Hello and welcome to Episode 15 of This Little Light Of Mine. My name is James Powell and I’m glad that you’re able to join me for today’s episode about purity culture called, ‘PUREity Shame.
If you’ve been following along with us on Facebook and Instagram @MyLightShinesBright we completed a HUGE summer focus on meeting, reclaiming and championing our inner child. It was incredibly rewarding to meet so many of your inner children and to have the opportunity to feature so many of your pictures along with your powerful words of hope and strength with the entire community.
My friend Oprah was over for dinner the other night and casually mentioned that Caste is her most important book club selection ever (okay… I was eating pizza while watching Oprah on Apple TV+). With that claim I downloaded a copy and haven’t been able to put it down.
I am shocked with how much of our own North American history that I had NO IDEA ABOUT. I’m devasted as I learn more about how we intentionally created a system and society to abuse, oppress and murder so many fellow humans.
I invite you to join in on nightly FB and IG posts where I confront my white privilege and engage in a dialogue with the intention to learn, grow, heal and bring more love into our world.
Pandemic lockdown + recovery
The past few weeks have been challenging ones for me as I work through the many ups and downs, curve balls and ‘time outs’ that are part of my recovery journey. As I learn to navigate this new and uncomfortable world I want to extend thanks to some of the incredible humans that have taken the risk to open up and share some of their vulnerability, strength, love and hope with me.
- Chris and the gang of other brave humans at St Mike’s addiction recovery program. Your presence, support and sharing are incredible examples of what happens when you reach out and ask for help.
- Jun Love Young at Beloved Arise. I am blown away at what you’re creating and the passion that you have for creating a movement that fights for the lives of Queer Youth of Faith. Thank you for your vision and for your new friendship. It is organizations like Beloved Arise that give me (and my inner 12 year old) hope for a very bright future. Please visit belovedarise.org to check out the amazing resources they have for queer youth of faith, their parents and their pastors.
- Rachel Roberts at American None. Thank you for helping us to ‘tear down’ the man made walls that we’ve created between religions. Your vision of a future where love is greater than labels is one that resonates deeply with me. We are so much bigger than the boxes that we put ourselves into… and so is God.
- My best friend Brent. I know my journey this past year hasn’t been easy on you or our friendship. Thank you for being such an important part of my recovery and speaking your powerful words of love and truth to remind me of who I really am and how far I’ve come. Thank you for seeing me. I love you.
In today’s story episode ‘PUREity Shame’ I share what it was like for me growing up in the 90’s evangelical church culture and share about one of my worst nightmares coming to life.
And from the many stories, comments and messages that you have been sharing online through FB & IG it is very clear that this period in time wasn’t an easy, joy-filled or shame free period for so many… not matter where we may have lived on the spectrum of gender or orientation.
Here’s today’s story episode ‘PUREity Shame’
The transition from Grade School to Secondary School was particularly challenging for me. The boys that I used to “connect” with and called my friends had mostly slipped away. The playful boyish games of truth or dare were now taboo, completely off-the-table and totally GAY… and in many of the boys minds, so was I. Or at least that was the thought that I anxiously played over and over in a constant never-ending loop in my head.
Kids are natural detectors for sniffing out “the other”. Once they identify “them”, they gather others to target, bully and ostracize. In a carnal way this behaviour unites people and creates a common purpose in targeting someone who doesn’t fit the norm. The words flamer, faggot, homo, gay, sissy, screamer, fairy became bullets that were loaded into the automatic weapons carried by the kids that I went to school with, some of the kids in my youth group, and by many of the adults in my world.
Each time I would hear those words I would jump on the inside as they shot deep into my soul. I was bleeding out on the inside but on the outside I would force a smile and pretend that I was in on the joke instead of being the joke. It pains me to admit but I would also participate in this reign of terror and pass this hate along to the weaker and more effeminate kids… anything to shift the painful focus away from me.
Sticks and stones?
Those words would pierce my soul and would destroy any sense of self-esteem that I may have had. Those words hunted me down in the schoolyard, in the hallways, in the classrooms, on my way home and sometimes even at church. And I have no idea who made up that stupid rhyme ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’, there is no truth in that. And maybe even more hurtful I would hear these words in jokes and comments from my teachers; youth group leaders and family members.
