My poem, defamation, is live in issue IX of High Shelf Press today. This is one of my favorite poems and I’m grateful to share it with some new readers. Go take a look!
One year ago on July 3, 2018, I came out publicly for the first time. Even though I felt ready and had been waiting for that moment for over a decade, I still felt terrified. I remember writing my coming out post on the couch in my living room and being unable to hit “publish.” Eventually, I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and click.
Life has been a tangle of messes since last July, only some of them related to queerness. I just finished my partial hospitalization mental health program and am trying to integrate back into my everyday routine. I feel a combination of devastation and rage every day while I watch children get caged, women dismissed, trans women killed, and black voices silenced. I constantly wonder if I’m doing enough to help us overcome all this darkness. I’ve endured some difficult family conflict through cycles of anger and silence. In some ways, living my life as an out queer person has been a drop in the ocean.
In other ways, though, the luxury of being myself in the midst of all this roughness has made it more manageable. Last fall, I experienced Pride for the first time as an out person (Pride in Atlanta is in October…it’s a long story). I made my partner take pictures of me on every corner and wore every rainbow, sparkly thing I could fit on my body. I knew the queer community was bearing it’s own struggles – inclusion of trans voices, inclusion of POC, rallying around a central goal post-marriage-equality. But it was all to sparkly and new to me for any of that to tarnish the rainbows in my eyes. I was queer and you couldn’t shut me up. It was beautiful.
In the wake of my coming out, I received message upon message from other closeted people from every corner of my life. People I hadn’t spoken to in weeks or years contacted me to say, “Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone.” My own long and arduous journey to being comfortable with my bisexuality was brought to mind as I talked with people who were still struggling to hold queerness and Christianity at the same time. It made me feel like, even though I was a baby queer, I still had valuable things to say to my community.
The past year, though, has also challenged my self worth in profound ways. In February, I the General Conference live stream at work day after day, waiting for my church to decide its fate. In the end, the United Methodist Church chose exclusion over love. As I watched the final count of votes project onto the screen, I fell to the floor in my kitchen, sobbing. I had given hours and years of my time and thousands of dollars to an institution that I believed could support me in making the world a better place. But instead of acceptance, what I received in return was pain and rejection. Many of my queer Methodist friends and allies remain in the church, and I am so grateful for their continued work to change this broken system from the inside. Right now, though, I am too tired and hurt to give any more energy to an institution that refuses to ordain me and the people I love. Right now, I can’t fight anymore. I am angry. I need a place where my personhood will not be up for debate. I haven’t found that home yet, but I know it’s out there.
Being out for a year has been a roller coaster, but I am most thankful for the small things. My freedom to post memes about bisexuality on Twitter, the bi flag in my pencil cup at work, my t-shirt that says “Jesus was Bi.” I don’t have to pretend to be an ally anymore. I am free to stand up and say, “These things apply to me. This community is mine too.” While my life is not nearly as risky or revolutionary, I feel a kinship this season with Marsha P. Johnson and her contemporaries – tired of being told who to be and where to stand, in pain but able to fight injustice, imperfect but willing to throw up my hands and say “I’m here and you can’t get rid of me.”
This photo is from my commissioning in 2016. I was living in the closet and unemployed. Despite my lack of direction and continual anxiety about my identity, I was overjoyed. As the bishop laid his hands on my shoulders, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Long years of reflection, study, and discernment came together. I felt empowered. I felt like my church believed in me. It felt like coming home.
However, as my three years as a provisional member wore on, I felt more and more conflicted. In fact, this photo might represent the most at home I’ve ever felt in the Methodist Church. I grew up Methodist and have never belonged to any other denomination. My commissioning was the pinnacle of all I had worked for, all I believed the church should be, and all I believed I should be. But it’s been downhill from there.
Some of the ways I’ve started to grow apart from the UMC are due to the structure doesn’t work well for the type of ministry I want to do. This is more of a logistical issue than a personal one. I am not personally hurt by the fact that Methodist polity doesn’t seem to line up well with my ministry vision. It’s akin to a romantic relationship that would be better as a friendship. I’m not angry about it, I just think I might fit better elsewhere. So, it is with one foot already out the door that I witness General Conference 2019.
When I came out as bisexual last July, I assumed I would receive backlash from the church. I’ve received none, which can be partially attributed to the fact that I’m in a relationship with a cis, straight man. I am “self avowed” but not “practicing,” so my aberrance is marginal. Despite the fact that I have received little official feedback about my coming out, I know that, depending on the results of this conference, I could readily be asked to leave. Technically, I’m not allowed to be commissioned, even before GC 2019. Technically, my collar should go back in the drawer and my certificate should come off the wall. But, in my opinion, God is not overly concerned with technicalities.
