What's it like being a closeted LGBTQ kid in an evangelical family? Here's a glimpse.
A bill to ban conversion therapy passed the Maine House and still needs to go through the Maine Senate and get the governor's signature. I dug through some things I've been writing and I'm sharing an excerpt here on my experience with religion and sexuality as a middle schooler from a series I've been working on:
...We were also heavily involved in the Church. Our family went to church every Sunday, I started going to youth group Sunday nights, and we went to Family night on Wednesday nights. The church was a Pentecostal church under the larger, umbrella organization known as the Assemblies of God. And, yes, the church believed in the “power of the Holy Spirit” and speaking in tongues, etc.
I remember our family sat in the second row nearly every Sunday. Barely anyone sat in the front. Sitting in the front is awkward. You felt exposed and there was nothing to put your hands on. But we were sitting there one of the first few times we attended shortly after we moved in. The pastor spoke of how the World was suffering because of this thing called Sin, which came about as a result of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Ever since then, Sin has been passed down from generation to generation. In short, Sin was what created a “God-sized hole” in your heart that only God could fill. All the troubles of the world were the result of the human nature and the corruption of Sin and our rebellion against God. All of Nature was created in a certain order and humanity, with all of its faults and failures, acts in contrary to what God intended.
So imagine what a twelve year old kid might be thinking when he is sitting there, having just moved in with a new family and having the experiences that I’ve had. All the complications and complexities of life, all the pain and suffering, and all the awful things that happen to people is neatly packaged and bottled up into one grand narrative of why everything is so messed up. For a messed up, beat up, heart-broken twelve year old kid looking for answers, it was an answer to all of life’s uneasy questions.
The problem in the nutshell was that we are all sinners. Each and every one of us. Now, I did not questions exactly how I was to blame for something that supposedly occurred some 10,000-odd years ago (according to Creationists), because all my pain and suffering had just been smashed together, bundled, and neatly packaged for me. I didn’t have to face the hard questions. I didn’t have to necessarily process the pain and traumas. I didn’t have to dive into all the complexities of human nature and psychology. But not only was everything explained by this framing of the human problem, but an answer and solution was also offered!
All we had to do was realize that God had pity on Mankind and sent his one and only son, Jesus Christ, who was also God in the flesh, to Earth to sacrifice himself for the atonement of our sins. From this realization, we then must confess our sins and accept Christ into our hearts. During the first few sermons, the opportunity to do so was offered toward the end during what was, on the church agenda, referred to as the “Altar Call”. The pastor would sum up his sermon and refer to the doctrine that I laid out above and then ask if anyone wanted to give their lives to Jesus and turn their life around. If they did, they were asked to raise their hands and to repeat the prayer, which went along the lines of: “Dear God, I am sorry for all that I’ve done and all the sins I have committed. I realize now and believe with all my heart that you sent your one and only son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross for my sins and that, if I accept him into my heart, you will forgive me.”
For many people, this invokes an emotional reaction. The first time I raised my hand, I remember peeking around to see if anyone was doing it and would notice a hand or two. I uttered the little prayer and heard a few sobs and was waiting for my moment, but it never came. No emotion, no nothing. This frustrated me. I felt like something was wrong. Maybe I wasn’t sorry enough or maybe I had to list every sin in my head that I could think of. I couldn’t figure it out, so the next Sunday, I raised my hand again. Still nothing.
Eventually I asked the pastor why I didn’t have the same reaction and the answer was that it was different for different people. That, as long as you believe that Jesus came and died for your sins and accepted him into your heart and turn your life around, you’re good. While this somewhat tampered down my worries, I also began to stumble onto the theories about the Rapture and End Times and how Jesus will come back one day to take his followers home. I became obsessed with this at that age. I started to read the Left Behind series books, which made things even worse. I began to panic inside. What if I’m not truly saved? What if I didn’t say it right? Will I miss the Rapture and be left behind when all the bad things will happen in the End Times? What if I died right now, would be in Hell?
