By Josh Watkins
Like water and oil, Christianity and LGBTQ identity are often seen as separate and impossible to mix. But for southerner Sam Fagan, her faith and queerness are both equal, essential parts to her holistic identity. While she admits the process is ongoing and has not been easy, Fagan has found a way to reconcile the two and finds peace in the balance.
Growing up in Arkansas, Fagan recalls having a “real life Gilmore Girls” relationship with her mom, “but without all the drama.” They were each other’s best friend and shared everything with one another. She describes her childhood in The Natural State as safe, quiet, and consumed with endless outdoor activities—yet, she always dreamed of living in a major metropolis like New York City.
Fagan’s relationship with faith began at age 14 when her best friend, Amanda*, invited her to a southern Baptist church. Looking back, Fagan admits she probably had a crush on Amanda, as the two were inseparable. While Amanda was Fagan’s entry point into faith, she explains that she began to take ownership over her Christianity when she started learning about Jesus. She dedicated herself to being a “Good Christian Girl.” “I loved church,” Fagan explains. “It was my home. It was my family. It was the thing to which I knew I could turn no matter where I was in the world. It was my foundation, and my number one identity. I loved Christianity, and I wanted to be the best Christian that I could.”
Although she didn’t realize it at first, Fagan began discovering her queer identity around the same time that she found faith. She began having crushes on girls as early as junior high, but explains that she didn’t dislike boys—she even had a few romances with guys in high school. The lack of fulfillment she felt in her relationships with boys, however, would lead to confusion she attributed to “the Holy Spirit convicting [her] of some sort of sin.” “Being queer was never an option in my life,” Fagan explains. “I didn’t even think it could happen to a Good Christian Girl, because being gay/queer was a choice that unholy people made. And I was holy.”
That confusion evolved first into guilt, then into major anxiety. “Anxiety that I wasn’t really a Christian,” Fagan elaborates. “Anxiety that I was going against the Holy Spirit. Anxiety that I was making God sad for some unknown reason. I went to the Christian counselor at my church. I got put on anti-depressants. I dated a boy for a year. Eventually, though, the turmoil inside of me was just too much. I wasn’t happy, and I ended things [with him].”
Fagan’s queerness only strengthened during her time in college. At school, she made a new best friend, Maxine*. “We were inseparable and we both loved Jesus,” Fagan details. “We went to church together; we went to the same college ministry; and we had mutual friends and interests. We couldn’t get enough of each other.”
One night, Maxine came over to keep Fagan company while she worked on a class art project. Maxine fell asleep on Fagan’s bed while she worked. “At some point, I realized that I just liked looking at her,” Fagan says. “Then, the thought flitted through my mind that I wanted to kiss her.”
Fagan describes the feeling as so jarring that she immediately sought help from her church community group leader the following morning. She called her mom on the way to tell her what had happened and to assure her that she was getting help. “See, I told you I told her everything,” Fagan laughs. Once at her leader’s house, she nervously described what had happened and waited for his guidance. He told her that she had “too many eggs in one basket,” and that she needed to diversify the people she spent time with. However, he gave Fagan permission to continue her friendship with Maxine, as long as she was still following God.
Although nothing romantic ever happened between the friends, Fagan admits her love for Maxine was real. “Eventually, the strain of what we were both feeling for each other but didn’t really understand pulled us apart,” Fagan explains. “I grieved more than when I broke up with my high school boyfriend.”
Her feelings for Maxine continued to hang over her head, however, and Fagan decided to seek Christian counseling. “Let me tell you, Christian counselors where I grew up didn’t know what to do with this issue in the early 2000s,” Fagan says. “So, we ended up focusing on my relationship with God instead of anything to do with sexuality. Eventually, I got bored with the therapy and decided that it was time to just live life.”
Fagan set out on a journey to figure out what career she wanted to pursue and where she wanted to live. She tried out a few big cities before landing as a web designer and developer in Austin, Texas. And although she was beginning to feel more secure in her career and city, “I was still a Good Christian Girl. I was still an Evangelical. I was still conservative. I was still haunted by this question, though, of ‘What am I?’”
