Since there is literally nothing else I could post that would be of any consequence considering today’s historic SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage, I’m pulling a story out of the treasure chest. This is about me growing up in the middle America Bible Belt, and the summer I started going to gay bars in Columbus, Ohio. I told this story last summer at a Female StoryTellers event in Tucson. I’ve included the audio from the event as well as my typed story so you can access it however you so choose, but I recommend the audio version.
HAPPY MARRIAGE EQUALITY FOLKS!
It was summer time, and I was 6 years old, when I first accepted Jesus into my heart. I remember lying out on the lawn (we lived in Ohio, so I was laying on grass, not gravel) and I was lying there looking up at the towering trees and the gorgeous sunlight streaming through the leaves. It was just one of those days where you get caught up in all the beauty, and you want to soak it all in. I could feel God all around me. It was amazing.
For the next several years, I proceeded to “get saved” every couple of years to try to replicate that feeling or achieve some pinnacle of inner peace. Like chasing that first high.
But as the years went on, I began to doubt. It all seemed a little far-fetched. And I was starting to form my own opinions, as pre-teens tend to do. But I was very much aware that some of my opinions were not lining up very well with the doctrine that was being taught in the private Christian school I attended. Now, eighth grade was the last year that we could attend the private school before most of us would head off to the treacherous public schools. And our teachers took their jobs very seriously, knowing that they needed to solidify our ethics and give us good, solid arguments against evolution so that we could argue with our science teachers in the coming years. At the time, I was still completely onboard with them on the evolution thing (I mean, really, common traits are obviously a sign of a common creator not a common ancestor – seriously that’s the argument they made us memorize. It was on a test).
But it was the ethics conversations that were really starting to get to me. One day, we had to take an ethics quiz for which we were given a grade. I knew all the right answers – the ones that would’ve gotten a star and a smile from the teacher – and I went back and forth trying to decide whether I should select the “right” answer or the answer that I believed. The quiz asked me to decide if it was a sin or not to steal a loaf of bread if I was starving or if my family was starving. Now, my parents had taught me this thing called empathy, and I was very concerned about people who were less fortunate than me. In fact, at the time, I thought I would grow up to be a missionary in some far off poverty-stricken country. I thought about my family’s refrigerator and cupboards stocked full of food. The private school I attended cost thousands of dollars per year – this was truly a hypothetical conundrum for all of us who had never gone to bed with real hunger. My conscience – my empathy – told me that if I was starving and stole a loaf of bread, God would not hate me, but my indoctrinated brain also told me that the correct answer was that it was definitely a sin. Unfortunately, they weren’t grading on honesty on this quiz… My good Christian friends looked down on me when I got a 75%, but I felt a small tingling of relief that I spoke My Truth.
Life went on like this for the next several years. I gradually took baby steps towards understanding my own beliefs, which I think is a process that everyone goes through as they grow. And I’m not here to say that my truth is THE truth or that anyone should jump ship on what they believe. But I am saying, that when I finally allowed myself to question my beliefs and my religion – when I finally said “fuck it” to the fear of going to Hell – when I allowed myself to be my own person and not just my parents’ daughter – I could finally breathe.
When I pushed aside the veil that was hiding me from my life, I was able to see that life can be FUN. It doesn’t have to be shaming martyrdom all the time. I started making new friends and having new experiences – and it was exciting! I wanted to do it all. And once I turned 18, the summer after graduating from high school, a multitude of doors opened to me. The first door I reached for that summer was the big-city night club door, which to me was the perfect beginning to my newfound adulthood.
My friend Tonya had a cousin who often went to the gay bars and clubs in the closest big city, Columbus, Ohio. He was most decidedly and adorably gay; while Tonya and I were pretty sure that we were (at least mostly) into guys. But this is not a story about me exploring my sexuality – this is a story about me exploring my freedom completely separate from my sexuality. Everything my whole life seemed to have revolved around sex and relationships – and whether I was having them or not having them. Trust me, Christians love to talk about sex. But here, for once in my life, it was about me and my thoughts and my independence – not about my sex or what others thought of me.
