Mom and I had an interesting conversation recently. We were discussing my penchant, from childhood, to be a contrarian. I told her that one of my favorite shirts as a kid was a sweatshirt with a big yellow arrow on it pointing off to one side. Inside the arrow, in big black letters, it read “One Way.” Above the arrow was a little stick figure running the other direction saying, “Not me!”
“That’s me,” I told her. “I’ve always felt like that little stick figure running in the opposite direction of every other person on the planet. If a large group thought something was cool and wanted to do it, I’d be heading the other way. If it’s popular I want no part of it.”
Mom shook her head and got that look on her face. You know the one. The look where she’s got something to say to you but either doesn’t quite know how to say it or she’s thinking it’s better to just avoid the subject all together so she’s looking for something to say to change the topic completely.
“What?” I prodded, before she could choose her path. “What are you thinking?”
“Well,” she said slowly, then blurted out, “if you weren’t such a contrarian maybe you wouldn’t have chosen to be gay.”
I was taken aback. It’s true, mom and I had discussions about my lesbianism when I came out to her when I was 16 and affirmed my orientation to her at age 18 when she told me, “I don’t think it’s right, but you’re my daughter and I love you. You will always be welcome in my house.” And, thank God, I have been. Mom has been wonderful to me and all of my partners past and present.
But, we don’t talk about it anymore. When that was said all those years ago, that’s where we left it – until this conversation.
“Do you really think that I chose to be gay?” I asked her. I was kind of hurt by her assertion but I understood where it came from. She simply didn’t understand.
“Let me tell you a story,” I told her – and I’m telling you now.
Let me tell you a story, so maybe you, my brothers and sisters, will understand that I did not choose to be a lesbian. I fully and truly believe that I was born this way. I have always been attracted to women. Mom and dad’s divorce did not make me gay. I was not traumatized as a child any more than other children have been in their lives. I was not recruited by some queer in a trench coat who whispered from the darkness, “Psst, hey kid, wanna be a social pariah?” I did not choose my sexual orientation. I simply discovered it, just like any human being.
Let me tell you a story.
I must have been five or six years old. We went on a class field trip to the Ford plant wherever it is we were living at the time. I think it was Atlanta, which would have made me 5 at the time and I suppose in kindergarten.
We were instructed to buddy up with someone and hold their hand. We were not to let go of that other child’s hand the entire day (except for potty breaks, I assume!) so we would not get lost from the group. I don’t remember one thing about how they make cars. All I know is that was the day I got to hold Marie’s hand all day. All day! I was in little kid heaven.
I can tell you other stories, about crushes on girls – but never on boys.
Let me tell you the story about Vacation Bible School one year where I was extremely excited to go to class each day because the teacher had let me be in the boy’s group. I had a blast all week hanging out with the guys and doing “guy” things with them. But, when VBS graduation came up, mom had the gall to put me in a dress.
“Mom! What will the guys think?” I protested loudly.
But, there I was, in a dress for graduation when the VBS teacher went white.
“I thought Candace was a strange name for a boy,” she told mom. She went the whole week thinking I was a little boy! Didn’t hurt my feelings any. I loved it!
Let me tell you a story about the time, when I was about 8 or 9 that Barbara really hurt my feelings – though I didn’t understand why, exactly. We were visiting her in North Carolina when she stopped me in the kitchen and said, “Y’know, you really should dress more like a girl or somebody’s going to think you’re a lesbian.”
“I am not!” I protested, not knowing what the hell a lesbian was but Barb said it with such disdain that it must have been really, really horrible to be thought of as one.
To this day, I still cannot fathom how to “dress like a girl.” Jeans and t-shirts and comfortable shoes simply feel right. I can only be what I am.
Let me tell you the story of how I came out to myself in the years between the ages of 14 and 16, and the one time that I attempted suicide because the pain of that self-acceptance was just too great. (Luckily, I chickened out.)
Gay and lesbian kids today are lucky. They have role models to look up to and programs on TV like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” All I had was “Family” and a nagging suspicion that the girl playing Buddy was an awful lot like me, and why did I feel such a strong attraction to her?
