I wasn’t a pretty lesbian.
Well, I think my girlfriend found me pretty, but nowadays it seems that when you turn on the TV most lesbians are gorgeous and infinitely confident. Jodi Foster, Ellen Page, Gillian Anderson, Ellen Degeneres’ partner with the name that I can’t pronounce…all strong, beautiful women.
Nope. Not me, though. I was awkward. Precarious. Insecure. I was proud, but stayed in the background.
For those of you who haven’t read my book The God of My Parents, it may be helpful if I give some details about my life.
Deep in the mountains of Northern California rests a little town I’ll call Wilsonville. To this day the small wooded community still only houses about twelve-hundred people. My parents left their well-paying jobs in Silicon Valley and relocated there to pastor a church of about five members when I was seven.
We contrasted pretty sharply with the culture of this community. As I wrote in my book,
“If you were forced to lump all of the residents of Wilsonville into two primary groups you could call them the hippies and the rednecks. Hippies that grew pot, rednecks that cut timber, hippies that protested the cutting of timber, rednecks that smoked pot but hated the hippies, Native Americans that grew pot and cut timber, and the few that simply lived in the middle of it all.”
Considering the environment in which I grew up I would probably identify more as a “missionary kid” than a “pastor’s kid,” because I was exposed to so much more culture than perhaps the typical ministry child. Outside of our tiny church was a world of vastly differing beliefs and lifestyles, and I’m extremely thankful that I was raised in such a diverse environment. I learned a ton about the arts, music, community, empathy, etc. Even though we were dirt poor there was a richness to our community which I still value and hold dear.
Unfortunately though, at the time I experienced a lot of rejection. Much of this had to do with being overweight and feeling like an outsider. I tried hard to fit in and always sought out romantic relationships. Smoking pot and drinking became a regular part of my routine. I had a few boyfriends and sexual experiences in middle school, and of course that continued into high school. I held onto the notion that I really wasn’t worth pursuing, so I would pour my heart into any guy who was willing to give me the time of day. As you can imagine this never led to healthy relationships; I was just trading myself away for any sort of attention or validation.
This cycle eventually wore me thin and going into my senior year of highschool I became callous toward guys. More and more I found that it was so much easier and more affirming to be with my girlfriends. The depth of intimacy and safety I felt with a woman was far more than I’d experienced with any man. And when I was honest with myself, I had experienced sexual attraction to the same sex pretty early on in puberty, but because of the Christian culture I grew up in there was no room to discuss what I was experiencing. And one night, when I was drunk with some friends, I had what I believed was my grand epiphany: I was a lesbian. The pieces of the puzzle seemed to come together for me.
I came out my senior year and shortly after left for college, and for a while my life appeared to be perfect. Well, perfect for me at least, but certainly not for my parents. Over the years a divide had opened up between us; Mom didn’t know how to handle her increasingly rebellious daughter, and Dad couldn’t accept my new lifestyle when he weighed it against what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. Nevertheless, even though his stance was unwavering, he still kept an outstretched hand to me.
Fueled by my new independence and every Ani DiFranco CD ever produced, I ran hard in my new freedom. I enrolled in a junior college and even joined the LGBT community at the nearby state college. It was a huge relief to finally be unhindered by my religious upbringing. I had been liberated and could experience life to its fullest; I could pursue what I knew was best for me. My cage was open and I had flown the coop.
And everything screeched to a halt after only a few months. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a short round of treatments she died. I went into a heavy depression and the next year or two was a blur of my attempts to medicate myself with both pot and the pursuit of romantic relationships.
One afternoon I sat in my livingroom blowing smoke from my bong into the air. I was overwhelmed by a realization of just how deep into this pit of depression I had fallen. How disconnected I was from God. So I began to speak to Him. “I’m not sure if it’s okay to talk to you when I’m high, but I can’t get myself out of this.” Suddenly the room filled with the presence of God and I knew that He truly loved me. For the next few days I foolishly tried to resume my regular routine, but whenever I smoked I felt like I was going to die. I didn’t want to quit, but finally I surrendered to the fact that God was giving me the ability to do so.
