I was 16 when I finally came across the word that described a part of my identity. That word was in an article in Rolling Stone magazine.
I stood in front of the mirror and tried the word on for size … lesbian … lezz-be-annn. I rolled it around on my tongue for awhile and decided I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It sounded like something you can cure with a cream. There was a word I found that was better, stronger, and felt more empowering – dyke. In that moment, I became a baby dyke.
The article, though, was wonderful and affirming, telling the tales of women who loved women, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. It was much more helpful than the entry in the edition of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, which simply stated, and I quote: “Two penises and two vaginas equal nothing.” That was the extent of the book’s discussion of homosexuality. Maybe it’s expanded over the years, but that was the pithy entry I was left with, until that Rolling Stone article.
You have to remember, this was the time before the internet, or Facebook or anyone proclaiming their sexuality from some digital rooftop. I was a kid in a small Georgia town thinking she was the only pervert in the world. And make no mistake, I knew I was a perversion, because the Bible told me so – or at least every adult around me who I relied on to interpret the Bible for me said so.
Hold my hand
The thing is, though, I always knew I was different – even back when I didn’t have that awful, clinical, sounding word for what made me different.
My earliest memory of my divergence from the heterosexual norm was in first grade. We went on a field trip to an auto manufacturing plant. To this day, I recall nothing about how they make cars. All I know is that we were required to buddy up and hold hands with a classmate so we wouldn’t get lost in the massive plant.
All I remember is that I got to hold Marie’s hand all day and not only did everyone approve of that, but it was also expected and encouraged! It felt wonderful!
I was too young to really understand anything about sexual attraction, but what I did know is that it felt natural to play with the rough and tumble boys. But what really made my heart sing was an intimate connection with another girl. And not so much on that physical level – though, I suppose that played a role – but it was clear to me that a relationship with another woman fulfilled a deeper need for connection than roughhousing with the boys. It has always felt like a soul connection – a mind connection. It’s so much more than skin deep, and I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, it’s the same for heterosexuals.
This was also about the time that my mother sat me down to have the “birds and the bees” talk. She told me, in great detail, about how a man and a woman come together to make a baby. I found her description both frightening and revolting, and I recall thinking: “That will never happen to me.” I have kept that promise to myself.
That day, though, when I discovered the word the world used for people like me, was when I knew that I would have to fight to be who I was. I had a choice in that moment – I could accept the truth about myself that went deep into my soul, or I could deny myself and conform to what the world expected of me.
I think it’s clear which path I took. I immediately left the church, figuring that if God hated me the very least that I could do was return the favor.
I did just fine without God until my first girlfriend – who had also been raised as a Southern Baptist – told me she wanted to go back to church.
We were living in Atlanta, and she had seen this newspaper article about a church called the MCC – or the Metropolitan Community Church. It’s a denomination that was formed in 1968 by a gay evangelical minister named Troy Perry. The church’s whole mission was to give LGBTQI people a place to meet God and each other until they could be accepted widely in other denominations.
“Don’t wake me when you leave on Sunday morning,” I told my girlfriend. I wanted no part in this fool’s errand. God and I had a deal; if I left him alone, he’d leave me alone.
Nevertheless, my girlfriend persisted, and I found myself in a church one Sunday morning, weeping. It was the first time I had heard someone in a pulpit tell me that God knows I’m gay and God loved me anyway, since I was created that way.
It also felt a lot like that car-plant tour because I could freely hold the hand of the woman I loved and did not feel judged, shamed, or in danger of being “found out.” Instead, it was expected, and even encouraged!
It’s also the first time I had ever seen a woman preach; and that was both a disconcerting and life-changing moment, because my secret ambition had always been to preach – but I knew it couldn’t happen in my traditional church. I was probably about 20 years old then and I have been in some manner of church since that day, because I heard God say to me, “Welcome home.”