Little middle school old me drowned in those fears then. And, really, there wasn’t much else to read other than the Bible and Christian literature. Although I did sneak in some Redwall books by Brian Jacques and such. Harry Potter was banned in our household because it was about witchcraft, which would invite unwanted spirits into the house. Pokemon was also banned. But we were allowed to read the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings.
That aside, I reached a point where I began to have night terrors. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I was being choked or that I couldn’t breath. My first room was l-shaped, so I’d often wake up and feel a presence off in the corner or see a shape. I’d wake up sometimes and feel like something was leaning on my blanket. Many, many times I’d wake up and get a strong sense of fear and that something was in the room, so I would jump up and try to turn the light on. The only problem was that the light wouldn’t turn on. I would flip up and down and up and down and no light. I’d then run out into the laundry/bathroom area just outside and try to do the same thing… still nothing. Things like that happened so often during that time.
I wasn’t able to explain it to myself until years and years later in college when I picked up the book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics-How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. It was from this book that I learned of the evolution of the Human brain and how and why we think the way we do. One particular chapter spoke of how persons under high-levels of stress are more likely to report or tell of instances of hearing God’s voice or seeing things that aren’t really there.
Digging into research like that helped to lift a huge burden off my shoulders, it would seem. Because without this knowledge, I was left without an explanation as to why I experienced these terrors. The people I did tell of this would often say that I was under attack by Satan or that I was being tested, like Job. Or that perhaps there was something in my life that was creating a tension between me and God. Whenever this was said, I panicked a little. Because it was around this time that I also was wrestling and struggling with my sexuality in a way that I had never done before. In some ways, it was typical of other boys going through puberty and sexual hormones coming to life – but with a twist.
Although homosexuality was never a frequent topic – almost a hush, hush issue – it did make its way into sermons and discussions at the family dinner table or church events. Whether it was a family friend who “went through a phase” and had recently come back to Jesus, or whether it were whispers of an older church member who young boys like me were warned to stay away from – the stigmas were all there. I do remember that the church we attended would have traveling evangelists and ministry leaders visit and give guest sermons.
One such minister ran a gay conversion ministry. I've always remembered that day because he and his wife and children happened to be sitting in front of us and had introduced themselves. I noticed the minister had an effeminate voice and my alarm bells went off. Then he walked up and gave a sermon about how he was saved from homosexuality. For him, it all started when he was collecting baseball cards and, in his words, he was “tempted”. I immediately started squirming on the inside and my stomach felt like it sank. If you recall, when I lived in the group home, I had the same experience where I had glanced at a baseball card and I kissed the guy.
The minister continued with his sermon and raised the same arguments that I had briefly heard before when our Christian high school teachers would uncomfortably glaze over the topic (often lumped with in-class sermons on Planned Parenthood and abortion conspiracies). The Roman Empire, with all of its glory and accomplishments, collapsed because of a moral and societal decay spurred on by its embrace of homosexuality. The argument therefore was that if America embraced homosexuality, the America as we know it would crumble and God would punish us with hurricanes and floods and famine and fire and brimstone.
Homosexuality was also seen as a symptom of men losing their roles in society and ACLU-backed, baby-murdering feminists engaged in the effeminization of men challenging the dominant role of the man in the household; encouraging women to abandon their traditional roles in society; have kids out of wedlock; rely on food stamps and welfare; and pump out gay kids who didn’t have proper male role models and father figures in their lives. There were also the slippery slope arguments that accepting homosexuality would lead to acceptance of pedophilia and polygamy and other “sins”. More subtle arguments such as gays being unhappy and having higher rates of suicide, getting HIV-AIDS, or even prostate cancer, as proof that same-sex relationships were against “Nature” and “Nature’s God” and therefore expanded the God-sized holes in our hearts.
Middle school me didn’t know how to counter these arguments. Middle school me was not taught the version of Roman history where Rome had overextended itself. Its system of administration and governance, as superb as it was, was unable to bear the crushing weight of a vast empire also dealing with income inequality, in the form of massive land grabs by the patrician class, food shortages and famines, maintenance of the world’s largest military force, and frequent and devastating incursions by ravaging, foreign forces.
