“The wife does not have authority over her own body,
but yields it to her husband.” -1 Corinthians 7:4
My mother gave me a dozen pink rosebuds when I was in high school. Pure and sweet, their petals were tight, delicate, guarded. This bouquet was presented to me alongside tears and professions of love, a way to help me understand the preciousness of my chastity. Every stem had a small card attached with a ribbon, Bible verses of righteousness and cleanliness and virtue copied in my mother’s compact handwriting. It was an apology and a reminder all in one, a tangible representation of my virginity and my separateness. Good Christian Girls didn’t date nonreligious boys, even when they’re kind and courteous, polite and respectful, artistic and gentle. And attending a school dance with a male friend, no matter how sweet he was, wasn’t allowed – he didn’t go to our church, or any church, which made him unacceptable as a partner.
You’re unevenly yoked, my mother told me with tears in her eyes, the flowers trembling in her hands. Someday you will fall in love with a boy who loves God more than you, who wants to shelter you and keep you safe. Until then, it’s our job to protect you from temptation.
She meant it as a kindness, not a threat.
I did what I was told growing up, for the most part. Went to the church my parents had planted every Sunday and to events throughout the week, took notes while my father preached, helped my mother plan religious events and weddings, volunteered in the nursery and the kitchen. Didn’t drink or swear, kept curfew, abandoned dreams of a job or a car in favor of having more time to spend on church activities. Listened to terrible Christian rock instead of secular radio, avoided the television programs my parents didn’t approve of. Was part of my youth group’s leadership team, led prayers and Bible studies, sang in my father’s choir, went on mission trips, memorized verses, met other believers around the flagpole at my public high school wearing my black WWJD bracelet. Only applied to religious colleges, so that my technical theatre degree wouldn’t be tainted or rendered worthless by “unholy” productions.
Most important of all, what gave me value, defined my life, made me a true woman of God: I dressed modestly, didn’t flirt with boys, and pledged that I would stay pure until marriage.
It’s the greatest gift you can give your husband, the preachers would say. Don’t you value your future marriage enough to stay pure in the present? A few moments of pleasure aren’t worth a lifetime of regret and shame. Adults I’d known my whole life gave tearful, heartfelt presentations to my youth group on the guilt they carried over having sex before marriage, stories and anecdotes of the damage that those few moments had wrought, the endless reasons that physical intimacy destroyed absolutely everything about otherwise wonderful partnerships. A lack of purity was the reason for divorces, infidelity, unhappiness. It was a constant refrain, a truth that lived deep within me: sex was wrong, desire and lust were ugly, faith and God should be enough to sustain us.
Purity culture in evangelical churches has always been a central tenet, but during the years I was in high school and college it was practically an obsession. Joshua Harris urged us to kiss dating goodbye and practice courtship, True Love Waits begged us to sign purity pledges and vow to stay celibate until marriage, and religious magazines like Brio preached to pre-teen girls on the necessity of abstinence and physical boundaries. And while people of all genders were urged to commit to not having sex, women in particular have always been held to an impossible standard, seen as stumbling blocks and harlots, somehow always responsible for sexual impropriety even while being expected to submit to men, leaders, husbands. It’s rape culture on steroids, a way to blame women for any indiscretion or perceived weakness on the part of the men around them. And as a deeply closeted young woman, I internalized those lessons completely, holding myself accountable for anything and everything that could be considered a temptation. When I got called into the pastor’s office because my favorite shirt exposed an inch of skin with my movements, I cried and apologized, vowing to do better and throwing the offending garment in the trash. When I was pulled out of a youth group meeting and scolded for whispering with the guy I liked, I wanted to sink into the floor in shame, taking full responsibility for the disruption while he faced no consequences. And when a friend invited me to my first school dance, I was obedient to my parents, regretfully telling him that I wasn’t allowed to date non-believers.
Somehow it felt easier to sink into those impossible rules, that deepest form of self-loathing, than it was to question the framework I was working within. Somehow I preferred to see my every action and desire and thought as sin, rather than question why all of those seemingly natural instincts and impulses were consistently labeled as wrong. Somehow I learned to hate myself, and called it God’s love instead.
“I am convinced that the human heart hungers for constancy. In forfeiting the sanctity of sex by casual, nondiscriminatory ‘making out’ and ‘sleeping around,’ we forfeit something we cannot well do without. There is dullness, monotony, sheer boredom in all of life when virginity and purity are no longer protected and prized.” – Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control
As a child I questioned everything, wanting to understand the why of it all – why do we call it our daily bread when we only take communion once a week; why do we celebrate Jesus dying when funerals are sad occasions; why can’t we ever skip church? But I rarely pushed back on the specific and strict rules of purity, so ingrained were those messages around my self-worth, the value that my virginity seemed to carry. That obsession with controlling women’s bodies, with calling any desires that didn’t fit their strict structure impure, did more than just stifle my desire to understand – it also discouraged exploration, painting us all with the same cis, straight, obedient brush. Fundamentalism doesn’t make space for intuition, for instincts, for personal ideals; we’re to trust our leaders above all else, and any challenges to their teachings are treated like challenges to God Himself. If a verse or an idea doesn’t feel right to us, we’re told it’s just the sin influencing us, to pray, to give our doubts to the Lord. So when my pastor preached weekly on the particular dangers of homosexuality, became a public face in my state of the church’s fight against marriage equality, and labeled queerness as a rejection of all that’s natural and holy and God-given, I believed him. I was too afraid not to.
