My aunt was funny, brash, and loving. Athletic and adventurous in her younger days, tender and caring until the day she died, she was adored by everyone.
But she had a secret, sort of….
She was a lesbian.
Everyone knew but they never spoke of it. Perhaps it was best that way since everyone thought it was shameful and wicked. Silence saved us all from discomfort and embarrassment. It was easier.
Okay, maybe not easier, but silence at least made life safer because if she had been open about herself, she could have been in physical danger at times. More recently, I’ve wondered about the emotional and psychological pain she suffered as a consequence of her (and our) silence.
I was still a minister when I had my last face-to-face conversation with Mom before she died. It was early in the morning and we sat at the kitchen table while I told her that Christianity had been wrong to condemn the LGBTQ and I had been wrong in standing by silently. It was my intention, I told her, to begin a support group within my church where the LGBTQ in our community could come to talk and worship. However, while most of my congregation was on board, I still had to find a way to provide privacy for them because Oklahoma, like a lot of regions, is still not friendly to the LGBTQ*
Mom showed a great deal of interest, which surprised me. I thought she’d be uncomfortable, maybe even a little afraid for me. However, she asked me more about my thoughts regarding the scriptures and church doctrine. I told her that Jesus never made an issue of people’s sexuality, and he defended those who had been shamed by society. He said that people would be welcomed into heaven based on acts of love, not their religion.
She nodded and then she told me about her recently deceased sister.
Years before when they were much younger, they had attended a weeklong religious revival. On the last evening, the preacher gave the invitation and while the song played “Just As I Am,” he waited for people to come down the aisle to repent publically of their sins so they could gain forgiveness and redemption.
My aunt looked at Mom who nodded to her in encouragement. And then Mom’s sister went to the front of the church where she was baptized.
For a few moments, my aunt felt forgiven and clean. Her sins were washed away and she was now acceptable in the eyes of God. But redemption doesn’t last long in the church. My aunt remained a lesbian and she went on to have a relationship with her partner that lasted the rest of her life.
My aunt was one of the kindest people the world has known. She checked on the people around her, asking after their health and other concerns. People loved her and opened up to tell her all their problems. And she was generous, giving her time and energy to make people more comfortable. Mom said that she once watched her sister literally give away her last nickel.
“You tell me,” Mom blurted out to me that day in the kitchen, “that a woman like my sister didn’t make it to heaven!”
I assured her that she did.
I don’t believe in heaven or hell or God and Jesus anymore. They’re not real. However, the church and its conspiracy of silent condemnation are quite real.
I find myself shocked at what we did to my aunt and others like her. I’m horrified that we locked my sweet, loveable, funny aunt into a prison of silence, where she dreaded the day she would die and go to the hell we had created. And I think of my mom, who worried that she would never see her sister in heaven. And I think of the people in the LGBTQ who are offered only condemnation by their churches.
I deeply regret that I was a leader in that culture and that I stood by while the silent ones were alone in shame and fear.
I’m so sorry.
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*I moved away from town soon after and never started that support group.