I wish I hadn’t been raised as a christian. You can always decide to be one later in life if you want to, but you can’t take away being raised to think that gay people are evil and that hell is real and imminent the moment you put a toe out of line. This, of course, is terrible whoever you are because nobody should have to believe those things, but it’s particularly bad if you are one of the gay people yourself.
To be precise, I’m not gay. I’d call myself pansexual but I usually say bisexual because more people have some clue as to what that means. Regardless, I didn’t find out about bisexuality until I was solidly into adulthood, and I didn’t know about pansexuality or asexuality or aromanticism or demisexuality or trans people or non-binary genders until I was in my late twenties. So growing up, my understanding was that a person was a gay or straight and that while straight people, being “normal”, could of course be good or bad, gay people were all bad.
I can’t remember when gayness (my own or anyone else’s) started crossing my mind. I had my first crush on a woman when I was 12 and got a new English teacher. I didn’t realise what it was, of course. I just told myself that she was a great teacher. At some point in the next year or two, I read a series of “issue” pamphlets which were kept next to my usual chair in the school library. One of them was about homosexuality. I’m not really sure who they were aimed at given that the only other one I can remember was about child abuse in children’s homes, but the one about gayness was the first time I remember being aware of such a possibility at all.
Over the next three or four years, I asked my mum about gay people and especially lesbians a few times. She, a good christian woman, carefully explained to me that to be gay was a sin (untrue!), that yes, there was very small number of people who couldn’t help being gay but most people chose it because it was trendy (untrue!), and that gay people were predatory and dangerous (untrue!). And, of course, that the Bible stated categorically that it was wrong and sinful to be gay (untrue!).
Oddly, this actually set my mind at rest. I was a trusting, gullible sort of child who assumed that adults and especially my mum would always tell me the truth (for what it’s worth, she thought she was telling me the truth). Therefore, since being gay was so heinous and I was a good person who loved Jesus, there was simply no way that I could be gay. It wasn’t a possibility. Anyway, I fancied men! In fact the crush before the one on my English teacher had been on my previous, male, English teacher. So that was sorted.
And yet, I kept on asking her the question. Not that many times, I don’t think, but the fact that I still remember them when I’ve forgotten most of my childhood and teenage years shows how important it was to me. One time, after I’d found out about bisexuality, I asked her about that too, but she just said that she understood it even less than homosexuality.
At university, I learned that a friend of a friend was gay, and was mildly surprised to find that despite the years of christian indoctrination, I didn’t really care that much.
Then, not long after graduating, I found out that one of my female friends was dating a woman and, again, wasn’t at all bothered. Not only that, but a member of her family happened to be the leader of my church, and he initiated a conversation with me to see whether I thought it was serious. Looking back, that still wasn’t particularly great because he was basically checking that she was actually gay/bi rather than “just experimenting” (newsflash! there’s nothing wrong with experimenting!). At the time, though, it was a bit of a revelation: there had been lots of signs that she was into women, I intimated this, and he was fine with it and said he was going to encourage her parents to be ok with it too. This was pretty much my first experience with a member of the church being fine with a gay person.
Even so, I had so completely assumed that I was straight and acted as though I was straight that it still didn’t occur to me that I might not be. That had to wait until I was in my twenties and, perhaps not coincidentally, had moved out of the parental home. I got there in the end though, and for the last three years have identified as pansexual.
I came out to friends first, who were universally supportive because I have chosen amazing friends. Then I came out to my housegroup, a small group of people from my church who met regularly. None of them batted an eyelid or treated me any differently, which was wonderful because, unsurprisingly, I’d been pretty anxious. They seemed cool, but you can never really tell, so it was a great relief when they actually were.
At last, I came out to my family, and that was the worst experience I have personally had. I told one sister online, and it was a while before we discussed it, but she was ok with it. The other sister and my mum I told in person and… it wasn’t great. My sister was fine. We’ve talked since and I’m happy. But my mum, that good christian woman, was not ok with it at all. Her first words were “well, that’s your choice”.
