*Reuben is a pseudonym.
My name is Reuben. I am in my late 20s. I live and work in a small city a few hours away from the farm where I grew up. I attended university and graduated with a good job in a professional field. I am an uncle, brother, son. I am single and live with three other young professionals. I attend the local Christian Reformed Church, where I play piano during the services roughly once a month. I am blessed. I am happy.
Part 1 – A Child Born into Covenant and Brokenness
My connection to the CRC is generational. My grandparents were founding members. My parents met in the nursery as babies. My great grandmother passed on her faith to my grandmother, and her to my mother, and my mother shared her faith with me. My dad shared his faith with me too. He would pray with my siblings and I every night. They were, in more ways than not, good examples of Christian discipleship, and were both very involved in the church. Mom taught Sunday school, directed the choir, played piano, and was on the worship and education committees. Dad was on the building committee and served on council.
My parents had me baptized. The congregation promised to love, support, and encourage me. All this is not uncommon to the story of many who grew up in the CRC.
But my story is different (I assume) from many in the CRC. And it has been a deep-rooted sense of otherness that has defined so much of my life. I have limited the expression of my true self to be accepted, and I still do this. My earliest memories of this are when my brother showed his friends where I played with Barbies, before I was even in kindergarten. I remember asking for more boy’s toys after that, not because I wanted them, but because I knew I would be teased if I played with a girl’s toy. As an older child and teenager, I remember hiding everything I liked, from clothes, to music, to movies, hobbies, even food. Can you imagine that food is gendered? Or I thought it was. I adjusted my behaviour to be accepted.
This was before I even knew I was gay. When I went through puberty, things got worse. I heard a lot of terrible things from the people who promised to love and encourage me when I was baptized. It wasn’t always just people from my church, although a lot was. A lot of the horrible things I heard also came from people who went to other churches. But still, it all came from my spiritual siblings: the (broken) hands and feet of Jesus. I didn’t think I knew anyone who thought that gay people could be good people or that they were worthy of love or kindness. Gay people, I was led to believe, were broken, rebellious people who hated God.
But I didn’t hate God. So what I was experiencing was obviously a test, or a phase. I prayed every day that God would take that and exchange it for an attraction to girls. It wasn’t that I wasn’t attracted to girls. I was, just not in a sexual way. I wanted to be friends with lots of girls. And maybe I would have been friends with girls if I felt that was allowed. I didn’t have many friends. It was difficult for me to make friends with boys because I wasn’t very good at pretending to have common interests, and I felt I wasn’t allowed to be friends with girls. So I just didn’t have a lot of friends. I had my sister, though. She was younger, but she always looked out for me, and was kind to me. She included me. But I never trusted her with my secret. It was a secret between me and God. I never told anyone, partly I think because of shame, but also because I did fully trust that God would heal me. Why bother telling people if it was going to change?
Part 2 – Paper Flowers
But God didn’t change me. I don’t remember when I stopped believing He would. But sometime in high school I became okay with the fact that I would probably never be straight. But I wasn’t okay with letting go of my imagined life, the life the church and society and everyone seemed to be telling me I would never be happy without. Having a girlfriend, a wife, a family, becoming a father. I called this my “paper flowers,” which was from a song that I listened to a lot at that time. In it, the singer wishes she could live in her world of pretty (but fake) paper flowers and hide away from the real world of rampant chaos. I idolized this imagined heterosexual future.
What was worse, I came to believe that this fake future was not only critical to my own happiness, but also the happiness of many other people. I came to believe that my parents, my siblings, my uncles and aunts and cousins, my friends, grandparents, and people from church would be less happy if I did not someday marry a woman and have kids and a family of my own. My paper flowers would need to look real from the outside for the sake of everyone else. If God wouldn’t heal me, I would just pretend.
Still in high school, I asked a girl to date me. We dated for six months, and I was very happy. She became my best friend. My family seemed to approve. It felt, finally, like I belonged in my world. This is what my whole world told me was supposed to be. And it was wonderful. Oh, so wonderful.
But it was also horrid. I knew I would have to tell her the truth at some point. But I thought that if we loved each other and trusted each other that it would just happen. And if we wanted to get married, we could make it work somehow. It would be our secret. Nobody else would need to know. But that feeling of trust never grew for me. The homophobia in my circles got worse. I hated myself more and more for lying to her. Guilt became shame.
When she broke it off, I was devastated that I lost her as a friend. But I also lost a piece of my identity that I was just beginning to hope would last and become real. In my journal in the months following, I wrote about overwhelming heartache and hopelessness. I’m sure this is common for teenagers after a breakup, but I believe I was starting to grieve something so much more. My Paper Flowers were on fire.
But when we stopped dating, I also felt a weight lifted; I didn’t have to lie anymore. For the next years my journal entries would reflect this; and constant back and forth between expressions of longing to be with a woman and have a family, but also recognising more and more that I would never again subject myself to the shame and guilt of being a lie in that specific way. I never had another girlfriend. I never went on a date with another girl.
Part 3 – It Gets Better
When I went to college, I had vague ideas of meeting new friends, maybe a lover, coming out, and being disowned by my family. I couldn’t imagine bringing a boyfriend around them. It would have to be one or the other. And I imagined what that would look like. It was miserable. And lonely. But I was working hard, and I went home every weekend to be with my family. I never made new friends, and never had a boyfriend. I preoccupied myself with other things.
But I did grow. I grew in faith. I grew to love myself again, and I grew to love my family more. I used to believe that I was gay because I was born a broken person into a broken world, and just like some people were born blind, I believed that I was born with a brain that did not allow my sexuality to develop correctly. I believed that, for whatever reason, my brain was not exposed to the right balance of prenatal hormones, and so my gender and sex and sexuality grew to be out of sync because of that. And maybe that is still part of my belief; or, maybe being gay or straight is just a variation in a good creation, like blue or brown eyes. Or – maybe God made me this way because he knew that my family would need me to be exactly as I am. I don’t know for sure. But I’ve come to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who’s always loved me. As the lyrics of my favourite hymn state:
“I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee!
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul;
Always, always thou lovedst me.”
And sometime, and some point, it seemed like it was okay to just be me, slowly. Oh, so slowly. And as it became more okay to be me, I became less sad. The more I loved myself, the more I found I could love other people. I finally did find friends who accepted me as I am, and I found my space where I could be 100% authentic with no fear of being rejected. Life, as they say, gets so much better. I live with my best friends, play piano in church (although my church doesn’t know me fully yet), and I have a great job. I am thrilled to be experiencing my family grow and change; siblings getting married and building their homes, becoming an Uncle, watching my parents’ transition into grandparents, Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthday dinners, experiencing tears and joys and challenges together.
I am still single. Maybe I will stay single, or maybe I will find the right man to share my life with. I know I will most likely have to leave the CRC if that day comes. Maybe I will take a spiritual sojourn with my Anglican or United siblings. But the CRC will always be my home. I will always feel connected to this church; the church where my great grandmother was baptized, and her children, and so on.
But wherever my life leads, I know now that my family will still love and accept me regardless, and I will love them too. And yes, life is messy and painful and frustrating. But it is also beautiful and warm and good, and I am happy to be living it.