When I was in my twenties, several of my close friends died of AIDS. They were agonizing deaths, full of pain and fear, and I found myself grappling with the unanswerable questions that come when loved ones die young. In my quest for comfort and support, a friend at work invited me to his church. At Pride parades in West Hollywood, I had seen Christians with signs telling gay people they were going to burn in hell, so church wasn’t a place I expected to find anything other than condemnation, but I went anyway—just to see.
At church I found friends who were loving and kind, but the strident, vein-popping admonitions of the pastor made it clear that dogma came first and was to be obeyed without question. I hungered for a sense of community, to belong to a family that would love and accept me unconditionally, the way Jesus did. I was told, along with everyone else, that I would be used by God to accomplish His purposes, that my life would have purpose and meaning. If I played by the rules. When I developed feelings for a female friend at church, a superior pulled me aside and said that my roommates sensed this attraction, and it would be better, according to the Bible, for a millstone to be hung around my neck and for me to be flung into the sea (Matthew 18:6 NIV). I quickly learned to sublimate my true self in order to fit in and be a “good” Christian.
Twenty years later, I was invited to appear at the Fine Line event in support of Proposition 8 at The Rock Church in San Diego. It would be simulcast to churches across California in an attempt to sway the God-loving, church-going faithful to vote for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and woman. I was a panelist; the token “ex-gay” spokesperson, chosen to vouch for the evangelical Christian belief that while people may not choose to be gay, they can certainly choose not to stay gay.
Every detail of the event had been pre-planned and rehearsed. But for some reason, as the event drew near, I couldn’t shake the nerves. My heart wasn’t in this event; deep down I knew I didn’t belong here. But I played my part, and delivered my lines.
When the event ended, I stood in the lobby waiting for my ride back to the hotel. A line of people formed to ask me questions. One young woman in her early twenties approached me and said, “Can you help me?” She hesitated, and couldn’t continue. “It’s okay,” I assured her. “I don’t know how to say this.” She looked away then down at the Bible she clutched in both hands. “My dad is leaving the family. He says he’s gay.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know what to do.”
This young woman adored her father, and wanted things in their household to remain as they had always been. She feared that the advent of gay marriage would ruin any chance of her father staying with the family. I told her she didn’t have the power to change anyone; no one does. The best she could do was to love and spend time with her father. He was still the same man she had always known and loved. As she sobbed over the breakup of her parents and family, an errant thought darted through my head: If we as a society didn’t condemn homosexuality, gay people wouldn’t feel pressured into marrying heterosexually, against their true attractions, and families wouldn’t be torn apart when the gay spouse could no longer continue the ruse. I had seen a number of gay Christians marry an opposite sex partner, only to leave when they couldn’t pretend any longer. It wasn’t fair to the spouse, the kids, or themselves. My doubts about the efficacy of change and the evangelical Christian stance against gay rights of any kind nagged at me.
Five months after Proposition 8 passed in California, my five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. During the month she spent as an inpatient at Oakland Children’s Hospital, I suffered from tremendous anxiety, punctuated by debilitating panic attacks. When my daughter was released from the hospital, I sought help from a respected psychologist. She said to me, “Anxiety is the result of a threat you fear will overtake you. It’s a limbic response to a predator–in this case, your daughter’s cancer–which will cause you to fight, flee, or freeze. But that’s not the only cause of anxiety; it can also arise when you are living incongruously from your true self, when you’re living according to someone else’s expectations of you and not according to who you really are.”
I spent the next few years digging deep within my soul to unearth my true self—the authentic me who celebrates the worthiness and equality of all people. The me who knows we all deserve to be who we are, not who others want and expect us to be. It was only when I embraced this true self that I regained my life. It meant shedding many of the beliefs I had espoused for decades—beliefs about what it means to be gay, and what it means to treat people with dignity and respect.
It would have been easy for me to stay silent. After all, I appear to be what the church advocates, heterosexually married with children. But as we know from the AIDS crisis—silence = death. And human sexuality, mine in particular, is more complicated than most labels can encompass.
This change has cost me friendships and the respect of certain people. But that’s okay. I don’t expect everyone to understand my journey. One thing is for sure: Never again will I deny my authentic self in order to gain the approval and acceptance of others. It isn’t worth it.
Yvette Cantu Schneider is a writer and public speaker. She has appeared on several national TV shows, including The O’Reilly Factor, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS’s Debates, and The Crier Report. She has spoken on college campuses across the country, at various conferences, and before state and national legislatures. Her articles have appeared in major newspapers.
Yvette and Thrive LGBT+ President Randy Thomas worked together at Exodus International. She was a prominent spokesperson for the organization and their friendship spans decades. Today, Yvette works with GLAAD to speak out against the harmful affects of ex-gay ministry and conversion therapy. Thank you for sharing your journey with us Yvette!
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