I have a confession to make– a deeply hidden, humiliating secret on par with heroine abuse, or that time in middle school you got all the way onto the bus before realizing you weren’t wearing any pants. In the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I voted for Bush. Sure, I’m making light of it now. But truth be told, there are many times when I’ve had to live with the guilt of helping put a man in office who goes against nearly everything I stand for now. So why did I do it, then?
28 years ago, I was born into an extremely conservative Evangelical family. My father was the Minister of Music at the local Evangelical church. His parents were Evangelical. And my mother, having married into the family, more or less adopted the Evangelical church as well. When my brother and I were little, we went to church every Sunday. My father read the Bible every morning at 5am over coffee (still does, as far as I know). Christmas and Easter were absolutely about Jesus’ birth and subsequent death/resurrection. And the often unspoken values of the church were always quietly present in our house. Let me explain what I mean by that. My father is an introvert, if ever there were an introvert. He rarely lectured or spat hell-fire and damnation. He didn’t have to. His beliefs– the church’s beliefs– were always there. It was the sort of conservative pink elephant in the room that sat in the corner and listened to make sure my brother or I didn’t cuss or watch anything on MTV. The few times he did speak up usually involved his feelings on Magic Cards and Harry Potter (neither of which my brother or I were allowed to get involved with because it was “dark sourcery”) and other relatively benign things like that. We didn’t talk about sex (in fact, I don’t think my Dad’s ever talked about sex… even with himself). And when my brother started having it, he just cleared his throat in disapproval and turned the other cheek.
In many ways, what my father did was more painful than any shouting or damnation. It was his quiet disapproval (often only evident by the above throat clearing that’s become so synonymous with him among our family) that alienated me from my real self for so many years. My father is a wonderful man. He’s been hands down the best Dad to his two children. He was at every sporting event and play he could get to. He came home for dinner every night and hugged us. He’s loving and supportive and would do absolutely anything for us. I still get a message from him every year saying “you’ll always be my Valentine, Dots” (that’s what he calls me… a long standing inside joke). Truth me told, my father and I were extremely close (and, in many ways, still are). I was always a bit of a Daddy’s girl. And that’s what made coming out so incredibly difficult.
My parents divorced when I was sixteen. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I know my mother agonized over the decision, but I still tell her every day that by making the hardest choice of her life, she saved mine. My folks remained extremely amicable, both of them wanting to remain friends due to their kids, and a lot of mutual respect. But my mother found her way back to the Episcopal church, returning to her roots as a liberal, open-minded democrat who’d spent just a little too much time confined to the judgements of the Evangelical church. I think it was probably the Evangelical minister who told her she’d go to hell for leaving my father that officially did her in. My mother branched out, but I didn’t. In fact, through much of high school, I became even more involved in the Evangelical church. I made friends there, and even went on a mission’s trip to Mexico to try make more Evangelicals. I refrained from having sex, because I knew it was a sin. I felt guilty whenever I dropped an F-bomb (which, being a teenager in a public high school, I did often). And I even got up on my Right-winged soap box a few times about things like abortion. I did it because I found comfort in that kind of blind, cult-like faith. And it bonded me to my father.
I started college a couple of years later at a very liberal state school. My secure little world was about to be cracked wide open. Now, I wasn’t a perfect Christian (like my father) by any means. I dabbled with drinking and smoking, I made out with my share of boys (yes, boys), and often swore like a Springer guest who just found out her boyfriend is cheating. I didn’t go to Campus Crusade meetings or even attend church anymore. But I occasionally read my Bible and swore to abstinence until marriage (to a man, of course). And when the 2004 election came rolling around, I took my 18 year old self down to the Town Hall and checked that ballot box next to Bush’s name. Literally every other freshman in my dorm was sporting Kerry signs on their doors. But I stood strong to my Evangelical beliefs– my father’s beliefs– and put a misogynistic, pro-life, anti-gay “Christian” in the White House.
Then, something else happened– something that has undoubtedly shaped every facet of my life as I know it today. I fell in love with my best friend… a beautiful, funny, brilliant girl named Sasha who was the light of my life back then. My coming out story isn’t really a “coming out story.” At least it wasn’t by my second year of college. My high school dance card was full of boys. I even dated the goalie for the varsity hockey team. I was rarely single. And, although I dealt with an ever-nagging sense that something was definitely missing, it never once occurred to me that I was gay. People ask me now how that’s even possible, seeing how many kids know from puberty. My only explanation is that my “beliefs,”– twenty years of “values”– were so deeply poisoning me, being a lesbian wasn’t even on my radar. In retrospect, there were definitely girl-crushes from early on (my 6th grade student teacher, my brother’s girlfriend freshman year, my high school guidance counselor). But I easily chalked them up to admiration and kinship. It wasn’t hard to suppress any kind of sexual desire for women, because I didn’t even know it was there. That is, until Sasha. After years of friendship that bordered more on dependence, I finally came to accept that the things I was feeling for her– the way I wanted her– was more than just platonic.
