Finding an identity hidden under generational beliefs.
Written by Faith-Ann G. English
As a child, church was eating Square Donuts and drinking chocolate milk before Sunday school. It was watching my mom pick up the maroon book of hymns, her lips quivering as she cried out the words to “What a Mighty God We Serve” from the third row. Church was blowing the shofar before singing about Father Abraham’s many sons. It was Bonzo, the pink puppet, bouncing up from behind velvety, blueish-purple curtains, hidden secrets backstage. It was watching my little sister, Misty, cry after the Devil popped up over the curtains. Church was Junior Church leaders who passed out quarters and dimes to kids without offering to give. Church was a safe place with stained glass windows, dangling chandeliers, and a sweaty pastor who enjoyed banging his fist on the pulpit a little too much.
"who is to say I can’t be loved and be queer?"
I grew up with parents who were almost complete opposites of each other. The one thing they shared, however, was their religion. Ironically enough, they named me after their faith in God. After being raised in devoutly Christian households with both their fathers being preachers, they raised their children to be Christians.
My parents dedicated me to the Lord shortly after my birth. I have been anointed with oil. I chose baptism for my eighth birthday gift. I have taken communion, grape juice and stale crackers in miniature form. I have cried to worship music about the Holy Spirit while trying to receive His gift. I have played angels in Christmas plays. I committed my entire childhood to following God. Yet, as a fourth grader, I cried myself to sleep trying to pray the gay away, terrified of the possibility of liking other girls.
Mostly, my Midwestern Christian childhood was much like anyone else’s until my dad met another woman at church and divorced my mom to marry her. Church was where divorce wasn’t allowed. I stopped seeing my friends, grandparents, and many people I had known to be familiar faces. Above all else, the news of my mom’s early-onset Alzheimer’s left me in a deeper pit. After that point, I was never really comfortable in church.
My mom and Aunt Pam would take me to churches from their childhood. These churches were built on a foundation of community. They were stuffy and non-denominational. The pews were filled with drooping faces and grey hairs drenched in Chantilly perfume. There was no Sunday School or Junior Church, just hard wooden pews and someone talking.
As my mom’s mobility declined, church became more of a hassle, but I was told God would fix all my problems. I should just pray, let it be “God’s will.” So, I prayed every night that God would heal my mom and forgive us all for our sins. Then, my mom died. I stopped going to church and resented God for not answering my prayers. But, after a traumatizing custody battle amid COVID, my dad and stepmother thought I should strengthen my relationship with God. I went to my old church where familiar faces were now the faces of strangers. The sweaty pastor had passed away, and the Junior Church leaders left before scandal could throw them into the Lake of Fire. Now, the youth group was led by a middle-aged couple, Daniel and Joyce, who didn't understand the youngsters. They are sweet people, but out of touch with teenage life. They tried.
It was an average Wednesday night. My dad picked us up in his Jeep and dumped us at church so he could sit in his recliner watching TV. It was a bit hypocritical for them to force us to seek the word of God if they were just channel surfing, but the more time we spent at church, the less time we had to interact with our earthly Father. And that was a good thing.
After a particularly long week of questioning my sexuality, a dark pit grew in my stomach. I bounced my knee as I sat on the lumpy brown couch. Services proceeded as normal: singing worship songs, hearing lessons on something Jesus-related, and then it came time for our closing prayer. We bowed our heads, folded our arms, and closed our eyes.
Joyce prayed. “Jesus is telling me someone is struggling with gayism. It may not be someone in this room, but out there in this world… Jesus, we rebuke that gayism. I pray that you take it away from them, heal them… In Jesus' name, we pray…”
Church is the oppression I felt standing in the lion’s den.
Church is the deafening silence of my eyes open during prayer, the constant buzz of nothingness ringing in my ears. It is the moment my heart stops beating. Church is realizing that “Everyone is Welcome” has limitations, cherry-picking who gets accepted into their “loving” family. Church is waiting to be a witness at my own crucifixion.
Church is lonely. It is sitting in a room full of people, knowing none of them will ever understand me. It is where my sister and I laugh about how gayism is Joyce’s favorite word for describing homosexuals (#DownWithTheSickness). Church is being asked, “How’s school? How's your dad? Do you have a boyfriend yet?” It is where I’m told how proud my mom would be that I had grown up to be such a young, devoted Christian woman. Church is where Papaw said, “seventeen and never been kissed,” while hugging me in front of half the congregation.
Having a relationship with God shouldn’t depend on how a person identifies. If God is so accepting and loves all his children, who is to say I can’t be loved and be queer? Going to church shouldn’t have to feel forced, believing because of the fire and brimstone. I shouldn’t be afraid of being shunned by my family because of who I love. I shouldn’t have to discuss whether or not I have been kissed or if I have a boyfriend. Church should be where people go to worship. Religion should bring comfort, not fear or worry. Church should be welcoming to all. It should be accepting and loving. Church should provide a sense of community to those who are lost. If God knew who I would become well before my conception, he would know the path I would choose. He knows my heart and the ones I choose to share my love with. God had great things planned for me, so why does it matter who I love?
Gayism inspired me to step away from my faith long enough to question who I was and how I wanted to identify. I browsed the internet for a specific label fitting how I felt. I tried to band together a series of labels no one understood. Even then, they didn’t make sense to me. There is no term for how I identify. I’m just queer.
I felt comfortable telling my friends and sister. Most had already come out to me as we grew older. It wasn’t a big deal for me to tell them, but I knew the dangers of coming out to my family.
“What would you do if one of us was gay?” I asked.
“Ugh well… I sure hope not! I like you the way you are!” Pam said.