Choosing God, Not Gay

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The final paragraph in this reader note from Amy is the most powerful, showing how she was able to embrace who she is without rejecting religion altogether:

I grew up at a Southern Baptist church in Louisiana, where I was homeschooled and then attended a fundamentalist evangelical high school. Religion was never a choice there, starting the day that a Sunday School teacher said that if I didn’t have Jesus in my heart, the afterlife would be like putting my whole body on a hot stove—forever. What 6-year-old would choose that?

In middle and high school, I realized that I was a lesbian, but I managed to hide it until college. It also didn’t make sense in my head that I could be gay, because my church only showed us videos of crazy adults at Pride Parades that apparently hated God, and that wasn’t me, so how could I be gay?

Although I attended a Southern Baptist university, it was a moderate one with plenty of nonreligious students (and even a fairly large Muslim population). [CB: Many more readers talked about their same-sex attraction at Christian colleges in this Notes thread.] So I had the choice to go to church or not, and I chose not. Because my entire worldview was shaped by fundamentalism, I couldn’t be a part of a religion that pointed to hell if I fell in love.

But the biggest decision wasn’t the decision to come out and date a woman.

Really, the biggest and most difficult decision was to let go of the idea that everything in the Bible was intended to be taken literally. From that, everything else followed, as I started working at a PCUSA [Presbyterian] church. (Such churches tend to be more progressive, such as approving gay marriage and supporting Planned Parenthood.) Suddenly I didn’t have to deny the science pointing away from a 6,000-year-old Earth, I didn’t have to struggle through another unhappy relationship with a man, and my once-a-year-Catholic relatives and agnostic friends weren’t going to hell.

Whenever I hear Southern Baptist students at my school debating fine points, like whether it’s a sin to refrain from spanking your child due to a single verse in Proverbs, I don’t feel that old sense of anxiety and urgency now that I’m not tied to a literal reading of a 2,000-year-old collection of poems and letters.

My conservative friends think it’s funny and a bit odd, but for most of them, I’m the only person they know in the PCUSA church. My parents find it odd that I’m the most overtly religious of their kids, yet am also not a Republican, and I’m openly gay. I hope to be a good example of how one can let go of literalism yet still enjoy a deep faith. Being able to let go of the threat of hell, I realized that non-Christians, feminists, and science gifted me a faith that truly feels rooted not in fear, but love.