–Originally posted at scarletchurch.com, this is the first of six posts that tells how Jera learned to be the most authentic version of me while holding onto my Christian faith.–
When I was a teenager, I read an advice column in Teen or Seventeen in which a girl my age asked if she was gay or bisexual because she had a crush on Alanis Morissette. I thought about actresses I found attractive—Rae Dawn Chong and Valeria Golino—and asked myself the same question. They made me feel strange in a yet unknowable way, but—like the girl asking advice—I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to kiss them or be them. Besides, oh my goodness how much I liked boys and daydreamed about them and wrote their names on folders and covered my walls with images of their Tiger beat faces. So I shrugged off the question of bisexuality or, rather, I let it sleep.
And so, it came up in my dreams. When I spent the night with female friends and we shared a bed, I dreamed of kissing them. I woke up one morning at a friend’s house to find she had decided to sleep on the floor of her parent’s room in a sleeping bag. She said I’d given her a bear hug in my sleep but wouldn’t give any other details or why she’d chosen to sleep elsewhere. I worried I’d done more. From then on during sleepovers, I’d frequently wake up afraid that I would or had acted on my dreams. I’d sleep with my back pressed hard against the wall or as close to the edge of the bed as I could.
In the nineties, in rural Indiana, I had no frame of reference with which to process my feelings. There was little discussion of homosexuality, and the maybe two girls at my school who we whispered might be gay were outsiders who wore men’s clothes and didn’t shave their legs and never commented on attraction to anyone. Their world seemed so extreme and lonely to me. It neither held a mirror for me to see some piece of myself or any appeal. I believe I clung to my straightness and my identity as a girl because all through adolescence that’s how my peers and I related to each other. Clothes and crushes–shallow maybe, but we were learning to present ourselves to the world and we needed to believe we could present something acceptable.
Any questions about my gender also slept silently. I needed to wake my romantic or sexual interest in women before I could begin to further question what it means to be a woman. And growing up, my particular combination of tomboy and femme seemed largely typical of other young female athletes.
My small Christian college was also in rural Indiana. The demographic was mostly white and everyone at least presented as cis and straight. We had to or else face disciplinary actions. My junior and senior years, gay marriage began to be a hot button issue. I remember watching the 2008 State of the Union address on a TV in my dorm, a few girls gathered around to listen to President Bush:
A strong America must also value the institution of marriage. I believe we should respect individuals as we take a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.
Congress has already taken a stand on this issue by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by President Clinton. That statute protects marriage under federal law as the union of a man and a woman, and declares that one state may not redefine marriage for other states.
Frustrated, I stood up to leave. One of the girls said, “I can’t imagine any Christian supporting gay marriage.”
“I do,” I said with my back to them as I walked away.
I didn’t want to get into it, but not because it was a personal issue for me. With my desires still snoring away, I didn’t realize it was.
I just didn’t know how to defend gay marriage. The debate would be about the correct religious response, and it simply felt true to me that Christians should support loving relationships regardless of gender. Truth was starting to feel more and more subjective to me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The outspoken majority of students (and professors) at my school seemed to be scared of relative truth. Jesus was the only way to God, there were RULES in the Bible, black and white ways of seeing the world that we needed to learn and follow. We argued with each other, debating these rules, such as whether it was valid to get divorced and remarried in cases of domestic abuse even though Jesus only mentioned leaving one’s spouse in matters of infidelity or whether women could be leaders of a church or equal decision makers in a marriage. There was always talk of the mystery of God, but also an undercurrent of belief that if we studied and prayed hard enough, we’d find the truth—we’d understand the correct ways to pray, how to think about money, and how to love each other.
Some of these RULES were starting to fall apart for me. Judging the spiritual lives of non-Christians as less valid was a big one. And I was tired of fighting with other believers. But I still believed in the Christian God and believed They were loving and wanted the best for the beings They created.
I believed this because I’d felt it, countless times when I was falling apart and called out to God. Mysterious, quiet moments where rain would start and stop in time with a song, or a deer in the woods seemed to answer my prayer, or I’d ask God to speak to me and the same verse would come up in texts or from the mouth of friends or my Bible would open to it: “Be still and know I am God.” “Trust me,” I heard God say patiently over and over, and I did.
But I couldn’t explain or justify my faith or the framework of morality that worked alongside my relationship with God. No one should be the head of the household; people should leave abusive partners and find someone better; people in and out of any religion can be filled with the love of the Divine; and I believed it was ok to love someone of any gender.
I was twenty-three when I first heard a convincing argument that being gay might be OK with God. It was in a Sunday school class at a tiny church in the suburbs of Philadelphia where I was a paid vocalist in the choir.
St. James United Church of Christ (UCC) was the most progressive church I’d ever attended, and it was one of the first times in my adult life that I felt like the conservative one in a Christian group. The church services themselves were small and sleepy; maybe forty people attended on any given Sunday. The Sunday school class before the main service was where the action was. I, and a twenty-something granddaughter of two of the members, were the only attendees under fifty who would gather around the table with coffee and questions.
I called my dad one Sunday afternoon after a man in the class questioned whether Jesus was God. I told Dad that in one way it was relieving to not be the only person questioning, but where do you stop before you destroy your faith? How could our faith make sense if Jesus wasn’t God? Dad, ever supportive, agreed with me. In the years to come, he would fear that my exploration would lead me astray—even mentioning cults at one point—but would also grow to appreciate the authenticity of my search and trust that no matter what conclusion I came to, I was still listening to the same Divine Voice as he.
One morning at St. James, the Sunday school discussion centered around a passage in Romans:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . For this reason God gave them up to the degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another . . . They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips . . . (Romans 1:24-29)
Bob, an eighty-something, kind-hearted retired minister was leading the discussion.
“Think about the committed gay couples that you know,” he said, and I thought about my voice teacher back in Indiana where I’d grown up. Steve had lived for years with his partner in a beautiful house in Indianapolis where he gave lessons. Their life together seemed normal and comfortable.
“Now,” Bob continued, “are they filled with murder or deceit? Are they evil?”
I shook my head.
“This passage isn’t against homosexuality. It’s about idol worship.”
He was using an argument I would find many times when I began to study theology on my own—that this verse and others concerning same-sex behavior wasn’t condemning ALL same-sex behavior. You have to look at the context, the people involved, etc.
At that point, if someone asked me to make a Biblical case to support queer love or sex, I wouldn’t have been able to. For instance, I couldn’t explain why the translators were wrong when they included the word “homosexuality” in the list of sins in 1 Corinthians, though I can now. But at the time it was enough for me to realize that the way I interpreted the Bible mattered, and that it might actually be ok in God’s eyes to be gay.
In my heart, I’d always known it was ok. I never worried about whether God accepted my gay friends, mostly because I believed in a loving, nonjudgmental God. But there’s a difference in thinking being gay was ok in general and that it was ok for me, and for whatever reason, that Sunday School class made me finally take something personally. Maybe it was simply time for me to start questioning.
That day as I sat in the pews, I chewed on the idea that it would be ok if I ended up with someone of the same gender and, as much as I was ready to, I let my mind explore what that would be like. I imagined falling in love with a nameless imaginary woman. A door inside of me behind which lay truth about my sexuality inched open. It stayed that way, cracked but not fully unblocked for another couple of years. It was a start.
Read the next post in the series at scarletchurch.com
Jera is the author of scarletchurch.com, affectionately known as Church of the Scarlet Letter. She is also the editor of this blog, Sacred and Subversive.