My dear friend, Leslie, is featuring me on her blog this week. Take a gander for the scoop on life out of the closet, writing aspirations, family, relationships, and more! Vist her site here.
I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring. It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters. I loved that ring. It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth. I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules. As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!” I loved the rules. The rules shaped who I was.
I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group. All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another. The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation. The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night. I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.” I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules. And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.
What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship. We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain. I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect. There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart. Everything would be perfect.
It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD. Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD. I love my partner. He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other. We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about. I never learned how to do any of this in the church. I had no idea that I needed to learn it.
Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture. If anything, it perpetuated it. First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough. The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture. By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing. Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have. It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual. (Hot tip: it’s not.) There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.
Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed. There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing. While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before. All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility. Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend. No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.
Purity culture has damaged so many relationships. I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later. I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain. I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned. I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture. Purity culture hurts all of us.
I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire. If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies. Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers. Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me. Rings are easy. Love is hard.
Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom. Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died. I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her. I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.
For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think much about grief. Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy. I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death. The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade. I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.
It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me. I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time. Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests. I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade. It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.
Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more. It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible. I talk to her and write to her and talk about her. This doesn’t make it hurt less. If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me. And unresolved grief can be a real bitch. My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm. So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened. When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.
I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP). There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:
OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT
I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death. One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death. At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense. I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to. Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.
Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her. I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died. I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her. I think about how much she would love my cats. None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.
This is a portion of the piece Legend, which is published in full in the collection Georgia’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction. The collection can be purchased here or on Amazon.
I am a child, maybe six. Alone, but not lonely. I walk without direction along the suburban street in front of my house. There are railroad ties that my dad put in our yard to prevent drivers from cutting the corner and leaving tire tracks in our grass and a wooden fence, gradually rotting. Bradford pear trees and small cacti neatly circle around the perimeter of the yard. I watch my cat climb the tree right next to the house, hoping she doesn’t get stuck.
I breathe in the magnolia air and run across the yard to a strip of woods that separates our yard from the neighbors’. Rocks the size of cantaloupes line the patch of woods, and I like to hide things under them – pieces of paper with secret messages or tiny toys. My favorite spot is a small tree that grows strangely out to the side, stretching toward the sunlight and making a chair with its trunk. I sit on it and uncover my favorite rock, grey-blue with sharp edges, under which I keep one of my mother’s old lockets.
I look out and survey the world I’ve created for myself. I am safe here with the trees and the rocks and the Southern air. I am safe from the grief that fills our house. I am safe from the stress of my father as he tries to balance raising a daughter and working in an office. I am safe from the emptiness of a house without a mother. In my imaginary world with trees and rocks and railroad ties, the truth is avoidable. In my game, I am a mother, caring for the trees and for the tiny objects under rocks.
In adulthood, learning how to cope with my lack of knowledge about my biological mother has progressed little beyond my childhood games. If anything, I’ve grown further away from being able to remember her. In my consistent efforts over the past 22 years to count my memories of my mother, I can count only five. Other images of her float around, cross-contaminating my memories to form legends of a woman I never really knew. There are the stories that relatives and friends tell decade after decade – the story of my premature birth, the story of how she pulled out a chunk of her hair during chemotherapy and made a quippy joke to her doctors, the time we all went to Disney World when I was two – but none of these are my own memories. They are stories for which I created images after multiple retellings. More importantly, they are not the entire story. They are the high points, the greatest hits, the grain separated from the chaff. No one tells me about the mundane things – how she brushed her teeth, what she ate for breakfast, how she pronounced the word pecan – much less the terrible things. When someone dies, everyone is afraid to mention the moments that they gave up or the times they were frustrated with people they loved. We conveniently forget that they were a whole person with flaws and, instead, create a legend.
These unintended heroes give us the same hope that any legend gives: the story of a martyr who was kind through her suffering, benevolent to a fault, selfless in every circumstance. However, legends are not people; they are ideas. And my mother was not an idea; she was a person, and I cannot know her unless I know all of her stories. So, I will start with the ones I remember…
To read the rest of this piece, visit the Z Publishing website to purchase the collection.
It’s been a long few weeks, y’all. Since coming out, I’ve gone to Wild Goose Festival (still haven’t written about that adventure), hosted my childhood best friend’s bachelorette party, moved to a new house, and sprained my ankle. It’s been a time. But through all that, lurking in the back of my mind was how to make sense of why I felt like it was important for me to come out.
I’ve been asked this questions several times, sometimes from people who are not affirming of the LGBTQ community and other times from people who are supportive and trying to get to know me better. At first, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I could only explain my coming out by saying that I knew I had to. I couldn’t resist it anymore. A part of me that had been beaten, oppressed, locked away, and shamed for so long finally had a chance to creep out into the light, and I was tired of telling it no. After years of therapy and self-reflection, I finally developed the courage to say “hey, this is who I am.” And once I fully embraced that thought, there was nothing I could do to stop it anymore. For me, coming out as bi has nothing to do with polyamory (although plenty of people of all different sexualities are and find it fulfilling) or leaving my current relationship. I am happy with a straight man. But I am still a queer person, and I’m tired of being erased.
Bi erasure is a problem even within the queer community. I constantly hear people say that bi people are just gays who haven’t come all the way out yet. While that can sometimes be the case, bisexuality is also it’s own legitimate identity. When I’m dating a man, I’m not “straight.” If I were dating a woman, I wouldn’t be a lesbian. If I were dating a trans person, my sexual identity would not depend on how they identified their gender. No matter who I am with, I am still bi. My identity is my own identity, regardless of who my partner is. I do not want half of who I am to be erased simply because of who I’m with.
But it’s more than that. It’s not just about me.
