As a queer person living in a city filled with queer-affirming Methodist churches, I feel some temptation to be stunned and disappointed by this. As a person filled with self-doubt, who loves to parse nuances and second guess myself, I feel compelled to point out that there are queer Methodist clergy members, and that many of them do officiate gay weddings, in spite of their Church’s existing ban, so maybe things aren’t as bad as with some other religious institutions’ gay bans. But as a queer adult who was once a closeted queer child in a homophobic United Methodist Church, I’m really only bitter, and resigned, and not at all surprised.
This faith community has always been afraid of taking bold stances. They are neither as vociferous in their hate as Evangelicals, nor as rigidly structured and hierarchical in it as Catholics. But they have the same capacity to traumatize and alienate the sheep they are supposed to tend. The only difference is that they do it with a thick, Midwestern veneer of nicety and cowardice. And I’m done pretending that it’s not the case.
The United Methodist Church is the third most popular church in the United States. Yet I encounter very few people who hold any specific impression of it. When I explain my religious upbringing to people, I tend to explain the origins in terms of communion, and grape juice. United Methodists believed that communion was for everyone, regardless of their membership to a church or their life choices. Anyone could come to a Methodist service to receive the wine and the bread. The Church, in theory, was an opponent of exclusion in religion.
The United Methodist Church was also, historically, an active opponent of alcoholism. And there were perils, they believed, to allowing and welcoming any person in off the street to receive the alcoholic blood of Christ. And so Methodists never drink wine at all — just grape juice, usually paired with a dry wheat pita rather than the more Catholic wafer or cracker. The grape juice meant that there was no fear of people entering the Church claiming to desire communion but secretly only wanting to get soused.
I used to tell this to people as a way to illustrate how strange and ineffectual Methodists are. It was a cute anecdote. We’re the Protestants with the grape juice. But now, its implications strike me as much bleaker. This is the United Methodist approach to welcoming and loving Christ’s children. Call them in, tell them that they are welcome, proclaim that your arms are open wide — but show in your conduct that you do not trust them. Given them an alloyed, reduced version of the thing they seek. Just in case.
There was a time when I loved Sunday School. I loved the crafts, the nature room filled with rocks and sticks and animal bones, reenacting Biblical stories in costume, singing atonally. I dressed as Holofernes and crammed red thread into my clothing, so that the girl playing Judith could mock stabbing me with a pencil and draw my blood out. I played Simon Peter and reminded some of the other children of their lines while I was still standing on stage. I volunteered at my Church’s summer camp, teaching younger children how to glue Popsicle sticks together.
And then something went wrong. I don’t know exactly when it was. I don’t think there was any major moment of realization. But I know what my memory held onto — the Sunday School teachers who spoke with anxiety and anger about traditional marriage, about the threats of homosexuality.
There was my second grade Sunday School teacher, a married man, my friend Katie’s uncle. He was relentless in his obsession against homosexuality. He found a way to bring any week’s Biblical lesson to the topic. He found a way to bring it up whenever we discussed current events. His was a high-energy, fixated distaste.
He was upset that our Church didn’t take a strong enough stance against gay people. We tended to exclude queer people in the gently icy way that prevented guilt. Eventually, he left the Church to become a Catholic, because Catholics took a firmer, louder stance. His was the hate born of inner conflict, as we later found out. When I was older, he divorced and began dating men. I hear he is doing much better now, and I’m glad for him.
But of course, most homophobes are not tortured, closeted queer people. We are not to blame for our own oppression. Most are blithely, happily ignorant straight people, ones who have no conception of the harm they are doing, and who will push back at any attempt to be made aware of that fact.
I remember the married couple, who taught Sunday School when I was in third grade, and who spoke about queer people with pinched faces and rueful disgust. They were disapproving in that mocking, grossed-out way that so many of us encountered and were silently gutted by when we were young. To them it was ridiculous that queerness was gaining acceptance, and that it was being talked about so much at that moment. If the prior year’s teacher found every opportunity to talk about homosexuality, then they found every opportunity to direct away from it with an uncomfortable laugh.
Theirs was a dismissive hate. It’s the kind of hate I fear most. It’s the hate that that tells you not that you are evil, but that you don’t exist. That you must be kidding yourself. That you are too sensitive. That you need to stop making everyone so uneasy with your sadness and your confusion and your need.
There were other Sunday School classrooms where the topic was broached. Sometimes we — queer people — were treated as though we were a subject of debate. Other students spoke up, their views principled, their voices measured, as they intoned about how gayness was not welcome in the Church and was not in line with a Christian way of living. Others were less ideological in their bigotry. They mocked, they said slurs, they joked about sex acts and the dirtiness of them, the standard school kid shit. It was all allowed to take root in the fertile, hungry minds of the closeted queer kids in the room.
