Sundays were for sermons. The question wasn’t whether or not you went, but rather which church you attended on those mornings. Even those who called themselves atheists usually sat quietly in a pew, even if just to pick apart the words spoken in the pulpit. Small town West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where life exists in the black and white. Gay or straight. Rich or poor. Christian or, well, nothing.
When I was in high school, I kissed boys, drank beer in the woods on Saturday night, and got home in time to make it to church on Sunday morning. Being gay was something you saw sometimes on The Real World, or maybe in Miami, like that Robin Williams movie, The Birdcage. Far away and incredibly flamboyant. The heroes at the helm of my religion were icons like the late Billy Graham and the mega-church leader Joel Osteen, who were also far away and flamboyant in their own way.
These charismatic faces at the front of modern Christianity made members of my hometown feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than the small space we filled on the map. The wealth in the form of financial freedom would never be promised to most of us, but the wealth of heaven was, and that would last much longer. How can you justify feeling overlooked in this life if you were going to be lucky enough to earn a special spot in the afterlife?
In the evangelical congregation my mother and I joined after leaving the Methodist church amidst a child pornography scandal, there were no hymns in the pews or cushions for kneeling. Praise and worship was done standing tall, hands in the air. Elderly men sprinted up and down the aisles, shaking tambourines. At least a handful of people shouted incoherently in tongues during each service, and occasionally a few would collapse, slain in the spirit. Yet, traditions like seances and tarot readings were scoffed at as preposterous.
Even when my college years rolled around and two close friends came out to me, I had never heard of such thing as a spectrum. You like guys or girls. End of story. My high school was made up of about 1,000 students, and my university was right at 7,000. At no time did I ever meet anyone who identified as anything other than Christian. If they did, they didn’t say it. And at no point in my childhood or young adulthood did I ever meet anyone who either defied labels or identified as queer, bisexual or transgender. Black and white. This or that.
It wasn’t until I turned 25, packed my tiny apartment, and moved out of the rolling hills of West Virginia and into the sports and (to me) skyscraper-filled city of Pittsburgh that I realized that instead of black or white, my existence resides primarily in the gray. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, I had never seen a mosque or a Jewish temple and had given little more than a fleeting thought to the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas.
Yet when I explored the city streets, I discovered this melting pot, boiling over the brim with diversity. My favorite deli to frequent on the weekends was kosher. Not every business was closed on Sundays. I also found myself attracted to people in my life who didn’t identify as men. The crush I developed on my best friend was alarming and confusing to me, to say the least. She toed the line between feminine and masculine, with her edgy faux hawk, J. Crew button-downs, and girlish voice. I was falling in love. Did that mean I was a lesbian? You have to be either, or, right?
As I slowly rediscovered who I was by blurring those lines that had always so clearly defined my identity and belief system, I found myself unsure of how to build a bridge back to where I came from. My best friend, now my wife, is Pagan with a dash of Buddhism tossed in. She doesn’t believe in hell, and Jesus Christ was a teacher just like Muhammed and Buddha. Trees hold the wisdom of the world, the moon is powerful, and reincarnation is as real as the sun on your face. If I had been introduced to a person who believed all of these things when I was 22, living in Fairmont with the conviction that the only religious text that mattered was the Holy Bible and that prayer belonged in every school, I would have looked at them like they had walked straight out of Lucifer’s kitchen. What would my mother think?
It turns out, the ones I love the most were more than willing to step outside of the black and white and spend time in the gray with me. Or maybe in the rainbow would be more appropriate. My mother now helps my wife clean her crystals if we visit them during a full moon, and she smudges herself with sage most Sunday mornings before church. As for me, I prefer my religion like my romances, a little in the middle. Not gay or straight, not Christian or atheist, but somewhere on a spectrum, and it’s so much more colorful than black, white or gray.
Beth McDonough (@bmacduhnuh) was born and raised among the hills of West Virginia. Upon graduating from Fairmont State University with her bachelor’s degree, she went to work in oil and gas in WV and Pittsburgh before leaving the industry to pursue a full-time freelance writing career. She now lives with her wife and stepdaughter in Meadville, Pennsylvania where she writes primarily about pop culture and LGBT issues. You can follow along on her blog The Babbling Blonde.