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Dear Kevin

11 May 2017

Content Warning: self harm, homophobia in religious institutions

Dear Kevin,

I was six when I first entered your church. We’d never gone regularly back in England, but we’d been invited by someone’s mum from school and it was – without irony – my mother’s saving grace. We suddenly had a new family, my mum stopped crying with homesickness every night and I liked having a Father who loved me unconditionally. I grew up in your church; nativity plays, Sunday school, congregation barbecues, running barefoot through long grass and church camps, pitching tents and bathing in natural streams. I remember, more than anything, a lot of joy and a feeling of belonging – something I’ve spent a long time searching for since.

What I remember more than all of that, is the night when I knew I couldn’t keep my faith anymore. I was fourteen and awkward, barely fitting in at a new high school. A childhood friend had invited me along to the Youth Group meeting on a Thursday night. It was also the night of my first kiss.

A first kiss can be important to a lot of people. For some people, it’s the start of adulthood, the cementing of a relationship or a first love. For me, it was a desperate attempt to purge the anxiety that seemed to clog my veins; to know that the times I’d spent online in LGBT chatrooms searching for someone to relate to, or the thoughts I’d had about girls in my class, were just curiosity, a phase. I didn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t get fireworks, I got the backstreets behind the local Burger King, saliva around most of my face and an incredible emptiness.

That night, in the Youth Group meeting, we spoke about homosexuality. The Youth Group leader stressed that while we should treat everyone equally, that that ‘lifestyle’ was a sin.

“I have gay friends,” I remember him saying, “but they’re still sinners.”

I remember the shame I felt that spread red across my knuckles as I clenched them in my lap.

“Aren’t we all sinners?” someone asked.

“Yes, but to go to Heaven we must ask for forgiveness. You cannot continually live a sin, never repent, and still be accepted in the Kingdom of God,” he answered.

“I used to make deals with Him; ‘I’ll never kiss a girl again, I’ll never think about a girl again, I’ll never go near that girl again.’”

Not long after, I told my mother I could not go to church anymore, because I did not believe in God. The truth was though, I never stopped believing. I still found myself talking to some omnipresent figure every night. I used to make deals with Him; ‘I’ll never kiss a girl again, I’ll never think about a girl again, I’ll never go near that girl again.’ If I pay my penance, God will forgive me for thinking these thoughts.

I did a lot of bargaining to suppress my attraction to women. It was a cycle of self-destruction and punishment, if I drink as much of this vodka as I can, at least I won’t feel guilty for kissing a girl, because I won’t remember it. If I don’t let myself eat for two days, maybe I’ll learn some self-control. If I can make this boy love me, maybe I’ll feel normal – but I never did. I kept slipping up, finding excuses as to why I kept kissing and messing around with girls. One night I slept over at a girl friend’s house. We were being touchy-feely, never quite crossing the boundary of kissing, but I felt an attraction that I’d never felt before. The next morning, I woke up with so much guilt at what had happened. I went home and tried to scrub my skin raw, but I still felt dirty. Embarrassed. So I – not for the first time by any means – broke my shaving razor into pieces and tried to let the shame out another way. I prayed that night, Kevin, for forgiveness. God forgives sinners if they repent, right?

When I was eighteen, I kissed a girl sober for the first time. I came out as bisexual, and learnt to accept myself. Two years later, I would reassess my sexuality and discover I was a lesbian. I would like to note here that both of my identities were valid, and my self-discovery is not intended to erase the identity of bisexual people. There’s enough of that going around already.

“Your job is to preach acceptance, to celebrate love wherever it occurs, but you cut me off from my religion in a way that cannot be reversed.” 

Last Easter, I went to church with my mum. It’s still important to her, and I will never begrudge her that, because in the three years since I came out I’ve managed to find peace with my own faith. But after the service, I noticed the petitions you and the old Vicar, Philip, had placed there for people to sign: protesting against the inclusion of LGBT people in leadership positions in the community, as well as against allowing them to marry in religious ceremonies.

Can you imagine what it’s like to feel that rejection and isolation from a community that had so much to do with shaping my childhood, who watched me grow up? I broke down in the car, and my mother hasn’t been back to your church since. I may be stronger now than I was when I was fourteen, but I want you to know that it still gets me.

It still gets me when it’s dark and I’m lying in bed trying to sleep. When I was fifteen and recovering from the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, only to have it blamed on ‘the gays’ by prominent religious figures. And maybe you think you’re not part of that, because you’re not picketing at funerals or likening us to Nazis. But you’re no different because with your prejudice, you validate homophobic and transphobic acts, because you contribute to the discourse which perpetuates that. You’ve still made me live years in shame of who I am.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know there are many LGBT youth and young adults who have faced the same situation from their religious institutions, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion. I know now that being gay and religious is not a mutually exclusive decision. Your job is to preach acceptance, to celebrate love wherever it occurs, but you cut me off from my religion in a way that cannot be reversed. I hope you consider my story, and realise there are millions more like it. I hope you realise the damage you have done to a young, gay woman, who was searching for some kind of belonging. Only now, seven years on, have I finally managed to find that within the LGBT community.

Absolutely no regards,

Tilli.