Coming Out Story: From Fundamentalism to Acceptance
Today’s Coming Out Story is mine, but also involves the coming out of my best friend, Erik. I share our story with his permission.
My best friend is Erik, a lanky boy I met on the school bus when we were both in the 4th grade. We bonded because we were both social outcasts—me for my faith, and him because of his effeminate mannerisms and the way he loved video games. These things were mutually hated in the late 1980s, where in rural Washington state “nerd” was still a hurtful word. Erik was the first real friend I had, and the closest. In junior high, we sat together during class and at lunch. We talked about everything—movies that I had never seen, or that I had to sneak to watch; books (we both shared a love of science fiction classics); politics; and, eventually, sexual orientation. In the 9th grade, Erik and I co-wrote an article in our school newspaper about the ‘gay agenda’ and the rise of AIDS, a sure sign of God’s impending judgment.
I was 6 years old when I got “saved,” praying to Jesus to save me from hell. I grew up in the fundamentalist Christian church. What this means is that I was taught a literal interpretation of the Bible, with a strict adherence to church doctrines that emphasized holiness and conservative political and social values. Additionally, we eschewed “worldly” things like pop music and theater-going, and embraced rigidly defined gender roles and modest dress. As a fundamentalist, I believed in a literal fire-and-brimstone hell in which everyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would go.
In addition, I believed that God had called me to be a wife—a helpmeet to a godly man—and a mother. This was difficult for me to accept. Even as a child, I knew that I never wanted to be married or to be a parent. I accepted this was my role regardless because I was female, and this is just what women did. While some of the messages I was taught regarding gender and sexuality were healthy (I was, for instance, taught that masturbation was completely natural and permissible), so many others were intensely destructive. In many ways, my sexuality was retarded by my Christian faith. Despite the teaching of my church, I didn’t masturbate until I was 25. It was soon after that when I realized that I was bisexual. But all of this came years after I left the church.
Probably the most destructive teaching about sexuality I received was about gay people, and specifically about gay men. In many ways it was the standard conservative Christian stuff about gay people—that they are deluding themselves, that gay love is unnatural, that gay partnerships contribute to the breakdown of society, that acting on being gay is a sin—but it also included even more hateful messages like that gay people prey on children or were preyed on as children. I remember vividly a graphic novel that my father owned called Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle (TW: very hateful imagery and rhetoric at the link). He thought it was too explicit for me to read, but I remember at the age of 12 sneaking into the shed to read it. I buried any attraction to women after that, someplace so deep that I barely acknowledged its existence at all. I would follow the roadmap set out for me—marriage, children, a lifetime of service to the church.
Fast forward 7 years: I am 19 and married, with a newborn, and desperately unhappy.
And then Erik sent me an email that changed my life.
It said, “Allie, I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time but I couldn’t accept it myself. Now I think it’s time. I’m gay. Do you want to talk?”
I called him that night. We talked for a long time, and I saw how much he hated himself because people had been telling him that he was wrong, and immoral, and sinful, until he couldn’t bear it anymore. And with remarkable courage, he broke free.
What followed was a personal crisis of conscience. I knew what the church taught. But I also knew my friend. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “No. This isn’t right. This isn’t just. This cannot be what God wants from me. ” I could look at Erik and see that he wasn’t immoral. He wasn’t sinful. He was just gay.
I thought, “Well, my idea of who god is must be wrong.”
And so I started to try to figure out who god must be. If I believed in a loving god, but the Bible said that being gay was a sin, then how could I reconcile those things? It took a lot of study and soul-searching, but in the end I began to believe that maybe god was bigger than the Bible—that the Bible was written by people who maybe put their own opinion into it, and that perhaps it wasn’t right about everything. If god was loving, then being gay had to be okay, because Erik was a good and loving person who wasn’t hurting anyone. If god was loving, then there couldn’t be a hell, because the very idea that a loving god would burn people for eternity was cruel and horrible.
This wasn’t easy; it was terrifying.
I had built my whole life around the idea that the Bible was literally true. Without that, understanding who god was and what he wanted was very difficult. But on the other hand, I saw more and more evidence that it had to be true—from archeological evidence, to textural evidence, to scientific evidence. All the evidence that I found led to the same conclusion—there’s no way that the Bible can be literally true about everything that it says. It comforted me to believe that I had all the answers in a neat black book. But it just wasn’t true.
I remember asking god, “If you are there, give me some sign. Anything! Let me know you’re out there.”
And so, reluctantly and with pain, I walked away from my faith.
In 2003, I began to realize that I was bisexual, but this did not provoke the same crisis as Erik’s coming out did. I had already shed so much of the dogma that had wounded me that it was nothing so much as a relief. Caring about justice means being just to myself. It means showing myself compassion and fighting to be my most authentic, truest self. I cannot say that it has been easy, or that even now I have the full acceptance of my family. But I have Erik, I have myself, and I the family I have created and the wider community of life-minded folks. I wouldn’t trade these for anything.
These days, I don’t wish for my faith back, and I don’t envy those that have it (though I don’t feel the contempt that some atheists feel for people of faith either, those who call believers “delusion” or “stupid,” because I’ve been a believer and I know that’s mostly not true.) Because I don’t believe in an afterlife where bad people are punished and good people are rewarded, I have to try to create a just world here, right now. I have a moral duty to do what I can to create a better world. That’s the code I live my life by, and I don’t really need a god for that—I just need to have empathy and compassion for other people.
Coming Out Stories are semi-regular features posted on Tuesday mornings. If you would like to submit your story to be considered for this feature, please see the submission guidelines.