It’s easier to follow those rules of purity when you’re that deep in the closet, easier to hide behind talk of boys and crushes and who sat next to who on the bus back from the youth retreat. Queerness as a concept was so far outside of my experience, so separate from anything I’d seen or known, that I simply didn’t think about it, rejected it completely as a possibility. No one noticed when I flushed or stumbled around certain girls, how I never wanted to describe my crushes, that I was a little too obsessed with Brad from Hey Dude or the yellow Power Ranger — not even me. I was never asked to define my sexual identity, my preferences, my gender. Everything was assumed, and since the word “bisexual” wasn’t even in my vocabulary until college, I ignored those longings for women, focused instead on my occasional attractions towards men. The need for my virginity to stay in tact was so overwhelming that no one had time to worry about anything else. I followed the rules my church set, and the rules didn’t make space for anything but heteronormativity.
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust…” -1 Thessalonians 4:3-5
One evening I found myself in a lecture hall I’d visited many times, the place where I’d attended my mandatory freshman course on the Old Testament with a revered professor. Stiff auditorium chairs covered in dark, worn fabric, loud doors that slammed with every late entrance, old whiteboards covered in the faded, unreadable ghosts of past classes on Revelation and the gospels. Students and teachers slowly shuffled in, laughing and gossiping, ready to barely listen to the presentation and snag an easy chapel credit. No one seemed to notice me, hands trembling slightly as I clutched a beat-up notebook to my chest, the only person who showed up at every homosexuality panel, discussion, and event on campus. I kept waiting for new information, hoping for someone smarter than me to clarify the questions I couldn’t verbalize, was afraid to name even within myself. But as I sat stiffly in my uncomfortable chair, trying not to move lest it creak and draw attention to me, it quickly became clear that I was trapped in another useless session from my supposedly liberal non-denominational college.
Sex before marriage is always sin – the Bible is very clear on that, the panelists lectured. It’s essential to remain pure until marriage, even for those in relationships outside of God’s plan. And if marriage isn’t an option, celibacy is the only way to maintain purity. What was ostensibly a discussion on the Bible’s definition of homosexuality had, once again, immediately shifted into the same view I’d heard my entire life. No alternate readings of the familiar clobber verses, no cultural context or explorations or interpretations, and definitely no consideration that there may be people in the room who didn’t identify as straight, who were struggling with their sexuality or gender, who were desperate to find hope or healing. The same broad, hateful rhetoric I’d grown up with, framed as an open discussion, somehow became even more painful in a place that I’d chosen, somewhere that I’d hoped to find freedom and joy away from my childhood church. I’d done this to myself, hoping things would be different even as I chose the same well-worn path I’d always known.
I slipped out of the lecture hall before the panel had completed, creeping up to the dark, quiet rooftop of the financial aid building to stare at the stars and pray. I pled for help, for clarity, for answers. I didn’t want to be different, didn’t want to lose my family and friends and faith because of something I couldn’t control. I hated who I suspected I was, hated the secret crushes, the flushed cheeks, the endless embarrassment when I was around girls I liked. I wanted to be whole, pure, the person I was supposed to be. I wanted to be good enough that my sexuality wouldn’t matter.
“During courtship, guarding each other’s purity and refraining from intimacy are the acts of lovemaking.” – Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship
I’d hoped that years of covertly scribbling notes on certain verses, cursing Paul’s letters in the New Testament, accidentally earning a Biblical studies minor through my hunger for answers, would somehow absolve me of the paralyzing guilt I carried. I’d deliberately chosen a college with a conservative life-and-conduct-statement, one that specifically forbade sexual relations and homosexuality to help me avoid all of those questions that felt too big to answer – but my friends had no trouble breaking those rules and I found myself constantly longing to explore, to give in to temptation, to test my own resolve. My already severe insomnia got worse, depression took over, and it became easier to skip church services, to lie about chapel attendance, to let those verses that had hurt me for so many years fade into the background. I avoided conversations on God, skipped classes, lied about the guys I was fucking and the girls I dragged into bathrooms when I’d had too much to drink. I hated the way I felt sitting in those hard wooden pews, hated the feelings that welled up in me every time we sang certain hymns, hated feeling like a messy, confused hypocrite. I’d tried to be their kind of good, but it would never be enough. The Bible said I’d been fearfully and wonderfully made, created in His image, yet somehow I knew that I was still broken, that any purity I’d claimed in my youth was long gone.