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a Rolling Stone magazine that did a feature on lesbians. It even said so on the cover, so I tore the cover off so mom wouldn’t notice it. I still have it somewhere in a box. It was a pivotal moment because it finally put a name on what I was feeling, and had been feeling my entire life. Lesbian. I rolled it around in my mouth for awhile, getting a feel for the word. I didn’t like it. I remembered Barb spitting the word out. “LEZ-bee-un.” It sounded like a disease. I like dyke much better. It’s a much better word – it denotes strength and vitality. Dyke. That’s what I am: a dyke.
I looked in the mirror and said it many times over.
“I’m a lesbian.”
“I’m a dyke.”
It didn’t even look like me saying it. It was like I had seen myself for the first time. A new me – same old face, but new, reborn somehow.
At this point in my life it wasn’t even about sex. It was simply about putting a word on what I had been feeling my entire life – a strong attraction, emotionally as well as physically (in a way I had not yet fully understood), to other women.
Then the religious guilt kicked in, and this is where so many gays and lesbians think about suicide. I was no different.
If I was a lesbian, that meant that God didn’t love me. If I was a lesbian, that meant that God would not bless me. If I was a lesbian, that meant I could not also be a Christian.
In short, I believed the lies told by the religious right to people like me. I believed that God hated me, would abandon me and condemn me to hell for eternity, simply because of who I would come to love at some point in my future.
So, like so many gays and lesbians, I was proactive and forsook God first.
“If you don’t love me then that’s a two way street, God. Get bent,” was my attitude toward God.
And so I lived without God for many years, or so I thought. It was during a crisis with my first girlfriend, TK that she (another Southern Baptist kid) decided she wanted to go back to church. She found out about a church in Atlanta that had a special outreach to gays and lesbians called Metropolitan Community Church. I went unwillingly. I had lived great without God so far, why stop now?
The first church service at MCC was like coming home. Finally, there was a man in a collar telling me that God loved me, just as I am, because God made me that way. God does not hate me for being gay – God knows I’m gay because that’s how God intended for me to be! I felt like a two-ton weight had been lifted off my chest. I could breathe again.
It was like looking into that mirror at age 16 and accepting myself all over again. I was reborn, renewed. The same old face, with a brand new life, lived in the light of God’s love and grace.
I look back now at those years I spent without speaking to God and I see the miracles God worked in my life. Jobs appeared at the perfect time, money cropped up just when it was needed, I never went without food or shelter or love or any good thing. God had held me close through all those years just as God holds me close now.
My happy reunion with God led me to do two things – found a magazine called Whosoever designed especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians. After 8 years the magazine is still going strong and from the email I receive is continuing to be a blessing to many seeking GLBT people. Secondly, it propelled me to pursue a seminary career and ordained ministry.
Let me tell you another story. I have always felt the call to preach. As a child, I remember coming home from church on many Sundays after hearing dad preach only to sit down and pen a sermon myself, written for the dogs. I would then go into the yard and deliver my sermon to the dogs and any other animal life that would listen. It was only in my seminary years that I found a patron saint that also did that, but as an adult. St. Francis of Assisi has become one of my spiritual guides and mentors along my spiritual path. I pray his prayer daily:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh, divine master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love.
For it’s in giving that we receive,
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I wanted very badly, in my youth, to be a preacher. However, being a woman in the Southern Baptist tradition, I knew my chances were nil to ever stand behind the pulpit, never mind that I was also a lesbian. But, human barriers are no barriers to God, whose call in my life is as strong today as it was when I was preaching to the dogs.
I have discovered that when one prays for God to make them an instrument, it happens, no matter what society might have to say about it. This is not a prayer I take lightly, for God has put me in many positions that I would rather not be in. God has used me as an instrument to spread God’s unconditional love and mercy to God’s beloved gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children. But, it has not come without a price. It has not come without sacrifice.
One of those prices, one of those sacrifices I feel, is the distance between me and my family – the distance that I am responsible for, because I didn’t want to have to explain myself to any of you. I didn’t want to let you in for fear of rejection, I suppose – or possibly your rebuke.
