Sexual Identity & Faith: Growing Up Gay in a Christian Family

This is another lecture that was put on at my school, this time by the ACLU, in response to Prop 8. The California Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments about the Constitutionality of Prop 8 a week from tomorrow. In preparation for that, the local ACLU chapter invited to gay people who grew up in religious families to tell their stories to us—one whose family eventually accepted him and the other whose family is not as accepting.

My first thought at arriving at the appointed time & place was that I must be in the wrong room. There was far too good a turn out (including a number of professors). The president of our local chapter introduced the two panelists and said that she felt it was important, with Prop 8 looming on the horizon, to put a human face on the reality of our homosexual friends and neighbors. She wanted us to hear the story of people struggling for acceptance in their family, community, and faith, but that it was not her story to tell.

The first was a man who grew up Mormon and eventually went to BYU Law School; he currently works for Lambda Legal. The second was a woman who grew up Catholic and is now a lacrosse coach.

The gentleman indicated that he knew from very early in life that he was gay but didn’t really understand what it meant until early college. He began coming out and, as he put it, “owning and accepting” it later in college. Before owning it, he didn’t feel that it was something that he could be, either culturally or religiously—he didn’t feel that it was acceptable and it was such a foreign concept to him that he was in denial as he grew up and attempted to rationalize it away. He clung to “the religious/moral compass” and became “the perfect Mormon boy”—going to Seminary, Boy Scouts, and eventually BYU; anything he thought he needed to do to make him as perfect as he could be. And to make him not be a gay person. At the end of it all, however, he realized that he was still not happy and realized that he could not longer deny that this is what he felt. He said that the Mormon experience was “very PG” so people didn’t expect him to be trying to sleep with girls, but he knew that it was more than just that keeping him from dating girls.

He eventually sought therapy, where he realized that his religion and his sexuality were never going to reconcile themselves, that the church is never going to change its position on homosexuality and that he was gay, something that was so opposed to what he grew up in. He did not, however, feel that his feelings were bad or wrong. His life was very connected to the church—most of his close friends and family are active LDS—so he didn’t know how it would pan out to come out to them, but did know that there was no option to stay in the church and pretend to be something else.

He feels that there is no need for there to exist a line between faith and sexuality and that, as difficult as it is for him to hear that his church doesn’t believe that who he is exists, that is a position that is simply wrong. Hearing that from his church undermined its authority over from him—he still feels culturally Mormon and it will always be a part of who he is, but it drove him away from the church. He does, however, feel that he got closer to god: he said that he has a personal conviction that god loves him and that he is still god’s child.

When he came out to his parents, he said that they had known something was up and had even considered calling his friends to ask them if he was gay. His disgust at the church came up in conversation with his mother and it eventually got to, “I don’t like how it treats gay people,” “Why is that such a personal issue for you?”. It was still a uncomfortable because both of his parents had hoped that it was not the case but, he said, they grew to understand and embrace it. His father even went so far as to tell him that he shouldn’t be alone & that it would please his father if he were in a happy relationship.

For the most part, his friends were accepting of it, but he finds that Facebook poses an interesting problem when people who knew him before he was out friend him. He doesn’t want to send them a message that says, “btw, I’m gay” so he tries to make it obvious on his front page without being militant about it.

He said that he feels that there’s no real need for religion (he said nothing about god) in his life, but wishes that the Mormon Church had some kind of a way to allow for alternatives. He said that it was unacceptable to even talk about homosexuality but feels that it would have been nice to be able to talk to people who had been there, some kind of safe place within the Church. He finds the suicide rate among gay LDS in Utah to be absolutely unacceptable and believes that these small changes would go a long way toward changing that.

He also said that, in society at large, there’s an automatic assumption that one is straight. If you go to a party, you can bring your straight significant other and no one blinks. But if you bring your gay significant other, you’re effectively coming out to everyone at that party.

Following the passage of Prop 8, he said, he felt very disempowered. He says he has a lot of faith in the legal process but is still scared to know that we can allow an unchecked majority to decide what is right for the minority.

Something that he said really stuck with me: That it’s not his choice to b gay but it is his choice how to live with that.

