Church Girl Is a Gay
An excerpt from Church Girl Is a Gay: A Memoir in Shreds
The first concert I ever saw was at the Oral Roberts University Mabee Center. It was Sandee Pattie. Amy Grant was next up.
Just a half-block away huge praying hands painted to look like bronze were coming up out of the ground like there was a big, brown man holding his breath underground below. I didn’t know then that the best snowball fight of my life would happen around those hands on the vast, brown grass, snow-covered lawn in front of the medical center. All of us — the ones who seemed happy and the ones who didn’t, the ones who never saw when they looked and the ones who seemed to always be searching, the scholarship kids and the ones forced to go — I bet 40 prep school kids in all, landed on that lawn just after it was hit with the first unslushy drop of the winter. And we picked up snow and threw it. And we laughed our asses off. It was like the grass below us was made of being 10 and we were covered in its permission all over again.
I was in love that day but I didn’t know it then. And I can see her eyes flashing in the Oklahoma winter glare, easy in her claim of me and willing to watch me love her.
But I didn’t know any of that then. I didn’t know I loved her. Or the youth group girl before her or the camp counselor before her or even any of the women who seemed to throw a fishing line at my heart and lodge a hook that drug me to them.
It was 1985 and I was throwing snow inside the actual epicenter of American fundamentalism: in the center of the country, in the center of the southern midwest — those states without the ease of the south or the orderly Catholic goodness of the true midwest — in the center of the state proudest of the Bible, in the center of the city most in charge of declaring what that meant, in the center of the 320 evangelical charismatic acres that emanated its conviction out over the city like an ongoing firecracker of hot light. It was a city of answers to questions nobody even had a phone booth sized space of freedom to ask.
And I sure didn’t. I was a church girl, a good one, the kind in the group who actually thought most of what we heard was a good idea. I didn’t smoke in the parking lot or drink at the Quick Trip before Youth Group.
And I didn’t kiss girls.
Not there, not in college later where I pogo-sticked from one evangelical set of acres to another, and not for all the years after where I lived and made all my decisions on a sort of evangelical party ship in the good company of people I’d found like me: too faithful to be Methodist but too smart to be Baptist and too committed to laughing to work inside actual churches.
We got back into our cars after that snowball fight in wet 501s and blasted the heater, and I blared Bruce Springsteen on my car radio and felt the pulsing beat of the real 80s rock that church music never could find.
I’d never been to a rock concert. I owned no vinyl. The cassette case I would finally buy myself three months later to take to college would be full of mixed tapes other people had made for me, and the names of bands who Casey Casum knew. And I listened to all of it, but I sang the songs I’d lived inside: Vacation Bible School songs with hand motions and hymns and guitar-backed camp songs and soft 70s night-church choruses.
I took all my steps just above hard cement poured by Christians. On the linoleum of the church preschool and the shiny gray walkways of Sunday school hallways and the mopped floors of church kitchens, the dark pink carpets of sanctuaries, the flat black asphalt of church parking lots and the rocky concrete walkways of my evangelical liberal arts college and the wood-planked decks I ran down laughing at camps all over the west. Even the driveway I stood in as I considered walking off every road I’d ever traveled was littered with the footprints of youth group leaders leading games out of my garage.
And it wasn’t until my heart broke so badly that I couldn’t stand up under the pain that my feet went looking for the soft, sandy ground of places where people weren’t sure of almost anything.
I was married with three kids, a leader in an evangelical non-profit. I was 48, and I knew my insides felt built to love a woman. But I still didn’t know I was gay — because I’d never asked the question. There was no question available to ask.
It will be impossible for some to believe me that I have not been hiding, lying about who I am, who I love. They will think I’m dodging the question, or that I’m too embarrassed to tell that much of the truth.
Maybe only former church kids will get it. Any of us who felt pulled to move close to a same-gendered person was just pointed away — the way you grab a kid who’s heading into traffic and point them toward the sidewalk. Youth group leaders did this, parents did this — eventually, we all did this for ourselves. It was like having a crossing guard inside your soul. Nope: not that way. Go over there. Or: Wait here.
We didn’t know any gays. I mean, I’m sure we knew gobs, but in the 70’s they weren’t really hanging out at our church potlucks. At least not while telling anybody they were there, I guess. Nobody said they were real. Nobody said anything at all about them, actually. I’d say that homosexuality was poured into the general soup of debauchery. It was in there with alcohol and cigarettes and playing cards and people who wore really tight clothing. It was mixed in with a list of activities that would send you straight to hell, and — even more terrifying — right out the door.
