#25) Organized Religion and LGBTQ Families
We continue our series on different aspects of coming out
This week we’re going to continue our series on different aspects of coming out, with a discussion on organized religion. I want to say up front that this is an extremely difficult and treacherous topic to cover. Religion can be a very powerful, and in some instances, harmful institution to the LGBTQ community. I will endeavor not to insult anyone’s religion of practice or upbringing. Rather, I am hoping to simply share my observations and experiences, as part of Generation X in the LGBTQ community.
When I came out, almost no organized religions recognized gay marriage, or even basic LGBTQ rights. Two decades ago, most religions overtly shamed—or subtly shamed by virtue of making them invisible—their LGBTQ congregants. Some religions still do! Many women I knew who were coming to terms with their sexual identity were also struggling with the twin challenges of losing the acceptance of their family and their religion. Think about how much that is to overcome all at once! Many chose instead to stay in the closet, and live the heteronormative life encouraged and celebrated by their organized religion, rather than risk the pain and isolation of being ostracized.
My stories on Tara and true heartbreak were an example of that choice: a woman who knew she was gay, even had a girlfriend in college in the 1980s, but made a decision not to live authentically. On our rollercoaster of love, one day Tara was getting ready to leave her marriage and embrace her sexuality, and the next day she cowered from being judged by her family or excommunicated from her religion. She lamented the loss of such things as Christmas, or as Tara put it, “traditions,” which were especially hard for her to forsake. My best friend Arleen, who like Tara was Catholic, used to muse, What a martyr! Gay women also celebrate Christmas and celebrate traditions. But in the end, Tara wasn’t brave enough to see a way forward, and chose to half-live a life in the closet.
Then there are women who come out, but hide their sexuality identity. Before Tara, I dated Linda, who had grown up in the South and been raised Baptist. She was Black, tall and gorgeous, and her parents were always in the process of fixing her up with someone’s son. She didn’t have the heart to tell them she had discovered her attraction to women. When we dated more than a decade ago, I wasn’t her first, but she insisted that our relationship be secret. That didn’t work for me even back then.
Years later, our paths crossed again, and we shared a casual lunch after a conference. Since the time we were together, she had been in a serious relationship with a woman professor who taught at a nearby college. She had even brought her girlfriend home for Christmas one year, but lied to her family that they were professional friends. Now she was single again, and asked about the two of us trying again. I demurred—after my first lesbian relationship with Lauren, I would never date in hiding again. The times had changed, but her fear of family and religion had not. Linda made the choice she believed she needed to make in order to stay connected with her family and hometown church community. She too is still in a closet of sorts.
Other women I have dated left their religion entirely. Most of them felt as if they had no choice. Either there was no recognition of their basic rights, or worse: in many, they were considered to be sinners for living as their true selves. Imagine that—truly heartbreaking! With their religion of upbringing rendering them a pariah, many decided to live without being part of an organized religion, or gravitated to a new religion where acceptance was possible. This was also the case with some straight friends who left their religion of upbringing for new churches or religions because they were allies, or parents or relatives of LGBTQ people, and couldn’t countenance the hatred and bigotry.
My friend Kristin grew up in a family that attended their local Methodist Church. When she got married and moved back to the Northeast, she and her husband, who was also Protestant, joined a local Methodist church. They didn’t go all that often, save for the big holidays. They befriended a local gay couple, and were invited to their wedding. Kristin asked the couple why they hadn’t chosen to get married in the church? They looked at each other, then one, whose face turned bright red, half whispered, They don’t allow it! She felt embarrassed for having asked—How can that be when it’s legal? Then she felt awful for having asked such an inane question. That discussion, and some comments she heard in passing, raised her antenna to question: maybe this isn’t a great fit. When one of their sons came home from school and proclaimed he liked boys, their decision was made. They left the congregation and joined the local Episcopal Church, where they have happily been welcomed since.
My experience with Judaism is a little more complicated.