It has been one year since I stepped into the light regarding my sexuality. It has been a year of heartbreak, challenges, joy, resistance, discovery, and more. In the year since I “came out” to the world, I have experienced growth. To celebrate my own boldness, I figured I would share some of the things I have learned about myself, spirituality, and community over this past year. I don’t want to forget the reason I came to the realization that I no longer needed to hide in the shadows of my sexual identity. On this day last year, 49 innocent lives were taken at Pulse Nightclub. Innocent LGBTQ+ and ally lives were lost while they were finding sanctuary and healing and community with one another at a night club, one of the few places that queer folks feel completely free to be themselves.
Trauma is a gray area. What may be traumatic and paralyzing for one person was merely a small obstacle for another. It makes the “Well why don’t you just get over it?” advice that much harder to hear, because the traumatized individual does not feel understood, at all. Even when this kind of advice is coming from a place of love, sometimes the traumatized just want to be heard.
There is much to be learned from simply listening to another person’s story. As a society, we have become accustomed to not listening to each other so much as just waiting for the other person to finish yapping so we can share our opinions. We view the world through our own lenses (we have no other option) and that can potentially hurt our ability to empathize well. When we hear a story of personal struggle, we naturally wonder how we would react if we were in the same situation. As we do that, we may minimize the pain of the person sharing their experience, because it probably wouldn’t hurt us in the same way. Maybe we begin to offer advice, “Well, if it was me, I would…” instead of sharing in their pain and suffering. If we are the ones who caused the pain, we might even want to redirect the conversation: “I didn’t mean it that way,” or “You’re taking that the wrong way.” Perhaps one of the most important things that I am still learning as a result of my own traumatic experiences is this: the art of listening. It is hard to meet people where they are, but when we do, a beautiful and Christlike relationship can begin to grow.
In my coming out blog post a year ago (and in posts since then), I referenced growing up in a Southern Baptist community that did not leave room for questioning things like sexuality. It wasn’t a community where I felt like I could allow my teachers and peers in to the depths of my soul and receive unconditional love and acceptance (this is not necessarily the fault of that particular church). What I did learn in my Southern Baptist community was the grave concern for and a profound attention to the reality of Heaven and Hell. In fact, many of my early memories of God and church were based around my desire to evade the depths of Hell. Death became a great fear of mine because of this, and still is to this day. In fact, this might have been the beginnings of what I have come to understand as spiritual trauma. What? What is that?
emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis; a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
Okay, so that is the generic definition of trauma. Now, just add spirituality and/or religion to the mix, and you have spiritual trauma (for the rest of this post, please remember that I am not a mental health professional, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a doctor, so my thoughts about trauma are just my own!). Thanks to a year and a half of weekly counseling sessions, I have realized that I was deeply affected by the various spiritual communities I have been a part of over the years. Because I was aware of my sexuality at such a young age, I was also aware of the condemnation I would face as a result of my sin. Can you imagine a 12-year old believing they are condemned to Hell for something about themselves that they don’t even fully understand yet? It is a terrifying feeling. When I say that I spent many nights praying that God would not let this be my fate, I am not exaggerating. I would plead with God, begging God to remove this conflicting sexuality from me, so that I would not go to Hell. Whether this was a result of direct or indirect teaching, I’m not sure; I am sure, however, that it deeply scarred my relationship with my own identity. I learned at a very young age to wear a mask. I did this for so long, that when I finally removed the mask a year ago, I did not even recognize myself. It took time to understand who I was, and who I am. I am still on this journey and will be for the rest of my life.
Christians often wonder what drives the LGBTQ+ community and the Church apart. These experiences are perfect examples of those driving forces. From childhood, I just knew that my sexual identity and my Christian identity could not co-exist. Even now, years later, I still struggle with conflicting about bringing the two together. Though my logical self understands that my identity is not separated into compartments of sexuality and spirituality, it will take time to reverse years and years of what I believe to be spiritual trauma that has forced my identity to feel in conflict with itself. I also understand that some Christians might come to the conclusion that I feel conflicted because the two (homosexuality and Christianity) truly cannot coexist. While I respect that this perspective may be different from mine, I ask that those Christians consider the psychological damage that humans experience in this world, and not just the spiritual warfare that is shown in Scripture.
