“Attending the second wedding of a friend, I was seated near my former church youth minister. I hadn’t seen him for over ten years. He was drunk. I asked if he knew that my husband had come out. ‘Oh yes’, he told me, enthused. ‘We knew that he was gay all along. We just hoped that you could straighten him out.’ When the leadership endorsed our relationship with the intention that somehow, my heterosexuality could ‘straighten out’ my gay husband, I was seventeen years old.”
I grew up in a friendly Anglican church, a benign and comforting world. I loved its faded prayer mats and green and red books with their deliciously scrunching pages. Just before I entered my teenage years, however, everything changed. My mother was convinced to shift her allegiance to a fundamentalist Pentecostal church, where the proof of salvation was demonstrated by ‘speaking in tongues.’
Every part of our life was now determined by the church leadership, who claimed to hear directly from God in ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’. In this church was a minister who practiced exorcisms. Popular music was forbidden, as it contained backmasking (secret messages inserted by demons). The Devil and his demons –whom I’d hardly heard about before – were everywhere, seeking to thwart the will of God and ensnare Christians in myriad ways.
Objects from other countries or religions were conduits for possession: they required burning, when demons would be seen, escaping in the curling smoke, screaming. The Bible was fact, and the book of Revelation showed the ‘End Times’ – we were altered to the dangers of bar codes, a forerunner of the ‘mark of the Beast’. Only our lack of evangelism delayed the literal return of Jesus in the clouds. We were regularly warned that we’d be ‘cut off the vine’ (lose our salvation) if we weren’t fruitful, or we were cursed for our failure to give ten percent of our earnings to the church.
In our church, we were told most people went to a literal hell that God had made for the wicked, where they burned forever. This was, of course, anyone who didn’t get ‘born again’, accepting the substitution of Jesus in place of their deserved separation from God because of sin. Among those who experienced ‘the wrath of God’ were, the Bible warned, people who were gay, greedy, envious, liars, gossips, slanderers, disobedient to their parents, unloving and unmerciful (Romans 1).
Naturally, homosexuals were zeroed in on. If the society outside our church was homophobic, inside, it was magnified. In the many evangelism courses I attended, we were told to emphasise our own sin, as if this would make it more palatable when we told homosexual people that they were going to burn in hell for eternity unless they repented. All friendships with non-Christians, unless for the purpose of conversion, were discouraged. Education was scorned: our minister boasted that no ministers from our denomination had attended University.
After a number of years in this cultish system, both my sister and I were told God had made his will known to the leadership, and both of us, inexperienced in relationships, unknowingly married gay men. My husband was in the church, hoping the shame he felt about his sexuality, coming from a conservative farming family of many generations, could be relieved by a miraculous encounter with God.
My brother-in-law had elderly devout parents. For both these young men, being homosexual was simply unthinkable. So they went to church, spoke in tongues and married my sister and I, hoping their desire for other men would change.
Our church had programs in place for gay people, believing they were made and not born (for gay men, this was the result of an over-bearing mother, so this particular prejudice had the benefit of killing two despised groups with one stone). There was a program called ‘Exodus’, which claimed to cure gay people who entered the church. What it did, in actuality, was accentuate shame and require gay people to either commit to lifelong celibacy or a heterosexual marriage, without regard for the impact of this on any of the families involved, or their children. Men would attest they had been cured of their homosexuality, and were now living in heterosexual marriages and having children.
As time went on, the many prophecies spoken over my husband by revered church leaders did not eventuate. Friends who had been ‘called’ as missionaries when young and enthusiastic had mortgages and babies instead, settling firmly in Australia. The marriages of our former youth leaders began to break down. Our only national full-time evangelist, under whom we had done hours of evangelism training, came out and began supporting LGBTIQ+ people who had tried conforming, usually for the sake of Christian families, within the church.
The leader of one of our principal churches was exposed as a paedophile; another later was convicted for domestic violence. The excuses for these behaviours wore thin. We could not agree with the judgements we were meant to have about other people, especially marginalised people. We were reading widely and becoming educated. I recall a Bible study in which I defended gay men, where another member said to me viciously that ‘they’ waited in park toilets to molest her small boys.
The day I found out my husband was gay, we had attended a wedding. I had been aware, listening to the familiar vows, that my heart still held these promises for our relationship: in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, until death us do part. But I sensed my husband had withdrawn from our relationship. When I found a letter he had written to a gay lover, which detailed the torment of his dilemma in being married to me, I knew right away that our marriage was over, but I was utterly grief-stricken.
The expectation in our church was that I would be disgusted by the revelation of my husband’s gay identity, that I would spurn him and erase any happiness or joy we had found together from my history. I was treated like an outcast for failing to have this attitude. I attended a support group for other wives whose husbands had come out, only to find it was overwhelmingly attended by Christians, at a ratio of about 10:2. The level of revulsion as the women talked about their former partners – often also the fathers of their children – was intense.
A matter of weeks after my husband came out, my sister’s husband did the same. Conscious of his elderly parents who had raised all their children in the church, he additionally had to deal with being a father to two small children, my niece and nephew. Deeply struggling with unsolvable dilemmas, he tried conversion therapy.
One day, after my husband had left, I went walking with my brother-in-law. He talked with anguish about his inability in respond to the conversion therapy, despite his desire to be straight, socially accepted, Christian and a suburban dad. But what if the church teaching was wrong? I asked him. What if he was actually born into his orientation and there was nothing he could do about it? I gave him a tea party analogy: what if he tried to be a teacup all his life, when he had simply been born a milk jug? He later gave me the gift of a white milk jug.
I think of the impacts of church teaching on my own family, and the families we married into. I wonder how many people from those congregations think about the ongoing, devastating consequences of what they teach, believe and advocate? A Christian recently told me that my brother-in-law lacked sincerity to change, which is why his conversion therapy was ineffective.
LISTEN: Penny Wong on what marriage means to her and her partner (post continues after audio…)
When I think of the extreme suffering he endured as he tried to deny his identity, I feel deeply insulted on his behalf. When I recall my husband’s fear of walking through parks at night, I feel horror that anyone would want to endorse a social attitude that continued to treat the LGBTIQ+ community as if they are less than the rest of us.
My family has been irredeemably altered by these events in ways that will remain our history through generations. My children and my niece and nephew have had their lives altered by the history of their mothers.
And yet, as we hear about the many family members affected by the postal survey, we hear so little about those heterosexuals who have loved and married gay people who didn’t feel they were accepted enough in our society to simply be themselves.
As I think of our marriage equality postal survey, of the rallies, the moments of hate, bigotry and disrespect, it feels personal. I still have Christian friends, some of whom are fundamental. I also have friends who are gay, straight, bi or polyamorous. I have friends whose sexual activities I know nothing about, which is so damn fine.
I know some of my sincere, fundamental Christian friends will believe they are obeying God and the Bible if they vote against legalising same-sex marriage. But there is another option.
There is a place of mercy and compassion for the despised. It looks a lot like the radical place Jesus inhabited in the gospel stories. There is a place to recall that this vote is not compulsory, and that our laws do not have to reflect any one person’s understanding of the Bible; many of them already do not. The sky will not fall in.
Abstinence, a Christian speciality, is still an option for those with a genuinely troubled conscience.