It has been three years since I officially came out. On February 14th of 2019, I reached the portion of an unfolding memoir of sorts, in which I wrote about my sexuality, and specifically, how it created a struggle between the fundamentalist Christianity I had grown up with, and feelings within myself that felt natural, that I knew were not only natural, but were good, and lovely. Looking back, it seems things could have gone no other way. Even when I first wrote about my feelings in my journal at 13, dreadfully afraid that I would never want to marry a woman, I think a part of me knew that this burgeoning facet of my innermost being would one day call everything into question, because, as Paula Stone Williams says, “The call toward authenticity is sacred, it is holy, and it is for the greater good.” For better or worse, and perhaps, more than anything, as a coping mechanism, I think we pretend not to know when something has entered our life that will, without a doubt, change the course we had planned. As coping mechanisms go, though, it’s not bad, and I try to have grace for my past self, because that’s what I hope my future self will offer me. I’m getting distracted, though.
Three years ago, I came out. Lots of people knew before that day, sure. In fact, I kept a list for a long while, the initial purpose of which was to somehow track down those who decided to gossip, perhaps so I could call them out on it. Of course, that sort of list didn’t account for the matter of being part of a fundamentalist Christian homeschool co-op in a particularly active homeschool community, and it also, unfortunately, didn’t account for the night I first told my parents, and my father decided to immediately call his own parents, something I didn’t learn about until at least a couple of years after the fact. Some of the most memorable personal coming-out moments were with my siblings. I told my older brother over text, and my older sister, walking on the shore of Lake Michigan. I wrote a letter to a family friend who felt like a sister, and on the advice of my parents, told her that, if she wanted to, she should feel free to share the news with her own parents. The following Sunday, her mother, who was also a dear friend to me, sat beside me at church, and cried, praying for me. Even then, I worried a little more about everyone else’s worries than about my own thing, the cause of their distress. Oh, I hope they don’t take this too hard, I would think. I really hope this doesn’t challenge their faith. I wasn’t very activist-minded back then. I didn’t think about the fact that, if your faith relies on believing that G-d destines some people to struggle with certain horrible, wretched sins, but never the elect, then, well, yeah, maybe you should look into that. On a kinder note, those meaning to be encouraging would say, “And such were some of you!” smiling, quoting some Scripture passage about how swindlers, revilers, drunkards, thieves, adulterers, idolaters, and oh, yeah, the logical group to include on this list, gay people, had apparently been Washed, Sanctified, and Justified (which sounds like the more expensive option at the car wash, if you ask me), and thus, the “such were some of you” part. Basically, people quoted this bit of Scripture to not-so-subtly compare me to thieves and drunkards, in the hopes of convincing me that praying the gay away was actually effective, if I had enough faith and wanted it enough. I hope enough time has passed that I can share this bit of news without anyone fainting: I never really wanted to be straight. I think, at some point, I wanted to want to be straight, but did I ever look at a straight guy, in cargo shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, and pine for the same sense of style? Did I ever hear other guys talking disrespectfully about female friends of mine, and long to see the world the way they did, to easily objectify all the same people they objectified with laser-like focus? Did I ever hear a group of men talking, and wish I knew more about the transmission touchdown mountain biking trip they were so excited about? I’m not sure I ever did. There I go again, getting distracted.
When I read that unfolding memoir, I’m struck by certain lines. I proudly proclaimed, “I am, first and foremost, a child of G-d, and a pursuer of G-d’s Presence.” I said, “My confidence is solely in Christ.” Looking back, three years older, I know all the things I wrote in those posts were true for me at that time. But I can also see the way I held up declarations of faith as a defense. It was like I was fending off attackers, saying “don’t come at me with a reference to Leviticus, I have this shield, I’ll bore you with stories about my relationship with G-d over the last few years.” I thought, at the time, that if people saw that I was authentically following Jesus in the best way I knew how, they would have to admit they were wrong about me. I dreamed of a world in which my parents, or grandparents, or siblings, would look at me and say, “I know you love G-d, I know you want to do right, and I accept you.” I wanted to somehow earn their trust, and I thought the language of faith was the way to do it. Of course, it didn’t work. To date, not one of my family members has had their perspective shift to a place of being an ally, of enthusiastic acceptance and inclusion. Part of me holds this against them, of course, because it’s hard not to. But part of me knows I wouldn’t be where I am if this small part of me hadn’t shattered everything I thought I knew about the world.
The other day, I spoke with my older sister about the different ways she and I grew up. We talked about the relationship she had with our parents, and the relationship I had with them, which looked similar, but had its differences. We spoke about the different conditions which precipitated our moving away. She was able to commute to a program for sign language interpreting, standing on the financial foundation of our parents, and ultimately moved out of the home after marrying her husband and starting her family. Despite her being several years older than me, it wasn’t too many years after her wedding that I, too, moved out, although I did so because I felt unsafe, unsupported, and unloved. I moved into the home of a gracious adoptive family, and later, joined the military. None of that would have happened had I been straight. I told her, “obviously I didn’t choose to be gay. Why would I choose that, knowing I’d lose the support of our parents, knowing it would cause me all that worry and sadness?” With tears in my eyes, I said, “We didn’t end up differently because we made different choices. We ended up differently because we’re different people.” We talked about what tolerance really means, too. I told her that it’s one thing to have tolerance for a tension between worldviews, and it’s another thing to put up with the way one is treated when, as in my circumstance, I ultimately marry a man. I said, “I don’t want to keep up appearances with family members who don’t even want their kids to find out that “Uncle Levi” is married to a man. And I don’t want to spend holidays with my parents if it means explaining to my children that their grandparents don’t let their dads sleep in the same room of their house.” She nodded, and it seemed like she understood, but then she said, “well, maybe that’s something you should think about,” as if the thought of my children being told their parents shouldn’t be together would convince me that fundamentalist Evangelicals are right, and I really shouldn’t marry a man and adopt children. In a moment, all the weight of the moment—all the hope I had that maybe, she would understand, maybe she would try to understand—all of it vanished. I wonder, sometimes, why I want them to understand, why I wish, with so much of my being, that I could look into their eyes and see trust. It’s conversations like this that make me think that’s a sight I’ll never see.