Sober and newly-committed to handing my life over to God, I reconciled with my dad. I also enrolled in a ministry school, feeling led by God to do so. This new relationship with Him was now all I cared about. I committed myself to prayer, worship, and studying the Bible. I learned a ton and had experiences with God that I could have never dreamed. And even in the midst of all that I continued to experience same-sex attraction.
“What? Seriously? Isn’t this your mountaintop testimony, Liz? You prayed and and the gay went away and now you’re fixed, right?”
Well, I’m sorry to say that’s not the case. I absolutely did have some powerful encounters with God where a ton of what I’ll call “torment” left my soul, but the feelings I had were still there. I still felt attracted to other women.
There was a lot of media coverage of the ex-gay ministry “Exodus” and their closure/apology to those they’d tried to help. With this came what many consider “proof” that sexuality is fixed and that faith in God can’t change your sexual orientation. A room of about twelve people sat with Alan Chambers as he apologized for attempting to convert homosexuality into heterosexuality. While I would agree that trying to “fix” anyone’s sexual orientation is a lost cause, that interview did not represent the many people whose lives have changed through walking out their sexuality in Christ. It also did not mention the many leaders who attempted to speak to Mr. Chambers about the methods being used in the ministry, warning him that they were not biblical.
After I finished ministry school I began to once more blow up my life with poor choices (if you’ve read the book you’re nodding your head at this point). Thankfully, I was introduced to a sexual wholeness ministry with the focus being on Godly identity. We were led by a married couple who had walked through similar struggles. The group wasn’t just comprised of people who experienced same-sex attraction, but those who wanted to address any and all areas of their sexualty that otherwise were not generally talked about in the traditional church setting. We all came together once a week to form a loving environment where we could not only open up and receive counsel, but hear sound biblical teaching.
There was no electric shock therapy, no mandatory make up classes, no “here’s how you wear a jockstrap” workshops, no deliverance room with mop buckets where they commanded the devil out of us, none of that. As crazy as all that sounds, I’ve heard plenty of heart-wrenching stories in which fear, punishment, and militaristic discipline were used in an attempt to change a person’s actions. But in this class there were no huge expectations put on us regarding our growth in our masculinity or femininity; the only requirement was that we stay connected to the Holy Spirit. We were taught how to depend on the work of Jesus in our daily lives. We were loved by people who were imperfect and let us be our messy selves, who all the while encouraged us to grow without measuring our progress against some standard other than the truth of the Word of God. They knew we weren’t misfit castaways who needed etiquette classes, and they demonstrated to us that God’s love could permeate every aspect of our lives. We were empowered to drive out the darkness by believing in the love of Jesus.
In this environment, repentance was a normal part of more clearly seeing what God had for us. And when I say “repentance” I’m not talking about the tearing of clothes and the gnashing of teeth and breaking out the ol’ hairshirt whenever you have a dirty thought. Repenting meant recognizing that these emotions and thoughts weren’t His best for us. When I repented I came into agreement that they were no longer my identity. Our leaders understood the foundational teachings of the gospel: “repentance unto life.” It’s a term which basically means that I allow the Holy Spirit to identify patterns and beliefs of mine that are not His truth. I receive what He has to say about these places in my life, and to do so I have to be willing to let go. This comes through reading the Bible and consistently dialoguing with Him. This is costly, because transformation is costly. It takes your entire self. It’s painful and beautiful.
Through the course of walking out my faith I’ve identified a lot of lies about myself and driven out a lot of darkness with His love and perspective. As I grew to know God it became relatively simple to spot these lies because I learned this marvelous little tidbit: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Much of the darkness in my life was caused by the absence of God in my seuxal expression and by my sexualized thought life, but much of it was also caused by my own skewed perceptions.
When I look back at the years of my life when my faith was so up-and-down, most of it points to my bitterness toward God regarding my circumstances, and bitterness toward other believers who I believed had abandoned/abused me. My perception of God was so skewed by my pride. My bitterness toward flawed believers kept me from community. All of this kept me enslaved to sin because in order to be free from sin you have to bring it into the light through relationship with others. No matter who hurt you or wasn’t there for you, as legitimate as your bitterness may be, no lack in others is responsible for your own lack of liberty.