How does Jeff know? What did I do to show them that I AM one of those horrible words? How can I stop doing it? Did they follow me downtown? How do I get them to be quiet? Why won’t they stop? I can’t let these words and taunts get back to my parents. Somebody must have seen me. How can I make this all-just go away?
Social permission to shame
These were the days when LGBTQ shaming was accepted and culturally approved. Saturday Night Live had their she/he character Pat (the word transgender was decades away from common use) there was also SNL’s their overly sensitive, effeminate and lispy Stuart Smiley and his Daily Affirmations and who can forget In Living Color had their flamboyant duo Men on Film. Week after week those comic sketches sent a message that it was okay to taunt, laugh and shame LGBTQ people. As friends and family would watch these sketches and laugh along, I knew they were laughing at me.
At school I was bullied regularly and my stomach would tense each time I would round the hallway corner in high school. I know that if Terry, Toby or Frank were there I was going to be mocked, shoved or humiliated. Teachers didn’t care about this kind of bullying back then and it’s not like I was going to admit to anyone that I was the target of these kinds of names. These feelings of terror run so deep that even 25 years later I still feel them come up when walking into an unfamiliar room.
In a very strange way the space where I felt that I could be most “myself” during my early secondary school years was at church youth group. Even though I couldn’t be myself I found a way to love church youth group. I felt like I finally belonged somewhere. The older kids accepted me, invited me to come along with them after church, to weekend events and they were a safe haven during lunchtime in high school.
With my youth group friends I started to perfect my ‘eager, happy Christian with a perfect smile’ role. In that role I was agreeable, polite and helpful. In that role I skilfully learned to exile my fear, my playfulness, my sexuality, my doubt, my sensitivity, my creativity, my adventurousness and my opinions. Life was great and I had the perfect smile… and I could almost lie to myself that I belonged and fit in.
My worst nightmare
The love of our youth group was put to the test during my junior year of high school. I felt like I was coming down with a cold and was looking forward to staying home from evening church service to rest and relax. That idea was abruptly killed when my parents announced that evening youth service was absolutely mandatory for both my sister and me. When I tried pleading with my parents, they sternly told me that I absolutely must be there and that I would understand later, why.
I dread surprises. I always need to know what is going on, what to expect and what is expected of me. This situation was throwing me through a loop and I started to get nervous.
Is this about me? Did someone at church find out? Is this going to be an intervention? My parents wouldn’t really do this publically, would they? Am I going to fall apart in front of everyone? Should I run? If I do I’d be in even more trouble.
The voices in my head went into double time and I realized that I had no time to make a plan. I had to go. This was my time to face the music.
My parents drove my sister and me to church and I slowly shuffled inside and sat in the pew waiting for whatever was coming for me. I remember trying to make small talk with other friends but I could feel my panic and anxiety escaping from every pore of my body. I just knew that everyone could sense it. I knew everyone else was in on what was going to happen to me. I knew that they were all thinking “poor guy… but he brought this on himself”.
As the service started I could taste the tension in the room. Something was very wrong. One of our leaders got up and started off with “before we get into our lesson tonight, we have a very delicate conversation that we want to have with you”
I died inside
Hearing those words I died inside. I could feel the heat in my chest and face skyrocket as my stomach twisted in knots. This was my end and in seconds everyone is going to know about my sin. I’m a fraud, a fake, a liar, a traitor and everyone is about to know.
Our youth group leader continued the conversation by saying something like “we need to come together to support each other and even though we do not support these actions we need to continue to love the individual”.
My heart was exploding as I could feel all eyes on me. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes but knew that I had to hold everything together. I couldn’t let anyone see my fear. I couldn’t let any of my emotions be seen. They would show my guilt.
To this day I can still feel the panic and churning in my stomach as time slowed down and everything went into slow motion. My sister looked over at me with fear in her eyes and I knew this was my worst nightmare actually coming true.
Then I heard the words… it took what felt like an eternity for me to choose how to outwardly display the violently shifting thoughts and emotions going on inside of me.
