I was 13 and sitting in the basement of my childhood home in the Amish-laden countryside of Pennsylvania.
“Crystal, are you a lesbian?”
A Twizzler stuck in my throat. What a pointed thing to ask.
In my youth, I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the question, especially coming from a gaggle of church-schooled teenage girls. They’d all been invited over for my birthday party, and as I sat rapt by the television, they’d been gaggling about guys they liked in our tiny 30-person church school, grades K-nine. That means there were, oh, three possible male suitors for the seven of us ladies of age. (Dramas were high, people. Dramas were high.)
I was only half-listening though, and when they repeated it, this time using the word “homosexual” instead of “lesbian,” something inside told me I needed to come to. You see, not only was I downing Twizzlers, pizza and diet soda, I’d also been consuming the teenage angsty figure of Julia Stiles on my television. If you were young in the ’90s, then you totally get what I mean about any of the characters in “Ten Things I Hate About You.” Not my style, but, yes, I’m also talking about the steamy Heath Ledger. (I totally wanted to be him.) May he forever rest in sexy-boy peace.
Back to the story. Homosexual. Where had I heard that word before and why did it feel so icky? You can’t throw a stone in my family without hitting a pastor, deacon or choir director. I’d heard that word from them but not in a favorable way. It was used ambiguously around young ears, yet strewn hither and thither around the church, always frothing with the shame of dirty secrets.
Just remembering that got the hairs on the back of my neck to prick up. In the time it took my eyes to move from the screen to the gathering of teenagers strewn across my bedroom floor, a haze of thought overcame me. It was like I stepped out of myself and saw the whole birthday-party scene for what it really was. There was me on one side, sitting alone at my own party, ogling the pretty girl on TV who read “The Bell Jar” and wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence. Then there was a small fissure beginning to grow wider and deeper in the carpet, where on the other side sat my friends, gathered around a pizza box (that had barely been touched) fighting over boys. I had no idea why they thought that was a fun pastime, let alone a necessary attention-holder. I had three brothers and quite a few male cousins so I’d had my fill of boys, but this was different. I was different, the odd woman out, the weirdo. As I focused in on my group of friends who all stared intently back at me, waiting for a response, I felt shame. I felt naked on a stage where everyone could see my difference except me.
A lot happened between me, my religion and my orientation in the years it took me to accept myself and come out, but when I did, I realized that the fissure wasn’t only between me and my friends that awkward Saturday night; it was a chasm in both the queer and religious communities.
Everywhere I look today, I see how religion affects us, divides us, keeps us apart and unable to properly communicate, when, in fact, it is supposed to build and maintain community, safety and respite.
“I came out and never went back to church” is a common phrase we hear among us. “If God cares about gay people, he’s got a shitty way of proving it” is another one, and, “That’s not my God” is also popular. Whether we are atheist, agnostic, spiritual or religious, we have all brushed up against the one cold-bearing shoulder of religion and, goodness, has it left a mark. We seek to avoid that brush ever again.
Yet, whether we like it or not, religion impacts our lives every day.
Religion is the elephant in the room, isn’t it? It affects the way people vote, the way they hire, the businesses they patronize, the nonprofits they support — why aren’t we talking about it in depth and at length? Why aren’t we all more consumed by this side of the LGBTQ struggle?
In this column, I aim to shed light on what is happening locally to support LGBTQ involvement in faith and spirituality, but also to add a voice to the national discussion on religion. On one side we have idiotic sensations like Kim Davis, but on the other side we have kick-ass organizations like Soulforce, Equality Pennsylvania, the Human Rights Force, The National LGBT Taskforce and need I go on?
Between all the mayhem, where do we belong?
Crystal Cheatham is a writer and an activist in Philadelphia. She chairs the Spirituality & Religion steering committee for the Human Rights Campaign and volunteers with Equality Pennsylvania, William Way LGBT Community Center’s Out & Faithful Committee and has written for the Huffington Post. You can find out more about her at CrystalCheatham.com.