Beyond Visibility is an occasional column that explores the intersection of sexuality, politics, pop culture, faith and whatever else is on Heather Hogan’s mind every 30 days.
I grew up in the wooden pew of a Southern Baptist church in a north Georgia town closer to Deliverance country than to Atlanta. Being raised as a Good Christian Girl meant learning the twenty-third Psalm and all thirty-six verses of “Just As I Am” before starting kindergarten. Easter Sunday was white patent leather shoes and matching frilly socks. (No shorts under your dress on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection.) And the last Sunday night of five-week months was my favorite kind of service: jeans and sneakers, jasmine and magnolia in the sticky summer air, all singing and no preaching.
Josh Jacobs, the only bass in our middle school choir, asked my father’s permission to ask me on my first date. He took me to a Braves game and we ate hot dogs and drank Coca-Cola from souvenir Tomahawk Chop cups. When I was 14, a high school boy in my Sunday School class gave me his letter jacket. In college, my boyfriend and I left home to lead mission trips to opposite ends of the Third World — where I fell promptly and irrevocably in love with my female co-leader. She took me to an impoverished rain forest and we ate local goat cooked over an open fire and drank milk straight from coconuts.
We stayed up all night some nights, listening to the ocean beat against the dock or Jennifer Knapp croon from our battery-operated CD player. We talked about theology. We talked about hermeneutics. We talked about eternity, even though time had lost all meaning to me. It would be morning and then it would be afternoon and then it would be night. Our hands would brush against each other. It would be summer forever.
I stood beside her, later, in a bridesmaid’s dress while she said “I do.” I graduated from college. I abandoned church. I came out.
The most zealous Christians — some of my family among them — would love to draw a short line between “her” and “abandoned church,” as if gayness and holiness can’t exist in the same body, or even the same building, especially one with stained glass windows.
It’s the same dilemma Chely Wright wrote about in her memoir, Like Me. At one point, her twelve-year-old self became fixated on the bosom of a seventeen-year-old waitress, whose t-shirt prominently displayed the words “God don’t make mistakes!” right across the chest.
And it’s the same conondrum in which Jeanette finds herself in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit when she falls in love with her best friend, Melanie. “I love you almost as much as I love the Lord,” she tells Melanie on their way to church one day to be unknowingly reprimanded by their entire congregation for their “sinful” relationship. But Jeanette’s love is so big she believes it is a gift from God.
Loving girls and loving Jesus, together, comes as naturally to some women as a beating heart.
If you want to draw an accurate line between the cause and effect of me leaving church, you’d have to trace back all the way to 1980, when then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan hopped into bed with Jerry Falwell‘s “Moral Majority.” Christian organizations had been involved in game-changing plays in American politics before then, of course — most notably, arguing for adding “In God We Trust” to currency after the Civil War, and adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance during the McCarthy-era hysteria of the 1950s — but Falwell was responsible for packaging up a singular message that churches all over the country would eventually consume like an extra value meal from a fast food restaurant.
By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, there was was no place in politics for a la carte opinions. And there was no place in an evangelical church for a girl who spent half her life quoting Thomas Jefferson‘s letter to the Danbury Baptists about a necessary “wall of separation between church and state.”
I gravitated toward gay culture after I left church, excited about the prospect of making friends who were unencumbered by a lifetime of religious indoctrination. I expected to find people who refused to judge other communities by their stereotypes because of the the oppression they’d suffered at the hands of hackneyed clichés. I expected to find tolerance for all kinds of individuality as a reaction to the intolerance foisted upon their entire community.
And there were certainly warm, free-thinking people who embraced the challenge of reconciling things like reason and faith and politics and sexuality. Just as there had been warm, free-thinking people who embraced all those things in my old church. But there was also plenty of shouting and shoving and name-calling in the most violent possible ways.