Given the option, I would have chosen invisibility or maybe jumping over tall things as a God-given superpower, but apparently mine is self-restriction. It isn’t surprising, of course, because I was raised Nazarene — which is like being Catholic without the wine and all the cool relatives who swear. We didn’t drink. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards.
We did have our own traditions too, but none with the deep history or generational connection of Yom Kippur or even No-Meat Fridays. They were things like Alabaster Sunday when everybody paraded up the aisle to the front to dump the change they’d been saving for missionaries way far away. And we had Wednesday Night Potlucks. Everybody came with Pyrex dishes full of goopy concoctions made out of some part of heaven. We would all sit at long foldable church tables with paper plates heaping with food on our plates, one cream of chicken soup casserole blending over into the next one, everyone spooning hoards of melted cheese and green Jell-O into their cake holes like a bunch of lushes. Gluttony wasn’t on our list of seven deadly sins.
I was taught to be an expert in what not to do. No running in church. No talking. No taking off your shoes and sliding down the slick cemented hallways to the Sunday School rooms. And then later, no sex. Nobody had to say no sex with women. They were too proud of their wildly abstaining heterosexuality to even think of mentioning it.
I baptized myself again the other day. I have tried to push that word away, call what I did something else, but I know that is what I was doing when I walked to the edge of the ocean, stripped off my shorts and shirt and walked into the water in my bra and underwear.
I kept walking, through the small waves and then into the bigger ones, let them push me back and then I kept pushing forward at them. I got myself to the scariest place I could muster. Took a pummeling for a while. I imagine that I did dip under, which most would call baptism, but it was the wave-hit I walked in for — that water crash and the force and the asking for it again and enduring it and asking for it again. And there was a moment when I’d deemed I’d had enough, and so I walked back up to the shore and sat on my shorts in my underwear for a bit. And I left something there in the ocean. Some portion of my longing, some stack of fantasy, the taste for a blast that would blow a big enough hole in my life for me to walk out of it.
It wasn’t my first baptism. This time no one was watching. This time I was alone. This time it wasn’t echoey. This time my best friend was not with me. This time her father did not hold our hands together and, one at a time, submerge us in chlorined water and pray a prayer over us. This time I did not walk down slippery baptismal steps in drenched clothing behind the girl who all the boys loved. This time I dried off in the sun, in my underwear, with the sound of the waves still crashing.
Once, I saw a movie about a man stuck on Mars and a scene where the young astrophysicist envisions the wild possibility of a lost astronaut’s rescue. He rips a map off a wall, grabs a ruler and plots the astronaut’s landing place, plots the place where the orbiting spacecraft is already in the sky and then flings out a line to the place where the rescue could actually happen, a point in space where nobody is yet, but where everyone is on course to be.
And I try to believe this about the where that I have been and the where that I am, I try to believe that the where that I will be is a rescued spot out ahead, to believe that the trajectory of this chapter is one of hope and not only loss. But as much of a glass half full sort of girl that I’ve always been for everybody I love, I am the first to see all of the ways that make that hope a dream. So now, I guess, I have to morph my dreams into hopes. It goes against the chemistry of my insides. I need new ones to pull this off. And frankly, I’m tired of not believing it’s all possible, so I will. And when I start to wonder if I’m crazy or delusional or daft, I will see that ruler plopped down on the map and the fast drawn line out to reasonable hope.
I’m turning back to reading the gospel stories now — those books of the Bible where Jesus is alive and showing as much as telling us all how to live. I came to the story of the woman who takes her best possession, a really expensive jar of perfume, and dumps it on Jesus’ head in a moment of abandon. I wonder what made her think to do it, if she almost talked herself out of it as she walked over to the house where Jesus was eating, if she hesitated, if she’d imagined that moment for a while or if she had some stab to her soul that sent her to grab it and walk up to him in deft reverence and offer it to him as a way of naming who she knew him to be.
She is yelled at immediately by the nearby men in the room for what she could’ve done with it.
“You could’ve sold that and fed starving kids in Africa,” they say, more or less.
I’ve always read this as a sacrificial moment on her part. And also as another bold moment where the men following Jesus don’t see him at all and just keep completely missing their chances to be the guys who don’t waste their front row seats.
But it looks to me today like she goes to Jesus and pours out her retirement plan upon him, actually. She holds on to nothing for her future security, she stops pretending like she knows what’s going to come and sees only that she knows who he is, and tilts her future on his head as an act of internal, “I have what I need.”
And yes, I am her. And no, I have no emotional retirement plan. And yes, there are things I could have done with my own expensive holdings that I’m dumping out for tomorrow.
And if I could have met her, I would’ve said, “Thank you. I’m drafting behind you.”