Finding unexpected queer community in a religious school

Despite being taught queerness was a sin, I was able to find myself

A pride flag hangs in front of a grey building. The flag includes the rainbow colours, as well as the pink, blue, brown, and black stripes.
Despite church teachings, I found myself and my community. PHOTO: Jack Lucas Smith / Unsplash

By: Fern Ridley, SFU Student

Content warning: queerphobia, religious bias

I think most people who grew up aware of their queerness felt like they were the “only one” at some point. I was attracted to girls before I even realized I was expected to like guys, but felt like I couldn’t tell anyone because I had no one like myself to look up to. Thankfully, the indoctrination never came from my family, but when you spend seven hours a day at a homophobic religious school, you can’t avoid queerphobia. 

I was 12 when I cut my hair short for the very first time. It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, both literally and figuratively. I remember showing up at 7:00 a.m. basketball practice sporting a gleeful grin while passing my peers and awaiting their responses. 

“There’s a boy on our team!” cried one girl.

“Are you a lesbian now?” rung in my ears. 

This wasn’t my attempt at coming out. It was nothing more than an experimental haircut, but at my school you might as well be wearing a rainbow shirt with the word “queer” embellished on the front. I’d always had a hard time fitting in, even before people assumed I was queer. Now, even my closest friends would turn around and avoid me while changing. 

I’d always felt different from everyone else, but as the only girl in middle and high school with short hair, I had become a target. I remember the day the guidance counsellor called me into his office and sat me down. It was freshman year of high school, shortly after I buzzed my hair even shorter. He said he could tell I wasn’t like the other girls, and told me to listen more earnestly to what I was being taught at school about a woman’s role. It was for my own good, he told me.

Sometime after, I confessed my feelings to a crush. He responded by telling me he would’ve liked me back if I’d told him before I cut my hair. My first boyfriend was the first person to like me back since my haircut. I had scooped him up in part to “prove” my supposed heterosexuality to all the girls in my grade.

Growing up queer in a religious school is terrifying and confusing. It’s almost like being in two closets, one of which keeps you locked out from being able to see your true self and the other from everyone else. With such little conversation about sexuality in my school, queer people became a fantastical “other” that were associated with the daunting “outside world.” 

Fundamentalists like to pretend they can fashion a neat little bubble to protect their loved ones from reality. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” is something you’ve probably heard if you grew up in a Christian environment. As a kid, it made sense to me. We were brought up to believe that all humans are sinners, and because of that everyone’s equally . . . evil.

It doesn’t sound as nice looking back as an adult. How can you reduce someone’s identity to sin? How can you equate the innocence of sexuality to something harmful like deceit or violence? I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance about my sexuality and gender because of this saying, and would constantly write off my feelings as a passing phase. 

When I found myself friendless again in my freshman year of high school, I met a small group of people that felt like home to me. We spent hours in Animal Crossing changing our hairstyles and outfits. We dabbled in cosplay and embraced fantasy fiction as a way to escape our repressive realities. None of us realized it at the time, but our queerness was a big part of what brought us together. 

Our friendships were characterized by a lack of judgment. Because we were all closeted at the time, this acceptance was seen mostly through a shared enjoyment in our hobbies. We all had different interests, but supported each other nonetheless. After high school, we faced more serious challenges because of our identities. Discovering we were all queer felt like meeting each other all over again, in the best way possible. 

Now, we have a lot more to connect with each other about and have started to process our upbringings. Some of the things we’ve collectively experienced were being ostracized when going against gender roles, the startling lack of resources we grew up with, and the lack of knowledge around queerness and gender. The few times I remember teachers speaking about queerness was when they were offering an outdated religious perspective on current events. No one dared question the teacher for fear of being outed. 

Friends have spoken about how the shame carries over, sticking with them even as they try to unlearn it. Ultimately, it prevented us from coming into our own. 

One of my friends expressed “that you can’t keep people from being themselves forever, only delay people from discovering their true identity.”

Looking back, I can name many queer people that I went to school with, but only one came out in high school. The rest stayed silent until after graduation because there was such a high risk of ostracization. What we’ve all learned is that suppression does nothing to “cure” queer people, and everything to harm them. 

Graduation felt freeing, but it was hard to fight the sense of isolation ingrained in us. Without a clear sense of community, queer people from our school felt like we were on our own. Because we were all forced to hide ourselves, it felt like we were thrown into adulthood without the community that those who attend public school may have. 

I was only able to truly love myself once I fully removed myself from the fundamentalism I grew up with. The more I remove myself from learned bigotry, the prouder I become of my queer identity. My friends and I are still learning how to openly be ourselves but I’m glad that I managed to maintain our connection. If things went any differently, I don’t know if I’d ever become comfortable in my own skin. 

No matter how hard people try to silence conversations about gender and sexuality, they’re only teaching students to hide themselves. We are who we are regardless of what our teachers say. It breaks my heart to think about the suffering we all endured, feeling alone and unable to express our identities. I can only hope that in time, fewer people will have to experience what we did growing up. But ultimately, I’m grateful nonetheless for the community I unexpectedly found.