This letter is an attempt to bridge the gap I have let grow between us. I want you, my brothers and sisters, to understand me, to know about my life and in knowing about it to maybe find it in your hearts to draw closer to me and get to know me better. If mom is sitting in her chair thinking I’ve chosen to be gay simply because of my contrarian nature, I figure you all might think something similar. I hope by this letter I can give you a little more insight into my life and how I came to be who I am.
I know that most of you don’t agree with homosexuality. I know that some of you believe it is a “sin.” This is not really a letter bent on changing anyone’s mind as much as it is a letter to simply let you see what my life is like. The media talks so much about gays and lesbians in the abstract, but until you know one personally, or have one in your family, you may not truly understand gays and lesbians and how we live our lives. I’m hoping that by telling you about my life and how my sexual orientation has developed over the years that you’ll have a face to put on the issues swirling around our country – my face – the face of your baby sister.
The political climate of our time has driven a wedge between “normal” heterosexual America and “perverted” homosexual America. Gays and lesbians are constantly being dehumanized by the religious right that harps about some “gay agenda” and some “gay lifestyle.” I never got a copy of the agenda and as for my “lifestyle” it’s driven by my income, not my sexuality. I’d be happy to change my lifestyle and you’re all welcome to send donations to help!
All this talk about gays and lesbians as having some monolithic lifestyle and agenda puts our lives in danger. Let me tell you a story about Doug when he found out that I was a lesbian. He told me, “I can understand what you see in women, but if you were my little brother I’d have to kill you,” underscoring just how deeply homophobia runs not only in our family but in society at large. Doug echoes the ethos of the heterosexual majority – two men are gross, but two women are hot! The implications are dangerous. Being gay can get you killed, not just by a stranger, but by a family member who has so bought into the dehumanization of gay people that they would rather see you dead than see you in love with a member of the same gender.
This is the backdrop against which the battle over same-gender marriage is playing itself out. I have been working in the forefront of this movement here in South Carolina. Wanda and I were on television and in the newspapers in February when we, along with four other couples, went to the county clerk here in Columbia and tried to apply for a marriage license. We were politely denied, but we are not deterred – even if we must risk our very lives to fight for our rights. We are determined to see gays and lesbians given entry into the institution of marriage in our lifetime.
Why? Because we want to get married for the same reasons each of you has gotten married – to build a life with the person that we love.
Let me tell you a story of love at first site. I met Wanda after about two years of being single and hating it. I was lonely and sad. I begged God to send me a partner – someone to love. God had been silent, maddeningly so. One weekend, I simply gave up. I told God, “Y’know, God, you’ve given me so many blessings. My life is wonderful. I have a great job, a great house, a great dog. What more could I ask for? If I’m destined to be single for the rest of my life, so be it. I’m just fine with it. Thank you for all you’ve given me.”
I left it at that and exactly one week later I opened my front door and there she was. In fact, in my mind I clearly heard a voice say, “Well, there she is,” when we locked eyes. Another part of my mind did its best Homer Simpson impression by replying, “Shut up brain, or I’ll stab you with a Q-Tip.” I was a mess the rest of the night – fully in love with this stranger I had just met through a couple of mutual friends looking for a night on the town.
Apparently, the feelings went both ways, and I didn’t have to stab my brain for thinking crazy thoughts. Wanda and I have been together for more than three years. She and I had a commitment ceremony two years ago, vowing to love one another through the high and low points of our lives until death us do part.
Like many before me, I had made a similar vow to another woman, but our lives went on divergent paths, forcing us apart. I grieved the loss of that relationship and the breaking of the vows between us. It was not easy to end the relationship, but it was for the best. Yes, I am divorced – Amanda and I dissolved our holy union through the MCC when we parted. But, now, like many before me, I have renewed my vows with another partner – one that I have no doubts about and only hope for the future that we will build together. Whatever comes, we will face together.
My relationship with Wanda is about our love for one another. Sex, as any married person can tell you, is not the center of our relationship. If something happened to Wanda and we were unable to have sex for whatever reason, I would never leave her. Sex is gravy – it’s not the main course. I can live without gravy, but I cannot live without this woman. She is my home. She is everything to me and I love her more and more with each passing day.