So when a gorgeous, free-spirited woman started dating one of my friends, I immediately recognized the longing that welled up within me. Those familiar flushed cheeks, shaking hands, the sensation that I’d forgotten how to move with any semblance of grace – the attraction was instant, overpowering, and a few moments in her presence completely undid me. She was easy, seemed to breathe more freely than I ever had, laughed and sang and danced barefoot in the grass. R was everything I wasn’t, and I was utterly transfixed, mesmerized by her full-throated laugh, her tangled hair, her reckless sense of adventure. She had an impulsive and contagious habit of getting drunk or high and wanting to make out with whoever was around, and one particularly messy night, she chose me.
By then I was no stranger to hooking up with my friends, but I was a master of boundaries, able to separate the slightest whisper of lust from our spontaneous, carefree explorations. And yet that night those insistent kisses broke me apart, forced me to confront how much I wanted this, wanted her. R’s hands lingered on my waist, her lips soft, and I was torn between the guilt spiraling through me and a sharp desire that I could no longer deny. She seemed oblivious to my torment, to the shame and confusion engulfing me, so when eventually she pulled away, citing discomfort with my overly enthusiastic response, all I could do was slink outside, light cigarette after cigarette with trembling hands, and wish that I was anywhere, anyone, else.
“If we don’t abundantly love each other, we can’t have an abundant relationship with God. I must embrace an interpretation of my faith that requires unconditional love for queer people because any less would be to deny my own humanity and that of my community. – Adrian White,
Seeking Queer Theology And Perfect Love That Casts Out Fear
It wasn’t until years later that I could see those moments for what they were — the confirmation that I had never been the straight, perfect Christian woman I’d impersonated for all those years. After a viral round of conservative, hateful articles about God’s view on homosexuality forced an uncomfortable theological discussion with my mother-in-law, I found myself sitting alone at my cheap, scratched Ikea table, sobbing over my leather-bound New King James and an Autostraddle article I’d found through Google. The identity I’d tried to deny had a name, and I’d finally whispered it out loud — bisexual. I knew the word was mine, that this label spoke the core of who I was, that it resonated in a way that was too real to ignore. Just putting a name to that endless, overpowering struggle broke me into pieces, and the freedom and relief I’d hoped to feel were nowhere to be found. I was an abomination twice over now, both impure and unnatural. I’d never be able to put myself back together in the same way, into a person that God could still love.
I was coming up on my fourth wedding anniversary, married at 23 to a man raised in the same churches and beliefs and rules as me, and admitting my truth to him or anyone else felt absolutely impossible. I was sure he would leave me, sure that this new revelation on top of everything else we were struggling with as young married people would be the thing that finally broke us apart. I couldn’t blurt out the truth until I’d finished almost two bottles of wine, the words tumbling clumsily, my eyes fixed to the floor — a pattern that repeated over the next few months as I drunkenly came out to my closest friends, those trusted few that had been with me for so many years. The receptions were always the same, shocking me every single time — immediate acceptance, joy, even gratitude that I’d chosen them to be truthful with. No one judged me, not one single person, and no one walked away. They simply pulled me into their arms and gave me generous words of love and comfort that I could almost believe.
For all of the pain that those evangelical spaces caused me, for all the ways the church broke my spirit and told me I could never be enough, I also found incredible people there, chosen family that made me feel safe, supported me without missing a beat. They’re still by my side all these years later, my partner and my former roommates and my oldest friends, reading my work and supporting my dreams and calling me family. They don’t care that I didn’t have answers, that I still don’t — they just love me, every single piece. It’s the most radical thing I’ve ever experienced, more pure than any love my childhood church offered me, more revolutionary and accepting and powerful than I could’ve ever imagined. Those friends taught me that sex was something joyful, beautiful, expressive, that it could be about pleasure instead of purity. They helped me discover tarot, intuition, to build and foster community that supports instead of tearing apart. I’d always associated love with judgment, and they showed me that it could be so much more.
I’m still discovering new scars, new sensitivities, new bits of shame that creep around my sharp edges even after all these years. I’ve come out to people from my childhood that aren’t so welcoming, that preferred to walk away rather than accept who I am. I’ve shared my truth with my parents and in-laws, family that’s uncomfortable with my identity and tries to avoid it as much as possible. And I’ve had to grapple with my sexuality over and over, making mistakes and constantly learning and embracing humility as a daily practice. But purity culture built a framework so specific, so inherently flawed, that when I decided to reject it I could do so wholeheartedly. My life may not follow those strict mandates anymore, may celebrate queerness and desire and inclusivity in a way that still horrifies my parents — but it’s finally real, authentic, mine. I found a god that makes sense to me, one brimming with grace and joy and magic, and I know that she loves me exactly the way she made me: queer as hell.