Coming Out and Overcoming Faith Barriers
by Renée Wood – Guest contributor to LQ
I spent the years of my youth in church and eventually came out as a lesbian. My church didn’t accept me, but I learned to accept myself. Now I am engaged to my wonderful fiancee and I am a spiritual person. Here is what I learned about how to cope with this big change in focus and community.
Belonging and Purpose
I found myself drawn to the church in my late teens. By the time I was 19, I had fully dove into church life. I wouldn’t miss a service, I had small groups to participate in and it was the common denominator in most relationships I invested in. My world slowly shifted into a smaller religious bubble. And I loved it. For 4 years in my 20s I worked for a church, further diving into the life of service. I gave my heart, time and money to the things I thought mattered most.
I found a deep sense of belonging, community and shared purpose. The teachings and lifestyle that came along with strong religious beliefs became my ingrained compass, my gut instinct and the constant voice in my head. It affected every single aspect of my life.
Questioning the Truth
It can be a really beautiful thing to “fit into” that community and feel a shared sense of purpose. But when I no longer fit that mold, when I couldn’t reconcile the whisper that says “but”, and started questioning the “truths” I had previously accepted, a mental anguish occupied my mind.
Fear of Change
I think for anyone who has been heavily influenced by faith, there’s a fear of change. A fear of loss and of the other. I naturally wanted to put up a wall to other beliefs and lifestyles. I wanted to protect what I had been building. And in my experience, I was taught exactly why those other lifestyles were wrong. I was well equipped with defenses and rhetoric for any incoming “attacks”. But even with all the teachings, I found myself head on with cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is mental distress caused by conflict between two or more opposing beliefs. This isn’t unique to people with a spiritual belief system. It affects everyone with any kind of belief system. For example, maybe you’re a person who is very intentional and passionate about advocating for human rights and environmental stewardship. But you found out your favourite affordable clothing line uses sweatshops to create their clothes. As you dig further into your research on sustainable, fair trade clothing, you realize your budget won’t allow for more than a couple shirts a year from ethically sourced clothing lines.
Cue the Dissonance
You’re now left feeling conflicted and torn. You have two options, stay fashionable and keep supporting a company you morally disagree with, or change your lifestyle to align with your values. In order to have mental peace and harmony again “you can change your beliefs, change your actions, or change how you view your actions” (Lawler, Moria).
The Common Solutions
Oftentimes when someone is faced with cognitive dissonance, they lie to themselves or only absorb information that affirms their pre-existing belief. This is a misguided attempt to self preserve, to avoid the extremely uncomfortable position of critically analysing your reality. More often than not, people who are struggling with cognitive dissonance will self justify their held belief and double down on them.
Personally, when trying to reconcile my spirituality and my sexuality, I doubled down on my dogma. I consumed teachings that helped support my belief (that I should remain celebate my entire life or marry a man). I distanced myself from gay culture and at my lowest point attempted to enroll in conversion therapy. I tried every avenue of solutions to avoid the one I’m currently on – which is changing my beliefs.
Consequences of Coming Out
There are social and mental hurdles that came with changing my beliefs and coming out. When I had to distance myself from my faith community, it was like diving into the pacific ocean mid January. Harsh, jolting, and terrifying. I didn’t know how to develop new and meaningful relationships. I didn’t know where to find community. I was left with a social void and a lack of connection. It was also just plain confusing.
My church was non-affirming, but I was still “welcomed” and “loved”. I know my friends there loved me in all sincerity but there was a lingering uncomfortability in being surrounded by a large group of people who I could only assume felt I was “living in sin”. For that reason I left, and left a lot of the relationships behind as well.
Beyond the social isolation, the mental struggles have followed me for much longer. I deal with intense guilt from new activities I engage in (questioning core beliefs, sex, drinking, or other previously taboo acts). There are periods of grief and depression from losing my previously engrained compass. I’m two years past leaving my faith community and continue to have full blown panic attacks when that old rhetoric creeps into my mind. I’ve gone to therapy and have tools to better deal with these issues, but when I first encountered these intense emotions, it felt paralyzing and even life threatening at times. There is a term for this—Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)—which is essentially a religious form of PTSD.
So where do you go after the church? How do you deal with RTS?
I don’t want to necessarily throw the spiritual baby out with the religious bath water. I’ve found therapy to be helpful. I’ve also joined online faith support systems as I’m trying to connect with a more diverse, curious and open group of spiritual people. Finding new “teachers” (Brene Brown) has also been essential for my mental health and wellbeing. I am innately spiritual and philosophical—it’s not something I can just erase, much like my sexuality. So it’s been important for me to find people who can help nurture all aspects of myself.
I want others to know if you’re struggling through this complicated maze, you’re not alone. There’s hope on the horizon even on the darkest of days.
About Renée Wood
Renée is the founder and artistic director for Anti-Gravity. With eight years of industry experience (specializing with non-profits), she brings understanding, fresh perspectives, and intensive creativity to the team. She operates out of the core values of integrity, adaptability, positivity, and inclusion. If Renee isn’t in the studio creating, you can find her wandering in the woods, playing cards with her family, or bouncing around in a mosh pit.
Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash