When I first came out to my father as queer, what quickly followed this information was an assurance that I did not, in any way, accept or embrace my “same-sex attraction.” At that point, my difference was one I was deeply ashamed of, and I was actively seeking ways to deal with what I saw as a problem.
Before I realized I was queer, I was disgusted by queer people. I imagined they chose to be gay or bi; I imagined it was a curse because they had done something deeply offensive to G-d. I listened, with rapt attention, as speakers I won’t name listed off deceptive or made-up statistics, illustrating the particularly grievous depravity of “homosexuals.” I remember, they all said, “homosexuals,” opting for the clinical, the scientific, because the usual “gay” was far too kind; it wouldn’t mesh well with the kinds of things they said. Instead, it was best to stick with a word that felt more like they were diagnosing a condition.
When I did, to my horror, realize I had genuine crushes on other guys, I would have done anything to take what I saw as a burden off my back. Of course, I prayed a lot, and cried a lot. I asked G-d to give me an interest in girls. I asked G-d to take away all of my sexual and emotional desires, so I could happily be celibate and unattached the rest of my life. I offered G-d so much, but They never seemed to hear. Maybe They didn’t want what I was offering. Maybe the judgment had been cast, and I was doomed to a life of misery, and there was nothing I could do to change it, and no way G-d would change Their decision. I wasn’t sure. In any case, my life continued and my desires did not shift in any way.
As I grew up, even as I became more aware of who I was and even as I embraced myself in many moments, the grace I afforded myself did not make its way to others. As a 15-year-old, I watched videos ruthlessly mocking “radical liberals” or “libt***s,” featuring content deriding the existence of trans folks, as well as propaganda aimed at casting doubt on the need for feminism and anti-racist movements. At the time, I think I enjoyed this kind of content because I believed I was being counter-cultural, and I was proud of being a queer person whose political opinions did not match those of most other LGBTQ people. It was sort of a, “I’m not like other gays” mentality, and was generally an expression of my discomfort with myself and my community. Sharing conservative talking points at the dinner table often seemed to help give my parents confidence in their hope that I supported their view of the world.
When Donald Trump announced his run for office, I, along with the rest of my family, was not enthusiastic. We viewed him as morally bankrupt, and saw better options on the debate stage in candidates such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. In a recent post, I wrote over five hundred words regarding my family’s opinion of President Trump, and their unfortunately enthusiastic embrace, going into 2020, of a man who had been married to three women, committed adultery on each one, and sexually harassed untold numbers of women. I won’t go into greater detail here, but suffice it to say, I disagree with my former view of Donald Trump as a necessary evil sent to save America from the pro-choice agenda, and I find my family’s continued support of him sickening, just as I might find cookies I once enjoyed sickening after I’d vomited them onto the carpet.
Many people who know me, or who have been reading this blog for some time, are aware that my views have changed significantly. My parents and grandparents have often asked, “What changed?” They’ll recall moments when I’d rant against the movement for inclusion and rights of trans people, when I now call them out for what I call an unchristian and demeaning treatment of that same group of people. Once, after I had listed many awful things President Trump had done in his lifetime, my father said, “Son, all those things were true when you voted for him.” I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but only because I was 16 (in the United States, the voting age is 18). Otherwise, I absolutely would have voted for Trump, and I remember being giddy when he won. This year, though, I did cast my first presidential vote for Biden, despite wanting a more progressive candidate such as Elizabeth Warren. This change, not only in political leanings, but in my entire worldview, calls for an explanation, and I want to offer one that is, above all, honest.
The first and the most understable explanation is simply that I’ve grown up. When I was young, unaware, shielded, and largely ignorant, it was much easier to abide by what my parents believed than attempt to find any truth outside of that. The thing that finally pushed me away was the one thing, within myself, that I could not change. As I’ve said before, no matter how hard I prayed and no matter how many books I read on the subject, I couldn’t get rid of my queerness. At some point, in mid-2018, I began to finally see that maybe, G-d hadn’t answered my prayers to take away my queerness because it was something They had given me for a purpose, as a gift. I realized G-d made me queer, and They weren’t planning on doing anything about it. The best I could do, I began to understand, was accept it, and move on, continuing to seek a closeness with G-d.
