Last month I began a series where I ask someone else to tell me their story. I have given little glimpse’s of my own story as part of my essay, which some of you will have read, but I haven’t personally experienced a situation where the Church effectively drives you away — rejecting you for something you can do nothing about. However, I do know what it is like to feel I cannot stay in a church. This is covered in my essay, so I won’t cover it here, deflecting attention from the writer’s story.
In this series, my writer-friends have experienced this from a much more personal angle. They have felt the pain first-hand of having to leave churches because of the rejection they felt, of feeling the church offered nothing that would help them, the withdrawal from friendships by those they had thought of as friends, the sense of being isolated, or from having requirements or expectations imposed, simply because they identify as LGBTQ+ — something they had no choice or control over. The nearest that many churches get to accepting the LGBTQ+ person is by playing the “Let’s pretend” game: “You behave as if you are straight, and we’ll pretend you are one of us; but as soon as you fail, you’re out.”
This month I want you to listen to my friend Sarah. Though very different from “Don’s Story”, her story has some links in common with his. Sarah writes:
“I told my mother I was gay in the midst of a shouting match. I wouldn’t recommend it.
We were arguing over an inappropriate, and ill-informed, comment she’d made about the LGBTQ+ community and I was angry. But I wasn’t sure who I was most angry with; my mother, for repeating the garbage she’d read off a leaflet (from a Christian organisation which will remain nameless), or the ignorant people who distribute these damaging materials. On the bright side, I suppose it keeps the Post Office in business. Nevertheless, I was fired up with all the anger that had been accumulating with every other similar conversation for seven years and before I could stop myself, I blurted out: “Well I’m attracted to women, so is that what you think about me?”
We sat quietly for a moment. I listened to my mother sob and, rather than the lightness I expected from offloading this burden I’d been carrying alone, I felt the weight increase. I wasn’t sure if it was guilt over how I’d told her, or the shame of disappointing her. She asked how I could reconcile my sexuality with my faith, and I confessed that I had lost my faith months ago. It had gotten lost in the perfect storm of grief over the loss of my father and the resurfacing of all the questions I’d had for so many years, on a myriad of different issues, which I’d been too scared to look into in case it shook my immature faith beyond recovery. How ironic. I figured the whole sexuality thing didn’t really matter if I wasn’t even sure God existed.
“I feel like I’ve lost my daughter as well as my husband,” she paused for a moment before adding, “You know, your Dad would be so disappointed in you.”
It was like being kicked in the gut. Dad had always been as conservative as Mum on LGBTQ+ issues. I wouldn’t have envisaged him whipping out a pride flag and cranking up “Born This Way”. Sure, he would probably have been disappointed that I wasn’t straight, and he definitely would have been disappointed regarding where I was at with my faith (or lack thereof). But would he really have been disappointed in me, as a person?
I watched Mum cry and, instead of sympathy, I felt an overwhelming sense of disgust. I idolised my Dad, he was the person I went to first for advice; and she had fed that ravenous monster of doubt which relentlessly asked me questions like “did Dad like you?” and “are you sure he was proud of you?” She’d given it exactly what it was looking for: confirmation that he didn’t, and he wasn’t.
“I am exactly the same person I was five minutes ago – nothing about me has changed.”
Mum grabbed at me as I pulled a coat over my pyjamas, pleading with me not to leave the house. But I needed some air, it felt claustrophobic inside, so I shrugged her off and walked out. It was cold and dark, and I walked fast, fuelled by rage. I made it to the local park before my energy drained and I found myself sobbing. I muffled the noise with my sleeve and pulled my hood down over my face, hoping no one would be out at this time of night to see me. I wasn’t completely naïve; I never expected a positive response, having grown up in a family with very traditional values and some not so P.C. opinions on the LGBTQ+ community. But I also never planned to reveal this part of myself in the heat of an argument. I was expecting the worst, but still kind of hoping it wouldn’t be so bad. I wasn’t really prepared for the response to hurt so much. When I got back to the house, Mum was crying on the couch. We both apologised and didn’t really talk about it again for several years. It’s amazing what you can do with a sprinkling of denial and the good old British tradition of avoiding difficult conversations.
