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The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

The Monogamous Bisexual

*disclaimer: Polyamory is a valid and wonderful way to live in relationship. This post is not meant to shame polyamorous people or relationships. It is often assumed all bisexuals/pansexuals are polyamorous, and I’m writing to debunk that myth from my own experience.*

People get really confused about what it means to be bisexual. People get especially confused about what it means to be bisexual in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender.

“Aren’t you just straight now?”

“But you’re not, like, a practicing bisexual.”

“Are you still going to claim that label if you marry a man?”

There is so much to misunderstand. Many straight people I’ve encountered, especially those who don’t have any queer friends, assume that the only valid way to be bisexual is to be polyamorous. Some bi’s are polyamorous. Some bi’s are not. All of us are bi no matter who our patner(s) is(are).

I am monogamous. I don’t plan to ever have relationships with multiple people at once because it’s just not for me. I love my partner dearly, and I hope to spend the rest of our lives together. I’m not interested in forming relationships with anyone else. For me, it’s enough work to try to communicate with and love one person. Between maintaining my own mental health and doing the emotionally draining job of working at a social service agency, I don’t have the energy to put into multiple romantic relationships. For some, having multiple partners is freeing. For me, it would feel like a burden. Either way, my sexuality stands on its own.

If I am dating a man, I’m not suddenly straight. If I’m dating a woman, I’m not suddenly a lesbian. My sexual orientation is independent of my partner. Being bisexual/pansexual means that I hold the possibility of being attracted to people of any gender. Just like any straight woman loves to look at a good picture of Ryan Reynolds or David Beckham, I’m not immune to attraction because I’m in a relationship. People who are partnered still find other people attractive. If you’re married to a man, you are not only attracted to that one man ever in the history of the world. You’ve probably dated other men before. You’ve probably checked out the biceps on that guy at the gym. You probably saw Magic Mike. As a heterosexual person, you say “I’m attracted to men.” You don’t say, “I’m attracted to Steve,” as though you’ve never been attracted to another man in your entire life.

Being bisexual is exactly like that except the possibilities are more diverse. Maybe I find a leading lady in a movie attractive. Maybe I think the guy in line in front of me at Target is cute. These things have nothing to do with my commitment to my current partner. Anyone who tells you they’ve never found anyone else besides their partner attractive is straight up lying to you. Being bisexual means I get to lean over to my straight, male partner while we watch a TV show and say “she’s cute” while he nods back to me. It doesn’t mean I’m unable to commit to my partner. It just means there’s a greater diversity in who I might be attracted to.

I’ve struggled a lot lately to find monogamous bisexual role models. Again, this is not shade toward my beautiful, amazing, polyamorous bisexual friends. You keep doing you. But it can make me feel alone, like I’m the only bisexual who wants to be monogamous. It can make me feel like I’m doing it wrong. So, if you’re like me, the monogamous bisexual, let me say for all of us, there is no way to do your sexuality wrong. It’s your sexuality. You claim it however it works for you. For me, this means knowing that I’m attracted to people of all genders, that I identify as queer, but that I fully and deeply love my cis, male partner and only him. For others, it might mean loving multiple partners, for another it might mean dating a couple, for another it might mean being in an open marriage. Find out how your sexuality works best for you and your partner(s). Celebrate who you are and know that there is no wrong way to be you.

6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

Getting Pulled Over While White

I had never been pulled over before. I try, generally, to follow traffic rules and drive safely, but I’m probably not that much better at driving than most people. I refuse to text and drive but I’m definitely guilty of speeding to get where I’m going because I hate wasting time. I used be a timid, conservative driver, but then I moved to Atlanta and it was all downhill. In Atlanta, I’ve learned how to honk and throw my hands up exasperatedly. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to avoid getting pulled over, and I have my white skin to thank, at least in part. White people don’t get pulled over by police for “looking suspicious.” Partially, I’m lucky to have avoided traffic cameras at red lights and overzealous cops, but also, I’m white in a society that favors white people.

However, this past weekend, as I returned from a writing retreat in North Carolina (blog post coming soon!), I found myself completely zoned out, unaware of the speed limit and gliding absentmindedly through the mountains of North Georgia. I looked in my rearview mirror to find a cop tailing me, and I panicked a bit, wondering how long he’d been following me. I slowed down a bit and got into the right lane. A minute later though, he put on his lights and merged behind me. I sighed, said a few choice words, and slowed to the shoulder.

I always thought I would cry when I got pulled over. I hate breaking the rules, but I hate getting in trouble for breaking the rules even more.  Maybe it’s a tribute to my five years of weekly therapy, but I found myself relatively calm upon being pulled over for the first time. As I waited for the police officer to come to the window of my car, though, the faces of all the black men who have been shot in similar traffic stops flashed through my mind. Next to me, I had a backpack, full of books and my computer from my retreat. I rifled through it to find my wallet, thinking that, if I were a black man, this would be an incredibly dangerous action, my hands and the contents of my bag hidden.

It was a strange moment, anxiously thinking of all the ways black people are unsafe around police while also knowing those things wouldn’t happen to me. When the officer asked for my proof of insurance, I had to open my center console to find it. Again, I thought, what suspicions would this rouse in this police officer’s mind if I were black? Is this the moment when I would be shot, just for trying to comply and find my insurance card?