There were, of course, students who fought back. I remember doing it. My friends Katie and Andra did too. We argued and scrapped. We skipped Sunday School for weeks at a time when the hatred got too exhausting or frustrating to deal with. But no matter how we responded, none of the hatred that got expressed was ever pushed back against.
To the teachers, the pastors, and the Church-goers who witnessed it, the rights of gay people were an abstraction, nothing concrete. The idea that there might be gay, bi, or trans children in the very rooms where these fights were happening never seemed to cross their minds. The potential trauma of rendering someone’s existence subject to “debate” did not occur to them. And so, our peers hurled insults and wondered aloud about whether people were “born like that” and why God would “make people like that” with no consequence. These remarks were either ignored or reflected upon as signs of how thoughtful and curious the students uttering them were.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was any kind of queer person, and I certainly didn’t know that the intolerance I was experiencing would seep into my soul and leave me with an irreparable sense of brokenness and shame. In fact, if I look at my memories from a certain angle, cast the light on it just so, I can see that the damage had already been done. I was already broken, convinced that there was something innately wrong with me, and that I’d never find any kind of loving God’s light, let alone the acceptance of a Godly community.
As a pre-teen, I began to formulate a strange delusion: God wanted me to be an atheist. It was my purpose in his plan to be a nonbeliever, a challenger, cursed like the Pharaoh to be damned and to lose the fight.
I had prayed before, on my knees in the hallway of my home in the middle of the night. I had taught Bible stories to my peers and to children younger than me. I had believed, in my heart, in the essential value of the things Jesus had preached. I was trying to do everything right. I was earnest, loving, and naive.
And then something cracked in me. I had never felt much when I prayed, but as I aged I came to feel even less. In Sunday School, I was filled with questions and skepticism, which was never welcomed. When I expressed reservations, I was dismissed. When I heard a teacher or peer expressing outright hateful ideas, I felt a dull sting of cynicism, and bile climbed out from my throat. And no one liked me anymore, except for the two or three other kids who found it all to be off-putting, treacly insincere bullshit. (These kids ended up being queer, too).
It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to be a good person, there was an impulse in me to ask questions, cause trouble, and focus on the elements of religion that were brutal, violent, and wrong. I found the darkest Bible stories the most fascinating. In plays, I always wanted to portray villains and evil forces. I focused on the inherent selfishness of God. I pointed out that Adam and Eve spoke and thought like little children, too ignorant, too trusting, too simple. I could not find it in my heart to believe in a thing I was taught.
And I concluded, because it seemed logical at the time, that I was meant to be that way. That God had given me the essential stuff of disbelief — or perhaps that he had failed to give me the makings of belief. I could no longer find joy in the singing, the crafts, the teachings that used to draw my interest. I just felt numb, cast out, cold. Like Adam and Eve wandering the Earth, wizened and in need of clothes to protect them from the elements.
But I couldn’t deny that I was glad I had eaten the fruit that had left me that way.
My mom made a deal with me: I could stop going to Church, as soon as I got confirmed. So I went through all the confirmatory motions. I’d save my soul and reaffirm my connection to Christ and then I’d bounce, free to indulge in the bitterness and atheism that felt right on my newly teenage self.
Confirmation, at my United Methodist Church, happened at a retreat at a cabin in the Northeast Ohio woods. We stayed for a weekend, all the 13-year-olds, running around outside playing flag football, setting the tables for meals, singing repetitive Jesus-adjacent songs, and occasionally sitting in a circle with a Bible in front of us, discussing the meaning of some Christian story. It all culminated in a one-on-one interview with the Minister, in the basement of the camp’s multipurpose building. The results of our interview were meant to determine if we got confirmed or not.
As soon as I went into the basement and took my seat, alone, waiting for the Minister to come, I began sobbing. I drew my arms up to my chest. Tried to hold in the shakes. My mind raced with simulations of what the interview questions might be — would I be asked to explain the meaning of specific Bible stories? Would I have to confess to sins? How much of myself would I have to lay bare?
I was terrified of laying myself bare. I knew the true me was marked already, corrupted. A nonbeliever. Not interested in the makings of a traditional Christian life. Put off by the warmth and simple niceness that so many other people seemed so good at projecting. I was morbid inside, negative, unhappy, fundamentally tainted. And I didn’t want to pretend that I wasn’t, anyway. But I’d struck a deal with my mom. So I was there.
The Minister came down the stairs, smiling and bouncing on her feet. She must have been distressed to see me, shaking with my eyes red and my nose runny. But I don’t remember her asking me what was wrong. There was no heart-to-heart. Instead, she told me how the interview would go, and then walked me through each of the questions.
