It was the day of New York City’s Pride March in 2017, and I had just arrived in the city from South Africa at the age of 22. I decided to attend an evening church service at a well-known megachurch because I’d heard great things about the services they held in the Hammerstein Ballroom. Standing in line to get inside, I befriended a student from Kansas and surveyed the people around us who were also waiting.
Queer men and women stood in line with us dressed in rainbow colours, holding flags and chatting about the church service that was about to begin. I remember being so amazed that gay people were welcome at this church, and that they were comfortable enough to be so open about their sexuality.
Part of me felt jealous. I yearned to stand beside them and wave a pride flag, declaring that I, too, was queer. That I was bisexual and that I was proud. I wondered if the following year, I’d attend the Pride March with these new queer friends I’d made at church. It made me hopeful that my acceptance of my own sexuality was the first step in being accepted by a church community.
I was immediately welcomed with open arms by the greeters inside and by the hosts that showed us to our seats on the balcony. I waited in anticipation for the service to start until eventually an older man walked onto the stage and began to preach.
He talked about how being gay was a sin and how our “liberal and progressive society” was ruining the sanctity of marriage by legalising gay marriage. I was stunned. I watched as those around me began nodding their heads and I heard the occasional “Preach, pastor!” The student beside me, the one from Kansas, didn’t move a muscle. Then, I watched as people from the crowd got to their feet and left the auditorium, some shaking their heads and others even crying.
The pastor continued to preach and I sat there, unable to move but not wanting to listen to another word he said. I felt so angry. I couldn’t believe how naive I had been to believe that this church would embrace the LGBTQ+ community. That this church would embrace me.
We weren’t welcome in this church. We weren’t welcome in any church.
I didn’t grow up in a religious household. My mother said Christians were judgmental and that going to church every Sunday didn’t make you a good person.
I was 12 years old when I started attending Sunday school at the Baptist church up the street. My mother would drop me off every Sunday morning and pick me up when it was over. I also began attending youth group and started reading my Bible, even though it was difficult to interpret.
My town wasn’t conservative, and there were a handful of openly gay teens at my high school. I always knew that I liked girls, as I grew up watching the Disney Channel and crushing on both Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. This was confusing for a young girl who didn’t quite know what the term “bisexual” meant.
I felt comfortable making passing comments about girls I found attractive and talking about dating women once I went off to college. Being bisexual was the most normal thing in the world to me, and I felt accepted by my small, close-knit friend group.
That changed after I graduated and became more involved in my church community. I would hear my pastors preach about the condemnation of homosexual people and how they would all go to hell for their sexual orientation.
As a young woman discovering herself and exploring her sexuality for the first time, I found it terrifying to hear that there wasn’t a place in heaven for me because I was bisexual. The part of me that I had been so comfortable with was now hidden. I would look at openly queer women and feel envious of their courage and confidence to love who they loved.
I prayed to God one night and asked Him why He had created me this way. Did He want me to be hated?
I was taught that you couldn’t be a queer Christian — it was either you were queer or you were a Christian. God would never accept you as both.
I was wracked with so much shame, guilt and self-doubt over my sexuality. All I could do was cry each time I imagined myself coming face-to-face with God one day and being turned away from heaven. I hated myself and I wondered if God hated me, too.
I didn’t want to be alive. I remember thinking, I’d rather be dead than feel this way.
I didn’t know any openly queer Christians at the time, and I was too afraid to actively seek them out in my church community in case someone learned I was bisexual and outed me to my pastors. Whenever the topic of homosexuality was brought up among my church friends, I went rigid and stayed silent.
I started attending a different church when I was 23 years old, and that’s where I met Natalie, an openly gay woman and a volunteer at the church. She was the first church friend I felt comfortable enough to talk to about my bisexuality, and the conversations we had about God and homosexuality went on for hours.
Everyone knew she was a lesbian, and she was loved and accepted and hadn’t been shunned by our pastors. This hadn’t been her experience at previous churches, and she expressed difficulty in finding a church as welcoming as ours. The congregation’s acceptance of Natalie gave me the courage to come to terms with the fact that I had been created exactly the way God intended.
I had never been part of a church like this, and I knew that it wasn’t the norm in the Christian community. A 2013 survey by Pew Research found that 73% of queer people described evangelical churches as unfriendly toward those who identify as LGBT, and 29% of LGBT adults said they feel unwelcome in a religious community.
This was part of the reason why I wasn’t openly bisexual. I had watched other queer people experience immense hurt from their churches regarding their sexuality. They were told that if they prayed hard enough, God would change their desires, and that while they were welcome to attend church, their “lifestyle choices” would never be accepted.
I remember being told by a pastor that “love does not equal acceptance,” that we can love everyone but not accept them or their choices. Complete love and acceptance should never be hard to come by in a church community, especially when we strive to bring people to God.
Becoming more open to the fact that I was not an abomination gave me the courage to start seeking out other Christians who were like me — queer people of God who didn’t want to “pray away the gay,” but rather sought to find safe spaces within church communities where they were able to exist as homosexuals because they were created in God’s image.
Social media became a big part of my self-acceptance journey as I began to engage with more queer Christian content, finding Christian allies who spoke out against the homophobia that ran rampant in evangelical churches.
I realized there was an entire group of people who still loved Jesus and practiced Christianity, yet did not believe homosexuality was a sin.
It was possible for me to find a Christian community that loved and accepted me because I saw other queer Christians on social media attending church services that were pastored by gay men and women, even transgender men and women.
It was another side of Christianity that I had never witnessed — but it was there and it was real, and that was the most affirming discovery I’d ever had when it came to my sexuality.
An upcoming documentary titled “1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted a Culture” investigates how the word “homosexual” was mistranslated and added to the Bible, and how one word influenced the anti-gay movement that so many American conservative Christian churches stand so firmly behind.
To be told that one little translation mistake in the Bible had caused so much division within the Christian community made me angry at first, but it allowed me to connect with my Christian friends in a way that I never had before. I was strong enough in my faith and my relationship with God that I knew nothing anyone could say to me would prevent me from being exactly who I was.
As a white, cisgender bisexual woman, I never felt empowered enough to speak my truth out of fear of being ostracised by the church. I cannot begin to imagine how queer people of colour or transgender people are made to feel in these instances.
I can only speak on my own experience and remain hopeful that every queer and transgender person will one day feel loved and accepted by all religious organisations –– unconditionally.
Coming to terms with the fact that not every person I encounter will accept me — while knowing that I am loved and accepted by the Lord regardless of what others think — has been more fulfilling and comforting than I ever thought possible.
I love Jesus, and I know in my heart that He is a loving and merciful God. I have never been happier or more at peace with who I am as a person. God knows me. He knows my heart. He knows my desires. That is all I care about as I continue to embark on this journey of self-love and acceptance.