Fast forward to 1996. I was in my second long-term relationship and had the opportunity to go to seminary. By this time, I had started an internet magazine that still exists today called Whosoever. It was designed for LGBTQI Christians, since that is what I identified as spiritually back then. Not long after the first issue went online, I began receiving hate mail. Total strangers would call me vile names and tell me I was going to hell because of who I loved.
Thus began my life of defending myself against an ancient hatred of anyone who is perceived as being different from the societal norm of compulsory heterosexuality.
So, I went to seminary to get educated – to learn how to fight the good fight, which I did for a number of years. At the end of my seminary career though, I had to write a mini dissertation to graduate. I told my advisor I wasn’t sure what to write about. He asked me what brought me to seminary, and I told him I wanted to learn how to defend myself against these anti-gay attackers. I wanted to know how to win a theological fight. (Funny and naïve, right?)
“And what have you learned?” he asked.
Learning not to fight
I immediately thought about the movie The Karate Kid, where martial arts expert Mr. Miyagi trains a young man named Daniel to defend himself. Daniel became confused during his training, because while he was learning all the moves he would need, he never saw Mr. Miyagi use his skills in a fight. In fact, Miyagi turns down an opportunity to fight. Finally, he asked him about his fighting days and Mr. Miyagi revealed that he hates fighting.
“Yeah,” Daniel says, “but you like karate.”
“So?” Miyagi replied.
“So,” Daniel says, “karate’s fighting. You train to fight.”
Miyagi grunts and says, “That what you think?”
Daniel ponders a minute and says, “No.”
“Then why train?” Miyagi asks.
Daniel thinks for a moment before replying, “So I won’t have to fight.”
“Miyagi have hope for you.”
This was my answer to my advisor. I had learned the jujitsu of spiritual self-defense in seminary. I can argue Bible passages with the deepest, most committed homophobes, but I realized that, theology, spirituality – it’s not about learning how to fight. It’s about learning the true art of defenselessness.
While I was fighting the good fight against both the homophobia outside of me and my internalized homophobia through argument and political action, I realized that all the fighting – all the arguing with strangers or even on public panels – did one thing and one thing only – it created a feeling of separation. It created winners and losers. It created feelings of resentment, anger, superiority, and distrust. Arguing, fighting over whether homosexuality was blessed or cursed by God, did nothing to quell or dispel the ancient hatred that was at the root of all the fighting.
I’m not saying that we don’t work against those who are making life harder for LGBTQI+ people in the world by passing laws against our very existence. We certainly should. But our starting point is crucial.
We must know the rules of the fight, so we don’t have to fight. Instead, when we become truly defenseless, we approach everything in life from a place of Love, instead of a place of fear. We should be like Miyagi, trained to fight, but reticent to harm others, even as they seek to harm us.
What we must give up is any form of fighting that causes more separation, fear, or hatred, either in ourselves or those who may challenge us. The moment I did that – the moment I realized that A Course in Miracles is right when it says, “in my defenselessness my safety lies,” I wept again, because just like that moment in the MCC, I felt a sense of peace that welcomed me home.
I still know all the arguments about the Bible, but instead of seeing those who disagree with me as opponents, I have learned in my spiritual walk to look deeper – to see beyond their human words and arguments and into the closet where they hide their deepest selves.
You see, this is the crux of the matter: We all share the same closet. We’re all hiding in our closet of fear where we try our best to avoid anything that might trigger feelings of shame, guilt, or unworthiness.
I was able to live into that defenselessness A Course speaks about when I realized that there is no shame in my sexual orientation. God – the real one, not the one made up by religious fanatics and hates the same people they do – doesn’t condemn me for it.
In fact, in this illusory world of flesh and ego, my sexual orientation isn’t even who I truly am in eternity. As an eternal spirit, gender and sexual orientation simply aren’t part of the equation. Sexual orientation is nothing but a learning tool in this bodily classroom. It’s part of my curriculum because the lesson we’re all sent here to learn is one of forgiveness.
