I was hiding chocolate stashes in the false bottoms of tissue boxes, and cloaking precious hockey cards carefully among my mom’s less used sewing supplies from the time I was about six. I had a hidden fort in the bushes behind the house, and every day after supper I would disappear with the dog to attend to my privacy. I camouflaged myself in the hustle and bustle of a six-person family on a busy farm with an open-door policy for visitors. When I was older, I would slip out the door, car keys in hand; in those days before cell phones my whereabouts were unknown, and I liked it that way.
There are some stories that are harder to write than others, as if tiny weights on your fingers make it hard to type; an inner sensor tells you that the worst will happen if you dare. It’s usually a sign that you should write. I suspect that, much like my fear that someone would steal my chocolates and hockey cards, or find my hidden fortress in the brush, the fear that anyone really cares is largely a product of my own imagination. Then again, words written have the ability to take flight.
Growing up, going to church was one of my favourite things in the world. I didn’t go to the bush parties so prevalent in rural Saskatchewan during my youth, or join my high school classmates across the street during our breaks to smoke up. I was the type of person who was on student council, who played on all the sports teams, and on Friday nights I could be found at church youth group.
My identity was very much made up of the fact that I was a Mennonite. I loved going to the annual church conferences and meeting other Mennonite kids my age. I took very seriously the equality of our faith tradition, the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” and had a mind of my own regarding my faith. The one thing I never really questioned, though, was the belief that sex before marriage is bad. In fact, at one of those Mennonite annual gatherings, I remember distinctly signing my name to a pledge card promising never to have sex before marriage.
As high school came to its conclusion, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) in Winnipeg. Two of my older siblings had gone there, and it was an accepted and encouraged “junior college” kind of step for kids at my church. I didn’t go with any career ambitions in mind; I went because I was a Mennonite,and I thought it would be fun. Staying up until all hours with a hundred of the most radical young Mennonite church nerds around, pulling pranks, and talking about God seemed like the best idea for my post-high school future.
When I started my first semester at CMBC I wasn’t exactly “out,” but I kind of slipped seamlessly into being what was referred to by many in the wider Mennonite community as a “practising homosexual.”There was an active dialogue around the position that although it might be okay for someone to be a homosexual, they should never act on it. I’m not sure if I really came out to myself during that first year; I simply took up a lady lover. I mostly avoided the conversation with myself;it didn’t seem like a good use of my time. If there was one thing I was certain of, it was that I couldn’t be an openly queer person and a Mennonite at the same time.
Before moving into res you had to sign a “Community Accountability and Living” agreement. I can’t remember exactly what it said about premarital sex, but I do remember that it was worded in some kind of vague, suggestive Mennonite way, like: “It’s probably much better for your spiritual health if you don’t have sex before marriage.” Homosexuality was a whole other game, and didn’t even require having sex to get you in serious trouble—at least as far as I knew.Because, despite people saying that it was okay to be a homosexual as long as you weren’t “practising,” I looked around and didn’t see Mennonite churches openly accepting queers in their pews. What I did see was that the people who were allowed in those pews paid the bills at CMBC. They were called the “constituency,” and I was left with the very distinct impression from our various community-council meetings, and missives from the president, that the constituency was an ill-tempered beast that had to be assuaged.
Based on a premonition about my own needs, I decided that, despite the incredibly high extra cost, I was going to get my own room in res. This also afforded me the joy of extra closet space. I left one of the closets entirely empty, and when I really wanted to disappear, I would take one of my throw blankets with me, pull the door closed, and curl into the darkness.I don’t recall really sleeping during my first year;there was always someone awake, which for some reason meant that I was too. Privacy was non-existent; we did everything together. If one person was going to a bar, we all went. We all ate in the cafeteria together, went to chapel at noon together, attended classes together, and showed up for our music-major friends’ recitals together. The most important concept developed at CMBC was “community,” which created the very real sense that privacy for the individual was counter to the health of the student body.
I lovingly referred to the Bible college as the “biodome.” Located on the edge of Winnipeg, where bus service is complete shit and it takes half an hour to walk to the nearest bar, it didn’t foster the wild urban freedom that characterizes most university experiences. It was a cloistered existence with residential streets serving as natural walls that kept us tucked obediently inside.
There were practice rooms in the basement that were open to students. Each room had a piano and music stand, but most importantly, they were soundproofed. The building was open late so that people could study or practice at all hours. I was majoring in theology, but my first lover was a musician who was just quirky enough to get my attention. The first time she touched me, it was to show me something about playing the piano. I felt a humming, a resonance— when that hammer went down I knew it was the right note.
The first time I kissed a woman was on one of the notoriously small single beds in our rooms. I often wondered where they got those beds from, because they seemed most suitable for Hobbits. Perhaps their small size was meant to ensure that one person, and one person only, could fit into them. However, in her arms, I felt the universe was ever-expanding and there was plenty of space for both of us.
