“It slowly starts to get in your mind and your subconscious [that] it’s Scientology against the world . . . anybody who puts Scientology down is your enemy, is our enemy…. Then you start to insulate yourself from people who aren’t Scientologists, and that’s how it begins.” - Leah Remini
I listened to Leah Remini discuss her experience getting out of Scientology, and I couldn’t help my tears. What she was saying in the documentary – it made sense. I had never been a Scientologist, didn’t have any friends in Scientology, and barely knew anything about the faith. But I could relate. I, too, had been shunned.
Shunning is worse than rejection. Because it’s not just the loss of a relationship. It’s also the loss of identity, of community, of purpose. It’s like dying.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, a place that feels a long way away from the rest of the world. It’s the biggest city in the state. It’s also a small town.
I didn’t fit.
I was religious.
I’m also gay.
At first, it didn’t matter that I was different because I was too young to know. I didn’t know that feeling more accepted by my female classmates was different from what other boys felt when they expressed interest in the opposite sex. I suppose I first got the idea that my interests were different when I was grocery shopping with my father. I had just seen the movie Aladdin, and I wanted the Aladdin doll from Mattel. My father refused, but I pleaded, asking again and again until we were in the check-out line. I could not understand why he was so opposed to my request, but I will never forget how embarrassed he looked when the checker put it in the bag. I had never asked for a doll before, but I found Aladdin interesting. I imagined us on adventures together, and I wished that I looked like him.
It didn’t help that I couldn’t talk with my parents or people in my church about the changes I was going through or the thoughts I was having. As far as I could tell, Christian marriage was holding hands, sitting next together in church, maybe some cuddling on a couch somewhere. I knew that what I was experiencing – what I wanted – must be wrong. At the very least, I wasn’t supposed to find men attractive. But I couldn’t fix my feelings. And when I did finally get the awkward sex talk from my father, I was left with more questions than answers. Apparently, good Christian men just don’t give in to their hormones.
I was going to have to do some research. Thank God for the internet. I could look up countless attractive men – modeling websites and fan pages dedicated to heartthrob movie stars. And then porn. For much of my adult life, this was my only connection, the only safe outlet.
All this time, I was still in the church. Because I wasn’t out. But I was an outcast. Every week in one way or another, I heard about how people like me were damned. I knew it was a slippery slope to hell. I would never be good enough.
Others tried to connect with me, but I didn’t trust their intentions. If they knew who I really was – after all, Jesus said, “If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart!” So I tried to resist my attractions, to suppress my desires. I failed. Every single time.
I knew I was putting my salvation in jeopardy. I was supposed to be growing in my faith, not going backwards.
To be fair, in church as in the larger culture, social norms control us. At church I heard I was going to hell. Everywhere else I heard the jokes, the derogatory toss-offs, the ever-present threat of violence. I knew what people thought of people like me. My own father once told me he wished all gay people could be put on a remote island so they would eventually die out.
So there’s that.
But there’s also this other thing I appreciate about my church. I learned to love God there. And in spite of everything, I felt like God was my friend, like God cared about what went on in my life. But God’s followers would never accept me. They almost made me believe I wouldn’t be accepted by God, either.
It just didn’t make sense. If what Jesus did on the cross wasn’t good enough to save me, then what was the point of it?
I thought about it. I thought about it a lot, and I’ve learned that there’s a difference between my faith and my upbringing. I have to fight my upbringing every day. And this is an act of faith. That’s why I could relate to Leah Remini’s departure from Scientology so much, because the elitism and cultish fervor she describes isn’t just a problem for Scientology. It’s in the church.
Believing God cared for me is what preserved me through years of self-hate and of the rejection I felt as a result of my attractions.
The church must not shut out those who would otherwise believe. The church must not be a place of hate.
When I was a child, I was different from other children, but it didn’t matter. Neither should it matter now. I fought for years to keep my attractions a secret. It wasn’t until I began dating my partner, Caleb, that I began to learn how to treat my attractions as normal. I also had to learn to love him. I am still learning.
Here’s what I know. Our salvation isn’t about us or our sexuality. God made us. God sees us. God loves us. And God wants us to experience that love as freedom – the freedom to love one another.