It was so simple back then.
It was the first day of spring. The air smelled like a mixture of mud and leaves and the scent that worms bring up with them when they crawl out of the dirt. Icicles that had formed on the gutters of the old red barn that served as one of our school buildings were dripping water on the yellow grass. Kids were running around the playground, their neon-colored rainboots sloshing around in puddles of brown water. My friend and I were sitting on the swings, our sneakers buried halfway in the sand as we swung ourselves back and forth at a slow, relaxed pace, so as not to appear childish. We were in fifth grade now, so we couldn’t be caught on the monkey bars or the slide with the little kids anymore.
“I have something to tell you,” she said as she slowed her swing to a stop, her eyes fixed on the sand beneath her feet. The fresh spring air suddenly felt damper and heavier around us.
It was unusual for my friend to be serious in this way. She may have been a year older than the rest of the kids in our class, which, in fifth grade, was quite a big deal, but she never rubbed it in our faces. She was a master strategist and a natural leader, always chosen as one of the team captains for our schoolwide capture the flag games, in which she would assign each of us to our posts with unshakable authority and confidence and then lead us to certain victory. Today, though, as she swung back and forth on the swing, for the first time, I saw in her green eyes a sense of uncertainty, a shade of gray that seemed to dull their usual vibrancy.
“What is it?” I asked, tightening my grip of the chain but maintaining the back and forth motion of the swing.
“You have to promise you won’t tell anyone,” she insisted, never taking her eyes off the ground.
“I promise. Now, what is it?” I said impatiently, my ears itching to hear whatever secret she was about to share with me.
“I think I might be a lesbian. Do you know what that is?” she said so quickly the words almost ran in and out of my ears too quickly for me to catch them.
For a split second, the noise of kids’ laughter and rainboots thumping against concrete became muffled as if I was wearing a thick beanie that covered my ears. My swinging slowed to a stop just like all other movement in the playground. I felt a bubble of confidence forming in my chest because I did know what a lesbian was even though we had never even talked about it in class.
“Of course, I know what a lesbian is,” I blurted out. “Do you think I was raised in a barn or something?”
“Well, technically speaking, you were,” she said, finally meeting my eyes as she pointed past me at the barn where we would have art class later that day. And we laughed until our tummies hurt.
At the time, I could not understand why she could not look me in the eye when she said the word “lesbian” out loud, but for the rest of middle school I went out of my way to let her know that comic books and silly videos on the internet and bike rides to the only gas station in town to buy candy were more important than whether she liked boys or girls. All I knew was that she was my friend who always drew me funny cards for my birthday and who would walk two kilometers to my house to have a sleepover and who somehow never ran out of funny stories to tell when I was sad. But of course, things couldn’t stay that way. See, as you get older, your brain begins to grow, and the world starts to look different. Piles of leaves are suddenly smaller and less vibrant in color, puddles become a nuisance that makes your socks wet and leaves mud stains all over your brand new skinny jeans and your friend who is a lesbian is no longer everyone’s first choice for their capture the flag team but the one who has to change in the bathroom by herself before P.E. class because the other girls insist that she is staring at them. All I could do was grit my teeth as the same girls compared the sizes of their butts while they changed and acted like that was somehow different.
The topic of sexuality didn’t really come up again until I went to church camp where, instead of a barn, Bible study classes were held in a log cabin. We were sitting cross-legged in small groups with our pocket Bibles in hand. The boy who sat next to me had every single strand of his blonde hair slicked back with a product that smelled like musk and he wore a collared shirt tucked into a pair of khaki pants with a different color bow tie around his neck every day. The screensaver on his phone was a picture of him kissing his girlfriend in front of a pine tree. They were both wearing matching navy coats and somehow the snow had piled on the branches of the tree in the most picturesque way possible, so it looked as if they had managed to insert themselves into a live painting. That picture was the kind of perfect that made me feel almost angry.
“So, tonight we’re going to be reading passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality. Does everyone know what that is?” our group leader asked and everyone around the circle nodded their heads reluctantly.
“Okay. The most famous passage is probably Leviticus 18:22, so let’s start with that one. Would anyone like to read aloud?” she continued and of course the blonde boy next to me was the first one to raise his hand, stretching his arm up so high I was surprised he didn’t dislocate it.
He cleared his throat and smacked his lips, then read, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is an abomination.”
“What do you guys think of this passage?” the group leader questioned. Everyone around the circle exchanged frantic glances, silently urging one another to answer.
Finally, the blonde boy replied, “Well, I agree with it. I mean, it is unnatural. Personally, I think it’s kind of gross. Being gay is a sin and you go to hell for it.”
