IT HAPPENED TO ME: After Years of Religious Suppression, Writing a Play About a Lesbian Helped Me Realize I'm Gay

I prayed, pushed it down, and went on in denial.
Publish date:
November 23, 2016
lesbians, religion, christianity, coming out, writing

When I was 13, social media wasn’t what it is now. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. But as a middle-schooler, I was very active in online message boards associated with a magazine I subscribed to. The magazine had some vaguely Christian overtones, which is probably why my parents let me read it and didn’t restrict my access to the site. They had no reason to worry about my online presence anyway. I was a youth-group kid through and through. I spent every Sunday evening at the church, all of my friends were from the group, and I legitimately studied my Bible several times a week. I was a parent’s dream.

I don’t remember much of what I posted about online. I’m sure most of it was innocuous responses to my favorite color or TV show. Occasionally, I’d pull out my Bible knowledge for something here or there. I considered myself to be a well-versed authority on all things religious; I had the self-righteousness on lock.

One thing I posted stuck with me, though. I can clearly picture the type on the screen, black against a standard yellowy-grey background, set inside a box with my screenname, indicating the text belonged to me. It simply read, “Ew, gross.”

I don’t remember the exact question. It could have been “Are you gay?” Or “Do you think it’s OK to be gay?” or even just “What do you think of gay people?”— something along those lines. The phrasing of the question is irrelevant. What matters is that “Ew, gross” was my first, gut reaction to homosexuality, and that I can remember viscerally feeling that way.

My comment wasn’t unique. The thread was full of people who shared my opinion. My comment was attacked by the opposition, but I didn’t care because I knew I was right.

A few years later, when I was in high school, one of my best friends, Sam, came out to me. There had been rumors about him for years. He had been in my youth group and was a year behind me in our very small Catholic school. Everyone assumed he was gay, but I knew Sam. If that were true, I would have known. I even had a crush on him for a while.

He told me one night when we went to a movie. We were sitting next to each other and he started texting me during the previews. He asked if he could tell me something, I told him he could, and then he simply texted, “I’m gay.” My stomach bottomed out. I texted some words of support and assured him it didn’t change anything about our relationship, but inside, I was distraught. I was so worried for him, and I felt icky about it.

I was upset for days. I texted my youth leader to ask him if we could talk, and we met for coffee at a Tim Hortons. He ordered black coffee, so I did the same to seem mature. We sat down and I told him what I was dealing with. He listened attentively and then gave me some advice: keep praying for Sam, and pray that he move past his confusion and temptation.

He went on to explain to me that homosexuality was a temptation like anything else. It was something God used to test people and that it wasn’t something that would last forever. He told me a story about someone he knew who had been plagued with the same temptation. The guy had been wrought with guilt, prayed nonstop, found accountability partners, and eventually, after a lot of work, had moved on to live a happy life with a wife and two kids.

After our coffee, I felt better about Sam. Things didn’t change for me until Sam told his parents a few weeks later, and they did not take it well. He was sent to counseling at the church, therapy a few hours away in a bigger city, etc. His parents had always been fun, and our group of friends had always loved hanging around their house, but now it was awkward.

Sam spiraled. He ran away from home and started to drink heavily. I kept praying for him, but I also started to feel like maybe I was on the wrong side of the whole thing.

A few months later, I was cast in a musical at our community theatre. There were six cast members — one other high school boy, and the rest were all actual adults. At the first read through, I found out that two of the male cast members were partners and that the male director and one of the other male cast members were also together. I had never been in this kind of environment before.

On Sunday evenings, I still went to youth group and listened to how we should be aware of new laws that would make preaching the truth about the sinfulness of homosexuality a hate crime. I still agreed with the church and believed we needed to protect our rights. I still prayed for Sam. But during the week, I watched loving interactions between my cast mates. Slowly, little gestures between the couples — one of them refilling a partner’s water bottle, echoes of encouraging words from one partner to the other during a dance, a quick but sincere kiss between lovers during a break — started to chip away at my assumptions. I saw them as people and not an abstract idea.

Our show was successful, and I went on to perform in several other shows with the same people until I graduated a few years later. By the end of high school, several of my close friends were gay, and I loved and accepted them completely. I no longer prayed that they would overcome their temptations; now, I prayed they would be happy and live good lives.

When I went to college, I considered myself an openminded, supportive ally to the gay community. I didn’t date anyone for the first three years of college. Honestly, I was busy; my dad got sick and passed away in my first year, and I spent my second year grieving and getting ready to go back to school out of state. I wasn’t completely ignoring romance or sex; I had crushes on boys here or there and carried on some flirtatious texting for months with a devastatingly cute blonde boy from my sophomore speech class. I also briefly made a date with my first boyfriend ever, Jess, whom I had fallen for while riding bikes around our neighborhood in the third grade; however, I decided last minute to cancel and didn’t go.

