The first time I thought about getting married, I was a second grader. I remember thinking, in my seven-year-old mind, that marriage would be fun, because it meant living in my own house with the man that I loved — the “man that I loved” was, of course, only a daydream at the time. I was not one of those boys who ever thought of girls as “icky” or “stupid,” and as much as I loved being friends with girls, I simply never imagined growing up to marry one of them. I recognized that many men did marry women, which was great for them; but I would marry a man, which would be great for me. And this felt normal. I have met many gay men during my life who recall feeling inherently abnormal, or different from other boys when growing up, but I had no inherent feeling of abnormality. Not until it was thrust upon me.
When I got older, I was introduced to the concept of “gay is sin” — or what I’ll call here, “The Abomination Narrative” (If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. Leviticus 20:13); only then, under the repressive shadow of fear and shame, did I think to question myself.
I grew up with loving, but religious family members, who worked hard to keep me safe from evils such as masturbation, the Democrats, and homosexuality. My first introduction into The Abomination Narrative came through the book Every Young Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn, Fred Stoeker, and Mike Yorkey, which my mother bought for me and which remains a popular buy in Christian communities. I read the book lackadaisically — tips on how to remain heterosexually pure when there were so many hot, sensual girls ready for the taking was not what gay, chubby, awkward adolescent me found appealing. However, the book ends with a chapter on what to do if your attractions are for the same sex. Here was advice I was starved for! But the chapter is short, and says only that homosexuality is against God’s plan, and that this book does not have the tools to help in this area. In other words “you have a sin problem greater than the sin problems discussed in these pages, please seek additional help.”
Did I have a sin problem? I looked to the Bible and the Bible teachers. The infamous verses of Leviticus, and the twisted version of the Sodom & Gomorrah story—meant as fear-mongering propaganda—planted the seeds of fear and shame.
When I got into high school, the pudgy awkwardness of adolescence, coupled with the growing shame I now carried with me, had subdued the rambunctious friendliness I’d possessed as a young child. Despite high school being my first exposure to other queer people, I lacked the confidence to actually become friends with any of the other queer kids. But seeing them exist was an inspiration. I even managed to come out to two of my best friends at the time. Those first little steps toward coming out were invigorating; I felt more confident, more courageous. I felt as if my fear and shame were vanishing. Shortly after, I told my choir director that I would like to audition to be in the tenor section (I was previously a baritone), because any man can sing baritone, but tenor was what real men sang, and I was a motivated, courageous young man — in hindsight, I was having a bit of diva moment, but I did make it into the tenor section. I was starting to experience pride.
But this pride was taken from me, after such a painfully short time.
My sophomore year, I developed quite the crush on a boy in my drama class. He was tall and had a bright, toothy smile that betrayed a friendliness beyond his often stoic veneer. In our school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he played Oberon, King of the Fairies; and I was infatuated, as though, like the hapless lovers in the play, I were under the power of a spell. Unable to keep these feelings in, but far from able to express them to my crush directly, I wrote a note to a friend detailing my fragile knees and tummy butterflies. Before I could deliver the note, it was found by my mother, herself an adherent to The Abomination Narrative she’d heard propagated from the pulpit her whole life. When she confronted me about the note, the shame I thought I was free of came rushing back in a second. I would come out to no one else, not even my closest friend, for the rest of my high school career. This self-shame was compounded after high school by a year and half of conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy taught prayer, and seeking God as a means toward a heart and mind change. I didn’t want to disappoint my family, or church friends, or God, so I prayed. I prayed desperately, even buying a prayer shawl — colored white, gold, and purple — which I would drape over my head. The shawl was made of tightly woven fabric, which trapped my body heat, adding to my prayers a fervid oppression that distracted me from the tears and sweat mingling on the floor beneath my knees. I would sometimes convince myself that my attractions were fading, only for the sight of friendly eyes or a jaw-line of coarse stubble to bring back the shame of being an abomination. Finally, my prayers culminated in the fever dream of one humid, summer night.
Writhing in bed, teeth clenched and knuckles white, I wrestled with myself, and with God. Like Jacob, I demanded a blessing—but for my blessing I wanted nothing else than an answer to the question: “if being gay is the sin, why is it the redemption that causes me such unbearable pain?”
The Psalms promise that He is there with us, in the depths of Sheol.
But I received no answer from God that night, and only platitudes from the church in the days that followed. But how would I answer the question? I felt a spark of curiosity about what queerness looked like outside of The Abomination Narrative. Perhaps I was looking for redemption in the wrong place.
I felt disillusioned about my sexuality as I entered my university years, but decided to follow my curiosity. I tentatively took the opportunity to participate in a project working with the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN) and the Oregon Historical Society. The goal of the project was to have students record interviews with elderly LGBTQ individuals for historical preservation. What struck me the most about the people I interviewed was their joy. Despite having lived through such dangerous times for queer individuals, they had so many funny, cheerful, happy stories to tell. This inspired me to know more. I devoured books and articles on the science and history of queerness. I discovered a rich heritage of writers, artists, politicians, philosophers, intellectuals, and activists who had been openly queer. I began writing about both the history of the LGBTQ Rights movement, and the activists who bravely fought for these rights in the modern day*. My writing and research taught me that, despite having grown up in a religion that preached The Abomination Narrative as part of the correct way to live, I had to stop believing the “correct” things, and start believing the true things.
If so many others before me had accomplished this, and been able to lead happy, fulfilling lives as proud, queer individuals, then I could too.
Having discovered that there was nothing wrong with me — that this shame was not my own — I picked up where I had left off my sophomore year of high school, and started coming out to more people. This process wasn’t easy at first, but I braved my way through. When I finally came out to my closest friend, who had been brought up in the same religion, she looked at me and said: “Daniel, I don’t know how, but I knew you were going to come out to me today. I’m happy you did, because I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I think what the church taught me about gay people is wrong.” What a gift those words were. The more I came out, the more comfortable and confident I became with myself, and the more hope I had for the future.
After holding on to the shame and confusion of The Abomination Narrative for several years, coming out was like the joy of finding a precious heirloom I’d long since given up on as forever lost. When I came out, I found my Pride.
*These writings were compiled into a longer piece, Still Fighting for Stonewall, which was published with The Pacific Sentinel magazine. Sections of this piece can be found on the magazine’s website.