The mere sound of his voice made me grit my teeth. I had been looking for a reason to hate this boy for all of camp and he had finally given me one. In my head, I was narrating a colorful description of what he could shove and where, but I swallowed those words because I may have been raised in a barn, but I was smart enough to know when to turn the other cheek. Instead, I looked around the circle, hoping to see the same discomfort in the faces of the other students that I knew was visible in mine, but no one dared to challenge the boy, and for good reason, because he did just paraphrase exactly what we read.
I think the reason I loathed that boy as much as I did was because he wasn’t wrong. He was simply restating what he had read. The God I loved didn’t love my lesbian friend. The God I loved was going to send my lesbian friend to hell for loving another girl. But the God I loved loved the girls in the locker room who bullied my lesbian friend because they were straight. I blamed the boy who said it. It never crossed my mind at fourteen years old to blame the God who ordained it. There were two options: love God and hate my lesbian friend or hate God and love my lesbian friend. Life had become a game of capture the flag with a gay team and a Christian team and I had been disqualified with no flag to defend.
It got even more complicated in eighth grade. My friend and I had grown out of our rainboots into ripped jeans and sneakers. Our conversations no longer revolved around capture the flag strategies and, instead, we talked about bands and the latest movies and gossiped about the snotty girls in our class. It was the week before fall break. I was going to be spending it at my aunt’s house and was scribbling a packing list in my biology notebook. My friend was sitting in the desk beside me, tapping the wooden surface with her pencil to the beat of “We Will Rock You.” The teacher had left the room to look for someone to fix her malfunctioning projector and the classroom had erupted in a cacophony of chatter, paper airplanes and the beeping of cell phones.
“The teacher’s gone, you can stop taking notes,” my friend pointed out and drew a smiley face in the corner of my notebook.
“I’m not taking notes. I’m writing down what I need to take to my aunt’s next week,” I said, swatting her pencil away. Its tip was still on the paper, stretching out one of the eyes of the smiley face so it looked like it was winking.
“Why are you so obsessed with your aunt anyway?” she asked. The years of snarky comments from kids in our class had sharpened her tongue, making her blunter, but I had learned to filter out the real meaning in what she was saying. In this case, it was “I’ve never met your aunt, but you talk about her a lot. Will you tell me more about her?”
“I just love her so much,” I replied, finally looking up from my notebook. “I want to be just like her. She doesn’t care how other people want her to live. She didn’t want to get married but instead she lives with her best friend and they travel the world together. They’ve been to the UK and Singapore and Australia and–”
“Her best friend?” She said it more like a statement than a question.
“Yeah. What’s so weird about that?” I questioned, noticing that my friend had suddenly become very interested in the crack on the surface of her desk, tracing it with her fingers, not looking up.
“Have you ever considered the possibility that your aunt might be a lesbian?” she suggested, her voice softening into a whisper.
“That’s ridiculous! Of course not!” I insisted, crossing my arms as if to shield myself from the reality she was trying to expose me to.
“Had you ever considered the possibility that I might be a lesbian?” she asked, momentarily taking me back to that spring day on the swing set.
“I was in fifth grade!” I cried out, my eyes already stinging with salty tears. She put her hand on mine and her green eyes looked into my blue ones, forming a little Earth with just the two of us on it.
“There’s something you need to know about gay people. We have a sixth sense.” She leaned in to whisper, as if she was sharing with me the details of a top secret spy mission, a scenario in which we had pretended to be countless times as kids, and said, “We can tell which people are gay and which people are not.”
That night my mother came home to a very confused fifteen-year-old who couldn’t stand the thought that her aunt was going to hell. The problem is that my aunt’s life looks just like anyone else’s. She gets up in the morning and drinks a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper before leaving to catch the bus to work. On the way there, she stops at the daycare to drop off her daughter who wraps herself around her legs so that she can’t leave. She spends her day in a cubicle, typing up the summary of the findings of her most recent research project. She gets home and cooks spaghetti and meatballs and eats it while watching her favorite soap opera. The only difference is that when she goes to bed at the end of a long day, the person lying next to her is a woman. My fifteen-year-old brain could not understand how my aunt’s life could be evil when it looked exactly the same as my straight parents’. Where is the sin? Where is the abomination? This capture the flag game had a black team and a white team and it needed a gray zone in between for a referee who could protect the border.
It began to make even less sense my junior year of high school.
