This post is part of the “Our Stories” project, where readers submit their testimony or coming out story. It’s important to engage in meaningful and life-giving discussions about a topic that is too often silenced. When you tell your truth, you help someone else accept theirs.
This post comes from Jess. She shares her story as it was originally told on her blog, Design of Gender. You should definitely check it out!
Growing up, my family did not go to church, though we celebrated all the consumerist Christian holidays (still do). I learned how to consume religion through family dinners, purchasing gifts, and giving cards. But what were we celebrating?
My first experience of organized religion was when a friend invited me to church when I was in elementary school. I went with her to Sunday School and we memorized a Bible verse. I didn’t really understand why we would do that. My second experience was in high school when I started going to a church youth group. I learned the basics of the Christian faith, got my first Bible, and learned some worship songs.
So by the time I reached college, I continued to attended a church group. I went to two different church groups during the course of my four years. One group, I went to my first and part of my second year of school; while the other, I went to my second through my fourth year and continued to be a member after I graduated.
I liked going to the college church group for the community I found there, though I didn’t always go regularly. I enjoyed going with my friends and deepening those bonds with them. We became very close from those experiences together and car rides home.
As those friends became busier and almost stopped going, I slowly began to make friends with others in the group. But always felt distant like I was never “Christian” enough to be there – like I didn’t really know much because most of the others had grown up going to church, even my friends had. They could not imagine what life was like without ‘Faith.’ I knew all too well that it was pretty much the same. Sure you may worship something else or hold on to the faith you find in other people but you learn to deal with it all just the same.
During the year after I graduated from college, I became super involved. I went to all the church group events during the week. I even shared my story or testimony in front of the whole group (50+ people). It was amazing. I had other college students coming to me in tears at the end of worship because my story had moved them. I brought people back to Christ through my story of faith, back to a religion that they had professed but didn’t really feel connected to. They could relate to my story of faith and grace. We were one and the same.
My story started a chain reaction. Soon many others wanted to share their stories. My courage and bravery in sharing my testimony allowed others to realize they could be brave too. I received hugs and congratulations. I loved sharing my story because finally, I felt like I, too, knew enough to be there. I had transformed, but I also had been keeping a secret. A secret I had known about for several years. A secret that I had come to terms with more than a year before that time.
So despite all the hoopla of sharing my story, I also felt the dread from keeping this secret. Even when I was surrounded by people, I was alone. I never felt comfortable enough to tell those same friends or church community that I was dating a really fabulous female. I never felt comfortable telling anyone that I had come out to myself a little over a year before and that I was unbelievably relieved to finally do so. I never felt comfortable mentioning that I had asked God about it and received an overwhelming feeling of acceptance. I had always brought “all that I was” before God and s/he had “embraced me just as I am.” Why did these people need to know any different than the assumed heterosexuality they projected onto me?
Generally, Christians, especially Evangelical, Baptist, and other right leaning conservative Christians, seem to have a problem with individuals who date members of the same sex, especially individuals who profess some belief in their religion and also see nothing wrong with two women or men dating, forming relationships, and families. There are some denominations that openly accept LGBTQ people but they are not a majority (yet).
My college church group was part of a Community Church, not part of a specific denomination, that holds belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. They believe that the Bible is the “inspired word of God and that it is the final authority in faith and life.” As such they don’t believe in multiple readings of the Bible or that the Bible (being written by men) contains errors (be it from translation, etc.). They have a firm “hate the sin – love the sinner” approach to all things not following their prescribed set of principles/beliefs. I knew that if I told them my secret that would be the response, “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.”
Further, I imagined them wanting to help me overcome this “sin” I was acting upon or “struggling” with. But that’s the thing, I was the happiest I had been in years; when I was able to fully express who I am, I wasn’t “struggling” with anything. I was finally able to be me! It was during this time that I investigated and posted on my blog what some churches say on LGBTQ issues. My post received several comments that further proved the “hate the sin – love the sinner” approach. I was disappointed that the community I had come to appreciate and love would never fully accept me for who I am. They would “hate” a vital aspect of my identity while also professing to “love” me. (How do you love unconditionally if you refuse to accept part of a person’s identity? If they contradict with your beliefs? If you are praying that they change? Is acceptance not part of love? Is ‘tolerance’ love? Or is the ‘unconditional love’ focused toward who you think you can change the person into?) It kills me that it would be done through the Bible “as the word of God” because I don’t believe that is how God intended it to be.
But I didn’t let this new found disappointment stop me from continuing to pursue religion or continuing to date the woman I was seeing. If anything I wanted to learn more. It was through the teachings, songs, worships, and Bible studies that I was able to fully accept myself, my very queer lesbian self. It was the love I found in the Bible that helped me to love myself. (In order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first love yourself.) It was the love I found from non-religious friends I trusted enough to come out to. (They were the ones who showed unconditional love. It didn’t matter to them the gender of who I dated. They were happy for me.) It was the love I received from new colleagues and older friends. I’ve posted many times on my blog on love and belonging. I’ve posted clips from Glee and Senators in the state of NY discussing marriage equality. I’ve posted on Pride Parades and video clips that discuss LGBTQ things. I’ve posted on labels, language, change, and voice. But it has been the convergence of all these topics on my blog that has allowed me to see how every part, even the religion I ran away from, was an important stepping stone to where I am now.
Being a feminist and closeted lesbian within the church group was fun at times and I loved those tiny moments where I could be a “feminist evangelist.” But I hated that I wasn’t allowed to share my whole life with them. I couldn’t say that I hung out with my girlfriend over the weekend because she came to visit. Unlike other members of the group, I had to check a vital part of myself at the door on the way in and often as soon as I stepped out of the car. I stopped going to this group at the same time that I decided to be open about my life which coincided with the same time that I started graduate school. Slowly, I began to share my secret with others by casually mentioning my girlfriend/partner.
Today, although single, I’m out to many people. I teach classes on a university campus and routinely come out to my students. Everyone that I work with, I’m out to. But I’m still not out to some family. When I told my parents almost a year ago, my mom told me that “other people didn’t need to know.” She said there were basically two ways to deal with this “new lesbian status of mine”: I could just continue to be me and keep it to myself or I could be what I would call “loud and proud.” She said she hoped that I would choose the right (quiet) way. I remember saying that “I wasn’t going to lie about it.” And I haven’t, although I don’t always mention it.
Just today, I was talking to a good friend of mine that I have known now for almost 7 years and he said without any prompting from me, “You know what … you’re still the same person. You haven’t changed because you came out.” It was so refreshing to hear this from him. I’m so glad he called. Even if he has teased me about being a lesbian, he is someone I can count on to listen, and understand as best he can. His teasing comes from a place of love not from hate.
I still pause about whether any of my “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” ‘friends’ really need to know. Because how crazy is it that as a closeted lesbian, I was able to bring (presumably) homophobic people to a deeper faith? Or that God used me, a closeted lesbian, to bring others to a deeper faith? What does it say about our God and the religion s/he designed? What does it say about the Bible?
For some reason I think if I told members of that faith community, they would surely experience a homosexual panic. They might say that I have let sin into my life or profess something about the works of Satan. Surely their God would not condone or even openly accept my behavior. But I would tell them that not only does their God accept me but s/he also helped me to love myself, my very queer lesbian self.
Their Christianity helped me come out and life outside the closet is much, much brighter.