Bridget Eileen Rivera
Christian, Lesbian, Sojourner
My brother sounded sarcastic. I was barely old enough to be in pre-school and had never heard the word “gay” in my life.
“What’s ‘gay’?” I asked, but a grown-up in the room quickly hushed us, mumbling something about it being “bad.” My curiosity was peaked, but I didn’t press any further. “Gay” meant “bad.” I catalogued the definition in my brain, and for years, that’s all the word ever meant.
Growing Up Evangelical
As a child of conservative evangelicalism, I learned to associate the word “gay” with “bad” as a matter of course. Lengthy discussions on the topic seldom took place — only quick references to things like “sin,” “hell,” “twisted,” and “unnatural,” as if “gay” and “lesbian” were just convenient synonyms. So limited was my understanding of the topic, that I didn’t even really know what the word “gay” actually meant until I got my first job at the age of sixteen, and a co-worker said I “turned her on.”
Now before I continue, I want to be clear. The conservative, evangelical community of my childhood remains one of the single greatest blessings in my life. I’m forever grateful for the way I was raised, and I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for the world. My childhood was one of the happiest you could imagine, full of love, care, and strong familial bonds.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that nothing is perfect. As I reflect on the ways that I’ve grown, some of these imperfections in my community are bound to arise. That’s neither a sign of bitterness nor resentment. I was a happy child and remain deeply grateful for the way I was raised.
Unfortunately, as grateful as I am for it, my upbringing taught me that “gay” and “bad” go together. And since I was a good little Christian, I never imagined that the word “gay” could have anything to do with me. Never once did I consider that my sexuality could be “different” or that my life trajectory might not follow the traditional path of marriage, sex, and family.
I didn’t even know it was possible.
Growing Up “Wrong”
Puberty wasn’t easy for me. I knew that guys and girls were supposed to “like” each other, but no one gave me the secret recipe for kick-starting that process in myself. One by one, my female friends were falling for guy after guy while I sat on the bench, baffled by their behavior.
At first I tried to pretend. But apparently I had zero taste in men and picked the most undesirable boys to “like,” earning myself bouts of laughter and teasing.
So I tried a different approach, but that didn’t work out either:
“Oh, I don’t like boys in that way,” I said matter-of-factly to a pair of girls. I must have been 12 or 13 years old.
Their eyes grew wide, and one turned to the other in disbelief and whispered, “Is there something… wrong with her?”
I wanted to slap myself but tried to recover instead. “Well, I mean…” I stumbled over my words, desperately trying to appear casual. “I mean… I just said that because I’m too embarrassed to admit who I really have a crush on.”
Both girls perked up, and I pointed to a guy who just so happened to be walking nearby. “I like him actually.”
The look of confusion on their faces didn’t matter much, as I was just relieved to be on safer ground. I mumbled something about his hair being cute and was grateful when the subject finally changed.
Afterwards, their question lingered in my mind like the aftertaste of a bad meal. Was there something wrong with me? I didn’t think so, but how could I be sure? And if there was, how was I supposed to fix it?
Christian? Lesbian? Impossible.
The first time I ever thought of myself as a lesbian was during my freshman year of college. I was attending a conservative evangelical school (at which, I should make clear, I had an excellent and wonderful experience), and a bunch of my friends and I were driving somewhere. As was typical of our little group, somebody eventually posed a question:
“Who would you be,” they asked, “if you weren’t a Christian?”
Unbidden and completely unexpected, the immediate thought that jumped into my head was, “A lesbian.”
And it was more than just thinking “lesbian.” I could see myself — or what I imagined to be my non-Christian self — and I was kissing a female partner.
As my friends discussed their responses, two things occurred to me. The first? I would make a great lesbian. The second? There’s no way I could say that out loud.
My turn came around, and I found myself saying, “I’d be a feminist.” And the discussion continued into a dialogue about the ways in which feminism was incompatible with a Christian worldview.
Is it possible to be a Christian and a feminist? The thought never occurred to me. Just as it never occurred to me that being a Christian and a lesbian was perfectly possible too.
Living in Denial
Shortly thereafter, I asked my mother what it felt like to have a “crush.” I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know. She explained, and I spent the next few weeks attempting to convince myself that I had such feelings for a guy. To my own stupefaction, I began to realize that I did have such feelings.
Just not for a guy.
As it turned out, I’d known what the girls in middle school had been feeling the whole time. Never did I think the attractions I experienced could possibly fall into the same category. Call me naïve.
But I was a Christian. So I couldn’t be gay. Right?
I’d swallowed the mindset that oddly seems to apply only to LGBT+ identities. There can be boy Christians and there can be girl Christians; black Christians and white Christians; Baptists and Lutherans; straight Christians and… well, actually, there can’t be “gay” Christians. Identity is found in Christ alone.
And don’t get me wrong. Identity is ultimately found in Christ alone. But we can easily twist this idea to mean what it shouldn’t. Indeed, my own twisted understanding of identity in Christ led me to deny realities that desperately needed acknowledgement.