My hand made its way to my mouth. Covered my lips. My eyes glued themselves to the ground. I was still sobbing hysterically. I didn’t stop sobbing the entire time.
She asked me, what was my favorite Bible story?
I shook gulped for air. Scanned my memory and found nothing, even though I knew many stories quite well. I said, I don’t know.
What are the unique values that define the United Methodist Church?
Sobbing still. Sputtering. Something about grape juice? I said I didn’t know.
What gifts could I bring to the Church, if I were to become a full, adult member?
I scanned the room. What skills did I have? What value could a person like me bring? I said something strange about how I could help set up chairs and tables for events, help take them down. I don’t know, I said. Things like that.
She looked down at her notebook, nodding. I was still convulsing with sobs. And then the money-shot question: Did I want to be confirmed?
My shoulders heaved and my face crumpled into even more tears. I was so broken. I felt trapped. There was no way out but to lie. But I couldn’t even do that. My whole life, people had been trying to encourage me to be polite, to teach me to give away nice little lies, promising me that it would be easier if I did. And I never could do it. It was impossible. I was not wired for it. And so I couldn’t know the light of acceptance, even fake, conditional acceptance. I was made by God to be unacceptable to God’s people.
I said, through my crying, that I didn’t know.
I got confirmed. I was lined up in my dress alongside all the other 13-year-olds, and we were all given adult Bibles and name tags,which were to be kept on a table outside the main chapel. There was a reception outside with strawberry shortcake. No one ever spoke to me about my meltdown. The Minister never checked in, never touched base with my mom or me, never asked someone close to me about it.
I never went back to that Church, not really. A few times I broke into the building with my friends — Katie and Andra, the same friends who I’d skipped Sunday School with — to nab a wheelchair for our friend Emma to use. We knew the doors were unlocked and that the wheelchairs were there for the taking. We needed a chair that was lightweight and could fit in the truck of Katie’s car, unlike Emma’s standard electric chair. And when we were done, we always returned it.
One of those times, I lingered near the chapel as my friends ran downstairs to grab the wheelchair. I walked the length of the entryway, scanning the tables covered in name tags, looking for my name. I could not find it. I guess by then, maybe three or so years later, the church had given up on me. I guess they gave up on me long before that, really.
The United Methodist Church is not a monolith. Each individual church is a bit different. When I first moved to Chicago, I was pleased and gratified to see all the ones with rainbow flags proudly displayed in their front lawns. Some even bore signs stating explicitly that they were affirming. Others said they were ‘reconciling’. Some went with a more vague message that all are welcome.
In the time since my rough, 13-year-old reckoning, I’ve mostly avoided religion, at least in earnest practice. I have tried though, many times, to work alongside religious institutions, and I’ve nearly always been burned by it.
There was the Catholic University I attended for graduate school, for example, which refused to issue me a birth control prescription because the school’s donors believe the medication to be evil. There was the first College I taught at after graduation, which stopped scheduling me for classes the moment I came out as nonbinary and started wearing men’s clothes. There are the students that I have taught at other Christian institutions, who are queer and religious and filled with self-loathing, who only tell me their truth in a private whisper, after I’ve proven time and time again that I’m safe, that I have suffered too.
And then there are the legions of smiling, distant Christian people who would never ever say that they are hateful, but who scoff at trans people as if they are a strange new aberration. There are the bigots from my childhood and teenage years, who still anoint their biases with religious language, to spare them from any appearance of unfairness. There is the damage that still lingers inside me, a pervasive, still-living feeling that I am wrong and cursed, and the people who will find me melodramatic and obsessed with my own pain for even saying it.
And I don’t know which kinds of hateful people those United Methodist clergy are, the ones who voted to continue to see people like me as a sin. And if it were just about me, I wouldn’t give a shit. They already convinced me a long time ago that God’s love, and the love of a God-fearing community, is not something I am compatible with.
But I worry about the kids. The teens like me, who were children who loved crafts and nature and stories. Who might or might not have found religion no matter what it taught, but who could have found community support and love, but didn’t, and won’t.
I’m not surprised the United Methodist Church decided to continue filling these kids with self-loathing, alienation, and a frantic sadness that probably some of them still can’t understand. I don’t think, necessarily, that those kids are being denied a community that is worth a single fucking iota of their time. But I do think they’ve had something essential taken from them — not the guarantee of a certain type of belief, but the possibility of it. And I think to destroy that is disgusting. And it will leave me sobbing, and sobbing, and wracked with rage, now, rather than shame, for as long as I live.