But I was lucky. Regardless of their views, my family continued to love me. I was safe; I was not thrown out of my home. I am acutely aware that many LGBTQ+ folks don’t have such good fortune. And I feel it’s important to stress here that, regardless of our difference of opinion on the LGBTQ+ issue, my Mum and I were, and still are, very close. A year before I came out, we’d lost my Dad to cancer and we discovered that, as many of the people in our lives quietly disappeared into the ether, we were pretty much on our own. My “coming out” timing was bad; Mum was still consumed by her grief, whereas I had chosen to let university consume me (keeping busy to avoid hard feelings is my M.O. – I’m working on it). We went from the three musketeers down to two; there was a gaping hole in our little family and although we were lonely, we had each other. Telling her felt like a big risk and after being crushed by the loss of my dad, I couldn’t afford to lose Mum too. But the need to rid myself of the secret I’d been keeping since I was fourteen years old overtook the fear of revealing it. Seeing Dad die at fifty-nine, so close to retirement but never getting there, made me realise that life is short – too short to live repressed and unhappy. I’m sure he’d be thrilled my takeaway was to embrace my queerness (well, perhaps not so much embrace, as resign myself to). Or maybe he would have respected my decision to live honestly. I wish I’d been brave enough to ask him when I’d had the chance.
I wonder whether part of why my mum has such a strong reaction to my coming out was that it was a surprise to her. It was, however, not a surprise to my friends. In fairness to Mum and the rest of the family, they weren’t walking around blindly. I over-compensated with them in a way I didn’t have to with my friends. I did my best besotted schoolgirl impression, ogling handsome men on TV; trying not just to act “normal” but to be “normal” too. I knew what I was supposed to like, and I thought that if I acted that way the phase would pass. But “fake it ‘til you make it” doesn’t work for that sort of thing.
I came out to my closest friend a few nights after telling Mum, on a bus coming home from a university careers fair. It was dark and lashing with rain as I poured out my heart to him – very cliché. He had come out to his own family months earlier and his revelation had had a warmer reception than mine. I couldn’t help feeling a little jealous that his coming out had been better received than my own, although I was happy and relieved for him. He had told me he was gay when we were both eighteen, and we’d cried together in the knowledge that the Christian circles we both socialised in would probably not be terribly understanding if they found out. By the time I’d finally given up hope of my sexuality being a phase, we’d both drifted away from churches and faith; perhaps disillusioned by the Christian rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ+ and other controversial issues. It was easy talking to him, it always is. Neither of us were completely sure why I hadn’t reached out to him sooner, since he was, and continues to be, the person in my life with whom I share the darkest, least palatable parts of myself. I wonder if it was because I was desperately hoping my own feelings would go away. We talked about the future, about what I would do if I met someone I wanted to marry; would my mum want to celebrate that decision? He told me that Mum would come round but I wasn’t so sure.
A couple of years later, we were out having dinner with some other friends when I casually mentioned something about a woman I liked before I remembered I had never actually told them I was gay. Their response: “Yeah, we already figured that one out.” No big deal. I had a similar experience with work colleagues who on a night out merrily announced to the whole pub that they thought it was great I was gay. I remember the delight of being accepted being tinged with sadness. People I’d only known for a few months accepted me without hesitation, but my family who’d known me all my life could not.
My journey with faith only really started when I was seventeen, although I’d grown up in churches and Christian youth clubs. I’d been struggling with depression, anxiety, and self-harm since the death of my paternal grandparents several years earlier. I was hesitant to ask for help because I liked the control I had over my own bodily autonomy and I knew that, particularly as a minor, asking for help would mean relinquishing that control to the powers that be. I was also embarrassed. I was always referred to as a “sensible girl”, and I knew my various coping mechanisms were anything but sensible. When I finally reached out to a church group leader, it didn’t go well. She told me she was willing to keep things between us, but I got the distinct impression that if perhaps I did something to upset her, that confidence would be broken. Something else to worry about and another layer added to the general distrust I was beginning to feel for those within Christian organisations. I dabbled in various spiritual practices, mostly outside the realms of Christianity, because I was searching for some meaning in life when, at that time, it all felt a little bit pointless. It was through this exploration that I ended up having an experience with God. It’s hard to explain what happened. It was like a feeling of someone being there with me in the room filling me with the assurance that everything would work out. It was enough to allow to me set aside all the questions I had and to settle my doubts for a while.
