That’s the sign that greeted my family when we first moved to Topeka, Kansas, the summer of my 16th birthday.
SOLDIERS DIE 4 FAG MARRIAGE, read another that was striped red, white and blue.
Dozens of people stood on the side of the road hoisting bits of cardboard overhead. Confused by their zeal, I watched from the window of our green Ford Taurus.
“What’s that?” I asked as Mom braked for a red light.
“Westboro Baptist,” she scowled. “I’ve seen them in the news. They’re even more sickening in person.”
Careful to avoid eye contact, I scanned the picketers. Kids younger than my 11-year-old brother were pumping signs above their heads.
“Aren’t we Baptist sometimes?” I asked. Depending on where the military sent us, we were Baptist, Presbyterian, Alliance, Lutheran or non-denominational. Between two countries, four states, and nine houses, we joined whichever local church followed the Bible best.
When the light turned green, Mom laid on the gas. “We aren’t that kind of Baptist.”
My brother twisted in his seat and caught sight of a sign. “What’s a fag?” he asked.
Mom and I exchanged glances in the rearview mirror.
“It’s a mean name for men who like men,” she said. “The Bible says it’s wrong, but these people take it too far.”
Love the sinner, not the sin was our condoned alternative — a line of thought more palatable, but just as dangerous in its subtlety.
Mom and Dad defined my reality. Growing up, I didn’t think to question or escape it. From as early as I can remember, television and toys were carefully vetted to match our evangelical Christian worldview. Mom said Rainbow Brite’s magic was evil. Barbies would give me an eating disorder. For reasons unknown to this day, fantastical blue creatures living in mushrooms somehow made the cut. When Dad said my Cabbage Patch doll walked to the kitchen to eat a hamburger while I napped, I believed him. It was easy to accept the way things were because I didn’t know anything else existed.
If I had to pinpoint the moment I realized something was off with my family’s line of thought, I’d say it was shortly after our brush with Westboro Baptist. I’d enrolled in public school for the first time in my life, and my teenage brain, with its expanding capacity for critical thinking, couldn’t shake a nagging set of curiosities: What if I had been born in a country where the primary religion was Buddhism? Would I be a good Buddhist instead of a good Christian? If I had been raised in a church like Westboro Baptist, would I be in Topeka’s Gage Park pumping a hate-filled sign over my head?
From there, my religion eroded in a steady stream of questioning. I didn’t shape-shift into a heathen, careening into alcohol, drugs and sex. As a socially awkward, shy teenage girl, I rebelled in subtler ways. I resisted traditional dating, read books about other religions, and pushed the boundary of my True Love Waits abstinence pledge with my long-distance boyfriend. The further I strayed from Christianity, the more I suspected the world and my place in it was bigger than I’d been told.
Parallel to my spiritual liberation, my family members experienced a transformation of their own. My parents divorced. My younger brother revealed he was gay. A year later, my mom told me she was in a life partnership with a woman. Nearly a decade after that, just when I thought I’d contended with the ingrained homophobia left over from my evangelical Christian days, I noticed what I then thought to be a disturbing trend.
Whether in appearance, mannerisms, or both, many of the romantic partners I attracted throughout my life had more feminine traits than typical for the average straight, cisgender man. Some people even mistook them for gay men. Or had I mistaken them as straight? Even in hindsight, I have no answers. Their stories aren’t mine to tell.
Nor are their limits mine. The rule of three was not lost on me: my brother, my mom, my own partners. How had I missed such obvious, significant parts of the people who were closest to me? And why couldn’t I figure out the sexual identity of the people in my own bed? It would take getting married, a grueling divorce and countless misadventures in dating as a young, single parent before I flipped the mirror onto myself and reflected on the bigger question: my own sexual identity.
Two years after my divorce, I did what I thought I’d never do: I went back to church. The spiritual community at the Unitarian Universalist church I found seemed especially suited for former evangelical Christians. They didn’t care whether a person was atheist, agnostic, Buddhist or Catholic. Dedicated to their common search for truth and meaning, they accepted everyone. Even Mom and her partner followed me to the makeshift pews of stackable chairs.
American paraphernalia dotted the stage the week of Independence Day. You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high-flying flag. The choir burst into a rinky-dink tune.
“This song reminds me of that boy next door,” I whispered to Mom.
She was perched in a chair to my left. Back in fifth grade, the boy next door had belted out the same song during his stint in chorus. Back then, rumor had it, he had a crush on me.