And we all lived happily ever after. Right? Not quite. You’d think that that little gay lightbulb that went off when I realized I wanted to kiss her more than I’d wanted to kiss any of my old boyfriends would have been enough to push me right out of the closet I didn’t know I’d been living in for so many years. But denial, and the Evangelical church, are powerful things. And, although I was away from home, and physically separated from the church and their confines, I didn’t feel it. I don’t know what I would have done had Sasha reciprocated my feelings– probably peed my pants and ran. But she didn’t. Instead, she (unintentionally) broke my heart. And I (very intentionally) went running… right back to men. That’s when I met Chris. Chris was a nice boy who liked me right away. And we stayed together for an entire year before I just couldn’t anymore. I loved Chris– as a brother, as a friend, as someone who loved me. But that old feeling that something was missing was just magnified a billion times after finally falling in love with a woman. I was up front with Chris about this– in fact, he was one of the few people I was up front with. But as we approached the one year mark, and things were supposed to be getting more serious, it was becoming harder and harder to shake my want to “try it”– you know, try being gay. The need to just so much as kiss another girl was so intense, it became all I could think about. I cultured myself with DVDs of the L Word, which only served to intensify my torture. And then, I told Chris I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to figure out what these feelings were, or I couldn’t stay with him. He was heartbroken, but understanding– and to this day, one of the most nobel men I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay with him. Because as soon as I laid eyes on my first girlfriend, who I met while I was with him, I knew. I was gay. And even twenty more years under the church’s iron fist wasn’t going to change that.
By the 2008 election, I was the most adamant democrat I knew (well, maybe just in my family). The thought of voting republican again seemed not only foreign and contradictory, but also absurd and repulsive. In a blink of an eye, I’d become a prideful, liberal homo. It would be another year before I could come out to my mother (thank God for her). And another four years before I’d reluctantly come out to my father. Actually, I can’t even fairly say I came out to him. My mother outed me. Don’t worry… I told her to. I just couldn’t find the words myself. And I couldn’t bear to hear that throat clear on the other end of the phone that said I’d disappointed the hell out of him.
To his credit, my father’s done okay. When I was married in 2010, he came to the wedding (even though it was in Provincetown and rampant with drag queens). And he’s actually getting a little better about asking how my partner is doing now (as opposed to his normal method of pretending things don’t exist). But there are times I almost wish he’d quote scripture and damn me to eternal hell fire. At least then I’d know how he felt. Instead, I’m forced to deal with the silence and assumed disapproval of what I can only guess he considers my “lifestyle choice”– no eternal damnation, just eternal throat clearing.
We often pride ourselves on being different from our parents. “I’ll never do what they did.” And parents often scold themselves for not having enough influence over their kid’s lives. But I am almost exclusively a product of the life my parents gave me (and I don’t just mean biologically). Had my mother not left my father– had she not made the difficult choice to be happy– I would never have been strong enough to accept who I was. Had my father not raised us Evangelical, I would probably not have taken twenty years to come to terms with how God Himself actually made me. And I certainly wouldn’t have voted republican in 2004. Don’t underestimate the presence our parents have in our lives… even when you think you’ve grown up and moved away. I still struggle every time my father hugs me and says “God loves you, and so do I.” That being said, is it really my father’s fault? For all his conservative and often harmful beliefs, he loved us passionately. He still does. Every few weeks we meet for lunch back home in New Hampshire. And when he hasn’t heard from me in a while, he sends me a text saying “just checking in. Love you, Emmy.” Yeah, he still calls me Emmy. And he’s the only one I won’t punch in the chest for doing so. I can’t blame my father for the church’s errors. Especially when he’s nothing like those horrors in politics or on the TV like Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, or Pat Robbinson (all of which he’d still support or vote for). My father is a kind, gentle, saint. Albeit a misguided one.
We are absolutely products of the environments we were raised in. But at some point, we grow up. And it becomes our responsibility– not our parents– to step out, and break the mold. I’ll always be my Daddy’s daughter, in spite of the fact my life, and my beliefs, don’t often align with his. I chose to be who my God made me. And I know, somewhere buried beneath all those Bible verses and sermons, my father knows that to be true too. So, thanks Dad. For forcing me to make my own way. And for loving me even when I did.