One thing I have experienced in Campus Outreach (the college ministry I was a part of for several years) was that the idea of “godly love” usually trumps someone’s spiritual and psychological health. When someone shares “Truth in love,” it often and understandably stings. When someone shares that “Truth” about something they have not studied well, it will undoubtedly hurt worse. Over the years, I have had my fair share of these painful conversations with friends. Some of those friends are no longer in my life. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat across from a friend while they shared their Truth with me that I was living in sin and could be changed by God, if I was disciplined in my faith and really tried to give my sexual sin up to Him. Because I grew up in this community, I understand that their concern is coming from a place of what they believe to be love. They believe that my sexuality is keeping me from the good that God has to offer, and they are willing to step up and share that with me, despite the discomfort that most definitely will follow. On some level, I appreciate that. For some reason I still feel the genuine love that lies beneath those uncomfortable (and painful) conversations. I also understand that the tolerance I have had for these conversations were at the expense of my own mental, emotional, and spiritual health. My own insecurity with my sexual identity was heightened by the conversations I had, the books I was asked to read, etc. I felt like I was doing something wrong for merely existing. I was saddened to think that this might become the new dynamic with my conservative Christian friendships. I felt that we were no longer on the same playing field; I was afraid of becoming an object of pity and prayer requests. My friends wanted deeply for me to leave behind my “lifestyle” of sin and see their Truth that God can heal even the homosexual desires I was experiencing. Even though it was coming from a place of love, I continuously felt invalidated, unheard, and unwelcome.
My experience of “godly love” in college ended with me moving back home after graduation. Campus Outreach decided that the secrecy around my sexuality and relationships were too much of a risk. I was no longer allowed to lead my weekly discipleship group with college students I had grown to love and care for. I was uninvited from college retreats because I was a liability to my peers; they did not want to put someone who was dealing with same-sex attraction in a room or bed with other students. I wish I were exaggerating. I remember sitting across from a leader in my college ministry – whom I barely knew – at a Panera Bread, where I was asked to point out how “gay” I was on the Kinsey Scale (or something similar). My meeting with this unfamiliar man was just days after I had vocalized for the first time that I was attracted to the same sex. I was required to call the pastor of the church I was in the process of training and planting a church with through Summit Church; I had to confess my sexual sin to this man and allow him to make a decision about the validity of my repentant heart and whether or not I would be permitted to remain on the church-planting team. The pastor, along with my ministry leaders, determined that if I agreed to go to counseling through our church, they would strongly consider allowing me to remain a part of the church planting team. I began filling out the application I was given, desperate to find a way out of the mess I was in. I was almost convinced to go until I got to this question on the application: “What are your fears going into counseling?” Only one thought popped in my head, and I actually wrote it down: “That you will try to ‘fix’ me from being gay.” I immediately stopped filling out the application and I never turned it in. A few days later, I attended a meeting with my ministry leaders and the pastors of Summit, where they let me know that they decided to remove me from the team after determining that I was not mentally stable enough to benefit the mission of their church, or my own health. It is true, I was not mentally stable. It is also true that much of my mental instability came from these spiritual experiences and from those in my time with Campus Outreach. Again, I think that these leaders believe they had my best interest in mind. I think they believe that they were helping me; they believe that they were loving me.
I did not begin to understand what had happened or how it had impacted me until several years later, when I was talking to a friend about my coming out experience in this campus ministry. Her jaw dropped open, and she responded, “Katherine, that’s not normal.” It wasn’t? Because I had grown up understanding the seriousness of my sexual identity and how it would condemn me to Hell, I assumed that the way this ministry had handled my situation was appropriate. I believed that I was at fault, for keeping this a secret and for allowing them to trust me with sharing the Gospel with nonbelievers. I remember a ministry leader telling me that she would have never given me a reference letter for the church plant had she known what was going on. I understood her conviction and felt guilty for letting her write such nice things about me without knowing the truth about who I was. I remember being told that the reason I was so afraid to tell people about my queerness was because the Holy Spirit was trying to tell me how sinful it was. At age 20, I was doing the same thing I did when I was 12 – I continued to lay in bed at night and cry out to God. “Why would you let this happen to me? Why haven’t you fixed me? Why don’t you care? Why would you let me be gay?”
It wasn’t until I began counseling (in 2015, on my own terms) that I started to understand the depths of the spiritual trauma I was experiencing, though I was still hesitant to call it that. As my therapist helped me dig deeper into the anxieties and insecurities I fight today, I began to realize the impact that my earlier Southern Baptist community and later my campus ministry community had on my life. Because I grew up in the “Bible Belt,” my identity was deeply rooted in religion. To realize that the very foundation of my life is what was causing me the most turmoil, anxiety, and depression was earth-shattering. To discover that the one thing that promised me an eternity of safety was actually what was causing me to feel the most unsafe in my own skin was…well, the beginnings of an existential crisis. This is my spiritual trauma. Because of how I grew up, I view the world through a spiritual lens. Because of the conflict I experienced, I am now trying to relearn what it means to have a spiritual life, to believe in a Creator that is good, and to trust community. I promise I will go more in-depth with this process, but for the sake of a word count, I will hold off…for now.
On June 12, 2016, 49 innocent lives were taken, many more were injured, and even more had their LGBTQIA+ lives turned upside down in an instant. That day, I made the bold decision to come out of hiding, to come out of the shadows of my hidden sexuality and share with the world (well, however many people follow this blog) that I am a queer-identifying female. I have begun the long, tedious, tiring journey of moving through my experiences of spiritual trauma. I am learning to embrace who I am as a human being who was created with an innate attraction to females. What does that mean for my Christian journey? Well, stay tuned, I guess.