To me, publishing my story feels like performing a half-written symphony. The musical lines are still twisted and tangled, and many phrases and cords are yet unresolved. But since life’s music is more like jazz than any other genre, I cannot wait for the cadence of my symphony to be written before I perform because there may never be a cadence. So here is my unfinished jazz symphony.
I am the middle of six children, and whether it was because I was the third girl in a row and I needed to break the mold, or because I am the only redhead in my family, I have always marched to the beat of my very own drum. While my sisters played with dolls and didn’t like getting dirty, my little brother and I dug holes in the back yard, played army, and worked on cars with my father. I had few friends at school because I didn’t even know there were boys in my class, and all the girls wanted to do was play with dolls. I couldn’t imagine why one would bring a doll to school.
My family has attended Independent Fundamental Baptist churches (and my father has taught and been the principal at the church schools) my whole life. I realize that many people would consider Bob Jones to be an incredibly conservative place, but when I went to school there, I felt like there were hardly any rules, and their standards were very lax in comparison to my early life. I heard comments from various people before attending that BJ was not a very conservative place, and I would need to be strong in what I believed in order to go there.
I wasn’t generally one of the kids who just tolerated the rules to avoid getting in trouble as a kid—I genuinely wanted to please God and do what I was told was right. I have been told a number of times since coming out that I couldn’t possibly have ever been a Christian because I am gay. But I would argue that I was the real deal. I did all the things you were supposed to, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I definitely went through phases, especially as a teenager, but when I graduated from my Christian high school, I received an award for my “spiritual leadership.” And I wasn’t faking it.
But I had a secret, something so confusing even to me that I didn’t have words for it. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t even know there were boys in my class in grade school. I honestly have almost no memories of there being boys around until about sixth grade, although my yearbooks from elementary school testify otherwise. And when I realized there were boys, it was only because my friends started making comments about them. Since dating was not permitted in our school, and even having a crush was strongly frowned on, I thought I was better than the other girls because I didn’t notice the boys “like that.” For a few months I had some very boy crazy friends who I would “chase boys” with, but I knew I was only flirting with them because I could, not because I actually wanted their attention.
Instead, while my female friends would talk about boys they liked, I was noticing girls instead. And more than that, I felt romantically attracted to girls. Honestly, at that point in my life, I didn’t know the word gay, so I didn’t have a label for my feelings. But I knew they weren’t ok.
On top of that, the schools and churches I attended had a lot to say about the “roles of men and women.” How men were born to be leaders, and women were created to submit. How men were so much better at sports that it was basically pointless for women to engage in them. How women should be homemakers, and men were breadwinners. How women were the “weaker vessel” and thus dependent on men. How women are emotional, and men are logical. And on and on the list could go. I knew very young that I didn’t fit the mold. I remember crying as a 10 or 11 year old because I was a girl and not a boy. In college for a time I considered seriously whether or not I was transgender because of the binary world I lived in. An in-between space for people who do not solidly identify with either gender was inconceivable, so I felt like a total misfit. I felt like I was a bad Christian because I wasn’t “feminine” like I was supposed to be.
I “got saved” at camp the summer before my senior year of high school. I thought that truly being in a relationship with Jesus would fix me, make me normal. But it had no such effect on my life. I was more dedicated to Christianity than ever, but it was also around the same time that I was forced to mentally acknowledge that “lesbian” was a very applicable word for my feelings. But I was sure that I just needed more time to “grow in Christ,” and it would get better.
I went to Bob Jones University as a freshman in the fall of 2008. Suffice it to say that I had a lot going on personally at the time, so my freshman year was tumultuous to say the least. During Christmas break, I finally acknowledged to myself that I was gay, that I had always been gay. Obviously coming to that conclusion was a process, but suddenly all the pieces fell into place. It all made sense. And I was horrified.
So I did what you’re supposed to do at BJ if you have a “sin” problem. Reach out for help. In the dorm supervisor’s office, I was told that I was just trying to get attention by saying that I had feelings for girls. I guess that statement spared me a lot of drama, since they basically left me alone after that.
