I was watching TV the other day someone in the show I was watching asked, “If you met your eighteen-year-old self and could only say three words, what would they be?” Immediately, I knew mine: “Yes, you are.”
My kids often wonder, aloud, how I could have ever not have known that I’m gay. I fit all the stereotypes: I played a lot of sports when I was young, football with the boys from school in my backyard, and basketball wherever and whenever I could. I loved the Dallas Cowboys and the Milwaukee Bucks. I had crushes on some of my female friends and on a whole slew of actresses at the time–remember the Bionic Woman? At the time, I never really thought about why I had crushes on girls and not boys. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. No one talked about being gay. No one even used the word “gay” unless it was in a horrible, homophobic joke. As far as I knew, “gay” wasn’t an option in the world I was raised in.
It was clear growing up that I was expected to go to college and get married. I met my future husband in 1980 at the University of Colorado. We were both sophomores at the time. We married at 22, and had three children together. We were part of a conservative church at the time, with such beliefs, including no sex before marriage. On our wedding night, my husband told me that he had always known that he was gay. In response, I told him I had “kind of dated a girl” in high school. That was the beginning, middle, and end of the conversation. We did not talk about it again for seven years.
We were married for six years before things began to fall apart. It’s possible we never would have talked about either of us being gay if my husband hadn’t developed feelings for a friend of his. He confided in our Pastor who directed him to attend therapy through an “ex-gay” ministry. When I think back on that now, I’m so sad for him and horrified that I ever supported him being a part of any “ex-gay” anything. My husband and I separated when he began a string of affairs. After seven years of marriage, and a yearlong separation, it was clear he wasn’t coming back. I filed for divorce in 1989, when I was 29 years old. He was not surprised, probably even relieved.
Divorce was a sin in the church we belonged to and being gay was considered to be even worse. In the eyes of the church, my now ex-husband was definitely going to hell, and, in short order, I’d be going with him. The Pastor outed him to the whole church, and he was kicked out of the membership. I wasn’t very sensitive to him back then; I was hurt and afraid. We had three children— all five and under— and my very helpful “friends” told me that he would never see the kids, never pay child support, and that he’d make them gay. Just the kind of support you need from friends when you’re already scared. He didn’t do any of those things. He is, and always has been, a great dad.
After my divorce, I stayed involved with the same church that had rejected my ex-husband. I was on the staff as a therapist, and I was part of the leadership committee. During that same time, I spent 3 years in therapy dealing with the divorce and my traumatic childhood. It was through therapy that I came to realize I am a lesbian. I was 32 at the time, and thrilled at this revelation because it allowed me to make sense of myself. With my newfound enthusiasm, I came out to the two pastors of the church at our weekly staff meeting. I didn’t expect them to cheer me on, but I did expect understanding, support, and some sense of joy for me and how the pieces of my life came together, despite their disapproving reaction to my ex-husband.
“Joy” is not the word I would use to describe their reaction to me; I think repugnance is more fitting. I was fired on the spot. They immediately took the key to my office, and told me they could not recommend that anyone see me for therapy anymore. I was told I could schedule an appointment to move my belongings out of my office. And they would notify the congregation at the upcoming business meeting. Ironically, both of these men, in the past, had called me in crisis to ask for counsel with their own families. But now, with one new piece of information about me, I was no longer qualified to counsel anyone. I was outed to the entire congregation and ex-communicated a couple weeks later.
After I was outed, I immediately went home and wrote a letter that I eventually sent to the whole congregation. I mailed the letter the next day. I wrote that I had learned that day what I had become to them, these people I considered my family. In the instant that they found out I was a lesbian, I was no longer a friend, colleague, counselor, and the person they called when they had a crisis. Now, to them, my entire identity was being a lesbian and nothing else. I was, in their eyes, an abomination. If I wanted to be part of the church, I had to agree to be celibate for the rest of my life or attend conversion therapy. As fun as those options sounded, I was not willing to do either.
My reaction to all of this was pretty much to tell them, and God, to fuck off. If they didn’t want me then I didn’t want them either. I lost all my friends and my job. The foundation of my life crumbled. It took me eleven years to get to a place where I could even walk into a church without fear. I was furious at the church and at God. I completely shut the door on my spirituality, and as a result, functioned as only part of a person. I realized eleven years later that I took their rejection as God’s rejection, but at the end of the day, they were just people. People with harmful, hateful, bigoted ideas that they preached to those around them. God hadn’t really played into it at all.
Sadly, I see now that I used to be one of those people at one time. My ex-husband was too. We both held those conservative views, and I still feel ashamed of that. I couldn’t come out until I was able to think for myself and accept myself as I am. I had to address my internalized homophobia first. I felt lost and angry for a couple years until I happened across some teachings of well-known Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron. Their teachings were revolutionary to me. I learned to look at myself and my interactions with others with a new perspective. I was responsible for me, not anyone else. I learned compassion for myself and others. I didn’t need a god to save me or people to judge me. That made sense to me, and Buddhism became my home; kindness, my religion. Inclusion and acceptance solidified in my thinking. Acceptance, not tolerance. I was never loved, I was indoctrinated.
When I got the boot, I found freedom. The freedom to love and be loved, to know and accept people for who they are. I found the freedom to love and accept myself. I was free to own all the parts of me and my life without shame. I am gay by design. I embrace who I am. I am grateful for my ability to love deeply, without conditions. I am grateful for the ability to forgive others, and myself. Kindness, acceptance, and love–that’s what I know now.
Karen Raines created and produces a blog and podcast entitled, Let’s Be Real. She has over 20 years of experience working with children involved in the Child Welfare system as a Senior Caseworker and as a Guardian Ad Litem. She has studied Buddhism and maintained her own meditation practice for over 20 years. Her thesis, Becoming Who I Am: My Reluctant Journey with Chronic Pain, explored the topic of chronic pain, physical and emotional, with which Ms. Raines has a lifetime of personal experience. For the past 10 years Ms. Raines has taught contemplative practices to individuals of all ages.