Fagan wouldn’t come to truly understand the answer to that question for seven more years, at age 29. Again, she found herself in a best friendship with a new girl who gave her similar “red flags” to those she experienced with Maxine. “I wanted to spend all of my time with this girl,” Fagan says. “We were crazy about each other. We went to church together and prayed together and played worship songs together on our guitars.”
This déjà vu experience pushed Fagan back into Christian counseling. This time, she sought out a counselor who specialized in same-sex attraction. She confessed all of her anxieties about sexuality and attraction, but the counselor denied that Fagan was “same-sex attracted.” Instead, he believed it was an idolatry issue. “He asked me a series of questions about porn and fantasy and masturbation,” Fagan recalls. “Once again, for anyone who needs it clarified, I was a Good Christian Girl. I had never watched porn or masturbated in my life! My sexuality of any sort was off limits to me until I married the man of my dreams.” Fagan remained in counseling for the next year, but left each session still questioning her attraction to her best friend.
In what seemed to be a twist of fate, Fagan was introduced to The Human Empathy Project, a non-profit that focuses on bridging the gaps between the church and the LGBTQ community. “The first time I went to a meeting, I was so uncomfortable,” Fagan recalls. “It was the first time I had been around a gay person. It was the first time I’d been around a gay couple. It was the first time I’d met a Christian who thought being gay wasn’t a sin. Cue an existential crisis.”
This crisis, however, pushed Fagan to make major changes in her life. After realizing that, this time around, the feelings between she and her best friend were mutual, they came out as “not straight” to one another and made the decision to tell their families. That process, unfortunately, did not go in their favor. “Our conservative, Evangelical history was too much to overcome,” Fagan explains. “Her parents were way more spiritually conservative and they didn’t react well. My mom turned out to be less spiritually conservative, but more old-fashioned, and she didn’t react well, either.”
Despite this reaction, Fagan felt that as “a Good Christian Girl,” she would have to come out to her church community. She started by telling the small church group she was leading at the time—where reactions ranged from acceptance to confusion. Then, out of concern that the church would no longer allow her to be a leader, she told her pastors. “It was one of the scariest and most vulnerable positions I’ve ever been in,” Fagan says. “The pastors asked for time to talk things over. About a week later, the main pastor contacted me to say that they were fine with me still maintaining a position of leadership.”
Fagan’s coming out served as a catalyst for discussions on queerness within the church’s leadership, and whether or not the church would be (or was already) open and affirming of LGBTQ people. “The discussions are still continuing,” Fagan says.
Although a negative stigma still surrounds Evangelicalism today, Fagan says that it taught her love, value, worth, and that the world is much larger than Arkansas. “Those are the lessons I still carry with me today,” she says.
When asked what advice she has for young queer people who may be questioning their faith (and vice versa), Fagan replies: “It takes a while. The process of coming out as a person of faith might not be fast or easy. I’m still on the journey.” “My faith and sexuality are still complicated issues for me,” she adds, noting that she’s done extensive research into the history of Christianity, Evangelical Christianity, and the theologies of the Bible, queerness, liberation, and feminism. What she found was just a series of rules, interpretations, and conclusions that people (mostly white men)—not God—had decided on. “That might not be the happy story that people want to hear, but it’s the truth. It is hard to be a queer Christian, but there are pockets of great communities out there. [Don’t stop] looking. You might have to start a community yourself.”
She also suggests checking out gaychristian.net (GCN), the GCN Conference, and reading Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee. “What I do know is that when 1500 queer Christians gather together at the GCN Conference, it feels like home again,” Fagan says. “It feels like a truer home because no part of me, neither my faith nor my sexuality, is left out. Nothing has to be shoved away or ignored. We don’t have to fear anything, and we’re just allowed to be and we’re allowed to worship. It’s a beautiful and life-changing time, and it is what gives me hope for the future.”
“In spite of all the questions and doubts, I haven’t been able to walk away from my faith. It’s made me the person I am today,” Fagan says. “I experienced real love and beauty through Christianity and, even if other Christians tell me that I can’t be both queer and Christian, I don’t believe them.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.