And here is how amazing this God of ours is. He keeps reaching out and pursuing your bitter heart no matter what you do, no matter how far you fall. But the route to healing and freedom is always through the same door, labeled ‘HUMILITY’. This humility produces repentance (which is to change your mind, to see it God’s way). God resists the proud. Those who decide to do life their own way without His direction and power will find it very difficult to find liberty in Him.
When my life was a hot mess my pride kept me from hearing and obeying God. Sounds like an oversimplification but it’s pretty basic gospel. Jesus is in the business of restoring my life in the areas darkness has stolen from it. I always have the choice to run to or from discipline and truth. My mentors were never interested in politics or performance; they were in the business of discipleship. Discipleship is a lot less flashy, it’s thankless, and it requires more of you.
There are Christians whose lives are transformed. There are Christians who no longer experience same-sex attraction in an all encompassing way and are no longer in same-sex relationships. There are Christians who still face temptation at different levels–as do most Christians. Some people are led by God to marry and some to remain single (and neither are a sign of Godly perfection one way or the other). These people walk out their salvation and accept God’s love for them–the love that transforms. And all this isn’t covered in the media in the same way Exodus was because it’s foolishness.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Cor. 1:18
Surrendering all that you think is going to bring you peace, happiness, and joy to an invisible God is pure foolishness. This is where the gospel begins. At the cross. We need a life dependent on a loving God who requires everything of us, not to withhold but to liberate. There are patterns, thought processes, feelings, emotions and beliefs that we feel are as true as day, yet scripture teaches us that everything in our hearts falls under God’s rule. That means every passion, obsession, desire, and need is required to pass through his hands regardless of our own perception.
The hypocrisy in the church as pointed out by unbelievers is understandable. This issue of sexuality is extremely messy, and what we don’t often address is how often people fall into traps of sin because they use ministry as a mask. When leaders get caught with their pants down, people watching from the outside point out that change must truly be impossible. And to that I would say that Christian failure in the area of sexuality is a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme… Crack open that dusty Bible and see for yourself. It’s just about stuffed to the brim with faith-filled believers that fell from some pretty high places because of sexuality. It’s why we need a savior. We need Jesus. It takes a personal, loving encounter with Him to leave the path of rejection and despair.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Cor 5:7
Even though I’m a new creation in Christ and many of my old thought patterns and beliefs about myself have changed, I know that without Him I can quite easily go back to what I think will make me happy. I spent many years battling with my surrender to Christ. I always knew I was going to heaven, but I was tangled up in so many things that I knew weren’t the best for me. It took time. It took others loving me. And it ultimately took obedience. And now these areas in my sexuality no longer drive me. I have a peace that God isn’t withholding something from me that I have to go searching for.
These days, my friendships with women are the best they’ve ever been. I no longer feel the need to worship women that I consider to be strong, which has allowed me countless relationships that are infinitely more fulfilling. There is now liberty to enjoy these relationships because I’ve allowed God to shape how I view myself on a daily basis, and now I know that I don’t need to seek in others what I feel is missing in myself. In turn, this has helped me grow in my male relationships as well.
Again, if you’ve read my book you know that there’s a lot more to all this; this process of understanding my sexual attractions went much deeper than I can effectively summarize here. But I hope that the most important part of the message has come through.
Loneliness is a real issue the church needs to face when talking about the subject of homosexuality. We have a tremendous lack of leaders who are willing to invest their time in ordinary people with extraordinary needs. I feel like I have a million more things to say about many other facets of sexuality and the church, though for now I’ll stop here. I know this is not only a political hot topic but one that is forcing churches to decide what they believe.
My hope is that for those of you who are believers and either face these issues or have a loved one who does, that you’ll know there is hope in the process of a surrendered life to Christ. And for the rest of you I hope you understand how to love and welcome messy people–because remember, you yourself are messy as well. If you didn’t know that, well… I recommend a long talk with Jesus.
Liz Flaherty lives in South Carolina with her husband Andy. They’ve been married since 2005, and have spent the majority of their marriage ministering to and mentoring people in areas of sexual wholeness and identity. In her book, The God of My Parents, Liz shares her powerful testimony in which she faced immense grief, rejection, drug abuse, pornography, and homosexuality. Her heart is to inspire the Christian community to address these issues with love, respect and honesty.
Liz and Andy have two cats, named Paddie and Ginger.