Today is National Coming Out Day, and we’re pleased to offer this essay by 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program participant Sarah Ngu in support of all those taking this often difficult and important step in their lives.
It was a dry, summer day in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was walking around a dusty, pink road, thinking about whether to call my mom.
A week earlier, I had flown into town from New York City to attend a Christian spirituality conference whose theme was “oneness and the illusion of the ‘separate self.’” After the conference wrapped up, I stayed for a few more days to explore the city. As I walked, I thought about how, nine months earlier, I had sent my parents an email that triggered an emotional rupture between us.
It was the longest email I’d ever written. Broken into three sections and ending with a seven-point FAQ, it explained that I had been attracted to women since adolescence, and that I was turning away from the conservative Christian beliefs in which I was raised. “I now truly believe it is more likely than not that God blesses same-sex relationships,” I wrote. I was 26 years old.
My parents are Chinese Christian pastors who moved from Malaysia to the United States to start a church. Their faith, as they told my siblings and me many times, was their first and foremost identity. My mom responded to my email with a brief paragraph, pleading with me to “surrender your longings to the Lord.” “Love you with an aching heart,” she signed off. Out of the many emails—mostly theological arguments—I exchanged with my parents, that one from her cut the most.
If being a Christian was her primary identity, being a mother was likely a close second. In addition to churning out lunches and dinners for a family of six every day, she kept an up-to-date mental catalog of her four children’s upcoming exams, sport schedules, friends, etc. She inquired about the details of our lives—which friends were we hanging out with, what was the latest with my sister’s boy-crush, when was my next paper due? She prided herself on being a good mom.
On my walk, I saw what looked like a Spanish colonial church on the horizon with a tall statue in front. I turned towards it and decided to ring my mom. This is the phone call, I told myself. I will finally speak plainly about what I want: to not hide my relationships with women from her and to rely on her support.
The phone rang for a few seconds before she picked up. When she heard what I had to say, she said: “I wish I could be a better mother to you. I don’t want to be disobedient to God, though.” She was choking something back in her throat.
My teeth clenched the insides of my cheeks as my heart jerked, as if pulled by a taut string. Reaching the church, I sat on a nearby bench outside to look at the statue and removed my glasses so my tears wouldn’t cloud them. It was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Holy Mother of Christians and patron saint of Mexico, glancing down at the child Jesus. He was underneath her feet, stretching his arms upwards to carry the weight of her dress. Like Mary and Jesus, my mother and I were once one—in her womb.
“I would, if it weren’t for God,” my mom was essentially saying. I thought bitterly, What is the purpose of God if ‘God’ separates parents from children? If ‘God’ impedes the raw impulses of mothers, forcing them to reroute their love through orderly paths? My shoes kicked up a tiny dust storm as I thought of a verse in Matthew, in which Jesus said: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”
Seriously, a sword? But even then I knew that I wasn’t really angry at God, but at how we—my mom, the church, all of us—had turned God into a container to dump our anxieties about taking responsibility for our lives and actions. I was angrier perhaps at no one more than myself.
I was not unlike my parents. From them, I had inherited a sense that my faith came before all else and that, if I wanted to interpret the desires of my body, I had to study the Bible, much like I would check the instruction manual of a car. From them, I inherited a tradition, broadly known as evangelicalism, that not only equated the Bible with God, but also interpreted the Bible to mean that marriage wasn’t possible for people like me.
After college, I began to discover new tools for interpreting the Bible that allowed me, for the first time, to imagine myself as a whole person within my faith.
After college, I began to discover new tools for interpreting the Bible that allowed me, for the first time, to imagine myself as a whole person within my faith. As my theological certainties began to shift like tectonic plates under my feet, I sought out a therapist, Lisa, for guidance on coming out to my parents with my new beliefs. They had known I was attracted to women since I was 17, but this would be the first time I would tell them that I was going to act upon those feelings—sans guilt.
For the first several sessions, Lisa regularly interrupted me whenever I went down a theological rabbit hole and re-directed me back to how I felt. “You’ve spent the first 25 years of your life trying to fit yourself into the container of your religion,” she said, peering through her large glasses, “but now it’s time to fit your religion around you.”
What was the point of God if “God” separated me from myself? The sword that cleaved my parents from myself had, first, cleaved me into two.
I sometimes am asked why it is that I am, despite myself, tethered to a faith that has jabbed, prodded, and cut so painfully. I ask myself this too. Most days, frankly, I am angry. That phone conversation in Santa Fe was the first time I heard my mom struggle between her identity as a mother and her religious beliefs — the first time I glimpsed the mother she could’ve been.
But then I think back again to that day of Santa Fe, where I sat before Lady Guadalupe, the Blessed Mary. As Theotokos, the Holy Mother of God, she was tethered to her son in her womb and raised him to be God, teaching him how to eat, walk and speak. In his dying hours, she chose to stay with him at great danger to herself, while his closest friends abandoned him. I have no articulate, cogent explanation for why I find myself still kneeling in the pews. All I can say is that when the urge fills me to bolt out the door, I behold the Theotokos holding her child, and I find that I cannot look away.