Middle school me didn’t know how to counter the other arguments based on traditional values and mores. I was insulated and confined to certain textbooks, teachings, books, movies, tv, etc., and had no access or ability or courage to access resources that would inform me otherwise. Everything that was true was everything in the Bible or based on a Christian worldview. Everything else stemmed from flawed human reasoning and the corrupt influences of the “World’s Philosophy” and the utter lack of “Godly Wisdom”.
For instance, Harry Potter books were banned from the household because they interested children in darker things and taught them spells. Of course, as I found out later, the “spells” were merely Latin words. An expansive education would have enlightened us to this fact but ignorance made us all fools to our flawed way of thinking. Religious rhetoric overtook reason and clarity, clouding the judgment of our collective hive mind and poisoning our longing for a higher purpose; in many cases driven by our collective misgivings of the temporal world and the imperfect condition of humanity.
Do I think there is something wrong with religion? Not entirely. It has its purposes for those who need it and seek it. It is at its best when it echoes the deepest instincts of humankind; that deep sense of the reality of the human condition and the compassion and collective action needed to mitigate its more crude and cruel features. But its value ends when it departs from the near-universal principles of loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others with dignity and respect. Once religion transcends private practice and enters into the public domain, and becomes institutionalized; that is where its evils can be realized as an instrument of power and control. When it becomes less about an individual and their God or gods or higher power, and becomes a mission or crusade to wield public institutions and to then enter the private realms of others; then it transforms into something less sincere and soulful and becomes more sanctimonious and sinister.
So when someone would mention that the night terrors and anxiety could be the result of a “thorn in my side,” as alluded to by Paul with regard to some unknown affliction, or some sin that I was struggling with, I immediately thought of my attraction to other boys my age. No one told me then that those night terrors and anxiety was actually the result of my being gay in a world that shunned and looked down upon it, no matter how many times they would say “We don’t hate! We love the sinner, but hate the sin!”
But what drew me to Church was the sense of togetherness and belonging, so long as you accepted Jesus into your heart and believed what was accepted by that specific denomination as doctrine. Within those four walls, the sense of common purpose was real. We all yearned for the God that we created with our doctrine, rituals, sayings, and services.
But one question that nagged me throughout my time in the Church was why Christians were referred to as the “Body of Christ”, yet there were numerous denominations. For instance, I got the general feeling, going to a Pentecostal church, that being Catholic wasn’t enough. Or that being Baptist or Methodist or Unitarian or Mormon wasn’t enough. For instance, when our family discussed the differences between us and Catholics at the dinner table, it often boiled down to Catholics not necessarily believing in being “born again”. Instead, Catholics sought the forgiveness of their sins, not by uttering a prayer to Christ, but by confessing to a Priest and uttering “Hail Mary” – which, according to our version of Christianity, was taboo. Only if a Catholic person understood that being “born again” meant praying to God and accepting Jesus into your heart, and doing so sincerely, were they truly “born again”. And I’m pretty sure that our collective view of Baptists was that they were just plain boring.
So it bothered me throughout my time in the Church that, despite believing in the same God, people were still content in belonging, yet being different than, say, the Catholic or the Baptist. While religion brought us together, in many ways it split us apart. Which church you attended and denomination you belonged to had so much weight and so much power that you could see someone’s eyes glisten with either recognition or fall with a subtle dismissiveness. Sure, they talked a big game about belonging to the Body of Christ, but it seemed to me that the variety of practices and doctrinal beliefs served as real and clear rifts that cut that body into tiny, fragmented pieces.
Middle school me didn’t know any better and by the time 8thgrade rolled around, I had all but thrown myself into being the best darn Christian I could become. My attraction to other men became “my cross to bear” and my battle against those feelings was partially what spurred me to voraciously pursue God. That, and some sense of gratitude to my adoptive parents. My passion was noticed and commended and I began to express my faith specifically through music, which led to my being more and more involved in our youth group.
Thinking on it now, I was in pursuit of who I was in this world. Trying to discover and navigate feelings and emotions that seemed to pile on with puberty and age. I threw myself wholeheartedly into religion, not realizing that I had given up, for some time, a part of who I am: Who I love and could love.