The police officer took my license and returned to his car to run it. I sat comforted, knowing that I had no prior traffic violations and no pending criminal or civil issues. If I were black, though, I might have found myself panicking, remembering a matter for which I had been unjustly or disproportionately charged. As a white middle-upper class woman, I am highly unlikely to be arrested. I’ve been to protests. I’ve yelled in the street, blocking traffic and demanding human rights. I’ve trespassed, stolen street signs, hung out in parks after dark, and other adolescent debauchery. But even if I had been caught by a police officer in any of those moments, I most likely would’ve been free to go with a slap on the wrist. And that’s exactly what happened in this traffic stop.

The officer returned my license to me, and, as he did so, he asked, “When was your last race?” It took me a minute to realize what he meant, but as I remembered my 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers, I told him I had run a half marathon in November. “Well, that’s farther than I can run!” he joked. I probably came off entirely aloof because of how shocked I was at his attempt at comradery. I knew this would never happen to a black person. After our awkward exchange, he simply told me to keep my speed under control and drive carefully. That was it. No ticket, no nothing. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt that it had been that easy. All I had to do was be a cute white girl willing to make small talk, and I was home free.

As I continued south down US-23, my mind reeled. The faces of Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile swirled around in my head. I was no better than these men, but here I was, alive and well, driving away from a routine traffic stop without consequence. 

LOVELES FEATURE: The Future is Queer

This month, I’m honored to be featured again by Love Les, this time in a freelance piece on bi visibility.


“Take my picture!” I yelled, shoving my phone into my partner’s hands.  I planted myself in front of a church on Peachtree Street where I used to work, thrust my hands into the air, and smiled giddily.  It’s one of my favorite pictures of myself: “The Future is Queer” t-shirt, rainbow make up, rainbow tutu…”

Go check it out here!

Trial and Error

Last year, I wrote about my decision to go on medication for my anxiety. It was a complicated decision for me to actually seek help from a doctor. I’d never discussed my mental health with a doctor before, only my therapist, and it felt like an overwhelmingly vulnerable thing to do. My first appointment with my doctor, I sat on the examination table with sweaty palms and shortness of breath. It’s a little over a year later, and I’m still on a journey toward balance, healing, and figuring out what medications are right for me.

Unlike many physical health problems, the medications for mental health are much more of a trial and error situation. I know that some issues like autoimmune disorders, cancer, and chronic pain can feel this way, too, so I don’t want to discount those experiences. But I’d never had an experience where a doctor didn’t know exactly how to treat me. I’m rarely sick, and when I am, it’s usually with something predictable like a cold or flu, bronchitis at the worst. I’ve had a few surgeries, mainly due to routine dental procedures and sports injuries. I’ve done physical therapy countless times. However, being prescribed a medication in the spirit of “we’ll see how this goes!” is a new and somewhat scary journey.

Medications for mental health can sometimes have side effects that are worse than the thing you want them to prevent. They can cause suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. They can make you tired, dizzy, nauseated, gain weight, lose weight, hungry, not hungry, the list goes on. My body has always operated on a pretty predictable rhythm. I’ve exercised at least five days per week since I started running cross country in middle school. Growing up, fried foods, red meat, and other unhealthy options were never made available to me, a pattern I took with me into adulthood. Whenver I was experiencing something unpleasant in my body, I could usually point to exactly why that was and do something to make it stop. But these new medications are a different story.

I started out taking Zoloft. I felt like it was helping my anxiety, so we increased the dosage. After a few months, though, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. I went back to my doctor and we decided to try something else. Next, I tried Lexapro. I felt like I had more energy and experienced less side effects, but I was still feeling depressed. After talking with my therapist, I realized that maybe the depression wasn’t a side effect of the medications but was actually a symptom of mental illness. My anxiety had been my main concern for so long, and once that was quieted, my depression was free to settle back in and take control.

The past six months have been a slow trudge through day to day life. Some days were better than others, but I struggled find joy in my work and in my hobbies. Spending time with friends was exhausting, but sitting in my house alone made me feel even more worthless. There were times I had to call friends to come and sit with me because I didn’t feel safe to be alone. There were times when I had to take several days off of work. There were times when I texted the crisis hotline and thought about admitting myself to a hospital. It hasn’t been the best season. But I’m so grateful for the people who showed up for me and for my own ability to ask for help and to get up and keep trying.

So, now, not only am I taking Lexapro but also Wellbutrin. And I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months. My insides feel less dreary and I’m excited about things instead of feeling burdened by them. I want to be creative again. I want to be spontaneous and try new things. The fog is slowly lifting. I know there will be bad days again because mental illness doesn’t just go away overnight, but I also know that my therapist and doctor will be there for me along the way. Maybe one day I’ll need to switch medications again. Maybe one day I won’t need any medications at all. But for now, the best version of me is the one that takes two pills per day, and there’s no shame in that.

overprotective

Weaving a maze of sticky threads,
the spider busies itself making a home
that sparkles innocuously in the morning dew.
A fly lands,
lulled in by the beauty and
perceived safety.
The spider closes in,
wrapping the fly tightly
in the filament,
a swaddle not meant to insulate
but to incapacitate,
slowly smothering
the fly
into a pale
and lifeless
form.