When I was a teenager, I wore my “no surfing in hell” T-shirt until it fell apart.
It was a gruesome piece of Christian witness-gear, emblazoned with a dismayed-looking young man who was himself wearing a black T-shirt that said “Let’s party, dude.” His tongue hanging out, he was surrounded by flames. The caption under his burning form read, “The lake of fire has no waves.”
The footnote to the caption referenced not one, but two verses from the New Testament.
I wore this shirt to witness to the actual surfers who had the tremendous good fortune to sit next to me on the 17A bus to the beach.
I snuggled into this extreme binary worldview wherein all humans were divided into saved (going to heaven) and unsaved (going to hell) categories at a time when I felt extremely lost. My hardcore atheist father had died when I was 13. Within a year, my mom became a born-again Christian and surprised me and my siblings with a seemingly impromptu move from rural Wisconsin to Daytona Beach, Florida.
We discovered later the reason for the relocation was to be with a wacky new stepdad who looked remarkably like Captain Kangaroo, said demons in negligees dressed like his mother often attacked him at night, and became physically nauseated when confronted by behavior he considered bad table manners. Although she would enthusiastically defend his behavior, Captain Kangaroo seemed to make my mom very sad.
Embracing my own born-again lifestyle provided the structure I needed. Almost every spare minute was consumed with church/God/Jesus-related activity, and it always gave me a reason to run out during a demons-in-negligees fueled family argument. The adults at church were so overwhelmingly kind to me that even now ― a few decades, thousands of geographical and philosophical miles away from them ― the memory makes me teary.
But born-again Christianity isn’t all groovy wardrobe choices and adults asking about your day and then really listening to the answer. There were plenty of rules and expectations; against dancing (leads to sins of the eyes) drinking (no), drugs (hell no) and sexual activity (no no no no are you frickin’ kidding me no).
Unlike my peers, I didn’t struggle with physical temptations. I had never really masturbated and boys mostly bored me. I did like hanging out with the girls I knew from my high school volleyball team. A lot. I thought this was evidence of my great love of sport.
No one at church had to tell me not to be a lesbian any more than they had to tell me I shouldn’t be a Platypus Pilates instructor. It never occurred to me it was a thing I could be.
The church folks who were kindest to me had all attended a teeny-tiny Bible College in Oklahoma City, and doing so became my dream as well. No one particularly pressured me, although I can imagine that if I had been applying to Smith, perhaps they would have intervened.
Teeny Tiny Bible College didn’t inspire at first glance. It was stationed between an abandoned convenience store and what appeared to be a tumbleweed farm, and was just a few squat two-story brick structures. It could have been the shooting location for the Dundler Mifflin Paper Co. office building, if you fixed it up a bit.
The TTBC school song was akin to a funeral dirge. “While eternal souls are dying/Lord we will not seek for rest.” This was not so inspiring to sing at basketball games. The Lifestyle Covenant and behavioral expectations of TTBC forbade drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, dancing or being seen at establishments maintained for the purposes of dancing, using or promoting the using of drugs, owning or using pornography and somewhat inexplicably, facial or tongue piercings. The student conduct guide also explained that what it euphemistically called “sexual confusion” was an expulsion-worthy offense.
I’d been on campus a month when a senior I hadn’t so much as chatted with made a special trip to the laundry room to hand me a small black and white booklet entitled “Homosexuality: Barrier to Intimacy.” It explained what homosexuality was: evil, sinful, a possible cause of the downfall of the American way of life. It also explained the causes: dependency, ineffective parenting, demons.
I was so deeply closeted, even (or perhaps especially) to myself, that I was more confused than offended.
Because TTBC was full of young people with the typical raging hormones but the atypical belief that we needed to be married before we could have sex, TTBC was also full of young people fixated on getting married. Dating to find the spouse God chose for you was the extracurricular activity that TTBC students embraced most enthusiastically.
I met Kindly Ken my second year at TTBC, and he was the only person I dated there. He was a funny, sweet, slightly older guy who hailed from a town of 432 in Oklahoma’s panhandle, and had made money to go back to school by working as a roughneck in one of Oklahoma’s periodic oil booms.
Besides the occasional “I’d love it if we’d spend more physical time together,” he never mentioned our extreme lack of sexual-type involvement. One night we were attempting to roast hot dogs over the student union’s gas fireplace when he wrote me a note.
“I don’t suppose any chance if you’re not doing anything next May that you’d marry me?”
I couldn’t imagine the life he was proposing; living as his wife, having babies and moving back to rural western Oklahoma. But I also couldn’t imagine what another kind of life would look like. Plus, he asked so nicely. I said yes.
After our engagement, we honored the Teeny Tiny Bible College tradition of keeping penis in a vagina-type sex for after the wedding ceremony, but everything else, we decided, was probably OK. Since TTBC had very strict single-sex dorm policies, most of our physical time together was spent in Kindly Ken’s car. One night when we were parked in the fields between the abandoned convenience store and a local church, he asked sweetly but expectantly: “Would you want to take your britches down?”
Kindly Ken went down on me, in the process locating and then showing me what he charmingly called “Madame Clitoris.” I had an orgasm for the first time that night.
The next morning it occurred to me that I could probably stimulate Madam Clitoris even more effectively myself, and I skipped Systematic Theology, New Testament Survey and The Bible as Literature to spend 23 hours in glorious self-pleasure.
And then the day after that, I broke up with Kindly Ken. Bless his kindly heart.
In retrospect, our night of relative passion seems almost cartoonishly like middle American heterosexual hijinks, but it was nevertheless my first glimpse of a queer future. Kindly Ken’s attention to my clitoris was like being served a big mug of steaming broccoli juice. Although hot broccoli juice was definitely not my drink of choice, I became aware that I was thirsty.
I wish I could say that having awakened to sex for pleasure rather than only as a Potential Terrible Sin, I instantly figured out that what I felt for women was attraction, started therapy, joined a coming-out support group, and formed a community softball team. It would take more than a decade (and many more religious wanderings) before all that happened. But without the realization that sex could be about pleasure and not just about procreation, it would have surely taken decades longer.
Kindly Ken turned me on ― not so much sexually, but more like a light switch. For this, I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my fiance who opened the door to my queerness with extremely straight sex in the front seat of his Oldsmobile parked between a feedlot and a cornfield on a warm Oklahoma night.