“My heart gets so incredibly heavy thinking of how much I used to love the church..”
One of the more painful sub-texts of the gay rights movement is the many people who feel compelled to step away from their previously-precious-faith as a result.
Those who do so typically experience this as a painful, but inescapable step in response to new insight, knowledge or compassion. Despite the acute trauma of newfound separation from loved ones, they tell me of trying earnestly to follow what they have come to believe as true.
Many hours of conversation with friends who have stepped away from my own faith community have helped me understand that they are seeking to follow a new truth they have embraced – no matter the excruciating costs.
Sound familiar, religious friends? Former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley famously told a story of a foreign man anticipating family and community retribution in his homeland after converting to Mormonism. When Hinckley asked, “Are you willing to pay so great a price for the gospel” the man responded, “It’s true isn’t it? Then what else matters?”
The truth that some experience as driving them away from religious communities (like my own) revolves around newfound insight into the full, complete or true identity of loved ones who now consider themselves part of the LGBTQ community. For people on all sides of this conversation, the moment of “coming out,” in particular, is a singularly important pivot point – leading to many other shifts.
That moment is almost universally described and experienced as a new revelation regarding reality itself, aka ‘finally discovering who people truly really are.’ As I’ve written extensively about previously, it may also be just as accurate to characterize that coming out moment (like virtually all moments where significant shifts take place) as a moment of adopting a new narrative about reality.
Adopting a new story. One mother describes a conversation with her son where he finally poured out “years of grief and heartache and shame” in relation to his long-time feelings of same-sex attraction. In her words, he had spent many years “wishing it wasn’t so, wanting to be just like ‘everyone else’ and knowing he was not.” She described her response:
“I assured him of our love and understanding, our unwavering support and loyalty, but when in absolute despair he said, ‘What’s the point of going on?’…. I had no answers. I could not advise him to keep coming to church, to hope for peace in the next life. If I had previously entertained any doubt that sexual preference was a choice, those doubts were completely erased as I held my sobbing teenager that night in the kitchen, as he chanted over and over, ‘I just want to be normal…get married, like everyone else.’ And all I could think of was, ‘What kid in their right mind would choose ridicule over acceptance, would choose to be a pariah in his own religious community?’ I received a firm conviction that night as I held him in my arms, that this was my beloved child and that our family would rally around him and support him, and we have.”
Different parents may respond in different ways depending on how they make sense of this moment. Certainly no one can begrudge this mother (or any parent) for doing whatever a child seems to need to stay alive.
That being said, this account also represents a vivid depiction of new convictions (about identity, sexuality, choice, eternity and faith) sweeping away old ones, as a New Story takes hold – (e.g., particular, resolute answers to all of the following: Any benefits from coming to church? Any degree of choice in working with sexual experience? Any viable path for marriage for her son in her faith community? Any ultimate hope for peace or reconciliation in the next life?)
New story = New world. The impact of this New Story can be profound. Describing her son’s coming out, this same mother writes: “I had to re-examine everything I had previously thought…I knew with certainty to be true. It upended my notions of truth, happiness, obedience, loyalty, and in fact all that I held dear, including my perception of the character of God. And I, for a long moment, wondered if I would be able to stay [in my faith]…All of my beliefs have been upended and rearranged.”
For both families and individuals themselves, the entire landscape in one’s life can shift. As one person put it: “All [previous] teaching about my identity…was WRONG! I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was” (FB-KA)
As one man tried to embrace his new identity, it seemed to require (for both him and his family) walking away from everything he had been taught to value – including man-woman marriage and his faith community itself: “When that happened, the whole world sort of came crashing down, not only for me but for them” (FB-BE).
