This is the first of a three-part series about identity, acceptance and forgiveness in West Michigan’s LGBT community. In our first story, we meet Rachel Gleason. She spent much of youth at her church; worshipping, studying, singing, and babysitting. The church was her life. But that began to change when Rachel started to understand who she really was…
My name is Rachel Gleason. I'm 27. I grew up in Hudsonville, which is not too far from Grand Rapids. We definitely weren’t allowed to watch stuff of TV. My mom would be like, “that’s raunchy.” Everything was raunchy. We weren’t allowed to watch Friends, so of course, I love that show.
Friends: "You have to stop the q-tip when there’s resistance."
From my dad's front yard you can see 5 churches. The church that I grew up they always kind of talked bad about those churches that they were dead and quiet and like, they weren't moving in the spirit the way that we believed you were supposed to.
It was a very small church, there was probably 60 to 70 people any given Sunday. It was branch of Pentecostal.
I learned there that being gay was like the worst thing you could be. Just by like the language, the way they talked about gay people. Seeing news clips of the gay pride march at Grand Valley and you know, my mom making a disgusted noise and changing the channel. I remember seeing those butch woman and being like, ugh, that is the worse thing you could be. Like that is the worst. And I don’t know if I even knew that was like internalized. Homophobia. But there’s definitely always preaching against that.
By the time I was in high school I was going to church four to five nights a week. We had Wednesday night services. Thursday night prayer meetings. Every single Friday night services. Saturday they would have intercessory prayer. And then Sunday morning we had worship service at 11 a.m.
I was on the church puppet team which was special all on its own.
We knew we were weird. We knew that other churches didn’t act the way we did. Didn’t fall down and cry and roll around and march around the sanctuary. We almost wore it as a badge of honor. We were on fire. That we had it. We had something that they didn’t have. A deeper connection with god. And that kind of was proof. When you did doubt, you’re like, well you feel this, don’t you? They called it the presence of God. That feeling that you would get when 60, 70, 80 people are in the same room with terrible acoustics and everyone is just like yelling and singing and crying and speaking in tongues and all this energy is focuses on the same thing. And it’s this energy that’s palpable and people really did fall down. I believe that some people literally have been knocked off their feet by that feeling. And that was validation that God was good and that God was moving and that God was alive in the world and that he could do things through you. And it was very empowering and a lot of those moments were really beautiful and I loved them. They felt really good.
Being "slain in the spirit" is what it’s called when you fall out. And they’d have ushers ready to catch you. They’d start praying for you. And if you wouldn’t fall down they’d call in reinforcements so there’s all these people, like ‘ahhh’ intense praying for you. And so it’s like sometimes I would fall down right away to avoid that like, the longer they prayed, the more they’ll see of me. I was always hiding something. Like, so afraid they would see the sin in me. And I think just in general, I felt like I was always not good enough. And hiding. I don’t know how consciously aware I was that I was gay, but I think that was probably a part of it. That feeling of hiding something, maybe not knowing exactly what it was. But that was a big part of it.
My senior year I fell really hard for one of my friends and that was like the first time I realized that I couldn’t deny those feelings. I had had similar feelings but didn’t know what they were, didn’t know why I felt jealous when my best friend liked a guy. I didn’t know.
So I got books. Some gay literature. One of them was just The Color Purple. Fried Green Tomatoes. Like I hid them in my room on the side of my bed and cabinets and stuff. And I came home one day and they were sitting on the buffet cabinet in the living room and I was just like, ‘oh my God. this is it.’ And my mom was in her room like reading one of them. And I came down the hallway and she came out of the room. And she’s like holding it and she confronted me.
I remember just crying. Just sitting in the living room together. At the end of the conversation when it had been quiet for awhile, she said, “What do you want to do about this?” And the implication was asking whether I would go to counseling or not. And I agreed to go to counseling to "pray the gay away."
The pastors they told me that I was no longer going to be a greeter. That was one of our duties. The pupil would stand by the door and open the door and greet people. I was gonna be no longer in AWIPs, the awesome warriors in prayers group until I had been healed, as they said.
I remember being really scared that everyone was gonna find out and wonder why I wasn’t doing any of those things anymore. I remember being hurt and feeling, feeling guilty and that I was kind of relieved that it was out in the open to a degree. But mostly I remember feeling humiliated. And leaving the office and getting yelled at because I was late for puppet practice and my friends asking where I was and why, what the meeting was about and why I was crying.
I remember that decision of, okay, I can either stay here, stay in the church, don’t tell anyone, never get married, live this life. Be on fire for God. Or to walk away from it into something I had no idea what I would do or where I would be or what my life would be. But the possibility of finding love was important to me.
When I was 18, I was living with my mom, going to Grand Valley, going to counseling, but my writing 150 professor was my first college writing class. So I started to try and write a paper about homosexuality and evolution and she was like, let me talk to you after class and see what you’re thinking. And it kind of ended up being this coming out paper. It was called, ‘My Closet Has a Window.’ And it was the very end of the paper, I said, “I know what I have to do, I’ve always known what I’ve had to do. I just haven’t found the courage to do it. And I turned that paper in and then I want on Christmas break and decided that I was gonna come out and that I wasn’t gonna go to the church anymore.
But I met with each of my church friends. I told my friend Hannah, just one-on-one. She couldn’t believe I had chose sin over her and that friendship and my faith. But I haven’t talked to her or really seen her since then. Leaving the church meant I didn’t have any of those friends. I literally had one friend to my name and it was an acquaintance from his who was gay and barely knew him. And another friend that I had just met, that I barely knew...were my only friends. Cause everyone else. Even my his friends that didn’t go to church with me, were not ok with me being out.
I think I felt really guilty, just heartbroken. The loss of those people and hurting those people and that knowing that I would always understand the way that they felt because I’d been there and I’d been in that position and knowing that they would never understand why I did what I did or respect it. You know I still have love from them. I think they’re misguided. Their hearts are in the right place though. It’s harder for me to forgive the pastors. But yeah, I’m just very happy and very at peace with where I am. And so glad to have the freedom that I do. Sometimes I’ll have like nightmares that I’m back at the church and I have to break away all over again. And tear myself apart all over again. And it’s terrifying to feel that to be back there and feel that pressure again of going back to hide everything. And I wake up and remember that I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. And that’s exactly where I want to be.
This series is produced by Zak Rosen and Allison Downey, an associate professor of education at Western Michigan University. This story was produced by Zak Rosen. Support was provided by a Kalamazoo Community Foundation grant from the Fetzer Institute Fund.