I left the church when I was around 19 years old. I was 23 when I first knew that I was bisexual, 24 when I first told another person, and it was only last year, at almost 25 years old, that I finally told my Christian parents.
It feels like it should have been obvious, looking back, and I wish I was able to say that I knew that before but I can’t. I didn’t know what it meant to be bisexual, I didn’t know that bisexuality was a thing that people could be or that I could be queer even though I liked boys. I didn’t have the understanding to acknowledge it, let alone the vocabulary to express it.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my childhood and trying to hone in on how exactly I could have been so in the dark about my own identity for the majority of my life (so far). Maybe it was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, when the LGBTQ+ equality movement was far less talked about. Or was it my anxious disposition, my mental illness in some way? Maybe it was all the bullying throughout school that kept me in the closet, without even knowing I was there. You know, just in case that added fuel to the fire.
But retrospect always leads me back to the same thing: growing up as a Christian surpassed all of this.
At my church, sexuality was not a spectrum. There was no talk of queerness beyond homosexuality. A person was either straight (good) or gay (bad). Or at the very least… not ideal. Straight people were normal, natural. The homosexuals? Uh, not part of God’s Plan, exactly, but we should love them anyway because, well, Jesus told us to and all that.
My church ~loved~ everyone, gay people included. But Christianity, as I knew it for 18 years, teaches love in spite of, not because of. Caveated love, disguised as unconditional love;
*even the sinful ones.
Love thy neighbor*
*but if they’re queer be sure to plaster discomfort all over your face.
Throughout the years when I was part of the church, I saw those around me confuse love for tolerance, acceptance for endurance. I attended youth groups and bible studies twice a week where the leaders—people responsible for molding my view of the world—were preaching a “love” that I now see was punctuated by hate.
At my church, homosexuality was “othered;” gay people were alien. Homophobia was in the gossip and the whispers—in the name of concern or prayer, of course—over tea and biscuits at the end of a Sunday morning service. Homophobia was in the absence of out queer people in the congregation and the queer people that stayed closeted to avoid being ostracized.
Homophobia was in the frequency of the homosexuality debates. We had so. Many. Debates. I remember them so clearly: how angry I used to get, the way I fled to my parents for reassurance that not all Christians were so closed minded. People I called my friends seemed so ready to condemn real love. Real people.
I was attracted to boys, too. I knew I wasn’t gay. I was head over heels for my boyfriend, the guy from my youth group I’d liked since I was eight or nine. But it was hard to know your sexual orientation when sexuality, in general, is something you’re taught to repress, and when there’s a default sexuality drilled into you from birth.
I wasn’t gay, so I was straight.
I don’t remember my first female crush, or even the first time I knew that I wasn’t straight, which seems weird for an aggressively sentimental person like me. It makes me sad, too. There’s a lot of sadness in the way I’m retrospectively mapping all of these moments, trying to remember things as significant when they didn’t feel it at the time. I’m combing my past and seeing each inconsequential event in a new, queer light; connecting the dots, painstakingly working myself out.
I can trace the moments where I felt the sting of homophobia, right in my core, but labeled myself an empath. I can feel the comfort in finding something I could relate to that I put down to curiosity; my auntie and her girlfriend, Marissa’s brief “fling” with Alex in “The O.C.,” the queer YA novel I asked my dad to buy me without letting him look too closely.
I can pinpoint the attractions I mistook for admirations and envies—a young, tomboy Kristen Stewart in “Panic Room” and Megan Fox in “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.” Missy Pantone and Veronica Mars, Pocahontas and Mulan. Effy from “Skins.” Misty from Pokémon.
I guess I thought every girl admired other girls exactly how I did. I certainly thought that the way I felt watching Princess Jasmine seduce Jafar or Kim Possible fight Shego was exactly how all the other little girls were feeling, too. I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary to post photo after photo of beautiful women to my Tumblr, or, when S Club 7 performed on TV, to watch Rachel as much as Bradley.
At the time I did not feel like a part of me was missing, but it has been so unbelievably healing to recognize myself as a new whole. But these retrospective revelations, this series of small eureka! moments, never feel like quite enough. They don’t make up for all this internalized biphobia, my intimidating lack of experience with women or the twenty-plus years where I did not really know myself.
Those were my formative years, after all. The years where everyone was experimenting and playing around with their identity and going a little bit off the rails, and I can never get them back. No amount of introspection, or reading blogs, or watching proud YouTubers, no amount of therapy or talking or getting involved in the LGBTQ+ community, can change the fact I was unknowingly closeted for over 20 years. Nothing will make up the loss of that time.
I left the church several years ago, but the effects of religion, of religious brainwashing, still pulse in my bloodstream.
I know that it’s going to take time before I’m able to be fully comfortable with who I am, in my own skin, and I know that the only way to counteract the shame and guilt–the fear–that Christianity instilled in me over the years is openness. Showing my real self.
One day at a time, I’m learning to be loud and proud, and unlearning those things that still linger since leaving the church. I guess I’m still figuring out what all this feels like, what it means to shed one identity and discover another. But for now, at this moment, all I’ve got is what I believe, and have always believed: who you love or who you are open to loving does not determine your worth.