a “Christian”.

    Let go of it and live your life. Despicable as they were, looks like your former community at the very least produced someone like you. A sensitive, intelligent human being that will live without hate. You broke the cycle. Take some pride in that.

  • Kate

    The chair of your science department actually used the term “buttsex” in earnest? I’m, like, vacillating between being amused and being aghast. I would have been so tempted to ask questions like “Did his anus disintegrate because of the herpes or because of the copious amounts of buttsex?” and “How much is too much buttsex?”.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    • Liz

      “How much is too much buttsex?” What I wouldn’t give to be able to travel back in time and ask that question! I’m so very, very familiar with that amused/aghast line you describe.

  • http://theclapp.org/mt-blog/ Larry Clapp

    Liz: Great post.

    > I’m just protecting myself.

    There is no “just” in “protecting yourself”. You do what you can with what you have where you are. If you ask me, it takes tremendous strength just to maintain ties to your old community. If you don’t have quite enough strength or courage left over to come out too, no worries. Finishing mid-pack in the Tour De France is still a helluva feat, you know? ::virtual hugs::

    > She am, oddly enough, very happy with her husband

    Oops. :)

    That does seem odd. But if it works, it works.

    • http://theclapp.org/mt-blog/ Larry Clapp

      (Just to be clear, the “Oops” is about “she am”.)

      • Liz

        I don’t even pretend to understand myself in that respect. When I think about love generically–getting married, buying a townhouse, adopting a baby, joining a book club, growing old together–I always see myself with a woman. But in my real life, right now, I can’t imagine wanting to be with anyone more than I want to be with my husband. Perhaps it’s because I always feel I can be myself with him; from the (now self-identified gay) people I know who were trapped in very unhappy hetero relationships, I think so much of that unhappiness comes from feeling that they weren’t living authentically. I don’t feel that way with him–he was the first person to tell me that it would be OK if I were gay, and he was the first person I ever directly came out to.

        Of course I would never tell anyone in a situation like mine who was unhappy to stay (and indeed, I have had some people strongly disapprove of my decision because they see it as an attempt to suppress my true self). But the most recent stop on my journey of self-acceptance is to allow myself to be happy, even though my brain can’t quite make sense of it yet.

        And, as a writer, I feel compelled to defend my editing honor…I sent Libby Anne my nom de plume and bio in first person, and when she converted it to third person, that one got missed, haha.

  • Anomanom

    “He had so much buttsex that he got herpes and his anus disintegrated.”
    Congratulations, this is officially my phrase of the day.

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