Things that were previously beloved, such as religious ceremonies and community gatherings, may come to be experienced in strikingly new ways. One woman I know and respect writes, “Until I attended church and listened to General Conference [worship service] after learning that my son was gay, I seriously just never ‘heard’ the messages as damaging. I was devastated to hear through new ears.“ Whereas she had previous “loved conference,” now she was “crying through entire thing.” Another person writes, “My heart gets so incredibly heavy sometimes think of how much I used to love the church.” [Emphasis my own]
Not at home anymore. As reflected above, the adoption of this New Story contributes to a feeling of being out-of-place in one’s formerly secure religious community:
- “I feel like I can’t express who I am and be who I am, being in the church…I feel like an outcast and I feel like I don’t know if that’s my home anymore I hope we can realize that there are many like us, many, and we’re all just trying to find our place and our home in the church because we love the gospel and we love the teachings but we’re not quite sure if that’s our home.” (FB-SH)
- “And that’s hard, not knowing where I belong. Not feeling like I belong in Church because I have the [same-sex] feelings…It’s ‘Where do I belong? I don’t belong anywhere.’ It’s really hard – it’s lonely at times.” (FB-ME)
One man described mourning the loss of his faith community and all the associated dreams: “It was a really difficult time for me because with that coming out I felt like I had to leave behind a church that was important to me and had really been a grounding force in my life. Also, I figured there were friends I would have to leave behind because there is no way they could ever accept this in me. There were hopes and dreams I had of having a family and having a wife that I was going to have to leave behind. It was a very scary thing … feeling like my life was about to change and that I would have to leave my life behind and start a whole new life” (VH-DEC)
Irreconcilable dilemmas & impossible futures. Ultimately, these conflicts can be experienced by many as paradoxical and impossible to reconcile – “a sharp, painful dilemma, with the contrast in teaching about the church” (FB-CH). One person described feeling like only a few options remained: “One, I leave the Church and pursue a gay lifestyle, two, I stay in the Church and stay celibate my entire life, or three I stay in the Church and get married to a woman and have this really tough struggling marriage. I felt like a life in the Church while enduring same-sex attraction would have just been a life of misery” (VH-SB).
Based on this kind of a frame, it’s not hard to see why people may feel compelled to opt out of Old Stories and Old Ways.
While conflict may have existed for decades, people’s daily reality and lived experience may become even more impossible at this point (of heightened dilemma). After coming to identify as gay, one man spoke of the challenge of having “two conflicting identities.” He recollected, “because of the irreconcilability, I spent a lot of my life in a depressed state kind of like trying to achieve an unobtainable task. I realized why people get depressed and suicidal because you’re constantly trying to resolve something that’s unresolvable” (FB-TI).
Personal despair that won’t end in the future. For some, as reflected above, this seemingly impossible and inescapable dilemma can contribute to strong consideration of suicide. Referring to his hopes of an orthodox Christian marriage, one man reflected, “There was this wonderful thing God was offering me, and I didn’t understand why He was offering it to me if it was so obviously unobtainable. I really started thinking about suicide, and I started thinking about it a lot” (VH-JO). Another added, “It’s hard to even go day by day. Not knowing how you’re going to reconcile this about yourself, how you going to create a life that is happy in any way?” (FB-H).
Illustrating this possibility, a third individual commented that the many messages he had been hearing that “this is just who you are and you just need to be yourself and be gay” had been part of fueling his desire to kill himself – specifically “not knowing that there were other options.” This led him to excruciating (and seemingly unsolvable pain): “I figured if I couldn’t have the life I wanted, and the life I could have wasn’t conducive to the gospel and the things that were important, then my only option was to kill myself.” (VH-DEC)
When this kind of acute sorrow is expressed publicly, it is almost always attributed to the fresh awareness of one’s identity – now, in painful conflict with rigid religious teaching. In other words, within this narrative, both suffering and suicide in the gay community are almost entirely blamed on religious conservative teaching.
Mounting pressure for dramatic change. Another man described the impact on his family relationships as he more fully embraced this new story about himself, “I fully started using the word gay. And I talked to [my wife] and told her that I was unhappy and things weren’t going great that I really needed to kind of figure this side of myself out or that I was just going to live an unhappy life and be depressed. Um. I was going to be a terrible father and a terrible husband, etc” (FB-CH).
One mother recounted what she experienced as a challenging dilemma between her loyalties to her son and her faith: “When my son came out to our family as gay eight years ago, my hurdle towards a major crisis of faith began…There is nothing like seeing a precious child in despair over the knowledge that the plan of happiness he had been taught to strive for, which included the opportunity for temple marriage and parenthood, the plan that is the bedrock of our theology, would be impossible for him to attain as his authentic self.“
If this is our Story of identity, sexuality, choice, change, biology, marriage, God and eternity – NO WONDER religious conservative anything quickly becomes pretty hard to stomach!?