I’m spending the next few days watching a live stream of primarily cis, straight people deciding if I can continue to be a part of this church in the way I planned to be. Truthfully, I am exhausted by the constant avoidance of the UMC to actually make a decision about inclusion. We’ve been having the same argument for a decade and yet all we’ve managed to do so far is make another committee. Despite the fact that this is comically stereotypical, I wish we would just get it over with. Part of me is grateful for the grace and care with which the church leadership is attempting to make this decision, but part of me is frustrated by the kid gloves everyone is wearing. This decision is going to hurt whether or not we take two years to think about it. I am tired of “praying our way forward.” I don’t think prayer can fix this. We don’t need more time to sit in a room in pray. We need to get our own house in order so we can go back out into the world and send love into what are currently some really broken places.
I spend each day working with people experiencing homelessness, trying to get ID’s and birth certificates for them so they can go back to work and get housing, listening to their painful stories, and holding space for them. I will continue to do this whether or not the Methodist church wants me to do this in their name. I believe it is holy work and I believe God is in it whether or not I’m straight. I struggle often between my high church beliefs in the value of structure and my thoughts that God works far beyond our made-up systems. I don’t know how to hold my conflicting thoughts about the Church all at once, but I do know that all of us deserve a place in it.
So, what do we do with a church that has become just as injured, maybe even more so than the world around it? I don’t know. I think there’s value in an imperfect church because I spent so much of my early childhood thinking that church was a place where I had to be my most perfect self. But I also believe the church should be a place of safety, something I can rely on when my mental illness overwhelms me or when I feel burnt out by the pain I bear witness to in my work. I don’t want to be charged with doing the emotional work for an organization that supposed to be offering me healing and rest. I think there is far too little individual work being done. Before we can address racism, sexism, and homophobia as the UMC, we have to address our individual biases. This is hard work, harder than praying while secretly believing God thinks the same thing that you do.
I don’t know where we will be this time next week, and I am terrified. I’m worried I wasted 3 years and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t be allowed use. I’m afraid that I am going to watch my family fall apart and that it will be all my fault. I don’t feel safe in an organization that has been a giant part of my spiritual and personal formation, and I am tired of my personhood being debated. I don’t want to pray about it anymore. I just want to be allowed to come home.
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.
**TW: assault, abuse**
“I have friends who are women.”
It felt like Brett Kavanaugh repeated this over and over throughout his hearing. This statement is the patriarchal equivalent of “I have black friends” – a phrase often used by white people to prove that their actions couldn’t possibly be racist because they know a black person. Knowing black people does not mean you don’t say and do racist things. And knowing women does not mean you aren’t a part of the patriarchy. In fact, it’s entirely irrelevant. Not everyone has black friends (though that blows my mind because it’s 2018). But, everyone knows women. Everyone has a mother. By nature of existing you have come into being through the body of a woman. Yet, there are rapists, misogynists, and abusers everywhere. Knowing women means nothing. The recently arrested East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer was living with his daughter when he was arrested. Bill Cosby has a wife and daughters. Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and daughters. This does not exempt them from being perpetrators.
What’s more, being a “nice guy” does not mean you have never assaulted anyone. Bill Cosby was the apple of America’s eye for decades. He was viewed as a wholesome, all-American, family man. But it turns out, there was a lot of abuse happening under that facade. Throughout Kavanaugh’s hearing, he pointed to letters and statements from friends that stated he was a good person, a nice guy, a good friend. These things are not mutually exclusive to sexual assault. I know because my own story feels eerily similar.
The person who assaulted me is a “nice guy”. He cares about social justice and even claims to be a feminist. No one who knows him would point to him as being a violent or mean person. I’m sure he could get 65 people to sign a letter stating the he’s a good person, just like Kavanaugh. I myself was blinded by his good-guy persona, so much so that I continued to see him for several months after my assault because I didn’t realize what had happened to me. It seemed impossible that a guy like him could do the very thing that he spoke out against. He went to the women’s march. He fights for the marginalized. How could he have possibly done something so against what he claims to be his moral code?
I dont’ know the answer to that question, but I do that Dr. Ford’s story feels all to familiar. If I were in her position, I’m sure people would be saying things about my perpetrator that are similar to the things being said by the committee and others about Kavanaugh. He has a mother. He has a wife. He has a sister. He has a daughter. Witnesses claim they have never seen him act like this before. The reality is that these things don’t matter because they don’t prevent assault. Having women friends that you talked to on the phone in high school and never assaulted does not mean that you never assaulted anyone else. No one assaults every woman in their life. Just because there are women who have not seen this side of him does not mean that side doesn’t exist. Nice guys can be rapists too.
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.