When you teach kids that there is absolutely only one, very narrow path to the good afterlife and a ton of different, easy-to-follow paths to the bad afterlife, you teach kids how to be afraid.
People love hearing coming out stories. People either assume that I met resistance from my family (I didn’t) or that I led a tortured childhood, squashing down my feelings (nope, thanks to compulsive heterosexuality). The greatest fear I had, though, did not have to do with my own sexuality and coming out. It was far more terrifying and nerve-wracking coming to the conclusion that I no longer believed being gay was a sin.
I think it’s hard to understand how I came to terms with my sexuality if you didn’t grow up in the sort of religious environment that I did. It was bad enough growing up in very conservative congregations and constantly being inundated with socially conservative rhetoric, but I believed the hate and disgust toward LGBTQ+ people. I mean, I wasn’t extreme. I was not on the level of believing that, like, gay people were evil, but I’d would pray that people weren’t gay because I didn’t want them to go to hell. There was a time when I did not support gay marriage. The entire concept of gay relationships definitely felt dirty and wrong.
To be fair, I rapidly dropped those beliefs once I hit my early teens when I was actually capable of thinking through the issue myself, rather than just blindly accepting the authority’s position. But letting go of my internalized homophobia was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, and it’s still an ongoing thing.
I don’t like talking about this because I’m ashamed, y’know? I mean yes, I was taught that it was wrong, but a lot of people are taught that and don’t harbor homophobic beliefs. I did, though. And that mindset made, and continues to make, my life hell — because accepting your sexuality, having relationships, being happy and being healthy don’t just eradicate internalized homophobia.
I went to Pride the first time this past weekend, and when I passed the Christian protesters, I had to actively resist the beginnings of a panic attack.The church’s rhetoric ruins lives. If I didn’t have parents who supported me and affirmed me, I honestly don’t know where I would have ended up.
To this day the entire concept of evangelism and conversion is one of the most destructive things I’ve ever encountered. It’s even worse because it is almost impossible to convince people who believe in it that it is destructive, because they (we) are (were) taught we are saving people from a terrible, eternal Hell. It’s hard to go against the compulsion to “save” non-Christians because you come to believe in doing so that you are damning the people you care about.
So I distanced myself from organized religion toward the last year or so of high school and the beginning of college. I was “spiritual but not religious,” because religion was a manipulative man-made tool meant for smaller minds, right? I definitely talked about Christianity; I was the resident expert in most of my circles, but in every explanation I gave — of the trinity, the sanctity of the text and the afterlife — I would say “they believe,” not “we believe.” And it’s true, both then and now, that I disagree with many of the specific details of Christian theology. But to think that I could just forget and let go of all of the aspects of Christianity that shaped me was deeply naive.
In hindsight, I think it helped that I already had disagreements with the Church before the question of my sexuality came into play. Because to be honest, I was a damn good Christian. I was good at proselytizing, I prayed for random strangers all the time, I could walk you down the Roman road in five minutes and give you my testimony in another 10. So there’s something particularly gut-wrenching when you come to the point when you realize that all of these people you believed in, who believed in you and who supported you, suddenly think you’ve been seduced by the Adversary (Satan), when in reality you’re finally coming to accept who you are as a person. I am more mentally, physically and emotionally healthy than I ever was when I was a “good” Christian. My relationship with and to the Divine is stronger and deeper than it ever was then.
But to many of the people who once mentored me and believed in me, all they see is someone who needs to be saved. And that really fucking hurts. And for someone without the support I have had, it could be catastrophic.
Danielle writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at [email protected].