I grew up in a small, conservative pocket less than half an hour from Portland, OR–on the Washington side. It was the kind of town where if you didn’t own livestock, you were friends with someone who did. A morning target shooting in the woods was family bonding time. I definitely spent more time in the forest, covered in dirt and river water, hauling a Camelbak and a compass, than I ever did in the city.
My grandparents were instrumental in my upbringing, especially my retired, Coast Guard officer grandfather. When friends introduced me to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I begged them to watch with me. They humored me, but they seemed unsettled. I didn’t understand. I asked my grandmother what was wrong, and she explained, “Honey, that main character, Sparrow? He’s a bit… queer.” Even she seemed to swallow the word, to cringe as the shape of it danced on her tongue.
I’d never heard the term before. Somehow I’d managed to make it to middle school without ever hearing a single reference to a gay person. My mother sighed and explained what it meant to be gay, in her steady, matter-of-fact way. Sometimes girls like girls, boys like boys.
“I don’t understand why that’s a bad thing!” I protested. What I wanted to say was that I immediately identified with it. I thought back to the girl in my band class who I’d always wanted to be friends with. She was gorgeous and kind, and I wanted to know her better.
Grandma shook her head and looked like she’d give anything to have the wood floors come alive and eat her like a treat. “It makes your grandfather uncomfortable. It’s not allowed in the military. It’s not something we talk about here.”
That was a punch to the stomach. It was the first time I’d heard what gay meant and the first time I learned to shut my mouth and hide my identity.
In high school, things got real. My best friend went through some serious trauma. She started acting out and experimenting in her sexuality. I got wrapped up in it. I felt like I couldn’t tell her no, given her history, but I was so conflicted. Kissing her made the racing thoughts cease, but the way she’d mock me for relaxing in her arms made me want to tear my soul out of my body and exist on the ethereal plane. With every moment around her, the internal roar got louder. I started seeing anti-LGBT sentiment come out of the woodwork. Gay-Straight Alliance posters were destroyed at school. I learned about Stonewall. I heard her fundamentalist father preaching about how she was a sinner, Jesus would never love her, she’d burn. God doesn’t condone this, I’d tell myself. But I was in too deep. I was her support. I couldn’t say no.
Church made it worse. My youth group told us to look for the men that made us feel heard enough to obey them. My small group constantly talked about how to date in a Christian way. It definitely didn't involve LGBT relationships. I didn’t even know LGBT Christians existed until college. All I ever heard was how it was wrong. I learned to hate myself, to keep my head down, to never admit what happened behind closed doors. Frankly, I am lucky those thoughts didn’t cost me my life.
I started to believe I couldn’t follow God. That He’d forsaken me. I was on my own.
I wish I could take my younger self out for coffee. I’d urge her, “Get out of there! She’s abusing you.” But seeking help meant admitting I was “practicing homosexuality.” That was out of the question. It took me until I was seventeen to finally ghost her. I vanished. In the process, I lost almost all my friends, and I had to make the active decision to value my safety over everything else. It was during this time, when I was broken and alone, that Alex came into my life.
We’d been friends for about seven years, but we were just far enough in age that we’d been in different grades. Our only time together as children were art classes at the kids’ club. Our social circles rarely overlapped, but when I started eating lunch alone in the back of the library, she pulled me in. She started encouraging me to spend time with her friends. They quickly became my friends, too. I went to conventions with them, joined LAN parties, and spent almost every weekend out of the house. With them, I finally started to feel like a senior in high school should. I was a kid again. By the time I graduated, my friendship with Alex had deepened so much. I was head over heels. When she gave me a bundle of roses after I walked across the stage, I knew I’d do anything to keep her in my life forever.
So much changed, and in such a short span of time, I knew this was bigger than me. I had to get God’s help understanding what happened. I studied. Many nights of my first year of college were spent bent over my laptop with notebooks and holy texts splayed open. Sometimes, my textbooks were propped up around the Bible. I used the heck out of the incognito tab, worried my mother would figure out I was struggling. I purposely took Women’s Studies at the local community college under the guise of “needing some social classes.” I even dated a guy I really didn’t feel much for, but I was desperate. I was grasping at straws, searching for any way to convince myself I was straight.
For obvious reasons, that relationship didn’t work out. I ended up at Alex’s house, and she held me while I cried in anger, confusion, and fear. She brought ice cream and movies over to my house when I finally broke up with him. Halfway through a container of my favorite Birthday Cake ice cream, it slipped.
“I’m so sick of trying to be straight.”
I panicked. Everything I’d studied since graduation ran through my head. I was scared. Maybe God didn’t hate gays, but maybe He did. Maybe I should be celibate, maybe I should only date men, maybe I should just trust Him and see what happened. I held my breath. I prayed harder in that 15 second gap of time than I’ve ever prayed in my life.
Her reaction changed everything. She blinked for a moment, then shrugged. “So don’t. I’m not.” We were together two weeks later.
Our relationship was rocky at the start. Neither of us were out, even to our families, and we definitely went through some losses in the early days. Within a few weeks of us getting together, my church leader found out. I was asked to leave. Our families started to suspect something was up, and the tension ran hot. For a while, it looked like the cost of staying together was going to destroy us.
Thankfully, we ended up in a communications class with someone who went on to become an admin at Pride Rock, a Facebook group that had been born of the Gay Christian Network forums. I ended up assigned to the same small group as them, and we quickly became friends. Before long, Alex and I were both added to the group, and we found the way we’d make it. We found community, friendships, and hope. In it, I found a church. I wasn’t able to make myself step foot in a sanctuary, but online, I felt the spirit’s presence. The people there helped me learn how to tear down my misconceptions and think for myself. It was that group that gave me the courage to face my mother after my cousin accidentally outed me at a family gathering. That group picked me up when I faced health issues so severe, I had to move across the country to my father in order to find medical help. That group was, and is, my lifeline.
At the time of this writing, five years have passed. Today, Alex and I are engaged. We live in Texas, 2400 miles away from our hometown. We are nowhere near the closet. We are active participants in an Episcopal church in a neighboring city. Just yesterday, we marched in the Pride Parade with our church. It was one of the most affirming moments of my life. My voice is still hoarse, my face is sunburnt, and I have never felt so loved. We’re planning on being baptized next year, and we’re looking forward to being members of a church that loves us. I’m starting to explore my gender identity and what it means to live my life authentically without boundaries placed on me by other people. I’m seriously considering exploring seminary. Everything about my life has changed.
The biggest takeaway from this, though, has been God’s constancy. God never left me. God didn’t subject me to sexual abuse for being queer. God didn’t take my voice away. Those things weren’t of God, but God has used them. Bad things happen. Horrible, awful, abusive, scary things. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t there. God is reaching down with a hand outstretched to pull you up to your feet so you can turn and reach back to help the next person in line. God lets us struggle so beauty can shine in the moments where humanity pours through the cracks in our facades. To say I’m thankful for the darkest parts of my past would be inaccurate, but I am so glad God could take them and make them beautiful.
If anything, I have a voice that’s stronger than it ever would have been if I lived in the shadows like I tried. That isn’t me. I am queer. I am Christian. I am proud.