By the second semester of my junior year, I still had no idea I was hiding anything from myself. That semester, as part of my degree, I signed on to write a full-length, research-based play. I wanted to write about something I was passionate about, so I chose to write about the Westboro Baptist Church. Despite my now lax views on some things, I still considered myself a Christian, and I was appalled by the way that that “church” treated people. I knew I wanted my play to be about family and the close-ties that kept the children of the church where they were; I was going to write about a son who was being kicked out of the fold for being a homosexual.

I started to read plays that had to do with my topic to help me write. Over and over, I read about gay males in this or that. I noticed that nobody was writing about lesbians. I decided I would write about a lesbian character to give my play an edge. That was all that went in to that decision; I wanted to give my play the best chance it had to be seen.

I started writing. I researched and I wrote, and as I did, fear started to trickle in. I would sit up at night writing thoughts and emotions for my characters and then lie awake in bed trying to push a nagging feeling that those thoughts and emotions were coming from me.

I wrote a scene where the daughter in the play, knowing she’ll be outed soon, crawls into her mother’s bed to tell her herself. I sobbed while I wrote it. Afterwards, I didn’t write for two weeks.

I finally finished the play and was proud of my work. I had poured myself into it. I sent the play to my mother to read. When she finished, she called me to ask me if I was trying to tell her something. I stood in my kitchen making tea, my stomach in knots as I denied it and told her I was just looking for something that would be emotionally grabbing on stage.

After I hung up, I left the tea, went to my room, and panicked. I had always had anxiety, and I knew that sometimes my brain created things for me to be afraid of. I talked myself down by reminding myself how many boys I’d thought were cute; I pointed out to myself that I only fantasized about men when masturbating; I listed anything I could think of to avoid having to consider it could be true. I prayed, pushed it down, and went on in denial through the summer.

When I was 22 years old and halfway through my senior year of college, I finally figured it out. That year, I’d starting hanging out with an incredible group of girls. There were eight of us altogether, and we were inseparable. Three of the girls in the group were openly queer (two of them were a couple); the rest all considered themselves to be openminded and not afraid of their sexuality. I admired them all, but was still terrified.

When I first met Em, the only openly queer group member who wasn’t in a relationship, I was drawn to her. I couldn’t really place why; I just wanted to know more about her. She was beautiful and funny and had an incredible confidence that I envied. She loved being a lesbian and leaned into the stereotypes. We clicked instantly as friends, and I craved time with her. It took me months to realize what I had was a crush.

During those months, I grew closer to Kay and Lilly, the couple in our group. They must have seen what my heart was trying to push out and decided to help. I’d spend long hours working on projects with Kay as she talked about how she’d come out and what that meant. Lilly and I talked about our dreams for after college and how we wanted big things and eventually families. I could picture their family, and I thought it would be beautiful. Again, I watched their love and their normalcy, and something in me shifted.

Then one night, it just happened. The group was over at my house, drinking and watching movies on Netflix. Em and I were both tipsy. She sat behind me while we watched movies and she nuzzled against me. It was obvious that her earlier flirting had a direction. I really liked what was happening. My heart fluttered and my bones melted every time she ran her lips against my neck. My temporary euphoria was replaced with panic when I realized how much I liked what was happening.

I escaped to my kitchen to get another drink, dragging Lilly with me. I told her I needed to talk to her. I sat, drunk and confused, on my kitchen floor while I spilled everything to Lilly. I told her I didn’t know what to do, but that I really wanted to kiss Em. She was sympathetic, but also gave me the no-nonsense get-in-there-and-do-it kick that I needed. She ended the whole conversation with a shrug and a “Why not?” I curled my toes in the rug I was sitting on, took a long drink of hard cider (it was college), and made up my mind.

I went back in to where I’d been sitting. This time, I leaned in to Em and I let myself go. Later, we lay next to each other and she kissed me.

Her lips were warm and her tongue was cool. My spine tingled, my heart raced, and my head swam, drunker than I should have been from the alcohol. We made out — that was it — but it was so much more for me. It was a moment of deep connection within myself. I had been trying things on for so long, and I finally found something that fit beautifully.

That was it. I woke up the next morning and I admitted confidently to myself that I was gay. I threw out the fear and the second guessing and just wore my identity like it was.

I still had to come out to my family and the friends who weren’t at school. That took time and more than a little courage, but I did it. Once I knew who the true me was, I didn’t want to ever go back to living like I had before.

Em and I are still friends. There was never anything more than a drunken make-out between us, but I’m grateful every day for her. I’m also grateful for Lilly and Kay, who turned out to be beautiful fairy gaymothers to me. They encouraged me through my first girlfriend, consoled me after my first real heartbreak, and celebrated with me when I finally told my mom the truth.

I’ve been out of college for a few years and I live fully out now. I’m in love with a woman who makes me happier than I ever thought possible. From time to time, I think about the man from the story my youth leader told me, and I hope he found a way to be his true self. Living authentically can be scary. It’s easy to want to stick with what we know and with what seems to be working, but caging yourself in with fear just makes it more real.

Out here, away from my fear, I get to hang out with my true self, and I like her a lot better. In any case, we have more fun.