I think a combination of my religious upbringing and my quiet nature made me naïve to the realms of sexuality. Our sex-Ed at school was limited to say the least and my mother told me the basics of a traditional heterosexual relationship. I was definitely a late bloomer, too busy studying to think much about relationships (which is exactly the excuse I used for many years to explain the lack of boyfriends) and I wasn’t particularly interested either. My first inkling that my wiring was different from my straight counterparts was at a Christian kids’ summer club I was helping out at. I met a girl there who was older than me; she was pretty, intelligent and I liked being in her company. I’d had plenty of attractions to women and girls before; female teachers and schoolmates, friends at church – but I had always been able to justify them to myself. They weren’t “crushes”, it was just admiration – I told myself I wanted to be them rather than be with them. Self-deception is a wonderful thing. But I couldn’t do that this time, because you don’t have strong urges to kiss people you simply admire. Of course I never broached my feelings with the girl, who was straight, and I found the whole experience confusing and frightening. It was then I began consciously avoiding the feelings I was having and, ironically, it was also when kids at school started noticing something was different about me. The boys in my technical classes started asking regularly if I was gay, which I vehemently denied every time.
So, when I came out, I shrugged off what I perceived to be the constraints of my Christian faith, I lived my life more honestly out in the world. Problem solved. When asked, I was truthful about my queerness, although I never sought out relationships despite my apparent newfound freedom. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the fact that Christianity (and all its supposed negative opinions on same-sex relationships) was still niggling at the back of my mind. Every so often I would dip my toe into my childhood religion, only to withdraw quickly when the self-loathing and fear resurfaced. However, things changed two years ago (October 2019) when I became ill just months after graduating university and starting my first proper job in engineering. Within ten months I’d had several hospital admissions, tried numerous private specialists (with no answers as to why I was so ill) and lost my job because I became too sick to get out of bed, let alone get myself to work. I was terrified. And due to the toll of the physical illness I was also struggling with my mental health and life felt dark and lonely. The physical pain was relentless and so, for many months, I fantasised about dying almost every moment that I was awake. I couldn’t hide the pain from my mother because I was living with her, but I could with doctors and medical professionals. I convinced them I could keep myself safe in order to preserve the only control I had over my life. I could choose when I ended it, when I checked out.
For most people, thinking about death inevitably leads to wondering about what happens to you afterwards. While I made plans to cease existing in this life, I was suddenly gripped with a need to know whether God was real or not, and therefore where I would end up afterwards. It was in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic that I found Holy Trinity Brompton’s online version of the Alpha course and I thought I’d give it a shot. In the few years before the illness, I’d been pretty Christian-averse. My mum was constantly trying to strike up conversations around faith and I became hardened to it because it was painful and complicated, and I wasn’t ready to talk. I’d also had several negative experiences talking through the same-sex issue with well-meaning, but perhaps misguided, Christians in our circle of family friends. I still wasn’t ready when I started Alpha, but my self-imposed timeline forced me to make the jump. A few weeks into the course, I was once again overwhelmed with the current situation I was in. I was no longer worried about my mother finding my body, as selfish as that sounds; I was too absorbed by how ill I felt to think much about it. But in that moment of desperation, I felt something willing me to keep going. Just a few more weeks, that’s all you need to do – just survive for a few more weeks. So, I put a date in my phone calendar, a year from the day I got ill. Check out.
