Religion: Learning to Hate, Learning to Love
Submission by Nico Lang.
Nico Lang is an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is the Change Coordinator for LGBT Change’s The Faith Project. Follow him on Twitter @GidgetLang.
As a queer man, I’m used to coming out to people.
I remember the first time I did it. I was 15 and sitting with my mother on the bottom half of the bunk bed I shared with my five-year-old brother. I wanted to tell her I was in love and that it hurt. I wanted to say all the things that I was still too young to say and name all the emotions it would take me years to grapple with.
Instead of telling her outright, I did what any artsy introvert would have. I drew her a picture. I had been out bowling the night before with my straight best friend – the object my unrequited affections – and so I sketched her ten bowling pins, hoping that she would be able to figure out what I was trying to say.
She stared at the yellow notepad that held all my secrets for what seemed like forever, looked up at me and yelled: “You’re in love with a palm tree?”
Apparently, I wasn’t as good of an artist as I had hoped so I had to tell her.
She hugged me and cried, and when I came out to her again a year later, when I was finally in love with someone I thought could love me back, we cried again.
However, when my mom came out to me, I didn’t have the same reaction.
During my sophomore year of college, she told me that she had made the decision to become a Pentecostal.
Three days before, I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend in what would prove to be the most difficult experience of my life. When she came out to me as a Pentecostal, we were at the dinner table with her handlebar-mustached fiancé, whom I assumed was the source of her decision. I looked up with swollen eyes, ruby slipper red from days of crying, and said nothing. I never would.
Once again I simply couldn’t find the words to bridge the divide that separated us, and I spent most of Christmas break in silence. I opened our Christmas presents solemnly, and when I boarded the Greyhound bus back to Chicago the following week, I felt like I was leaving behind a stranger.
For most of my life, my mother had been a Catholic, strong but private in her personal faith. Because my father was a non-practicing atheist, I didn’t grow up in her church and rarely attended mass. I’ve never brought this up to him, but I don’t need to ask know his reasons: he just couldn’t let me go, couldn’t let me see the parts of my mother that were uncomfortable for him to talk about.
Looking back, all I really remember about my mother’s faith was that every Christmas, she would light birthday candles for the baby Jesus and sing to him over a cake, resolute in her belief that he would light her path through the darkness. As a child who realized at a very young age that he did not share her belief in God, I knew that her path was not my own. I never joined in to sing.
More importantly, I never learned how to sing for her. I never knew how.
For most of my life, the only other Christians I have known were the ones who wanted to convert me, to change me or to see my “faggotry” go up in flames. Extremists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Ann Coulter taught me to hate Christians, but nobody taught me how to love them.
But in the past couple years, I’ve had my own conversion experience. Through a little bit of luck and a little bit of fate, I was hired as a media intern for Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). I spent two years working with religious and non-religious people alike, getting to know them as colleagues and people that share most of the same values that a gay atheist does. When I strolled in my first day in maroon corduroys, they didn’t want to save me or cast stones at me. Rather than seeing people like me as part of the problem, they knew that this humanist could be part of the solution.
At IFYC, we talk a lot about building a world where we are better together, one where religious cooperation can build bridges across social divides. Although I’ve worked with them to fight for that world, I never saw the process up close. But around the end of my first year in the program, I was accepted to live in the Vincent and Louise House, DePaul University’s intentional living community, and I began to see what those divides looked like.
For the first time in a very long time, I experienced open hostility and derision from family, friends and acquaintances for my “lifestyle choices,” and oddly enough, this had nothing to do with my sexuality.
You see, the problem was that the Vincent and Louise House is a Catholic institution, and although I work with religious people, some of my friends could not fathom why I would want to actually live with them. My lowest moment came while talking with a guy who I routinely flirted with before my Geopolitics class. Flopping my backpack down next to him one day before class, I excitedly squealed to him that I “got into the Vincent and Louise House!” He asked what it was, and I casually explained.
Without probing further, he coldly informed me that he “wasn’t into that sort of thing” and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the quarter, except to occasionally borrow notes.
In sharing a house with Catholics, I would learn that this sort of thing happens to them all time, and most of them find themselves “toning down” their faith to escape this involuntary intolerance. Most of my housemates identify as very religious, and before I moved in with them, I never thought of them as being victims of prejudice. At a moment where Peter King’s anti-Muslim witch-hunts are dominating the news, I’ve been blinded to the ways in which intolerance and hate affect us all, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or none of the above.
And I’ve been blinded to my own intolerance.
I’m now past the point where I could ever truly apologize to my mother for not being able to accept her with the same openness she was able to accept me. I want her to know that although I was taught to hate what she was, I know that, one day, we can start teaching each other something else.
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