Tonya’s cousin Bert was about the same age as us and much like me, was ready to throw off all that protestant guilt. Columbus was an hour’s drive from our small town. I don’t remember the very first time in the club – by now, I only remember the feelings. And I remember the lights. And the beat. And the people. These people that I met were so full of life and so full of fun. Everything was about dancing. And meeting new people. And hugging. And dancing. And doing quick shots in the bathroom so as not to be discovered in our underage discretions. But I rarely, if ever, got drunk. That’s not what any of this was about for me. And it really wasn’t what it was about for most of the others around me. It genuinely was about creating and having a space that was open and free and loving.
As I ventured into this new world of discovering my truth – and discovering it in the gay clubs of middle America – it changed my everything. I spent more and more time with my friend Tonya, who was an unapologetic atheist. In the long drive to and from the big city, we had long conversations about life and religion, and I knew that I wanted to be as strong as she was in voicing her opinions. I had never shied away from trying to convert people to Christianity back in my private school days (because that is what was expected of me – and I always did what was expected of me), but it was a whole different story admitting to my religious questionings and my agnostic ideas in the land of Bible bangers. I was a closet agnostic. I think maybe that is part of what drew me to my new friends at the club – we all had our secrets and hid parts of ourselves from the people who were supposed to be our biggest supporters.
One night, as we were getting ready to leave for Columbus, my brother Stawn asked if he could go with us. I froze for a second, confused or thought maybe he was confused, and then explained to him that it wasn’t just a big city club we were going to – it was a GAY club. But still, he insisted that he wanted to come. I started to think that my brother was way more open-minded than I had given him or anyone else in my family credit for. Once we got to the club, he immediately started socializing with everyone around him, which didn’t really surprise me as he was always pretty charismatic. I could tell that he was kinda getting a kick out of all the attention he was getting from the other guys, though he continually reminded them that he was just there for fun, and not because he was gay. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back, I can see that my brother must have been looking for a space where he could be free just like I was.
It was fun to have my brother join in my world in the big city. Several nights a week, we drove the dark country roads to the highway that took us straight to Columbus. To freedom. Our nights were full of dancing and fun, and we would stay out all night sometimes not driving home until 5 or 6 in the morning as the sun began to rise.
By the end of that summer, I finally gained enough courage to have the “coming out” atheist conversation with my mom – though it was more of a drawn out, little by little, conversation that happened over the course of several years, wherein, as my beliefs morphed and grew, my mom eventually realized that I was an all-out atheist. Still, my mom held out hope that it was “just a phase.” And even today, my mom continues to insist that I will come back to the faith, in time. But at least I am able to be open with her now – I no longer have to hide that part of myself or pretend to be something I’m not. I found my confidence.
As the summer wrapped up, and I headed off to college, I knew that things would change. I would be 3 hours away from home. From Tonya and her cousin Bert. And my brother and the rest of my family. But I was more than ready to be my own person and to question everything I had learned up to that point. I was going to devour college with the same ferocity that I devoured the club scene. This confidence and this freedom allowed me finally to genuinely smile and start the process of loving myself and my life.
Of course, not a couple of months later, my brother called to tell me that he was dating Bert, Tonya’s cousin. And while that was nearly 10 years ago, my mom will still insist that “it’s just a phase.” Though to her and my dad’s credit, they both have expanded their moral code to accept and love my brother and any boyfriend he brings home to meet them.
Summer time seems to be a time of excitement and fun exploration – though you might need to leave the Tucson heat behind to find it. Last summer, my husband and I went on an epic road trip through Colorado and Utah. We hiked through amazing mountains, sat in the hot springs, and saw the incredible arches in Arches National Park. I remember looking around and being in absolute awe of the beauty of our Earth and the oneness that holds us all together. And I felt that high, like that time when I was 6 laying on my parents’ lawn.