Mom swallowed a laugh. “He was so gay.”
The smile drained from my face. She got an irreverent kick out of the comment, like the juvenile thrill I savored when I told Dad I joined a church with Buddhists and atheists. Even so, I took her words to heart. Was he so gay? I hadn’t noticed.
Mom raised me to believe a person’s surface characteristics, like voice and affinity for sports or musical instruments, had nothing to do with their sexual orientation. I was fine being a middle-of-the-road type girl, dating toward the center of the masculine-feminine spectrum. But two years after my marriage had ended with such spectacular speed and force, the refrain hit me like a head-on collision right there in the middle of church.
My mind spun as the song came to a close. Lesbian? That would be easier. The world would know what that means, and Mom would be so proud. I had never felt sexual attraction toward a woman, but I almost always had a female best friend. Was I gay and didn’t know it yet?
When you see a pattern in your life, eventually you realize the common denominator is you. Mom didn’t fully realize she was attracted to women until she met her best friend. Some of my exes seemed to still be figuring themselves out in their 30s and 40s. Maybe something more was wanting to be known in me, too.
Shortly after that Sunday, I decided to take a break from focusing on the emotional and friendship part of dating that came so naturally to me and vowed to pay attention to what turned me on. I started by watching lesbian porn. In hindsight, for a person of my particular makeup, porn was a poor first step. Outside the context of a relationship and zero past experience with any gender other than cis men, this was not my recipe for clarity.
When a vegetarian woman at a Unitarian barbecue sat next to me on a bench and asked, “So what’s life like for you right now?” I paid attention. She was one of those people who jumped out of her skin and straight into my soul. Our friendship blossomed. I tried to imagine. If she weren’t married. If we weren’t straight. Still nothing. None of my questions yielded answers in the time I allowed them, because I was too scared.
Opening myself to examining my sexuality was like being 16 and terrified God would call me to be a missionary in a remote part of Africa. I’d heard the sermons. People died out there. Would I really do anything for Jesus? For truth? Wasn’t it enough that I woke up out of my marriage and all the norms that come with being partnered? Accepting nontraditional sexual orientations and gender identities in other people was one thing. Allowing them in myself, if they were there, would be quite another. What dangers and discomforts would I encounter if I lived as anything different than a straight, cisgender woman?
When faced with a choice to move toward or away from truth, I inevitably choose toward. It may take a while to orient myself to which direction forward lies, but eventually I found the courage to go: from religion to spirituality, from biological family to chosen tribe, from society’s definition of love to the inevitable heartache and confusion of forging my own.
To love in a new way, I had to get ruthless with myself and my preconceptions. What gender roles had I accepted by default? How vulnerable was I willing to become? How deep into the unknown was I willing to go?
In the weeks ahead, I quit looking to men for validation and belonging and opened myself to the love of my chosen family: my mom and her partner, her partner’s daughter and her fiancé, my brother and his boyfriend. I allowed myself to be radically at home in a tribe where more of us were united by love than blood and where we cheered each other on in our struggle to be ourselves.
Today, I’m in a life partnership with a person who was present in my journey from the moment I began questioning my sexuality. I’m still learning how to be myself out loud. Bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, gray ace — all of these labels point to pieces of me. Much like no religion has yet to articulate the breadth of my spirituality, no label has yet to define the whole of my sexuality.
Instead of clinging to my search for answers, I’m learning to embrace the questions. I haven’t exited heteronormativity overnight. It’s been an intense struggle, one that has involved reading memoirs by queer authors and coming out as questioning while planning a wedding with my current partner, who identifies as a straight, cis male.
Calling myself anything but a straight, cisgender woman may sound heretical. I’m a 43-year-old remarried mother of two. But more and more, I’m claiming the word queer, which by my understanding is radically undefined. As progress, or lack thereof, plays out in our nation’s courts, I’m ready to make it known I’m more than an ally. I see these cages, and I want out — out from the us-versus-them mentality that’s wrecking our political landscape, our most vulnerable kids, and our capacity to love from the fullness of who we are. It’s time to say gay and shout from wherever we are in our personal journeys: We are all so much more.
Melissa Gopp-Warner is a creative nonfiction writer focusing on human relationships and their intersection with sexual orientation and gender. Her articles and personal essays have appeared in Publishers Weekly, The Banyan Review, The Writer, and elsewhere. While working on her own memoir, she promotes the genre through bimonthly book reviews of diverse authors and life experiences. Learn more at melissagopp.com.
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