Signs and wonders

Heading west

When I talk about the South, I often focus on the racism or poverty, but what the South is to me in the most personal sense is sitting in sermons about how homosexuality is offensive to God or listening to kids in school joke about how “funny” gay men are. I can’t talk about the South without really talking about sexuality and religion.

Turns out that’s a really hard subject to write about. It’s complex when you don’t have an emotional connection to the “Hell is real; hate the sin not the sinner” rhetoric it’s overwhelming when, as is the case with me, you do. There are clear reasons why Texas stopped feeling like home, but when exactly it stopped feeling like home, and why, are more difficult questions to unpack.

The more out of place I felt in Texas for my sexuality, the more I looked elsewhere. Eventually I settled on California, not as a new home, but an additional one.

The fall semester of my freshman year was amazing. UC Berkeley was full of different, unique people. The sun really did shine most days, and humidity was a distant memory. People were just so open about everything and anything, definitely nothing about me was shocking or deviant compared to everyone else. I had bright blue hair and was killing it in all my classes. I had made at least one solid friend, which was a huge deal since my methods for making friends at the time consisted only of telepathically conveying my admiration to cool people.

But I was doing it! I was a Californian!

I was free; so my problems from high school were surely gone — right? This euphoria lasted exactly a semester before spring hit me like a ton of bricks. The novelty had worn off, and I was faced with the realization that much of my strife came from internal battles and that even if I were in a “perfect” place, things would not necessarily be perfect for me.

I was left feeling trapped. Nobody knew me as the straight-laced Christian girl — the one who never partied or broke the rules and always prioritized school above everything, even my health — but I was still acting like her, because I did not know who else to be. I was still in the closet, still weighed down with the same anger and frustration. I had moved 2,000 miles to escape people’s expectations of me, and I could still feel the press of their judgment each morning.

Enter Sufjan Stevens.

My relationship with religion, and specifically Christianity, is very complicated, rife with and full of both joys and hurt. I discovered in Stevens’ music someone who finally talked about religion in a way I understood.

Sufjan Stevens takes the aspects of Christianity that hurt me the most — an unhealthy focus on death and brokenness — and confronts them. His songs are an exercise in working through the trauma that can be brought on by the rhetoric of Christianity.

So when people ask me what my favorite song is, I hem and haw, as we all do, overcome with the sheer range of possible answers. But if I were honest, the song is “The Only Thing” by Sufjan Stevens. It is a litany of all the reasons Stevens can think of to stay alive, ranging from Holiday Inns after dark to God’s grace.

It is easy now to joke about how trapped I felt by religion and the status quo, but it was not always so. In the midst of this struggle, I found “The Only Thing”, a song that painstakingly made arguments to keep going despite the overwhelming odds. I held on to this song even though it would take me months to resolve my beliefs that I was straight, that it had just been a phase and that I would never be able to engage with religion again.

There’s a huge swell of sound before the third verse in the live performance of “The Only Thing,” but just before it, Sufjan sings softly and with complete vulnerability: “I want to save you from your sorrow.” As we each come out on the other side of it — and I have come out of it, or am at the very least going through — we pause and look back, grabbing the hand of the next person and helping them pull through.

It would take pages and volumes to outline what is wrong and right with the South and what is wrong and right with Berkeley. But when it comes down to it, the struggle of any place is to make it your own — no matter how many people tell you it can’t be done.

Danielle writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at [email protected].