Religion and Sexuality
How one person is reconciling her religion and sexuality
Though more people identify as members of the LGBTQ community than ever, heterosexuality is still the frustrating norm. After all, people don’t come out as straight! And , it’s no secret that coming out can be tough — especially if families or communities are less accepting than you’d hope. That goes double for people who live in religious communities, where fundamentalist beliefs can stigmatize sexual truth and expression.
I recently spoke with my cousin, Joy Ashford, who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, and has been open about how that background clashed with her experience coming out as gay.
Elizabeth: To start off, I'm hoping you can give us a little background on your religious upbringing. How much of a part of your life had it been?
Joy Ashford: I grew up in a fundamentalist religious community, which means that they take everything in the Bible literally. As a kid, I was fully immersed in that mindset. The Bible was the ultimate answer to everything. I memorized books of the Bible. I competed in a national tournament on Bible memorization. I was really in it! Even my social life was organized around Christianity. I went to a Christian dance studio, and everything I did was not only with people who were also religious, but the specific type of religion that my family was.
So when it came to my sexuality, there was a lot of denial and confusion. I remember when I was a kid, I tried to imagine what my relationship future was going to be like. But whenever I tried to picture who I was going to marry, it was always just this vague shadowy figure.
I vividly remember my first crush on a girl was when I was in high school. I still think of her as the most incredible human being in the world. But I was definitely like, "Hmm, I really, really want to be best friends with this person." I even took a train ride for multiple hours just to see her. And my friends were like, "What are you doing?" At that point, I had not acknowledged to myself that I had a crush on her, I just knew there was something special about her!
So there were a lot of years of confusion — I was definitely not in any rush to start having sex or start dating. I think I was like, okay, it must just be because I want to wait until marriage. But in reality, I wanted to wait until never because I did not want to date men! I ended up really falling for someone in college, and that happened while I was in a relationship with a guy, and I eventually came to full terms with that fact that it's not just this guy. It's the fact that I just don't want to date guys.
EA: What has the process and experience of coming out been like for you?
JA: It's definitely been something that has taken up a lot of my time and thought. I was really invested in religion. I think that in my religious community, I often felt that as a woman, I was discouraged from asking questions and from doing my own research, or coming up with my own answers. So that incentivized me to do more of it, sort of as a challenge.
I used to pride myself on how much time and effort I spent in studying the Bible and studying the teachings of my religious community. However, as much as I loved being able to go head-to-head with the guys in my church, I’ve lately struggled more with my relationship with God itself. A lot of my friends and I studied the Bible's position on queer identity and queer life together, and I do still believe that the Bible takes an official stance against things like child molesting, but not against homosexuality. If you look at the original texts, the word “homosexual” was only swapped into those verses in 1946. But those Bible verses were still weaponized against me for so long, and I still have a complicated relationship with many of them.
Ultimately, I'm not totally at peace with the tension between my religion and my queerness. I think because of how long I felt that they were in opposition, it's going to take me a little bit more time to work out exactly how those two things can co-exist.
EA: Totally, and it's so interesting, I didn't realize that you were a fundamentalist. For me, I have struggled with religion for a long time now because I think that systematically, the Bible can say things that can be really, really harmful to people if you take them too literally.
During quarantine, I read my first sex-ed book that was written with a religious approach. I wanted to better understand and become more open-minded, but instead I ended up just being so frustrated. The author was pulling in all these quotes from the Bible, and there was one quote where the word “whore” was used. I was sitting there thinking, "My God would never call anyone a whore." Or there were statements and ideas that, to me, seemed like the author was preaching the fact that if you don’t follow God’s plan, such as waiting to have sex until marriage, then you are doing something innately wrong. And it's so difficult, if you are really religious, to find that connection of feeling accepted and embracing the life you want to live.
JA: Yeah. That's really true. I certainly believe that people have the right to feel however they want to feel about religion. But I don't think that you should be forced to be totally okay with somebody else's religion, especially if you have personal experience with it.
Recently I've been studying this thing called Religious Trauma Syndrome, where some people who have been in cults or very intense religious environments end up not being able to go into a church, even if it's the best church in the world, without feeling that fear that was instilled in them when they were a kid. So I guess I think that we're all on our own journey, and I don't think it's wrong to be a little uncomfortable with some of the consequences of religion.
EA: What has been the most surprising, or most positive, aspect of coming out to you?
JA: I began to realize this recently as I started to come out to my friends, but a lot of the people that I grew up with are also queer, which I never really expected — and again, a lot of spaces that I was in were all very religious. So it's very exciting to be able to find those connections with people and just hear their stories. All those feelings I thought no one else could understand aren’t actually so scary, and I don’t have to go through this alone anymore.
EA: Going forward, for people who are having a similar experience as you have, what would be your biggest piece of advice?
JA: I think that one thing that I've learned, and one reason why I chose to come out in a very public way and take the glittery purple rainbow pictures, was because I did spend so much of my life hiding, and living in fear. And I found that hiding things about yourself, it really affects your relationships; It affects your ability to trust people, and it affects the trust that your friends have in you. But in a lovely way, my relationships have actually become so much stronger since I've stopped holding onto those things that I believed I could never share.
*Check out Joy’s article on her decision to come out here!