By marrying, Wanda and I simply want to tell the world that we are committed to one another, to love, care for and walk beside one another on a life’s journey. There is absolutely no secular reason why we should be denied this right. There are religious objections, sure, but as a secular society, law trumps religion and the law of the land is spelled out clearly in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which grants equal protection of all laws, and equal rights under the law to every citizen of the United States. That includes gay and lesbian citizens, no matter how “sinful” you may think we are. Civil rights do not turn on whether one is a “sinner” or not. If they did, we’d all be in big trouble. Civil rights turn on matters of law and according to the law of this land as an American I am entitled to the right to marry the person of my choosing, no matter what gender they may be.
Also, by marrying, we wish to gain access to the more than 1,000 rights and privileges given to married couples, including filing joint tax returns, property inheritance rights and the right to visit one another in the hospital and make financial and medical decisions for one another. We have legal papers giving each other power of attorney in medical and financial matters as well as wills and body disposition papers. All of which could be successfully challenged by family members should one of us die or become incapacitated. Marriage solves this problem. Marriage means that both the families and the government must recognize and respect the choice I have made to spend my life with this particular human being.
My marrying Wanda will not be the downfall of human civilization. It will not hasten the Lord’s coming. It will not tear at the very fabric of society. It will not lead men or women to abandon their own heterosexual marriages thinking, “D’oh, I could have married someone of my own gender!” If you’re not gay, it won’t make you gay. It will do no harm to marriage at all. It may not strengthen it, but it will most certainly not damage it.
Now, I don’t really want to turn this letter into a political screed, though it may be too late. I can already hear the retorts and feel the resistance that many of you might have to anything I’ve just said above. That’s fine. Debate is what makes this country as great as it is and I know debate over this issue will always continue just as debates over interracial marriage and equal rights for women continue to rage even after the law has supposedly settled the matter.
What I’m trying to get across (maybe poorly) is that when you argue against gay marriage, you may indeed feel as though you’re defending some moral principle, but in fact, you argue against my very life. You argue against my well-being, against my happiness – against my equality as a fellow human being and American. I simply want you to understand that when people say, “gays should not be allowed to marry” they’re talking about your baby sister. They’re talking about someone you supposedly love and want to see happy. They’re talking about taking away the rights of a member of your family.
I would never stand by and let any government, religious group or other organization trample the rights of my brothers or sisters. I would never support a party or a president who lobbied Congress to make one of my brothers or sisters second class citizens in this country. I would never stand by and let any one of you be persecuted for who you are or who you love.
I write this letter simply to plead with you to remember me, think about me when you hear this kind of rhetoric about gays and lesbians. You know me. You know how I live. I have neither a “gay lifestyle” nor a “gay agenda.” My agenda is one of equality for every citizen. My agenda is to ensure that as many people as possible hear about God’s unconditional love for them. My lifestyle consists of a fulltime job, a slightly used Honda, a mortgage, bills, cats and dogs that need love and care and a spouse that I love beyond measure. We are not who our opponents say we are. We are not child molesters and perverts and freaks seeking sex 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week. We are your sisters, your brothers, your friends, your mothers, your fathers, your pastors, your bosses, your co-workers. We are contributing members of society who simply want to be treated with equality and dignity. We do not threaten society because we are an integral part of society and we want to see society succeed. None of us is free until all of us are free. None of us is equal until we are all equal.
Thank you for taking the time to read my stories. I hope that, in some way, I have explained to you who I am and where I am coming from. Please feel free to talk with me about it. I apologize to each of you for keeping silent for so long – not telling you about my life and myself until now. I hope that I have shed some light on the issues and how they affect my very being. Please feel free to ask me anything you like. I’m not interested, however, in arguments. For the most part, I know the positions that each of you take on this issue. I’m simply trying to plead with you to understand who it is you’re hurting when you support policies, parties or presidents who wish to deny gays and lesbians equal rights. You’re hurting your baby sister.
I love you all,
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.