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.