Emily Joy

photo courtesy of  Seleste Paige

photo courtesy of Seleste Paige

It sounds strange to say it, but I truly didn't know I wasn't straight until I was 25 years old and already married to a man. I had "dated" men my entire life, but having grown up in Christian purity culture, the first person I slept with was my husband. Before that, I had referred to myself as "the straightest person I knew!" I think I had just never stopped to ask myself if that was really true and never had any experiences that made me question it. But once I realized I was attracted to women, it was like a light bulb went on, and as hard as I tried, I could not turn it back off.

The faith communities I grew up in seemed to believe that if they just didn't talk about LGBTQ+ people, none of us would ever get the idea in our head to be gay. It wasn't so much that they were openly hostile as much as they just didn't talk about the existence of LGBTQ+ people and especially LGBTQ+ Christians. There was no such thing. Eventually, at the age of 18, I moved to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute, and there I encountered a lot of institutionalized homophobia. The few queer students weren't out, and were whispered about and prayed for and often eventually disappeared. Moody students would flock to Boystown, the gay neighborhood in Chicago, to evangelize and get their Practical Christian Ministry (PCM) credits. I myself did "ministry" in Boystown though it often took the form of just hanging out and talking to people and wondering why I didn't feel the way about them that my beliefs told me I should.

I didn't really think they were going to hell. So why was I there?

Eventually, I graduated from Moody with my degree in Philosophical Theology and Apologetics and moved far away, first to Phoenix, Arizona and then to Nashville, Tennessee, where I live now. I stopped going to church for a while and stopped trying to rationalize the beliefs I grew up with and was able to get the time and space necessary to start asking myself hard questions. I think that I had to become affirming for other people before I was able to be affirming for myself. As I began to deconstruct purity culture and abstinence-only theology, becoming affirming of LGBTQ+ relationships was a natural extension of that, for me. Before I ever came out to myself I was whole-heartedly celebrating my friends' same-sex relationships, even as I became engaged to and eventually married a man.

When I realized I was not straight a year into our marriage, I initially came out to myself, my husband, and my friends as bisexual. It made sense at the time, and I did not consider the possibility of being gay. But over the following two years, I struggled more and more deeply as I began to wake up and get in touch with myself and my sexuality for the first time in my life, and eventually, my mental health deteriorated to the point that it became clear to me that I was very gay, and that it was no longer loving towards myself or towards my husband to remain in our marriage relationship.

That was the hardest change. Queer identity is a godsend, but it sometimes comes hand-in-hand with great loss. It was a huge learning curve to realize that I needed to extend the same grace to myself that I would tell a friend to extend to herself if she were in my same situation.

Therapy was probably the most important resource I had in navigating this process! I love therapy. That sacred space between me and my therapist was where I first uttered my fears of being gay and losing everything about my life that made it what it was. It was where I experienced non-judgement for what I was going through and the mistakes I had made along the way. Also, seeing a psychiatrist and getting medicated was an important step in giving my brain the mental margin to be able to process all of this. LGBTQ+ affirming mental health care can literally save lives!

My life now is nothing like what I thought it would be a few years ago, but I am so, so happy. I now have an incredible girlfriend and partner, and our relationship is the stuff that I always dreamed of but never thought was possible. It is the relationship I always wanted to have, and my soul feels so at peace. Every day when I wake up, I am thankful I did the hard thing and was honest with myself about being gay, because it has led to so much abundant life from the ashes of loss. I eventually made my way back to church via The Episcopal Church, and my very small, very queer neighborhood congregation is a source of light and hope to me. I'm not sure what's next, because it feels like the entire world has opened up to me, but I'm going forward honestly and with intention and optimism and faith. My girlfriend is in seminary to get her M.Div. so we'll see. Contrary to what all the men at Moody Bible Institute ever told me I might have what it takes to be a pastor's wife after all. ;)