Just as He had when I was seventeen years old, lonely and depressed, God once again came to me in the darkness, handed me a match and willed me to strike it. It was only a flicker of light, but enough to see me through until the days got a little brighter. Later in the Alpha course I’d hear two of the leaders explain a word they’d received from God. Someone was swimming against the tide, unable to move through the water until God switched the direction of that same tide to push them forward. I wasn’t sure if it was for me (I’d had some sketchy “prophesy” experiences in my youth) but it was something to think about, to mull over while I hung in a little bit longer.
A few days after the last week of the course, the fever I’d had for 10 months broke and the relentless pain began to taper off. Over the last year and a half it’s been (and continues to be) a slow recovery. But things are getting better, and the illness has given me time to think and, in that time, I made a decision. God is here, He’s real and, because I believe that to be true, I am compelled to do something about it. So, for the last six months or so I’ve been spending much of the free time that illness affords me delving into some of the issues that I used to be too scared to explore, homosexuality and the Bible being one of them.
A few months after Alpha had finished, I came across the date I’d marked in my phone calendar. As I looked at it and remembered how I’d felt when I put it there, I was surprised by how glad I was that it hadn’t come to pass. I’m still sick and (mostly) patiently waiting on God’s healing. But even on a bad day, when my body hurts and illness weighs heavy, I’m still glad that He prompted me to make a different choice. I’m still figuring my faith out and asking lots of questions. Now, where they used to terrify me, those same questions I had as a younger person invigorate me. It’s exciting, the thought of having a lifetime to learn and attempt to understand the mystery and intimacy of a relationship with God. It feels thrilling, which is not a word I would have used to describe Christianity in my youth. A few months ago, I joined a Bible study with an affirming church which has been invaluable in starting to untangle the theology surrounding the same-sex issues. I wouldn’t like to definitively state an opinion one way or another, because I am still searching myself. But what I would say to any person within the LGBTQ+ community, or indeed anyone else, who is interested in exploring Christianity: there is well-thought out, theologically grounded reasoning which affirms LGBTQ+ people (like this wonderful blog for instance!) which is far removed from the more liberal arguments on the subject. I wish I’d known that when I was fourteen.
My relationship with my mum is still good. She’s still very traditional in her views but, in more recent months, she is open to discussion on the issue, and those discussions now don’t end in huge shout-down arguments. I’m still not sure how I feel about my queerness. A part of me struggles with shame and internalised homophobia, where another accepts that this is me and that’s going to have to be ok. I think the most frustrating thing about being a queer Christian is that, through having to defend your existence to the wider Christian community, a small part of yourself is blown so far out of proportion. My sexual orientation dictates only the gender of who I am attracted to; my faith and my values determine how I conduct myself out in the world.
This is already way longer than I planned, so I’ll finish here with a verse I’ve come across a few times over the last couple of years:
“So, I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” – Joel 2:25
I look to that verse with hope regarding my own personal situation with health and employment, but I wonder whether it could also apply to LGBTQ+ Christians who have had their faith beaten so far down that it’s slipped from their grasp. People who have not only lost time with God, but have also lost love and acceptance of themselves and all the other things that this particular struggle takes from you. But God can restore the things we’ve lost; often He replaces them with something better. Ultimately, I encourage you to keep searching, as painful as it is, because there is something here for all of us in the presence of our God. When I’m not sure about anything else, I am sure of that.”
Wow! How do you follow that? If you want to read more from Sarah, she has just set up her own Blog on the digital publishing site called Medium, where she hopes to write regular articles. Although Sarah has kindly allowed her story to be posted here first, it will also shortly appear on her Medium pages, where her first post was published a week or so ago, can be read at: https://medium.com/@sarahmartin_42543/pedestrian-2a0fcc196556.
Next month I hope to bring you a story from someone else with a very different background and a very different set of problems.
In the meantime if you want to understand why I changed my own views on sexuality, whilst retaining a wholly Jesus/God-centred understanding of the Bible, please visit my Downloads page, where you can either download my essay, chapter by chapter, or as a complete document.
As I finish, hold onto those final words from Sarah: “I encourage you to keep searching, as painful as it is, because there is something here for all of us in the presence of our God. When I’m not sure about anything else, I am sure of that.”