So, hear the good new, friends – you are not anything your ego says you are. You are not anything that makes you feel shame, guilt, worthlessness, or fear. The ego convinces us that we are originally sinful and in need of redemption. This is the closet of fear where it seeks to keep us locked up.
Here’s the truth about all of us – maybe especially those who you hate with that ancient hatred: we’re all originally blessed. We’re all innocent creations who still reside within the mind of our Creator.
We’ve forgotten this, and we invent religions to keep us locked into this lie of fear and sin. This fleshy, egoic world is nothing more than our classroom, filled with lessons to help us remember who we truly are: We are the one breath of God – loved, blessed, and innocent.
Coming out of our closet of fear
This is my invitation to all of us: Come out of your closet of fear. Leave behind any image of God that makes you fearful, that makes you cry or feel as if you need to repent of something. Come out as the eternal, beloved, innocent, and blessed eternal spirit that you truly are.
How do we do that in practice?
We come out when we stop fighting to be right in all the egoic arguments the world likes to engage in and instead seek to remove all the barriers we have put up against love. We stop fighting when we realize that the martial art of karate comes from two Japanese words that mean “empty hand.”
We come out by dropping all of our egoic weapons that prove we’re right, better, and separate from others. Instead, we reach out our empty hands of love to those around us and invite everyone to come out as who we all truly are – the embodiment of Love, as Austrian poet and novelist R. M. Rilke says.
When we take the hand of others, we begin to see the divinity within everyone, even those we think are doing the most damage or causing the most suffering in the world. We see their closets of fear and shame. And instead of hating them, we allow compassion for them to take root in our heart.
This is how I came to know that in my defenselessness my safety lies. As soon as I knew, without a doubt, that God made me as I am and loves me unconditionally – meaning I healed my inner homophobia – the need to argue and defend myself against my detractors disappeared.
It was replaced with a sense of compassion for those who attack others over such beliefs. Instead of arguing, now I just remember that they, too, are beloved children of God who are deeply lost in their egoic world of fear and judgment.
The safety of defenselessness
This, my friends, is how we save the world – we drop our defensiveness and come out as, and for, love. We can see very clearly, in this moment, where defensiveness has gotten us. Wars, a Congress in chaos, a deeply divided country, and the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world.
Putting up our defenses and attacking seems like the only answer, but how has that ever solved anything? We may come to a time of the cessation of aggression, but defensiveness has never created a lasting peace. We can keep trying, of course, because we have free will.
But what if we dropped our defenses? Instead of arguing, shouting, and defending our positions to the death, what if we simply let go of our defenses, our grievances, our need to be right and approached one another in the spirit of karate – with an empty hand, ready to fill our hands with the hands of others?
What if, when the world seems hell bent on keeping that ancient hatred alive, we doubled down on Love instead of fear? What if we doubled down on hope instead of despair? What if we doubled down on peace instead of war?
Many forms of so-called new age thought have been dismissed as spiritual bypass and navel gazing, but the most important thing any of us can do right now is to heal the ancient hatred within our own heart and mind.
This is not an easy thing. It has taken me years to heal my own homophobia, so this won’t happen overnight.
But, if we each do the hard work of healing that ancient hatred – that feeling of separation – within ourselves, then that means there’s one more person in this world who has come out as, and for, love. And if thousands of us, millions of us, do that – war will end, hunger will end, despair and suffering will end.
This is how we save the world. We come out as, and for, love. We stop hiding in closets of fear and separation. We drop the grievances and anxiety we carry around and offer the empty hand of love to our Holy Siblings, because here is the truth – we manifest a heaven of peace and unity in this world together or we continue to live in the hell of war and separation together.
We’ve tried everything else, friends. Why not try the path of Love? Why not come out as, and for, love? Why not take the hand of our Holy Siblings, and find our way together to heal this ancient hatred that keeps us divided?
Can we, as Rilke writes, go to the limit of our longing and become the embodiment of love?
“Flare up like a flame,” Rilke advises,
“and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.