At this point, I began writing my coming out story, which took several months to complete, as there were parts of it that only came together as I came to accept myself, a process that started, in many ways, long before the summer of 2018, and that will continue, I’m sure, long after. Straight people in my life have always been confused by this concept of accepting oneself. My father would often express pushback toward the phrase, explaining that we should not accept our sinful human natures. My brother compared my desire for one loving husband to his own adulterous desire to have sex with as many women as he pleased, a comparison I was confused by, to say the least. Which brings up another point: whenever a straight man tried to compare his own “sin struggles” to what he saw as mine, it always fell flat on its face. They would essentially describe their lustful desire for excess, and stand this up next to my desire for one singular, committed, loving relationship. Needless to say, this didn’t convince me of much.
As the summer of 2018 approached, my timid acceptance of myself and general doubt of the church’s teachings became more transparent to those around me. One particularly powerful woman leader in the church took it upon herself to banish me from what was my only real friend group at the time, a college-age “Bible study” small group that met regularly in her home to play board games. She told male friends in that group, many of whom were several years older than me, that I might be interested in them romantically, so they should be careful to avoid me. In addition to this, she approached the pastors of the church, including my father, asking them to forbid I go on the mission trip that was planned that summer, and discontinue my service on the worship team. All this, she deemed necessary, because I had begun to doubt the church’s view on one theological debate. A meeting was held with the sole purpose of determining whether or not I was resisting my sexual orientation adequately, or if I had “given in” too great of a degree to be considered a strong member of the faith. To every one of those people who was in that conference room on that rainy summer day, confronting a teen with questions meant to back him into a corner of self-denial and self-hatred, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are everything that inflicts spiritual damage, lasting trauma on a person’s soul. G-d will hold you accountable, as the Scripture you’re so fond of weaponizing states, because you are spiritual teachers. Especially you, Mark, and my father. You ought to leave the ministry and do something with your life that doesn’t hurt people you claim to care about.
I share this story because it is integral to the explanation of the turning point in my life. Around this time, I started to realize my parents and my church were wrong about me. And once I admitted one part of their theology was broken, I quickly recognized more would follow as the Jenga tower fell. That summer, on the mission trip some people had intended to bar me from, I began to draft my coming out story, a story that would become one of self-acceptance. I revel in the story of the mission trip that almost wasn’t, despite the dehumanization I endured surrounding it, because all of the decision-making individuals involved defaulted towards my dad, because he was a pastor, and my dad defaulted to G-d, and for a few weeks, it almost seemed G-d would keep me from the trip by delaying my visa approval process. The travel visa I waited patiently for arrived within a week or two of the flights, and thus, G-d made Their judgment: I, a queer teen coming to terms with my own humanity and the image of G-d within me, would be allowed to go on one last mission trip with my Evangelical church youth group.
With autumn approaching, starved of a spiritual community outside of “bible study,” I realized I didn’t have much of a community at my father’s church, and I stopped attending. After about one Sunday away, I knew I needed to find a new place to attend, and more importantly, a group of Christian folks to call family. As soon as I thought of this, I remembered a church downtown I used to drive by, which hung a rainbow flag outside every June for Pride month. I knew that even if their beliefs were more liberal than my own, at least I would be loved and protected there. So, to appease my dad, I began attending an Evangelical megachurch on Sunday mornings, where I enjoyed the worship and could tolerate the shallow sermons, and on Sunday evenings, I would visit the aforementioned church downtown. Their evening services were intimate and meditative, which ended up being exactly what I needed in that season of life. My first evening there, after the service, one of the pastors approached me. She asked me if it was my first time attending, and I explained that it was, and that it also happened to be my first time at an affirming church. As soon as I said this, she knew what I meant, and her eyes were filled with compassion. Seeing this, I was overcome with gratitude, and I couldn’t help but cry. She cried too, and she offered me a hug, and in that moment, I finally caught a glimpse of the love G-d meant for the church to hold.