The result? Throughout my college years, I lived something of a pseudo-existence. I was attracted to women, but that didn’t mean anything at all. I couldn’t possibly be gay. I wouldn’t be gay.
I prayed to God for a man. I performed mental exercises in my journal where I attempted to create feelings for the opposite sex by simply imagining that I had them. I dated with the expectation that one day something would “spark.”
But nothing ever did.
Facing My Gay Reality
I started having nightmares the summer after I graduated from college. They were always the same and always terrifying.
I stood in the balcony of a church looking down upon a wedding. The atmosphere was eerily quiet and the sanctuary empty, save for a single man who stood at the altar, presumably waiting for his bride. As the bridal march began, I looked to the back of the church, where I saw myself step through the doors
Shock rippled like a wave through my system as I watched the sight unfold. Down below, this alternate version of myself wore the veil and gown of a bride and walked in zombie-like fashion toward her husband-to-be.
The sight horrified me. What was I thinking? I couldn’t get married! Everything was terribly wrong. Leaning forward over the balcony, I screamed down to myself, “Stop!” But no sound came out, and the ceremony continued.
The “bride” version of myself reached the front of the sanctuary and began to recite her wedding vows. My stomach clenched. I waved my arms in hysteria, trying to get someone — anyone’s — attention. “Stop!!! No!!!” I shrieked. “I haven’t decided yet!”
And then I’d wake up. Always at the same moment. Always breathless. Always shaken.
I had been getting married. It was exactly the future I was trying to force myself to want, but my words in the dream betrayed me: “I haven’t decided yet!” Decided what? That I wanted a husband? But a husband was the last thing I wanted. I’d never wanted it.
I was determined to not be gay, but how far was I willing to take that game? If I didn’t concede, one day I’d find myself walking down the aisle towards a man I didn’t love.
And I couldn’t do that.
Pulling Back the Veil on Homosexuality
Despite all the trends toward liberalism in the past decade, there remains a thick shroud over the concept of homosexuality in most Protestant churches. It’s the reason why people like myself remain closeted even after coming out, and it’s the reason why even the most orthodox and traditional but nevertheless gay believers must immediately qualify that they’re celibate.
No one ever wanted to know that I was celibate when they believed I was straight. Even when I had a boyfriend, not a single person ever questioned my sexual purity. But now that I’m openly gay, everyone in the church wants to hear that I’m celibate. More than that, almost universally, I’m exhorted to open my heart to the possibility of finding a man. It makes you wonder. Why is the straight life automatically holy but the queer life automatically sinful?
Back then all I knew was that I wanted to be holy. If you had told me that in less than a decade I’d be happily and publically queer, I would’ve been horrified. But as I watched myself in that dream, walking the aisle again and again, I knew that forcing myself to get married to the opposite sex would be the most awful thing I ever did. I couldn’t do it.
Despite all my efforts to the contrary, I didn’t actually want what I was trying to want. And maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe there was a reason I was different.
Turning to Scripture
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
– Ps. 139:14a
At this point, there’s a lot of ways that I could be misunderstood. So let me be clear: I do not believe that people just need to learn to love and accept themselves, regardless of scripture, logic, and truth. There’s a reason the world is messed up, and it’s because the people in it, including myself, are broken beyond their ability to repair. We need a Savior to fix us.
However, in our defense of original sin and mankind’s need for redemption, we run the risk of forgetting that every single man, woman, and child is created in the image of God. We are “knit together in our mother’s womb,” (Ps. 139:13); and underneath our broken condition, God’s handiwork remains, shaping our lives and making us “tick.” The intricacies of our existence don’t need to be denied so much as understood.
I spent years believing that my sexuality was something to be denied. I never once considered that it was something to be understood, that it was worth knowing in the spirit of Psalm 139:14, “For I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
I hadn’t studied the word of God to truly gain a biblical understanding of my sexuality. I’d read the so-called “clobber” passages, which declared homosexual sex to be a sin, and left it at that.
But “no” was never the basis for a healthy worldview. There’s a reason why the God of the Bible is described as a God of “yes” in 2 Corinthians 1:18-20. “Don’t do this” makes a poor foundation for living.
As I began to dig into scripture, I realized that I had been thinking about my sexuality in the negative, a “don’t do this” mindset that would lead me down a path of “no” for the rest of my life. But God has a very different plan for his children. “For all the promises of God,” the Bible says, “find their ‘yes’ in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).
So what was God’s “yes” for me? I didn’t know, but my Bible was open. I was finally ready to learn.
Following Jesus, Sexuality and All
In the midst of my searching, I saw myself standing in a storm, like Peter in the Sea of Galilee with waves on either side. Jesus stood there too, and he called to me, saying one thing and one thing only: “Follow me.”