I used to email my father long tirades of varying thoroughness, criticizing his support of former President Trump, or digging up all the hurt of my childhood and holding it out to him, hoping he wouldn’t turn away, that he would finally recognize his wrong. Of course no healing could come from that, and maybe I didn’t want healing. It was cathartic, and sometimes, catharsis feels a lot like healing. Lately, I’ve thought a lot about a bridge of tolerance, and those whom I can meet halfway across that bridge, provided they’re not attempting to pull me to their side. In this season of life, I can’t meet my father in the middle. And I can’t meet his parents there, because they are so concerned for me, all they want is to convince me that my “lifestyle” is leading to an eternity of torment. And that makes me sick, it makes me so sad, because they were born in the ’30s, and they’re not going to live forever, because none of us will. I should say, right here, if my siblings are reading this: talk to our grandparents every day. Don’t, for a moment, take for granted the fact that you get to have peaceful, loving conversations with them about your spouse, and your children, or your future spouse, and children. I can’t have that; I will probably never have that with them.
In fundamentalism, it seems like there are prizes awarded based on the length of time people have held the same convictions without shifting. If your entire worldview is rooted in pretending there’s a clear, straightforward way to interpret an ancient canon of books that was inspired by G-d but written and compiled by hundreds of men, you’re not really allowed to say, “oops.” The other day, my dad told me, “you portray your ‘always questioning’ mode as a character quality.” Yep. I do. I’m no fundamentalist.
I’m not sure what I believe these days, about death, and G-d, the great inevitability and the great unknown. I’ve often said, lately, that I don’t believe death is the end, but I’d like to make peace with it as if it is. That’s the more difficult task, isn’t it? And if I have years and years to work at it, as I hope I do, shouldn’t I aspire to work through something more difficult than the idea that, upon my death, my consciousness will exit this body and immediately enter paradise? And when it comes to G-d, I’ve always been a bit agnostic, because I don’t like to pretend to know anything I don’t. Despite myself, though, I’ve come to a place that feels sturdy. It seems to me that, at the end of the day, belief in G-d is simply belief in an entity that was not created, that has existed forever and will exist forever. And so, either G-d exists, watching all of this outside of space, time, and matter, and outside of concepts of space, time, and matter. Or, alternatively, if G-d “does not exist” and thus matter has existed, somehow, forever, then, well, that is G-d. Maybe it’s overly simplistic to assume that, if G-d exists, They experience consciousness in the same way we do. Maybe that’s completely ridiculous, given how much G-d has experienced, has watched. We see flowers as infinitely perishable, we see current trends as vapid and short-lived. The trees, then, look down on us, and see us with the same eye for the long arc of time. And the moon, glowing in the sky from the light of its dear friend of roughly 4.53 billion years, looks on those trees, and smiles at their youth, having only been growing, collectively, for 370 million years, give or take. And the Milky Way, a vast system of grandparents, smiles knowingly. Up there, “this too shall pass,” doesn’t refer only to unfortunate matters.
I want to have a faith like Mary Oliver, who asked, “Why do people keep asking to see G-d’s identity papers, when the darkness opening into morning is more than enough?” I want to proclaim, thoughtfully, alongside her, that, “I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs. The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway, what’s wrong with maybe?” I want to ask with her, “Yes, I know G-d’s silence never breaks, but is that really a problem? There are thousands of voices, after all.” I think, if “The heavens declare the glory of G-d,” getting my theology from nature poets shouldn’t be an issue. Mary Oliver wrote, in a poem titled, “What Gorgeous Thing,” “I do not know what gorgeous thing / the bluebird keeps saying, / his voice easing out of his throat, / beak, body into the pink air / of the early morning. I like it / whatever it is. Sometimes / it seems the only thing in the world / that is without dark thoughts. / Sometimes it seems the only thing / in the world that is without / questions that can’t and probably / never will be answered, the / only thing that is entirely content / with the pink, then clear white / morning and, gratefully, says so.” Am I content with the dark thoughts? Am I comfortable with the questions that can’t and probably will never be answered? I wonder, am I content with the clear, white morning?
Brandi Carlile released an album on my 21st birthday, 10-01-21. The eighth track, “Stay Gentle,” goes, “Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child / Don’t harden your heart or your hands / Know to find joy in the darkness is wise / Although they will think you don’t understand.” When I look at Brandi Carlile and Mary Oliver, I see mothers who walked this road ahead of me. Mary Oliver was born in Ohio, and spent time in Michigan; I was born in a mobile home in Ohio and grew up in Michigan. Brandi Carlile lived, for some time as a child, in a trailer in Ohio. Mary Oliver was queer, and found a partner in Molly Malone Cook until Cook’s death in 2005. Brandi Carlile is also queer, and, just as I did, grew up wanting to make fundamentalist Baptists happy. I want to learn from those who have suffered at the same hands I’ve suffered, those who have sat with their own pain and learned to see beauty in the world despite it.
Here is where I will make my home, on a foundation that rests only on what I can see, and hear, and know, while holding space for all that I can’t. My ancestors, whether spiritual, familial, or cultural, will keep me company and provide wisdom for the long, moonless nights. And when it’s time, I’ll journey. Maybe I can find the truth before it comes to knock at my door.
The original title of this post was, “Three Years Later: Am I Straight Now?” This was, of course, clickbait. I hope that was obvious.