Christianity Today recently published an article by Jackie Hill Perry titled I Loved My Girlfriend—but God Loved Me More. Perry, an African American writer and hip-hop artist, writes about being a gay Christian and about giving up her girlfriend—for God. Perry is also the author of Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been.
Perry’s story is an excruciatingly painful read. Perry was only 19 when she became convicted that following God meant giving up her girlfriend—and that continuing to date the girlfriend she dearly loved would lead to her death. Perry’s story brings to mind the centrality of religious taboo in Protestant Christianity—and its consequences.
God knew he wouldn’t get my attention in a church. Churches didn’t care too well for people like me. Me, being a gay girl. A gay girl who knew better than to let my feet take me where I didn’t feel welcomed. So God came to my house. I was having a very “unspiritual” kind of night. The TV was on. The morning was hours away. My thoughts were boring and typical until they turned on me. As suddenly and randomly as Paul was struck blind on the Damascus Road, I had the unsettling thought that my sin would be “the death of me.”
Prior to that moment, the sin I wore on my sleeve was that of a lesbian: a label I had the courage to give myself at age 17. This label described an affection I noticed before I knew how to spell my name. When it happened on the playground, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t quite understand why girls made me feel different. … Where it came from made no difference to me. I liked girls, and I knew it.
The writers at Christianity Today—and evangelicals in general—present stories like this as proof positive that homosexuality is sinful and that it is possible to change—or at least leave the “lifestyle.” The trouble is that these stories never occur in a vacuum. Gay individuals’ choices, in these stories, are always pre-laced (and pre-seeded) with homophobia. Perry may have always known she liked girls, but she grew up in a homophobic family and church.
I’d heard more times than I cared to count that what seemed to me a natural enough expression of love was, in fact, unnatural and flat-out abominable.
I had grown up in the traditional black church, where sermons were presented in a Mount Sinai kind of way, both loud and heavy. I’d heard the preacher speak for God when he, with fire and frenzy on his tongue, read to us from Romans 1 about God giving his creatures over to the sinful desires of their hearts, which included men and women “exchang[ing] natural sexual relations” for “shameful lusts” toward members of the same sex (v. 26).
In fact, having seen God’s words for myself, I never once had felt the need to question whether what he said was true. So when my thoughts spoke of my sin, which I knew to be a prompting from God and not my subconscious behaving unnaturally, I wasn’t offended by the idea of my identity being a product of sin. What offended me most was that idea that it (my sin, my kind of love) was to be the death of me. Because if that were true, then surely I would be asked to lay it aside for the sake of life.
In other words, even as she was dating a girl, Perry had never challenged the idea that homosexuality was sin. She believed it absolutely was a sin. She just did it anyway.
That late night when Perry became convinced that if she continued dating girls it would “be the death of her,” her thought processes were fueled by the hate-filled messages she had heard growing up. She was only 19. All those sermons she had heard preaching about how unnatural and sinful same-sex desire is finally got to her.
This story is deeply, profoundly tragic.
I loved my girlfriend too much not to be appalled at the prospect of laying aside not only the way I loved but also who I loved. To do what I assumed God would have me do meant leaving the woman whose voice and body and mind had been mine to hold and keep. To those who had heterosexual eyes, our love was a strange thing. To us, it was a normal, “why would I do anything else” kind of thing. I loved her, and she loved me—but God loved me more. So much so that he wouldn’t have me going about the rest of my life convinced that a creature’s love was better than a King’s.
Shortly after that pivotal night, I was doing the painful work of breaking up with my girlfriend. Her tears were too loud to listen to without regret. She knew how much I loved her, how childish my face got when she was around.
To leave her, us, our love, made no sense apart from the divine doing of God. She was both my woman and my idol. She was the eye Jesus said to gouge out and the right hand he commanded me to cut off (Matt. 5:29–30). Though it was as painful as the extreme act of removing a part of the body, it was better for me to lose her than to lose my soul.
“I just . . . gotta live for God now,” I said with a tear-broken voice. A new identity was to come after I hung up.
This whole framing is so broken. Perry’s words hurt to read. I want to cry for her, 19 years old and afraid that who she loves might send her to hell. By all accounts, Perry’s love for her girlfriend was a healthy love, a mutual and caring love. In fact, from what she writes here, her love for her girlfriend was beautiful. But Perry had been lied to so many times that she had come to believe it—that her love for her girlfriend was something shameful.
Perry refers to her girlfriend as “her love and her idol.” This phrasing caught my eye, and I finally figured out why. I’ve heard it before. It’s the same framing applied when a woman dates a man who is not a Christian. That man, the framing goes, is her idol. She needs to give up that love—to give up that person—for God. God’s love matters more.
Here, this framework is applied not to specific individual women but to any woman Perry might ever date. A straight woman who gives up an unbelieving boyfriend has the potential to meet someone else. A lesbian woman who gives up ever having a girlfriend does not.
Perry concludes with this:
I had no idea what would come next or how I’d have the power to resist everything I’d once lived for, but I knew that if Jesus was God and if God was mighty to save, then surely, God would be mighty to keep. And 10 years later, he is still keeping this girl godly.
I’ve often thought of Protestant Christianity as a religion of words and beliefs—you get to heaven by believing and saying the right things, after all. You do not earn your way in by works. Similarly, Protestant Christianity has very little in terms of ritual—services are simple, and even communion is practiced only a few times a year, and without pomp.
There are many religions that are more about carrying out certain actions—participating in elaborate religious ceremonies, leaving food at temples, heck, visiting temples. Wearing certain religious garments, eating or not eating specific things. I’ve always thought of Protestant Christianity as different—as based on the mind—on what you believe and profess—and not on what you do—rituals or actions.
To be clear, I have never thought this made Protestant Christianity better—in fact, one thing that attracted me briefly to Catholicism was the ritual. I liked it. I’ve also sometimes referred to the sinner’s prayer as “saying the magic words,” because a salvation system based only on belief and words—and not on action or inherent value—seems off to me.
But reading Perry’s words, it strikes me that while Protestant Christianity may not be particularly ritualistic—and while its salvation system may be based on thoughts and words—Protestant Christianity is heavy on religious taboos. This is one of them: Staying godly, for Perry, means not touching a woman. What a woman does with her body—what she touches, and how—has deep religious implications within Protestant Christianity.
Reading Perry’s story, I’m struck by the reality that LGBTQ support groups in schools can only go so far, that LGBTQ-friendly churches and religious leaders can only do so much. There will still be girls raised in churches like Perry’s, girls who, like Perry, believe all the things they’re taught there despite themselves. And the result is grief, pain, and trauma.
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