But I wanted help. I wanted to be straight. I so desperately hated who I was. So I read books and online articles. I found a friend or two who I felt safe enough to confide in who promised to encourage and help me. And for the next three years I “worked on it.” I prayed, did Bible studies, memorized verses, tried to be more feminine, and even went to an Exodus International sponsored conference.
My senior year rolled around, and I was a “room leader” (they used to be called Assistant Prayer Captains, I think). I was in a leadership position at my on-campus job, and I was even applying to be a Graduate Assistant and hoping to go to grad school at Bob Jones. So when my dorm supervisor called me to her office, I was quite surprised. I was finally a “good kid” and couldn’t think of anything I had done to lose that status. She informed me that she had been looking at my internet logs (yes, all internet activity on campus is logged) and had seen me looking at articles about how God could make you straight and such. She asked me if I still “struggled” with that stuff. I can’t be too hard on her since she is not the only person who has been like, “Wait, you’re still gay?” Like it’s a passing phase. At that point, I had to be honest with myself. What I was doing wasn’t working. I was still gay. My feelings were not changed, not one iota. At that point, the authorities at BJ started taking my “gayness” seriously. That was when the intense counseling started. I threw myself into everything they gave me to do or not do as a last ditch effort. I got rid of my masculine clothes. I stopped allowing girls to hug me or touch me if at all possible. I stopped interacting with girls in ways that I was told were flirty (which, in retrospect, would have been some pretty lousy flirting) and anything else they or I could think of that might “help.”
I left that summer with high hopes of returning in the fall straighter than ever to finish my degree. But it only took me a week or two away from Bob Jones to realize that my being straight—ever—was an illusion, not reality. I started trying to accept myself, just a little at a time. I kept in contact with a couple friends and was honest with them, assuming they would keep what I shared to themselves. What I didn’t know was that the authorities at BJ were talking to my friends, and my friends were telling them what was going on in my head. I say head, because I wasn’t doing anything in particular. I looked at gay dating sites, but I didn’t make an account. I looked at the websites of gay-affirming churches, but I never went to one. I watched a few gay movies, but there are no rules saying what you can and can’t watch during the summer. I didn’t break any rules. I just considered that maybe it was ok to be gay, and maybe I would end up accepting who I am. But apparently, that’s enough to get you kicked out. At the end of the summer, less than two weeks from the start of school, I was denied re-enrollment because I was “spiritually unstable” and “lacked commitment.” That was the stated reason. But the rest of the conversation was about how I was gay, and that wasn’t ok. I knew and they knew I was getting kicked out because I was a lost cause in their “making gays straight” campaign.
For nearly a year after getting kicked out, I kept trying. I don’t give up easily. But one night in June ’13 at a friend’s house, I met a girl who rocked my world. I gave her my first kiss, and I knew that it had to be ok to be gay. I came out to my parents and siblings shortly thereafter. Not in the apologetic “I’m gay but I’m trying not to be” kind of way that I had before. I finally accepted that being gay is not optional for me, and it’s not something I have to be ashamed of or try to change. And I definitely don’t have to be single.
I thought a long time about how to end this. But like I said at the beginning, my symphony doesn’t have a cadence yet. Life is confusing and messy when you have lived your whole life in the fundamentalist Christian world, and suddenly of necessity you are outside of it. But there is life outside “the bubble.” And it’s pretty great.
Ed Note: What we find truly shocking about Rachel’s story is that she broke no rules and did nothing to violate the student covenant at BJU. She estimates that she spent some $30,000 of her own hard-earned money to attend BJU — and that’s just for tuition and fees, not textbooks and other student materials — and, since BJU is not regionally accredited, what are her options? Starting over again at a state university? Trying to get another private college to accept some of her credits?
*Ed Note (8-23-2016): Since we first published this story, Rachel Sherwin has been married to the woman he loves and has come to terms with his trans identity. He now identifies as a non-binary trans masculine person named Jaxon Hagan.