Frozen with terror
The only thing I knew how to do was to lean forward, elbows on my knees and cover my face with my hands
“We have been having speaking with the Townsend family this week and they have let us know that Tammy is pregnant.”
Instantly I feel a wave of relief as I realize that I have received another stay of execution.
I can hear a murmur spread across the sanctuary. I’m relieved that these whispered voices are not about me. I’m still stunned as the tension in my body drains. Then I realize I need to kick into a ‘normal Christian’ role and say something about Tammy to the person next to me.
Quick, play things cool
“Poor Tammy, this must be so hard for her. It’s hard to see others fall.”
Our youth group leader goes on about how our community has to surround Tammy with support, but this is overlaid with a clear message that her behaviour is not something that is condoned in any way.
Love the sinner, hate the sin
“The bible tells us not to gossip and that we need to embrace the sinner but hate the sin.”
He continues by helping us to see that in supporting Tammy that we are not approving of her actions, we are approving of her as a person. We are reminded of God’s perfect plan between a man and a woman after marriage.
“We need to love Tammy like we would love anyone else. Tammy and her family have come together and have prayed asking for forgiveness. That is the beauty of God’s love. When we ask for forgiveness it is given. Our God is a God of second chances, and we can be pure again”
Pure as snow
As I continue sitting in that pew waiting for whatever is going to come next, thoughts of purity, being washed as white as snow, being cleansed in the blood, and forgiveness for my sins start to shift through my head.
Our youth leader continues to address “the situation” and outline our “plan of support” I started to realize something even more disturbing.
I AM the sin
What if this night had actually been about me? I wouldn’t receive this support. I can’t pray for my sin to be forgiven. I can’t give birth to my sin. I AM the sin.
As I processed everything a new level of shame sank deep into my bones. I can’t separate me from my feelings. I’ve tried everything but my feelings are my feelings… my feelings are my identity. My beingness is my SIN.
I’m confused. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I’m broken. I’m glad I’m not Tammy.
Judging from the deluge of messages that I’ve received over the past couple of weeks I can see that I was not alone in the shame filled messages that I received over my sexuality from the church. Purity balls, chewed up gum, purity pledges, destroyed for life, purity rings… oh my!
“I was frozen in terror. I thought I would be single forever” – Matt in Toronto
“I was taught that sex is wrong and dirty until the wedding day… and only a straight wedding” – Cori in Seattle
“I was something dirty and it should not be talked about” – Nick, British West Indies
“I had to learn everything for myself, we didn’t talk about that” – Ian in Montreal
The 90’s evangelical purity culture was an organized strategy started by US conversative groups to convince young people that the Bible requires a severe abstinence code.
In response to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80’s, comprehensive sex education was being introduced to more and more schools across America. This angered many conservative and evangelical lobbying groups like Moral Majority who kicked into high gear… and out popped a full blown (and partially federally funded) purity panic.
“I never finished college because I was taught that my role was to be married with babies” – B in USA
“Nothing my parents left me to figure everything out on my own and my church told me everything was a sin if I’m not married” – Vicky Anne, UK
“Any type of sexual thoughts or activity before marriage would make me unsuitable to be married. I was also told that all good Christian men would know if I was broken or not.” – Barb, Atlanta
“You’re going to hell if you don’t follow the Bible and don’t have sex, if you do don’t use a condom because it’s stopping God’s plan” – Stephanie in Toronto
True love waits?
All of this sexual shame was neatly wrapped up in a well decorated box branded with ‘True Love Waits’ seemingly sweet father/daughter dances, purity pledges & celebrations and like all well designed movements we can’t forget the visual symbolism with the purity ring. And to top things off all good movements have to have an enemy. Cue the introduction and amplification of slut shaming. If you weren’t pure, you most obviously would have to be a slut.
Movements like ‘True Love Waits’ taught a generation of young people that purity not only meant being sexually abstinent, but also free from sexual or lustful thoughts…. Even thinking about sex was taught to be a sin.
Wading a little deeper into purity culture it taught women that in order to remain ‘pure’ they were to remain under the authority of their fathers until that authority is transferred over to their husband. Women were also taught that it was their responsibility not to ‘tempt’ the boys and men around them… yes, you heard me right, it was taught that it was the role of woman to keep the men from lusting. Good luck with that one ladies.