The residence building was split into two wings— men’s and women’s. From the hours of 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and noon to 9 p.m. on weekends, you could entertain members of the opposite sex in the comfort of your own room, with the door closed if you so chose. Outside those hours, it was strictly verboten. There were floor dons who monitored the gender purity of each floor on a day-to-day basis. It goes without saying that some dons were more diligent than others, at times even overlooking the presence of their own nighttime visitors. It also goes without saying that the res rules were very beneficial for some of us.
When I went to CMBC, it was an incredibly gay place to be. I don’t mean that people were openly homosexual, but people were really comfortable being physical with people of the same sex. Every year the whole school—all one hundred of us—would go to a Bible camp for a retreat at the beginning of the school year. After my second-year retreat our school was banned from the camp because we were acting way too gay for their taste. I think what was especially vexing was the fact that they couldn’t tell who was really gay and who was just acting that way. Either way, it wasn’t acceptable.
A question you ask yourself and take very seriously when you are young and at Bible college is, what exactly is sex? One of the complicating factors is that you start to realize there is some surprisingly fucked-up shit around sex in the Bible. In Genesis, for example, Lot and his daughters hole up in a cave. The daughters get him drunk on consecutive nights and have sex with him. In the same book, Jacob trades seven years of work to marry his cousin Rachel and then is fooled into marrying his other cousin. Not to worry, though; for another seven years of labour he finally gets Rachel and a couple of maids as part of the package. It seemed like God was always commanding people to sleep with their inlaws in order to have babies, or approving the commodification of marriage. It was implied—mostly through silence on these issues—that this was all part of God’s will.
So there we were, in a private Mennonite college that was, believe it or not, quite liberal, and we were being pushed every day to think big, ask questions, and develop a scholarly approach to biblical studies. At the same time we were also being taught to contextualize things, and to know that there was sometimes a back-story that we weren’t privy to, which might just clear everything up. Sometimes we were taught to lean into the mystery of God’s will.
In that context, once it’s made abundantly clear that as a queer person you are a bigger sinner than everyone else, and you are destined to go to hell, why not have sex? According to my church, there’s no marital sex for us to have anyway, because same-sex marriage isn’t allowed. But even without that argument, I’m not sure I would have bought their logic. When you’re fighting a losing ideological battle from the margins of your community, you start putting all of the “givens” about moral imperatives on the table. What’s so wrong with sex? Why is a celibate misogynist like the Apostle Paul dictating whether I can have sex or not? Who made decisions about what made up the contents of the Bible out of all the material that was available? Why can’t we continue to add contents to the Bible; are we less holy than the people who did?
Unfortunately, my lover couldn’t follow my logic so easily. I remember, a couple of weeks into our affair, she turned to me and said, “I can’t help but think that God is going to strike me down with a bolt of lightning.” It provoked a moment of sober reflection about the will and judgment of God, but mostly, deep down, I found it impossible to believe that God really gave a rat’s ass about who I was having sex with. Not long into our affair she began spending most of our time together telling me that we couldn’t be together. That was often followed up with things like being pulled into her room from a crowd of people and having my clothes torn off of me with twenty of our closest friends just on the other side of the door. Intense cycles of repression and desire continued.
We burned fast and hard until I came back from spring break to find out that she was dating my best friend—a man. She was done being a lesbian, and I was devastated. I didn’t need her to be a lesbian; I just wanted her to love me.
There was nowhere to escape to; we were trapped in the bio-dome together. There was no public mourning; my heart and all its broken pieces couldn’t be displayed. I learned about devastation in love from my time at Bible college because all of my relationships there had to come to an end.
Sometimes I wondered if it was people who were right, and God who was wrong. When I was about twelve years old, I asked my minister if he thought that God ever changed God’s mind; without hesitating he said yes. It seemed like such a wonderful thing, the idea that God could change and grow. But when I was in the process of coming out to myself, I worried that maybe the humans around me had the ability to change God’s mind. Humans were always begging God for a change of heart in the Bible, and maybe this was one of those situations where they would bend the will of God with their pleas.
Because, in spite of all the messages saying the exact opposite, I knew that Jesus loved me. I knew that God hadn’t left me or judged me, or forsaken me.
It took me quite a while, but eventually I came to realize that I couldn’t be “objective” about my sexual identity, and that the idea of reasoned discussion about the merits or pitfalls of my particular sexual identity was simply part of the hegemonic framework of oppression under which I have lived since childhood. I came to understand that you can only be told for so long that you don’t belong, that your existence is horrifying, that your “sins” are somehow greater than those around you, and that you should just leave—before you just leave.
So I left. I never meant to, though. I always said I would fight, that no one can take away my baptism, or the fact that I love the church. Now on Sunday mornings I sleep, and sometimes I have sex.