Throughout the next year, as I navigated moving out of my parents’ home, then, later, moving into my own home, this new church became my spiritual haven and family. No matter what was going on in my life, I knew I could go to the church after work, and sit at that beautiful Steinway grand piano, and sing to G-d. And I knew that on Sunday, as the whole congregation raised their voices in the same prayer, I’d feel the warmth in my heart of being in a place that embodied the love of G-d. When I first began attending, I genuinely wasn’t sure what I thought about women faith leaders, trans people, and climate change, among other issues, and I was sure that abortion was wrong in all circumstances. It’s clear, looking back, that my place in that church was a catalyst in the transformation of my entire worldview. So, to my parents, grandparents, and old church family: try better next time, and warn your children about those loving, progressive-minded mainline Protestants. Their pews and hymn-singing feel traditional, but their politics are worlds removed from Evangelicalism.
My first major shift, after finally accepting the fact that my queerness wouldn’t budge, was to acknowledge that women are able to serve in a pastoral role just as effectively as any man could, and admit that it’s foolish to continue pointing back to times long past to justify the exclusion of women leadership and women in preaching roles. This is a shift that most American Christians, whether conservative or liberal, have made, but it’s one that is still seen as radical in the corners of Evangelicalism I was raised in. I made this shift because right there in front of me, preaching on several occasions, was a woman who clearly knew the book she was preaching from, knew the people she was speaking to, and knew the G-d she spoke of, perhaps more intimately than anyone I’ve met. If you’ve attended a church with a woman pastor, you may understand how unfathomable it would be to imagine their place behind the pulpit is somehow against G-d’s will. I’ve certainly met more men I feel shouldn’t be ordained than women.
What quickly followed my shift regarding church leadership was a shift in my perception of trans folks. A trans person is someone whose gender doesn’t match their sex in the way it does for most people. For example, a trans man is someone who was probably called a girl when he was born, because he has XX chromosomes, but as he grows and matures, he comes to realize he is a man. And a non-binary person is someone who was called a girl or a boy when they were born, but they now feel somewhat between the two genders, or outside of them completely. As I accepted my own queerness, it was easy to understand that many couldn’t reach out and accept me simply because they didn’t understand me. They didn’t understand why I would “choose” this “life of sin,” or “give in” to my desire to be in a loving relationship with a person who shares my gender. And so, seeking to avoid hypocrisy, I realized I couldn’t continue casting judgment on the lives and choices of trans individuals, using my lack of understanding as an excuse. Essentially, if I wanted others to transcend their ignorance and accept me, I admitted I had to do so myself. Of course, these days, because I’ve met many more trans people and listened to stories shared by trans people online, I understand what it’s like to a much greater extent, and I count myself as an ardent supporter and ally of the trans community. I truly believe that G-d loves and embraces those who choose to transition from one gender to the other, and those who don’t see themselves within the gender binary at all. Trans people aren’t new, they aren’t going anywhere, and their rights are human rights. I know how odd it sounds to those who aren’t used to it, and I personally know of many who justify their discomfort with trans people by pointing to their religious beliefs, but hey, I bet you never thought you’d be able to talk to people face-to-face through your telephone, or hop in a car with a heated steering wheel. Like, what the heck, why does the steering wheel have to be heated? If you live in a cold climate, wear gloves, I don’t know, it’s just one more thing that can go wrong. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we know or don’t know why trans people are the way that they are, because what we do know is that trans folks live happier and more fulfilled lives if they accept themselves than if they try to live as the gender that most others who share their sex identify with.
