‘My dad looked at me. ‘I have nothing to say to you right now.’ He got up and walked out the door.’: Gay woman shares experience coming out in religious family

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“From the time I was very young, my mother always told me, ‘Amber, friends will come and go, but your family will always be there for you.’ Trusting her, I believed my family would always support me no matter what. But as I grew older, I learned something very different.

Growing Up

I grew up in an extremely conservative, religious home. In fact, for 35 years, my father worked in a very prominent position at the ultra-conservative religious organization, Focus on the Family. My mother stayed at home to raise me and my brother in the ways our religion taught was right, and we were both homeschooled, frequently involved in service projects, and at church multiple times a week. This was my world. It was small, it was certain, it was safe.

little girl in red wagon
Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

While one could argue that there is great value in these things (and in some ways, there is), there were also downfalls that my young, moldable, and naïve self couldn’t possibly have been aware of in my youth. Among them was my lack of exposure to the world at large, including diversity of any kind. My life was solely based on the white, straight, cisgender, healthy, middle-class, Christian perspective (this is called privilege). Little did I know that inside me was a chronically ill, gay woman who would one day emerge.

The belief system in which I was raised also meant I was steeped in what we now call Purity Culture…a subculture of the evangelical movement meant to control my sexuality through shame by convincing me to sign a vow of chastity until marriage. For my family, this also meant that even dating without the intention of marriage was frowned upon.

My thirteen-year-old self enrolled wholeheartedly, not realizing the psychological and emotional damage it would cause for years to come. I never dated, I never even thought of dating. Rather, I was programmed to believe that if I just did the right things and pleased God with my life, I would someday reap the reward of the perfect husband and happily-ever-after marriage.

young woman writing in journal
Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

An Internal War

But that’s not what happened. At the age of 23 (a full decade after my 13-year-old vow to chastity), I fell in love with a woman. On the hierarchy of sins, that was the absolute worst thing you could possibly do. An internal war began inside…one that almost cost me my life.

A cyclone of shame and disgust and internalized homophobia took over me, worsening my already existent depression and anxiety, leading to self-harm and eventually, suicidal ideations. Finally, I decided that in order to survive, I had to start fighting for myself, not with myself.

I began therapy and began examining my own beliefs, rather than allowing others to spoon-feed me theology and religion that taught me to hate who I was. In time, I found peace and was able to finally accept myself as a gay woman. But accepting myself and sharing that reality with others were two different things.

A woman wearing a jean jacket and a red shirt
Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

Coming Out

I’ll never forget the day I told my parents I was gay. It was April 14th, 2012, and it drew a line in the sand between the life I once had, and the one I’m now living. I had anxiously anticipated and dreaded the day for months, but I also knew I couldn’t pretend to be someone I was not any longer. On that day, I sat my family down and (with notes in my shaky hands so as to not forget anything important), I told them of the journey I’d been taking to understand my sexuality and reconcile that with my faith.

They stared at me blankly with a deer-in-the-headlights look. And after sharing the most difficult and vulnerable thing I had ever risked sharing in my entire life, my dad looked at me and said, ‘I have nothing to say to you right now,’ and got up and walked out the door.

Three weeks later, when we finally spoke again, they compared me to murderers and pedophiles. They said they felt like I had died. They told me I was selfish to do what made me happy without thinking about how it would impact them. And then…they took away my keys to their house. My life was never the same again.

I moved to a different city, losing not only my family, but also my friends, my relatives, my church, and the only hometown I’d ever known. Life was dark, lonely, and bleak. One of the main reasons I am still alive today is because of my service dog, Half Pint.

photo of service dog in the grass
Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

She came into my life at a time when I desperately needed not only the aid she provided to me as a PTSD-trained service animal but also the unconditional love she had to offer freely. When other people turned their backs on me, ghosted me, or simply walked away, she came running towards me every time. I never felt anything but complete acceptance from her. She’s loved me with abandon her whole life and over a decade later, we are still doing life together.

One of the other pivotal things that saved me was starting over with a new faith community that embraced all of who I was. While I’m not as involved in a faith community now, this was an important stepping stone for me and taught me that the problem I was experiencing wasn’t with God at all…it was with religion—the rules that had been established by people of who’s in and who’s out. In the Divine Family, nobody is ever out. Love is always inclusive.

Advocacy and Love

I began advocating for and allowing myself to choose love. In time, and as I healed from my own trauma, I started using my story as a way of raising awareness of the harms being done to LGBTQ+ people in the name of God. I published two books: the first of which was a memoir (Refocusing My Family, Fortress Press, 2017) and the other which was the first coming-out guide for LGBTQ+ people of faith (Unashamed, WJK Press, 2019). I’ve now spent the last 6 years doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people who come from conservative faith spaces and helping queer people all over the world navigate their coming-out process.

Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

It’s easy for people who aren’t religious or who have accepting families to think we’ve come so far in terms of marriage equality and rights for LGBTQ people, but the truth is that there are still so many stories like mine happening in religious circles all over the nation (and around the world). Queer people are still afraid to come out. The cost of authenticity is high.

I still believe coming out is worth it. Because the cost of hiding and suppressing your identity is even higher. I know many LGBTQ+ people (myself included) who now battle severe chronic illness as a result of the years of suppressing who they are. The body absolutely keeps the score…it remembers. We all deserve the chance to be authentic. We only get one chance to live this beautiful, precious, queer life…let’s live it to the fullest.

So if you are reading this and identify as LGBTQ+ (or think you might):

Love who you are.

Be your fullest self.

Live fully.

Be unapologetic about your love.

And if you are a parent or ally reading this:

Celebrate your loved one, no matter what.

Be fiercely on their side.

Love them as if their life depended on it…because it just might.

I’ve now been out for a full decade and still have no contact with my family. But even in the midst of all that coming out cost me, it is still by far one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I came alive the day I came out. I feel free. You deserve to feel free too.

Be brave queer one…and live unashamed.

woman with her two dogs in arms smiling in woods
Courtesy of Amber Cantorna

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amber Cantorna of Denver, CO. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, her website, and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘Stop begging God to take this away from you. He gave it to you for a purpose.’: LGBT woman pens powerful letter to past self after coming out of closet

‘I dare you to smooch Michelle.’ I promised myself I’d forget that night. I’d committed a terrible sin.’: Ex-Mormon shares coming out journey, ‘Who you are is not a sin’

‘I was gay. I knew what would happen if I came out. Family, friends,  church – all gone. So I lived blindly, losing more of who I was by the day. ‘: Gay dad describes fear of coming out to family

‘If I pray enough, I can fall out of love with her.’ I lived in a society where people said you can’t be Christian AND homosexual. I knew it’d make or break my family.’: Woman details self-acceptance and coming out journey

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