Purity culture goes mainstream
Purity culture and all that went along with it wasn’t just something that was relegated to the some extreme Christian fringe church in the deep south either. Evangelical leaders did their homework and they knew that they needed to infuse purity culture into mainstream culture, they did a fantastic job. Britney Spears, The Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Jordan Sparks, Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, Hillary Duff and many others proudly wore their purity rings or promise rings on stage, at public appearances and on the red carpet…. In hindsight I’m not sure how many of those rings stayed on when the cameras were switched off.
Purity culture impacted all of us
It is so odd to think back to the terror, pain and paranoia that I lived through at this age as I tried to pray away my gay and hate the hidden parts of me and to now realize that so many others all around me were torturing themselves in similar ways. I wasn’t the only angst-ridden kid in church on Sundays. Ends up I was in really good company.
Hearing how my straight male counterparts would beat themselves up for thinking ‘lustful’ thoughts or how they believed that they had deceived and angered God for having a wet dream or even worse giving into the devil’s temptation and masturbating.
Chewed up gum?
Hearing stories of females who were convinced that they had ruined themselves and their chance at ever finding a husband because of a perceived ‘sexual sin’. A couple of women shared the chewing gum analogy were a chewed piece of gum was passed around at youth group events and they were told that if they failed to uphold their purity that they would appear like a chewed up piece of gum to Godly men looking for a wife… reinforcing that myth that sexual purity is the most Godly value that a woman provides to a man. I’ve got to give them bonus points for some amazingly effective symbolism.
Pass or fail
The common thread that I find most damaging in all of our experiences is the narrative that our spiritual relationship with each other and with God lives in a binary pass or fail plane.
You’re either pure or you’re a slut. Male or Female. Gay or Straight. Black or White. Saint or Sinner.
God isn’t binary
As I continue on this journey and discover more about myself and more about God I see how small this thinking is. God isn’t binary. God isn’t a 1 or a 0. God isn’t a He or a She. God doesn’t view us as being pure or slutty.
This IN vs. OUT thinking is an invention of man. Binary thinking is based on a need for control and certainty in an attempt to hold onto power. As we learned in our inner child work this summer, this type of synthetic thinking called ‘polarized thinking’ is a trauma response from something that is scared and is looking for ways to keep themselves safe. Does this sound like God to you?
God is Love and love transcends this binary plane.
As I dig into my fundamentalist roots and beliefs the more I’m starting to see how man has been twisting the notion of God and has been injecting false promises of certainty to attract others into their pews.
God doesn’t fit into any of our manmade boxes. God isn’t Male or Female. God isn’t Black or White. Sorry to burst your bubble for my friends down south God isn’t Blue or Red either.
Embrace the uncertainty
God is in the uncertainty, the wonder, joy, pain, experience, stillness, mystery and million other things that we can’t even begin to imagine.
And as Brenda Marie Davies, one of my favorite faith affirming and sex positive podcasters says God is Grey.
It is in this space where we find love, life and heaven… and God.
Let’s be here, right now.
I’m looking forward to our next episode with my friend Chad Rollo as he shares some of his own deconstruction journey. I learned a lot in my conversation with Chad as he talked about the importance of diversity and inclusion on the path of deconstructing your faith and reconstructing (or remembering) your faith so that it includes the full expression of your sexuality.
Winner – The Shift by Colby Martin
I also want to give a shout out and congratulations to @rebelheartedfreq for her comment on IGTV on our Gospel Gaslighting episode:
“This was really powerful; I resonate so much with everything you spoke about here. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am still recovering from gaslighting, from my religious upbringing and from past relationships. Thank you so much for what you are doing here.”
Thank you for your all your encouragement and I hope that Colby Martin’s new book The Shift will help you continue forward on your journey. Send me a DM on IG and I can get The Shift off in your direction.
Thank you again for being with us today and before I go I want to remind you.
Your sexuality is a gift from God. Let’s learn how to celebrate this gift, talk openly about it and use it bring more love and intimacy into our world.
You are designed with a powerful voice, no matter who you are. We need to hear what you have to say. You matter, you are needed, you are wanted, and you are loved… and there is nothing you can do to change that.