[Content Warning: Abortion] My personal opinion and religious beliefs regarding abortion, as a person without a womb, also shifted slightly during this time, but it was the last to go. Before attending my new church, I was a firm believer in the idea that “abortion is murder.” I didn’t really believe that people who undergo abortions should be punished, but I believed it should be illegal, and that doctors who perform them should face consequences. All of this was of course because of the conditioning of my family. At this point, again, as a person with very little stake in all of this, I’m still saddened by the idea of abortion, and see it as the death of a tiny, living person, although I don’t believe it’s wrong for a pregnant person to decide to abort. At the end of the day, a pregnant person has the right to detach themself from a tiny child who is relying on their organs. Just as I wouldn’t want to be chained to a person, offering them life support for several months, I don’t expect a pregnant person to commit to this simply because they are pregnant. I also feel that the Evangelical resistance to abortion, pared with their resistance to birth control and comprehensive sexual education, is more about exercising control over women, and less about a true concern for all human lives. As many others have pointed out, if Evangelicals were as pro-life as they claim to be, they would be more pro-refugee, pro-Black lives, and anti-war. I’m also encouraged by the fact that abortion numbers are trending downward, and this seems to indicate that fewer people who don’t want to become pregnant are becoming pregnant.
As I’ve illustrated, my entire worldview has done an about-face, and the clearest reason for this has been the shift from one faith community to another. In my father’s church, everything we believed centered on fear. We taught that G-d would punish those who experienced sexual pleasure outside of or before an opposite-sex marriage. We taught that G-d would punish those who felt uncomfortable with the gender that G-d (a thoroughly non-binary deity, I might add) “gave to them.” And all of this fear, building up through the years, culminated in the most bizarre of illusions, that Donald Trump, a man as ungodly as they come, would make a good leader, and fight for the freedom of every man, woman, and child to only bake and decorate wedding cakes for people whose weddings they supported on a surface level. Leaving all of that behind, I discovered a church community where they actually believe G-d loves everyone, and they understand what it truly means to “be yourself” when you’re queer or trans. I found a community that celebrated with me in my joy, and mourned with me in my sadness—a direction contradiction to my parents and siblings, who did the opposite. I made new friends, and I found new family members who understand what G-d intends a faith community to be on a level that is miles removed from the judgment and hellfire of Evangelical circles.
To all who ask, “what changed?”, that’s what changed. I found Jesus. And He wasn’t hanging out with the people I thought He should be hanging out with, and He wasn’t stoning the people I was told He’d be stoning, and He wasn’t walking where they told me I’d find Him. I found Jesus, and it changed my whole life. It changed my perception of everything. It even changed my view of other religions, and made space for me to embrace transformative teachings and practices of Buddhism, while holding onto my Christian roots.
I was raised in a tight-knit conservative Evangelical community that resembles a cult now that I’ve escaped, and I still remember all of the ways they explained the world around them. I know that if they read this, they will fall into their habits, and label me a heretic, a backslider, a black sheep, a rebel, an outsider. I knew they’d do that when I came out as queer and affirming. The fact is, though, I am the one who has seen the world from their perspective, shared their worldview, and changed. I understand them, and I disagree. They don’t understand me, and they gossip about me, praying in condescending tones that G-d will rescue me from “the path that leads to destruction.” Something in me, though—call it trauma, or spite—wants them to know that it’s still me. I’m still the small boy who knelt by the bed and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. I’m still the inquisitive one who sat at the table asking questions about the end times. I’m still the child of G-d who can reach out and touch the divine Presence in the Universe. I’m still the brother who talked until I realized you had fallen asleep. I’m still the tearful young teen who leaned against the car in the garage, so scared to just say the words, “I’m gay.” I’m still your child, I’m still your sibling, I’m still your grandchild, I’m still your cousin, I’m still your friend. My worldview changed. I did not.