Each passing week and month, confusion and anger can intensify. Each new comment and teaching from religious leaders can be taken as further damning evidence – aggregated, cataloged and broadcast in online groups that fuel the frustration in every direction. Even tragic reports of new suicides are packaged as (yet more) evidence of The Truth now clearly known.
Over time, an intense personal burden may come to be felt. One woman commented, “I lament each and every day that all are not welcome (in my faith community). It feels unbearable to me at times.” Church services, church messages, church members and church leaders come to be experienced as intolerable and painful – “I would hear these things that hurt me deeply” on person said. As frustration deepens, the Story becomes set firmly in place.
Isn’t the right decision obvious? At this point, leaving begins to be discussed as a ‘no-brainer’ thing that should be obvious: ‘why would you ever think of staying with those people?!’
The question becomes simple: ‘why someone would choose to remain in a religion that doesn’t embrace justice, equality, love, etc.’
And there you have it: Done and Gone.
And just like that, many thoughtful and loving people have stepped away from faith communities like my own – convinced that they now see the (awful) truth about their formerly-precious faith community.
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, I’m not convinced we’re having an honest (enough) conversation about what’s happening that would allow us to really answer that question, or even just to see each other clearly.
By honesty, I mean acknowledging what different people and groups really think about sexuality, identity and related questions, in a way that each position is heard and understand. I’ve done my best above to lay out my own narrative-oriented and religious conservative perspective about The Exodus – proposing it as a kind of developmental, socializing process happening somewhat beneath our full awareness.
It goes without saying, that the experience of anyone stepping away from a community like my own is multi-factorial and complex – and simply cannot be boiled down to any single factor or pattern…even if I’m right about all of the above. The last thing I want is to minimize the depth of these people’s experiences, including some of my own dear friends and family members.
Furthermore, in sharing all this, my purpose has not been to convince everyone to see things as I do, but to at least surface this possibility as a part of the conversation. I don’t agree with – or believe – what my progressive friends have embraced as the truth of the matter in this conversation….but I’ll fight for their space to hold it, live it and follow it in their lives – just like I will fight for mine.
I realize that for people who have stepped away from religious communities, my own views may feel challenging – or even insulting. Real dialogue is messy – and ‘goes there’ to the places that are hard.
Go there with me!
More to the point, real dialogue allows full transparency – with even hard things shared. I’ve done that hear, so if you’re frustrated or challenged I want to give you the same space to speak with full transparency. In other words, anger and candor are both welcome in dialogue – and I’m open to hearing how and where I’m wrong. I really am.
And, of course, if you resonate – great to hear from you too.
Rather than minimizing or closing down conversation, I intend in all my writing to open up this space. So let’s do it!
Tell me what you think.
Jacob Hess is the author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and socio-political issues. He currently directs the health non-profit All of Life which offers free online classes exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges. Jacob has (co)authored three books: You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong, Once Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore and A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference). Two other projects – Red Blue Dictionary and My Science Can Beat Up Your Science, will be released this fall. His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York has been featured on This American Life and was recently honored by Public Conversations Project. His many wonderful writing collaborators and dialogue partners disagree in all sorts of ways with Jacob’s religious conservative views, and this essay only represents his own convictions. As a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and a long-term member of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Jacob’s life work is dedicated to making space for thoughtful, good-hearted people to find understanding (and affection) while exploring together the deepest of disagreements.
 The process of adopting narratives – and how these stories play out in practical, day-to-day experience – was the subject of my dissertation from 2005 – 2009. More particular attention to this process in the area of identity has been a theme that figures prominently in the following:
- How do human beings know who they really are anyway?
- Another perspective on “I just can’t stay in this church anymore…”
- An (honest) disagreement at the heart of the lgbt-conservative religious conflict…that (almost) no one is talking about
- What does it mean when someone accepts experiencing same-sex attraction or being gay?
- What role does choice play in identity development and working with physical sensation or emotion?
- What role does romantic attraction play in identity?
 That’s not the same thing as somehow suggesting it’s “all subjective” or “just in people’s heads” (and thus easily dismissed). That’s absolutely not the case, since narratives are everywhere and have practical, moment by moment influence. In other words, narratives are not mere abstractions – and not something we just “tell.” We LIVE stories…so they are consummately practical and real – more like a Theater Script than a Fairy Tale.
 The life-upending power of this declaration is clearly no surprise to some in the gay community, as reflected in this example of encouragement shared with people not yet “out”: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”