In an ideal world, of course, it wouldn’t matter whether somebody chose to be gay or not, it would be fine either way, but things stand, you feel that you have to make it very, very clear that this is not a choice. I am this way and I cannot change it. I have tried. Oh yes, like a huge number of gay/bi/pan/ace/aro/trans/non-binary/otherwise identified people, I have tried. I’m still terrified of hell and even though I don’t call myself a christian and am not even sure that I believe in a god any more, that deep, visceral fear remains.
Anyway, my mum trotted out all the old chestnuts about how the Bible says it’s sinful to do gay stuff and I can’t deny that I was upset and disappointed and angry. But, you know, it was the first time she’d found out. Looking back I’m astonished that she didn’t twig, but she didn’t, so it came as quite a shock to her. So I left it a few weeks and then brought the issue up again. I had hoped that by that time she might have had a chance to process things and rethink a bit, but her attitude was exactly the same. She still loved me, but she also still thought that being homosexual was a sin.
I tried to explain that the Bible is nothing like as clear as she seemed to think, that the issue is barely mentioned and even when it is, it’s miles from what traditional christianity teaches.
Again, I hoped that she might go away and do a bit of research. Or that she’d ask me about my own experiences and journey, and how I felt as a bisexual person. At last I couldn’t not bring it up again. And again, it was horribly disappointing. She did apologise for giving me the christian propaganda when I was growing up, but it was painfully obvious that she wasn’t at all interested in changing her opinion or looking into how what she had been taught might not be true. She didn’t ask me any questions about my own experience or journey, either, and showed absolutely zero interest in how this might be for me. In fact, it was plain that she would prefer not to have to discuss the issue at all. I think she might genuinely think that she’s ok with my bisexuality, but it’s obvious that she isn’t.
We haven’t talked about it since. I doubt she will ever bring up the topic, and as for me, well, you can’t keep on pushing a person who is not only giving you a rent-free home, but whom you rely on to do all of the cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks. She probably doesn’t think about the issue at all; she probably thinks it’s completely resolved. But I think about it every day, and every day it hurts because I can no longer feel as though she loves every part of me.
Having said that, I’m luckier than many people. I haven’t been abused or rejected for my sexuality, I haven’t lost any friends, and I have wonderful love and support from the majority of people who really matter. On the whole it hasn’t been bad at all, but don’t you always hope that it might be perfect? That even your family might embrace this big, important part of who you are? I do, I just can’t help it.
Christianity is still a huge problem. If I ever did decide to start going to church again, I’d have to cross my fingers and hope to find one that was welcoming of people like me. I wonder if my fear of going to hell will ever go away; whether I will ever stop being afraid of being punished for something that is a huge part of me and which I cannot change.
I’m so angry with christianity for doing this to me. If it hadn’t been for this religion, my mum might have accepted me. She might have known more about gay people instead of just assuming that they were all terrible. She might have picked up on my bisexuality in my youth and helped me grow up that way. Yes, she had a very bad experience with a group of lesbians once, but that was decades ago. It’s not an excuse any more. But she, like so many others, was completely indoctrinated and never questioned it. It meant that I grew up suppressing a big part of myself. It meant that I found it incredibly hard to accept this about myself. It meant that I still fear, even now, that some nasty, vengeful god will toss me straight into the flames when I die. It means that I can never walk into a new church without feeling afraid.
I know #notallchristians and #notallchurches. How could I not, when some of my best supportive friends are christians, and when my church housegroup was one of the first groups I came out to?
But it is a hell of a lot of christians, including members of my own family. Including so many churchgoers that trying to find a new church is a serious personal risk for people who don’t conform to the heterosexual norm.
It’s not good enough. This, this story, is one of the reasons I no longer believe in the christian god. Sometimes I hate the cruel christian god, who loves punishment and whom you can never quite be sure you aren’t offending. The church is driving people away and worse: it’s hurting and damaging and abusing them. Unfortunately, it’s a place where many narrow-minded and intolerant people feel that they’ve found a lovely home where they fit right in. There are many, many people working to change this, which is wonderful, but the bottom line is that nobody who doesn’t conform to heterosexual and biary gender norms can currently feel quite safe when they walk into a church.