I have not always been comfortable sharing my own story. Raised in a conservative, Pentecostal home, being gay was a sure ticket to eternal damnation.
We went to church several times a week and I rarely missed a service. As a youth group and Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader, I wanted to be a pastor. I was passionate about my faith. It gave me something to be loyal and committed to. It helped me find solid footing.
As part of this community, I learned very quickly that there was only one acceptable path and that it could not be questioned. I also learned that the rules were different for girls, who were expected to be obedient, submissive, and pure. When they grow up, they also were expected to be heterosexual, married, monogamous, and mothers. The pastors and other evangelical leaders emphasized the sin of homosexuality, calling it the “greatest and most unnatural of all sins.” They hammered this message over and over again. As a very rule-oriented kid with a keen desire to please, I didn’t question these beliefs.
My perspective started to shift when I graduated from high school and began to experience life outside my family and church. I moved away and started classes at a secular college. I enrolled in Religious Studies and Feminism courses that opened my eyes to seeing the Bible, sexuality, and women’s roles much differently—all the while criticizing my professors for challenging the existence of heaven and hell. In a less restricted environment, I started questioning, thinking more critically about what I had been previously taught.
I waited tables during school and befriended people in the gay and trans communities. There was a moment when a fellow server belittled my friend for wanting kids. “Gay people shouldn’t be able to have children.” I defended my friend. I saw in this statement the absurdity of my own long-held views. And, when I occasionally returned to my home church and listened to the sermons, I began recognizing the falseness of the message. To me, the messages seemed ego-driven and disingenuous.
Graduate school, five years later, felt like “Round 2.” I started researching and digging more into sexuality and gender. A course examining the Bible provided an outlet to study scripture again but with a new and different lens. I continued to ask questions about, and of, myself.
When I came out, I was 30 years old. That was pretty late. Strangers would ask, “When did you become gay?” Or “When did you know you were gay?” People would tell me, “That’s not possible. You can’t be straight and then suddenly gay.” Over beers at my favorite bar in town, one person claimed, “You’re not gay. You just think you are.” I stopped going out after that. It’s not an easy conversation if your journey doesn’t follow a “neat” narrative that others are eager to impose.
At first, I didn’t even like saying the word “Gay.” While it felt good in some ways, it also felt scary because of these hang-ups that I had. Many were from my religious upbringing. I started working through those things while traveling abroad. Then I started attending workshops that helped me address my “limiting beliefs.” I was encouraged to ask hard questions and get honest with myself. At my core, I felt “unworthy” and “unnatural.” Although I left the church years before, those two words still had power. That power was reinforced by my mother’s disapproval. I was not following the path that she wanted me to take. Even though I was 30 years old, that disapproval still hurt when it came from people I cared about, especially my parents.
It took me two years of questioning and searching to become comfortable with myself. For me, being queer means rejecting the traditional expectations that come with sexual identity. At least that’s the way that I see it. But, my answer might not apply to anyone else.
Some people know who they are early on, have families that support them, and even have role models to guide them. Some people grow up in conservative communities that demand obedience rather than discovery. Some people, like me, question their way to queer and navigate a messy and nuanced path to self-actualization.
Twenty years ago I knew for sure that I wanted to be a pastor. It’s a funny thing, how two decades of questioning can radically shift your direction. Today “questioning” is central to my own teaching philosophy at the university. I understand perhaps better than anyone the challenge of critically examining gender and sexuality using only a conservative lens. It is not simply the material and stories that move us and encourage us to build empathy with others. It is through the questioning that we are most changed.
– Cheri Ellefson’s Story as Told by Beth Messner
Cheri Ellefson teaches gender and international women’s issues courses at Ball State University and offers community workshops on ‘unlearning gender.’ She co-owns Queer Chocolatier with her wife and serves on the advisory board for the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Beth A. Messner is an Assoc. Professor of Communication Studies at Ball State University. She teaches courses related to persuasion and rhetoric and studies the discourse of those whose voices are traditionally silenced.
This story originally appeared in Facing LGBTQ+ Pride in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Muncie OUTreach in Muncie, Indiana.