Christmas break was so close I could practically smell the gingerbread cookies and pine needles and freshly cooked ham. I was in my bedroom, watching a movie with my little sister who was a freshman in high school at the time. The room was lit by nothing but the light emanating from the TV screen as we sat under a mound of blankets with a bowl of candy big enough to feed a small family. Every five minutes or so, my sister would dive under the blankets where her phone was buried to answer a text message.
“Who are you texting?” I asked as she crawled under the blankets once more.
“No one,” she replied nonchalantly.
I patted the mattress around me until I found the remote and paused the movie. “No, seriously, who?” The pile of blankets became alarmingly still. “I know you’re under there,” I said, poking her through the fabric.
My sister had always been like this, a locked door that would not open unless you knocked enough times, but once that door opened, everything hidden behind it would rush out at you like a tidal wave.
“I said no one,” my sister answered, peeking her head out so that the blanket covered everything from her eyes down.
“A boyfriend?” I asked teasingly, wiggling my eyebrows. The bed made a soft creak as her body tensed at my question. This time, the neurons in my brain had developed enough to fire the right answer onto my lips. “A girlfriend?”
She tossed the blanket aside and kneeled on the bed in front of me, her hands crossed as if she was praying. “Please, don’t tell mom yet!” she begged and what choice did I have but to agree?
She did tell mom soon after and mom told her she should invite her girlfriend over for dinner sometime so that she could meet her. We finally understood why my sister had called crying after one night of church camp and insisted that she would walk home if no one came to pick her up. When she was sixteen years old, she asked to officially leave the church and my mom had no choice but to file the paperwork. The problem was, in my sister’s mind, there was a barricade with people waving rainbow flags on one side and Christians with signs saying “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” on the other. There is a black zone and a white zone but no gray zone in between where a gay Christian could stand.
During my sophomore year at a private Christian college, it occurred to me to vocalize my feelings for the first time. I was having a conversation with another English major, another creative soul to confide in. We were sitting on a dark brown leather couch, he at one end, I at the other with enough room in between us for the secrets we shared to linger in the air for a moment before they reached the other person. He was a good storyteller, recounting events from the traumatizing years of adolescence in impressive detail, things which most of us have chosen to suppress but he was brave enough to repeat aloud.
“And I haven’t dated anyone in three years,” he said, finishing a story about his high school girlfriends.
“Why?” I asked, surprised, because he had never struck me as shy. I could not believe that for three years, no one had stopped to appreciate the way he carefully styled his dark hair every day, and the way he always looked put together in a pair of khakis or jeans, never sweat pants, and the way he smiled with his teeth.
“I was questioning my sexuality,” he replied so matter-of-factly, it took a few seconds for my brain to comprehend the words. There it was, the honesty I was used to hearing from him in the classes we had together. I searched for his eyes under the visor of his cap to see if he was joking.
“How?” I probed, curious for more.
“Let’s put it this way. I experience same sex attraction, but I don’t act upon it,” he explained but it seemed to make no sense to me. I felt like I was in math class, trying to solve an equation that simply didn’t have an answer.
“So, you’re not gay?” I asked.
“I don’t like to define myself that way.” As he spoke, he scooted to the edge of the couch, creating more space between us while our minds were intertwined, wrestling with the same questions.
I cleared my throat, knowing that I should stop but my curiosity got the best of me and I questioned him once more: “How do you define yourself?”
“I’m a child of God. That’s just it,” he stated.
“But it’s not,” I argued. “How can you be a child of God and questioning your sexuality at the same time?”
He thought about it for a moment. “Do you know what a circuit breaker is? The device that cuts off the electricity in your house if something malfunctions? That’s God. God is the master breaker. He has the power to fix whatever I struggle with. When I question my sexuality, that certain fuse is no longer under his control, so I have to surrender that control in order for him to fix it. I don’t have the power to repair myself, only he does.”
What he said made sense in my head but not in my heart. I still did not believe that my childhood best friend or my aunt or my sister needed to be fixed or repaired. I still did not believe that they were going to go to hell. But this guy had managed to do what I had worked so hard to do my whole life: he had found the gray area, the middle ground in this messed up game of capture the flag. And it reminded me of something: in my high school psychology class, I learned about gray matter which is found in different parts of the human brain. Gray matter is associated with just about every psychological process that makes you who you are, including your memory, your emotions, your decision-making, the way you speak. God made us gray. Not black. Not white. Gray. Maybe I don’t yet know exactly what that gray looks like. But what I do know is that there must be a way to love God and to love the gay people in my life simultaneously. I have been so caught up in choosing between black and white that I neglected to see the gray right in front of me. But the gray is where God is. He is the referee between the black and the white. And that matters more than anything.