When I was 14, I walked into a church youth lock-in and fell head-over-heels in love with the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I immediately knew four things:
1. I liked a girl. A lot.
2. I was a girl.
3. Girls couldn’t like girls.
4. This was an especially bad situation given that I was at church.
I spent the rest of the twenty-four-some-odd hours of the lock-in alternately staring at what I knew was the girl of my dreams and keeping my eyes to myself out of shame, guilt, and the fear that someone else would catch on. I mean, come on: she was lovely, had a great smile, and I think I remember that she had teal highlights, which was really punk for the early 2000s Oklahoma mainline Protestant youth scene. I doubt I spoke more than three words to her over the course of the entire event, but I had long conversations with her in my head and knew that we were simply meant to be together.
The other half of my inner commentary was absolutely terrified of anyone finding out that I had feelings for this girl. Despite my previously mentioned membership in mainline Protestantism, I was raised in a part of the country that was (and is) referred to as “the buckle of the Bible belt,” though I know that many places arm wrestle for that title. My hometown has a church on every corner—sometimes two—and you were the odd one out if you did not have a church home. Though I was raised in a liberal household with parents who love and accept people of all sexual orientations, homophobia permeated the air I breathed and the places I went—it wasn’t optional, much like the way milk wasn’t optional as the drink for dinner when I was a child.
So walking into a church and falling for a girl was doubly bad and doubly full of guilt and shame for me. The pastor, the youth leaders, and any other adult in charge didn’t even have to say the words out loud—homophobia was heavily steeped in the cultural fabric of my life. Had I spoken to this girl, I would have transgressed invisible boundaries too great to name, crossing the line between propriety and impropriety, especially for a young girl at church. Regardless of my liberal parents’ hard work to instill that who I am is good and sacred, cultural beliefs and prejudices had permeated all the way down to my soul.
The next morning, I went home with my parents, tired and on edge, unsure of what to do or say, and never saw her again. I do not even remember her name.
After a day or two of reflection, I knew that it was wrong to be attracted to her and extra wrong to be attracted to her at church, since we were both female. I resolved to bury the incident under layers of secrecy and fear in my mind and never think of it again, which is exactly what I did.
Actually, I suppressed a lot more than that church lock-in with the lovely girl when I was 14. I hid my entire sexuality from myself: I think it was a survival mechanism that protected my innermost self as I dealt with the development of multiple chronic disease processes in my late teens and early twenties. I simply had no time to date or think about whom I might want to date; I was too busy going to doctors, trying to finish high school and getting through college, and making it through each day one at a time. I remember making up fictitious boyfriends at summer camp to entertain new friends. My favorite was blonde-haired, blue-eyed Oliver, a trendy guy who went to school with me and was a lifeguard in the summer.
That I suppressed my own sexuality did not prevent me from advocating for my friends, loved ones, and people I had not met who identified somewhere along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. I was the president of my high school’s gay-straight alliance, I was a Red Cross-certified Peer AIDS Educator, and as my Girl Scout Gold Award project, I did HIV/AIDS education for Girl Scout and church youth groups. In college I was active with the LGBTQIA+ student group and with other social justice issue-focused organizations. As a graduate student in advanced practice nursing and religion, I joined a student association that presents personal stories about being LGBTQI- or ally-identified to community groups and courses at the university in order to bring attention to discrimination, acceptance, and awareness around issues that continue to face the LGBTQIA+ community.
I did not entertain the idea of my own sexuality being anything other than heterosexual until I was in graduate school, some ten or eleven years after that lock-in. I became a serial first-dater, meeting man after man, having meal after meal, drink after drink, all the while thinking, “gosh, couldn’t I be doing homework right now?” or “is this really what dating is like?”. I was terribly disappointed, and would call my best friend, who lived across the country, on my way home after each date with the same refrain: “he’s nice, and he would be a great friend, but I don’t want to go on a second date.” I made up so many different excuses to avoid another date—school, family issues, homework, a fictional boyfriend, dates with other people. Once, I had my best friend call me with a feigned medical emergency, 2,000 miles away, to bail me out of a date.
It became more appealing to do my homework than go on first or second dates, and even though the messaging around me encouraged me to stick my neck out, meet more men, and “try harder,” I found myself thinking about my homework assignments or seminar discussions at dinner when I was supposed to be concentrating on the person on the opposite side of the table. After a lunch date in which I realized I would prefer to be reading the Old Testament than eating lunch with my date, I called the whole thing off. No more dates, no more looking online at profiles, I was going to let time do its thing and I was going to do my thing.
After all, when going on dates with one guy progressed to a certain point and the guy kissed me, my body had the strangest reaction: my body pulled me back from him, as if my date and I were two repelling magnets. In order to make this feeling go away, I would let my date get one kiss in, then I would hug him, then he’d kiss me again, then another hug…you get the picture. I always got into my car as soon as possible, both exhilarated by my escape and terrified that I would have to kiss my date again at another point. I would combine these two emotions and assume that they were both exhilaration and go on a second date, scared out of my mind that I would have to kiss the guy again, not understanding why I had these complicated feelings.
In my second year of grad school, my best friend from the first year of grad school and I made life-changing confessions to on another. We had both had crushes on each other for a long time. She was in a long-term relationship with a male-bodied person, and was committed to that relationship. I had no idea what this meant, who I was, or what I was supposed to do. I spent the days after that conversation in shock, on the phone with an incredible friend 2,000 miles away, and talking to very close friends in town. Finding myself in the midst of a challenging academic semester, I chose to put my emotions about the situation in a box and focus on school. Toward the end of the semester, I began feeling increasingly off-kilter and, knowing that I had to re-open the box of feelings I had denied myself. I finished the semester and dumped the contents of the box—my thoughts and feelings—out onto my living room floor. I sat with them, breathed them in, and excavated through layers of being. I prayed, sang, and began to spin circles through the rooms of my apartment. Something was changing.
And then. I kissed a girl. Time stopped, my heart beat out of my chest, into my throat, my ears, and down into my toes. My knees lost their bones and became Jell-O. Bells rang in the distance, the loudest quiet I have ever heard. I suddenly believed in the magic of Disney with a fervor I had never had. I knew what love songs were about, and I could feel the intensity of ballads and blues in a way I had only imagined a moment before. My cheeks flushed, I started running a fever, and I never wanted the date to be over—the first date I had never wanted to end, the first time I had been kissed that I liked it, the first time my body had ever responded positively to a kiss. I felt right, I felt like it was the most normal thing in the world, I felt like I could live forever.
When that date did end, I called a very good friend and went to sit on her couch because I was positive that what I was experiencing was not real life and doubly positive that I would not be able to sleep that night. She looked at me and told me that she’d never seen me like that before—glowing, smiling ear to ear, giggling like a school girl, practically levitating off the couch. I kept asking her, “is this what it feels like? To really be interested in someone? To really be dating? Are you sure? Because I’ve never felt this way before.” We talked for a while before I came down from the clouds enough to sleep that night.
What followed was a summer of alternating cloud-walking and hiding: when you know that you have at last found your own normal, you seek it out constantly. Why wouldn’t I want to feel so right in my body? So full in my spirit, that I finally felt like I could pray again, sing again, that I felt like I was at the cusp of flourishing. However, when your normal is what society finds abnormal, the shame and fear heaped on you from every direction is very real—I remained silent about my own self discovery when I wanted to shout from the rooftops that I liked to kiss women, that I didn’t know what it meant just yet, but wow, was it life-changing! The professional implications were paralyzing, and the state in which I live does not have housing protections for LGBTQI-identifying individuals, and I didn’t want to lose my apartment, either. The world was simultaneously brighter and darker at the same time. All the advocacy work I had done over the course of my life was not only for my friends, family, and peers: it was for me, too.
And what about my faith? I have come out to so many people who have asked me this question, as I remain an active member of several churches and a graduate student of religion, as well as a healthcare professions student. I had the great fortune to be raised in an environment where I was encouraged to ask questions, grow, and develop in my own way, in a household where all people were loved and welcomed, regardless of who they loved. This love was extended to me as well, through the love of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and church community. I have always known that I was loved, made by a loving God who wants me to live a life of love in order that I may share that love with others. This did not change when I began my coming out process; rather, it expanded as I came to understand myself on a deeper level and gave myself love in places that had not previously received loved in the dark corners of shame and fear. Just as I have loved and continue to love and embrace my friends, family, and colleagues who identify along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, I have turned that love inward.
That self-love, and self-acceptance has only grown. I spent the first summer after I kissed a girl coming out to myself, learning to love the parts of myself that I had assumed were broken because I did not like to date men and I did not respond to dating men. I thought I was broken because I had not found the “right man” yet. This is a social and religious narrative for female-bodied people that I listened to as a source of authority. Experiencing my physical and spiritual responses to that first kiss and, later, beginning a relationship with my now-fiancée, has shown me the immense capacity of human love, and the beauty of human sexuality. I know that sexuality is a gift of God, for as I have come to know and understand myself as a woman who loves women; my spirituality has grown in depth and breadth. Growing more and more into myself has brought me into an awareness of myself as a loved and beloved child of the God who created me out of love, called to love. I could ask for no better fulfillment in my life than this.