It was then that I realized I’d become so focused on the beating rain of debates over sexual ethics that I’d lost sight of Jesus. I saw myself dodging every wave of sexual sin that people told me to beware only to drown in the water beneath my feet. Indeed, in all my anxieties over needing to be a “good Christian,” I’d forgotten what made me a Christian in the first place. I saw myself perfectly following the script for sexual purity while in fact growing further and further away from the cross.
And I couldn’t let that happen.
It was in that moment that I found the courage to finally ask a simple but life-changing question: “What if the Christian life isn’t about living a sinless existence but actually about following Jesus, whatever that means and wherever it takes you?”
My journey had brought me back to the Gospel.
“Yet we know,” the Bible says, “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). “It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). How had I forgotten such a foundational reality?
I’d become so fixated on getting it right, that I’d forgotten the very Gospel of my Lord and Savior. We don’t follow Jesus by becoming righteous. We become righteous by following Jesus. You can’t perform the Christian faith. You grow into it. Despite all of the Gospel-saturated Sunday school lessons that I’d learned as a child, I’d still managed to fall into the trap of salvation by works. And I needed Jesus to get me out.
So I spent a week in prayer and fasting, and at the end of it, with Bible open, I said to God, “I’m following you, and no one else.” You and you alone. “If you want me to marry a man, I’ll follow you there. If you want me to marry a woman, I’ll follow you there. If you want me to do something completely and utterly different than anything I could possibly imagine, I’ll follow you there. I don’t know what my sexuality means for my life. But I trust that you do. And I want you to show me, whatever that means and wherever it takes me.”
I was tired of drowning in the swamp of my own self-righteousness. It was time to follow my Savior and grab hold of the Gospel instead. By the grace of Jesus Christ I would grow into his righteousness on his terms. Not mine. And in the process, I would discover the good works that God had “prepared beforehand” for me to live (Eph. 2:10).
Would I get it perfectly right? Of course not. But I didn’t need to worry about getting it perfectly right. That’s what the Gospel is all about.
Walking With the Lord
To be clear, I’m not trying to say that being righteous doesn’t matter. Nor am I trying to say that sin is not a big deal. To borrow the words of Paul, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1).
Instead, I’m trying to say that defining the Christian life by, “Sin or no sin?” exchanges the Gospel for a religion of moralism. Walking with Jesus is far more complex than the polarizing framework of “sin-versus-righteousness” that so often dominates conversations on faith and sexuality. It’s this very framework that often succeeds at only pushing people away from the cross. Certainly Scripture would have us take sin seriously. But dwelling on sin never helped a Christian to live faithfully. People need Jesus, not moralism.
For me, it was my choice to follow Jesus that empowered me to live a Christian life, defined not by my allegiance to a sexual ethic or a moral code but by my allegiance to Jesus Christ and him alone. As a result, I’ve arrived at a place of commitment to empowering LGBTQ Christians to walk in faith with Jesus Christ as opposed to dictating ethical codes for them to follow.
This has meant affirming the varied stories of my queer siblings and celebrating the ways in which Christ is made manifest in their lives, whether he shows up in a life that follows progressive ethics or traditional. It’s meant respecting the agency of all Christians, queer and straight, to come to a Spirit-led understanding of what the Bible says about human sexuality, instead of forcing my own convictions onto those who don’t want them.
It’s also meant challenging the church to better support LGBTQ Christians as they traverse the often-terrifying journey of following Jesus. My own journey has brought me to celibacy and, for the past nine years, queerplatonic partnership. But not every story looks like mine or should. I have dear friends in same-gender marriages and others who date, friends who live out their queerness through intentional community and still others who are single and celibate. Christ is the common thread woven through each of our stories, and he is the hope we all share.
So I invite you to join me in seeing Jesus at work in our lives. Each of our stories belong to him, and he is the lamp to our feet. If he can work in our lives, then he can work in yours. As indeed he can do for all who are following him.
(Last updated: 4/25/2022)
Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church
***Foreword INDIES 2021 Finalist for Religion***
Religious faith reduces the risk of suicide for virtually every American demographic except one: LGBTQ people. It’s past time that Christians confronted the ongoing and devastating effects of this legacy.
Rivera calls to mind Jesus’s woe to religious leaders: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4). Heavy Burdens provides an honest account of seven ways LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the church, helping Christians grapple with hard realities and empowering churches across the theological spectrum to navigate better paths forward.
Breaking down the issues both historically and socially, Heavy Burdens (Brazos Press, 2021) provides an honest account of the ways in which LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the church, helping Christians grapple with hard realities and empowering churches to navigate a better path forward.
Every Christian bears the weight of the yoke of Christ. But to feel the weight of that burden is to feel the weight of God’s mercy and love and grace. It is to know that we belong in the family of God.
– Bridget Eileen Rivera, Heavy Burdens
Join the Family
Christians around the world are coming together for a better church, one defined by the inclusive call of Jesus Christ towards all people, including LGBTQ. I’m writing to further that movement, and I’d like you to join me. Sign up to stay updated!