The ex-Catholic lacrosse coach also knew from very early in her life, but found that the question “when did you know” was weird, since she always knew but buried it deeply. She remembers going to confession when she was young, and telling the priest that she sometimes felt for girls what she thinks she’s supposed to be feeling for boys and that she had a crush on a girl. He told her that she had to remove herself from those situations. And she did, for a while, trying to “make” herself straight, making out with boys and trying to enjoy it. She eventually accepted who she was in late high school, but had substance abuse problems. She said that, looking back, it is clear to her that she was trying to drink away her problems but at the time it seemed far more complicated. She said that she was never suicidal because she thought that should could solve the “problem”.

She wrote an admissions essay for college about coming out & accidentally printed two copies. Her father found it and, on the way to the airport one day, asked her about it. They didn’t bring it up again for 2 years,when her mom eventually found out. She said she’s pretty sure her mom prays for her not to go to hell, but it’s simply not talked about. She said that she’s in a good place about it and it’s better to be peaceful and silent than have arguments about it. She would like more clarity about what might happen if she ever had a wedding—who she could invite—but it’s so uncomfortable that it’s easier to simply not deal with it.

She no longer feels religious, much less Catholic (although she does feel culturally Catholic) and doesn’t miss it since it’s a community that wouldn’t accept her anyway. She does, however, still feel spiritual. When the priest told her to remove herself from situations where she started feeling attraction toward girls, she says that this was the first time anyone in the church had said anything that didn’t match what she knew in her heart. At that point, she knew what she was feeling was not wrong and when the priest said it was, he lost all authority over her. She stopped going to church and ended up not getting confirmed. She still can’t go into Catholic churches because they make her cry.

She says that she would never go to any other church because the Catholic church is her church, even if it’s not any more.

She said something interesting, too: that coming out is not something you do once, but something you have to keep doing. Once you’re openly gay, your circle of friends shrinks to those who are okay with it, so you end up not even starting relationships with people who might be homophobic.

She also sees a huge disconnect between “sins” in the church: that people who were divorced, whose transgression was just as great as hers, still go to church and are openly divorced. But there aren’t a lot of people who are openly gay and still go to church. She finds that the culture of the people in the church needs to change—the problems queer youth face in the church are the same that they face elsewhere, but in the church there is an apparatus that supports homophobia. “A lot of people are living a life of sin in a lot of different ways, but people who are having sex in the wrong way are really getting screwed.” Whether it is sex before marriage or homosexual sex, she thinks that there is less about religion and more about a social issue. “There is some kind of society endorsement that makes it okay to hate Johnny Fag” but he’s just as much a sinner as “Johnny Playa” is. She thinks that society is very sex-negative and that there’s a narrow conception of what kind of sex is acceptable. Telling someone you’re gay is telling someone how you like to have sex, and no one else has to do that.

I really enjoyed it and it’s always nice to hear personal stories, but I really think it had more effect on the people who saw it who did not already accept them. I hope that personal stories like this can help bring homosexuality into the mainstream.

3 Comments

  1. Great article!
    If readers here would like to hear from a group of well-known and mainstreet Americans that share similar personal stories like the ones in this article, they may want to check out Mitchell Gold’s new book, “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social and Religious Pain of Growing Up Gay In America” at the website http://www.crisisbook.org
    All proceeds from this book go to seven nonprofits that work with gay youth, including PFLAG, GLSEN, L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and Trevor Project.
    The book is one tool that Faith In America is using to bring awareness and understanding about the harm caused by religion-based bigotry and prejudice toward gay Americans, particular youth…and why it must end.

  2. Sounds like it would have been an awesome lecture to have attended. One thing that struck me from both of their stories is how their religions became irrelevant to them once they realized that church doctrine didn’t square with their own experience. I imagine that’s a real problem for communities where truth is imposed from without instead of investigated and discovered. Inflexible dogma is so… inflexible.

  3. Rich

    My dad was an LDS mission president over two decades ago, and just this week had one of his favorite former missionaries come out to him via e-mail, in a very simple and brief message (casually mentioning his boyfriend). My father’s simple reply included that he was honestly glad he had found companionship, and it was very moving to read the relief-filled response (it brought tears to my dad); profound expressions of gratitude for his acceptance and love (my father is a very loving person, really a hallmark of his life and leadership over the years in church service). This person said that although his membership and activity in the church is over, he had no regrets about his mission experience, because in part of the love he felt from my mom and dad. Made me proud anyway of my parents’ example.

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