By Meredith Jade Garrett, guest blogger
I met my girlfriend Allison in Rainbow City, Alabama. You read correctly. There is a small town in Alabama called Rainbow City. It is rural, ultra-conservative, and as unfriendly toward LGBTQ people as you would expect of a tiny Southern town. And yet it was there, in Rainbow City, where I met my girlfriend, discovered my authentic self, and learned about the importance of finding mentors on the long road toward self-acceptance as a gay Christian.
Allison and I attended the only church in the vicinity that welcomed us without stipulation. What’s more, Allison worked for that church; she was hired as the first openly gay (soon to be partnered) youth minister in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. As much as she had reconciled her faith and sexuality, I was still struggling. I couldn't believe that my authentic self could be loved by anyone — especially God. Allison and our church taught me differently.
In this small, affirming bubble, I began to detox my mind and learn that there was indeed a Christian community ready to show me God’s unconditional love. It was my first glimpse at a God who could love me fully for who I was. Outside of those Episcopalian walls, however, the process of inclusion moved at a glacial pace. I remember the day, near the beginning of her time in Rainbow City, Allison was enjoying some small talk with a cashier at a local department store.
“Oh, you’re a youth minister!” the clerk said. “That’s fantastic. Well, I go to a church in that area too. Ever heard of City Church? It used to be called Rainbow City Church, but they took out the Rainbow part on account of the Bible saying that rainbows have something to do with the gays.”
Allison, usually resolute and quick to (politely) defend her convictions, smiled and left that conversation behind. Communicating with foundational belief systems wholly different than my own often leaves me reeling and cowering in frustration. Allison, on the other hand, absorbs these comments and translates them through a filter of empathy: Maybe these people have never met a gay person. Maybe they would have a better capacity for compassion if they got to know someone in the LGBT community without first being bombarded by preconceived notions from the pulpit or the media. This was Allison’s subtle and integrative approach. The “long game,” as she calls it. From her, I learned that God's love and grace poured out onto me could in turn be poured out onto others — even others who would be hostile toward me. I could choose to love them regardless of how they felt about me.
Although Allison taught me kindness and empathy for others, I still struggled with how to love myself. Despite the affirmation from my church, my Southern Baptist roots began to rise up and ensnare my mind with thoughts of eternal separation, unforgivable abominations, and other colloquially Baptist ideas. It was at this point that my scripture-confused mind needed a theological mentor. I needed someone to help me quell the fundamentalist intellect that lurked around my soul, but I was too afraid to reach out for help. Who in Rainbow City would listen to my raw, innermost concerns? A psychiatrist seemed too sterile, and my priest (although he was already an advocate for my team) didn't feel like the right fit to unload my fundamentalist angst. I knew one thing: I needed someone to listen.
The week after I came out to my parents, in the wake of the unspeakably painful aftermath it caused, I was in desperate need of comfort. Conveniently next door to my apartment was my church, my safe haven. How providential that place came to be. There, on a random weekday morning, we met with my priest’s wife. What a reassuring presence I felt the moment we sat in communion with one another. Perched on a tiny chair from children’s church, I held my knees and tried to stop the endless flow of tears. My eyelids were swollen.
“Take this,” the priest’s wife said gently. She handed me a perfectly folded cloth she’d taken from a table in the children's chapel. I’m not a cradle Episcopalian or a member of any altar guild, so I’m not sure of the technical name for it, but the piece was soft, folded with precision, and had a cross along the edge. It felt sacrilegious to blow my nose in such a holy linen. Somehow, though, it made me feel real. It made God feel approachable. Was there really anything to fear? For the next hour, I was uplifted and reminded of my worth in the body of Christ. Biblical misconceptions that had once haunted me were now being explained in new and refreshing ways. I was slowly beginning to grasp onto the truth of my sexuality without having to let go of the integrity of scripture. From my priest's wife, I learned that I didn't have to sacrifice my theology to embrace who I was.
For years, I had been praying for the wrong thing. I prayed to God and pleaded that the desires of my heart would vanish, but that never happened. Why would our Creator ignore petitions like these? I’m trying to be a good person. I’m not the despicable person I’ve been told I am! When these cries were left unanswered, I felt empty. But God revealed Himself through the people he brought into my life. They told me that I was enough. I could be gay and remain in God’s fold.
I was accused once of purposely segregating myself by using the term “gay Christian.” Why can’t you just call yourself a Christian? Why do you have add the gay part? Why must you be a flag-waver all the time? My response is simple: I add the “gay part” because I have been told all my life that I can’t be both. And maybe I am a “flag-waver,” but my marginalization is not self-inflicted. I was assigned to the category of unforgivable. I do wave a flag, but it’s not necessarily the rainbow one. I wave a flag of equity, of sanctuary, and of rightness. I say “gay Christian” so that others drowning in warped conviction might find a friend.
In the difficult and often lonely path gay Christians forge toward acceptance, we all need friends and mentors. In my darkest hour, I prayed for truth. I sought mentors, and God sent them. One by one, they came to commiserate with me: priests, closeted friends, a summer camp full of inclusive-minded kids, an old family friend who’d always been that way, and my soul mate. Each has brought me the gift of reassurance. I hold those gifts dear, but I don’t intend on keeping them; I will turn to the next person in need and pass it on. The narrative doesn’t stop with me — it carries on valiantly within every new person brave enough to stand up and say, “I’m gay, and God loves me too.”
Meredith is a writer, personal trainer, and humanitarian based in Chattanooga, TN. Along with her soon-to-be wife, Meredith stays active in the community as an advocate for LGBTQI+ inclusion. Check out more of her work & stay updated on her upcoming book release!