In case you’re not aware, the United Methodist Church is currently in the middle of a years-long debate about human sexuality. For the past several General Conferences (held every four years – lining up with presidential election years in the US), voting on issues of human sexuality has resulted in arguments, protests, tears, and an inability to understand The Other. Because of this current debate, I knew that I was putting myself at risk by coming out and simultaneously being a Methodist clergyperson. I haven’t yet received any feedback from the church, but, technically, I could have my clergy credentials removed. LGBTQ people are not allowed to be clergy in the Methodist church, which is a primary issue up for debate at all of these conferences.
The people in the congregations I’ve served need to know that someone among them is queer. So many people who believe damaging things about homosexuality think that they don’t know anyone who’s queer. It’s easy to have hurtful opinions about a group of people that you don’t actually know. It’s much harder to look a member of that group in the face and share those opinions, especially if that person is a member of your faith community. So, by coming out, I hope to also start conversations with people who don’t know where they stand and also with people who do know where they stand and want to have conversation about LGBTQ issues. So if you have questions, let’s chat.
I want everyone to know who I am, even if it means losing a few relationships with those who refuse to accept me. In this politically horrendous time, I cannot be silent any longer. In a time when Christianity is seen as an exclusionary religion, I want to invite people on the margins in by showing them that I am on the margins too. Being queer means so many different diverse things, just like the rainbow we wave, and I’m grateful to finally be a public member of this community. So, let’s allow all the colors to be visible and make the world a little brighter with how fabulous we are.
I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter. A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo. She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work. Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope. We immediately decided to guest blog for each other. You can find my post on her blog here. Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.
Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.
I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?
In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.
I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.
God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.
In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.
About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:
Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.
Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.
Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.
I first knew this about myself in high school. I talked to a few close friends about it. I confided in a queer history teacher at school for advice. My short lived exploration was met with so much resistance, though, both at school and at church, that I abandoned my questions about my sexuality entirely for the next decade
My high school refused to allow a Gay-Straight Alliance. Instead, we would meet in secret in the school theater at lunch. One of the few out lesbians in school came to her car after school one day to find the word “dyke” carved into the driver’s side door. The only trans person at school was forced to use the bathroom at the nurse’s office because there were no gender neutral bathrooms. People laughed and talked behind their back. Things have changed greatly at my high school, which is now much more supportive of LGBTQ students, but when I was there, it was painful. My youth group was also a place of difficulty. Whenever we explored LGBTQ+ issues, the teaching was that homosexuality was sinful and against God’s will. A combination of all of these hardships shoved me decidedly back into the closet for nearly ten years. I thought I had to choose between being a Christian and being bisexual, so I choose being a Christian.
In many ways, it was easy to pass as straight. I was not being entirely untrue to myself by dating only men. I liked cisgender men. I didn’t like only cisgender men. But for a long time, it was easy enough to pretend. I positioned myself as a straight ally. I was believable. I’m high-femme (which, if that term is unfamiliar, means I present my gender as very feminine – wearing dresses, having long hair, and wearing make-up) and have had several long-term relationships with men. Even some of my gay friends assumed I was straight. I was good at hiding.
It wasn’t until I got to seminary that things began to change. Suddenly, I was confronted with queer people who were also faithful Christians. I had never met anyone who was able to live fully into both of these parts of themself. I didn’t know it was possible. Christianity and queerness had always been presented to me as mutually exclusive lifestyles. You could be one, but not the other. During my time at seminary, though, I realized that I could faithfully be both. At first, I didn’t think this would mean coming out. I thought it just meant being honest with myself. That, in itself, was a big step. Because of my experiences as a teenager, I thought my bisexuality was silly and childish. It had always been discussed as something I would grow out of once I became a more insightful adult.
Meeting other queer people who continued to explore their sexualities and gender expressions opened my eyes to the fact that I could be a serious, ambitious adult and faith leader who was also bisexual. I didn’t have to leave that part of myself behind. It wasn’t silly or stupid or shameful. To the contrary, in order to fully mature as a person, I needed to embrace who I really was. Once I realized that Christianity did not have to be an obstacle to my coming out process, the reasons for staying in the closet thinned. I now know that it is more faithful for me to be honest with myself and others than to lie about who I am.
Coming out to my family was another significant obstacle in my coming out process. My parents are loving and caring people, but we don’t always see eye to eye politically. I know that they love me deeply, but I was afraid that they wouldn’t be supportive. Last month, though, I developed the courage to write them an email. I spent weeks drafting it and sent it to a friend for feedback. After weeks of delaying and thinking, I finally took a deep breath and hit send. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. However, it turned out that my anxiety around being honest with them wasn’t warranted. My parents told me that, of course, they love me no matter what. They had questions and concerns, but they listened to my answers patiently. I believe coming out to my parents will be an ongoing process, but I’m grateful for their acceptance and curiosity.
Now that I’ve been honest with myself, my faith, and my family, I am tired of hiding. I spent most of the month of June desiring to be a full part of the LGBTQ community so I could wear rainbows and wave flags with my fellow queers. I know that it’s not that simple, and that the queer community has it’s own set of challenges to face, but after ten years of hiding, I want to celebrate who I am. I’m ready to bravely stand up to those who say I can’t do things and show them that I’m just as worthy. I’m ready to use my privilege as a white queer person in a straight-passing relationship to teach others about what it means to be queer. I’m ready to be my full self. While this will no doubt be an evolving journey for me, I’m glad to have my community in it with me. I can’t wait to continue to share about who I am and where I’m going.
Happy Belated Pride, queens. Let’s do this.
For more information: A few months ago a did an anonymous interview on a friend’s blog about being a queer, closeted Christian. I answer questions about my sexuality, my faith, and being a queer pastor. Read it here.