Trigger warning – contains gays, Christians, love and rainbow rocking chairs
In the “wake” of this year’s pride, I’ve had some important conversations with people I love. After Cracker Barrel faced backlash for “going woke” with their rainbow rocking chairs, I initiated the following text exchange with one such person:
Me: “Is celebrating PRIDE not even allowed by conservatives?”
Them: “I don’t care personally but it seems an odd thing to be proud of. I am not proud to BE anything…straight, white, female, etc. It’s just who I am. I am proud of accomplishments…things I have worked for.”
This was just the beginning of a conversation that ended (hours later) with greater mutual understanding.
Pride month is vital for so many reasons – to celebrate our progress, promote inclusivity for all, enable our psychological recovery, strengthen our community, etc.
But there’s another reason why I can’t let Pride month 2023 expire without planting a rainbow flag and declaring this digital territory for the LGBTQIA+ community….
Let me tell you a story. I got this email a few months ago….
“Hello April, I write historical Christian romance, and I am looking to have my 5 book series turned into audiobooks this year (the sooner the better). I found you on Findaway Voices and loved the examples you gave for some of the novels there. I am wondering if you would be interested in taking on a project like this…?“
An immediate clash of feelings sprang from this — excitement (5 book series!) and fear (Christian romance…)
Cue the flashback music…
Growing up as a lesbian in Lynchburg, Virginia wasn’t easy for me. It’s the Bible belt buckle of the south – lorded over by the fundamentalist Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell (“Praise the Lord! Buy my video!”). The town is populated predominantly by students and alumni of the ultra-conservative “Liberty University” – they aren’t allowed to dance, drink, or listen to music that goes against the “Liberty Way”. Women are required to wear long dresses and skirts.
Needless to say, you couldn’t be gay in Lynchburg. There were over 150 churches brimming over with Southern Baptists who would either tell me outright that I was going to hell, or quietly pray for my soul (because they liked me).
Unlike many of my gay friends, I tolerated their prayers. They were only acting in line with their deeply held beliefs, and I respected their right to have those beliefs. I hoped that one day they would see how ridiculous, perverse, and astonishingly arrogant it was to believe that their love for their partner was holy, while my love for my partner was sinful.
Holding space for them to express their belief was like holding my hand in a fire. Still, I forgave them.
I moved away — 500 miles away, to go to Syracuse University. Then 5,000 miles away to Europe – a safe distance.
While visiting my mom and sisters one year, I was enchanted by a beautiful new store in the mall, Philanthropy. I was lured inside by its earth tones, scented candles, and imaginative, tactile displays. At the heart of the store, I stumbled into the most baffling feature — a church – a quaint, warm, inviting wooden edifice with a pitched roof, a stained glass cross on the front and an altar inside.
The walls were covered with thousands of what looked like luggage tags. On closer inspection, you could see that a prayer was written on each; blank luggage tags and pens were available for one to add their own prayer. As I gazed around the room, a man at the altar lifted his head from his prayers and smiled warmly at me.
“Amazing, isn’t it?”, he said.
I nodded in reverence.
“I come here every day and pray for everyone who’s left a prayer here”.
“Wow”, I said, touched by his altruism.
“Except for the gay ones”, he said. “Would you believe that some woman prayed that she find her lesbian lover! I thought — no way am I praying for that!”
“Oh” I said.
…I’m still not welcome here, I thought, returning to Europe days later.
Late last year, an author contacted me to ask if I would narrate her Christian fantasy series. I was worried. I didn’t want to turn down the work (I want as much diverse experience as I can get), but I also know that my boundaries are stiff. If a job makes the world a worse place, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to steel myself to speak words that I know will hurt people.
Was there anything in this series that would hurt me and others? How could I find out? I decided to be honest with the author about my sexuality, upbringing and anxiety. She said she “loved my upfront honesty” and she answered my questions with absolute grace and compassion. Yes, it was a spiritual book which included the teachings of Jesus, but it was also metaphysical and visionary, featuring characters from other planets who were also “bringers of light”. There were gay relationships too, and their love was treated with “equity and honor”.
WOW. She had created a space with Jesus in it – and I was welcome there! And not just welcome — she chose ME to build the bridge to her world and guide listeners around it.
I was elated, and an old wound healed just a little bit. I narrated that book, Comes the Warrior and have a great relationship with the author.
So here I was, 8 months later, reading an email from another Christian author of a Christian historical romance series. Again I was cautious; could I read these books? Would they hurt people? Was I welcome in the fictional world the author created? Could I bring this “southern Christian love story” to life to delight the audience of southern Christians who say that my love is disgusting and wrong? Narrating is an act of soulful generosity — I give my whole self to the service of telling the story. Could I do this for an author if I knew she thought that of me?
Asking “Am I welcome here?” is a hard thing to say, but it must be said, somehow, for me to be safe.
I feel no shame about who I am. But outing myself to a stranger can feel like asking permission to exist. The query is thus candid, with a playful tip-of-the-hat to where I fit in the modern lexicon of conservative Christians.
“You’re hiring a woke lesbian snowflake to narrate your southern Christian historical romance – will it be ok for us to work together?”
She backpedaled as fast as she could. She said that of course there are no references to gay people in her books “because it wasn’t exactly a major topic of societal interest 140 years ago”. However my sexuality “gave her pause“, because my gayness wouldn’t fit with her “distinctively Christian brand” and her website which sells “mugs with Bible verses”.
I was not welcome in her world.
As the flames licked at my insides, I still held space for her judgement of me — generously advising her on where she could find an authentic Christian voice for her books.
The conversation, the revelation, the rejection, was a painful experience that I’m not eager to repeat. And so I plant this happily flapping rainbow flag hereupon my website for all future authors to see. I am happy to narrate all sorts of love stories, because love is love (and God IS love)… but if you can’t celebrate my love for Sarah, my life partner for the last 15 years, then your story is not safe for me.