KATHY: It’s holiday time... happy holidays to everyone!
TOBIN: Yes, hopefully you’re also getting a few weeks off from work, perhaps.
KATHY: Yea, lets hope. So, unrelated...remember a couple months ago, when you and I got all dressed up and hosted the Third Coast Audio Festival Awards?
TOBIN: Of course. If you don’t know, the Third Coast awards celebrates the best of the best in narrative audio storytelling. It’s this big event and you and I got to host and present the awards. Some would call it the “Oscars of radio” maybe.
KATHY: Some would. But I would say it’s more clogs than Manolos on the red carpet, you know?
TOBIN: Look at you, using the word manolo knowledgeably.
KATHY: New word!
TOBIN: Proud of you.
KATHY: Ok so, the night started off with a bang, because we got to present the award for Best New Artist to our friend and fellow queer, Phoebe Wang.
TOBIN: Yes Phoebe!
KATHY: Her award-winning story first aired on The Heart, a podcast from Radiotopia. And it’s about whether queer people and Christians can have meaningful relationships. I think it especially resonates with those of us who grew up in a religious household and may need to be having conversations with those friends or family members.
TOBIN: And because we liked her story so much, we thought we would drop it in our feed this week.
KATHY: So everyone, please enjoy Phoebe Wang’s story, God + The Gays.
PHOEBE: When I was 12, I had a sexy dream about Jessica Simpson. This came as a surprise for 2 reasons: 1) I was a longstanding fan of Ashlee Simpson, the chronically underrated younger sister, and 2) I was a Jesus kid.
PHOEBE: When I was growing up, my parents ran Christian church services out of my dining room. On the wall, there was a sign that read, “Christ is the head of this house.” So when Jessica came to me in a dream, I was kind of nervous and began evaluating the situation.
YOUNG PHOEBE: What just happened? There were a lot of boobs.
PHOEBE: I remembered my mom saying that Hurricane Katrina was caused by America’s increased openness to gay marriage and the debauchery of Mardi Gras.
YOUNG PHOEBE: Gayness isn’t a thing right?
PHOEBE: That gayness is a social construct.
YOUNG PHOEBE: Sinful people just made it up.
PHOEBE: And vowed to never tell anyone about Jessica.
YOUNG PHOEBE: Everything’s fine. This never happened.
[CHURCH PEOPLE SINGING IN MANDARIN]
PHOEBE: The next few years, I didn’t think about gayness, except in the context of banning it. When we were in high school, my sister would share New York Times articles on the most recent gay marriage bills. In response, my mom, sister and I would meet in my parent’s bedroom, and kneel in a circle. We’d pray for God to uphold the sanctity of marriage in America, which of course was a nation founded on Christian principles. The house would be quiet, except for distant screams of WWE stars being hit over the head with folding chairs. My dad was a big fan.
VOICE: Dear Lord Jesus. We know that same sex marriage is not your will. Please give people the wisdom to uphold Prop 8. We ask that you not let evil prevail in this world. In your name we pray, amen.
MULTIPLE VOICES: Amen.
PHOEBE: From 0 to 18, my life was complicated, not just because of church services in my dining room. My family was a total shit show with my dad terrorizing the family and my mom as a passive accomplice.
VOICE [CHANGING TO PHOEBE’S VOICE]: 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. College.
PHOEBE: College felt like freedom. I’d been counting down the years to college since I was in 5th grade. When my parents dropped me off at college, mom cried when she and dad said goodbye. When she tried hugging me for one of the first times in my life, I gave her an awkward pat on the back. My sophomore year, I quit going home. Eventually, I cut off my family completely.
[KNOCK ON DOOR]
PHOEBE: It’s my junior year of college in Philadelphia. Big Al, my roommate, is at my bedroom door. Big Al is not so big. She’s little, just like me. I met Big Al at a campus Bible study my freshmen year. When I fall asleep studying, Big Al pulls out textbooks from underneath my head, tucks me in, and turns out the light. Sometimes, she slides little drawings and Bible verses underneath my door, so I’ll find them in the morning. Big Al and other Christians I’ve met at college have become my new family.
SIMULATED BIG AL: Hey.
SIMULATED PHOEBE: Hey.
PHOEBE: Big Al sticks her head in my room. She has a worried look on her face.
SIMULATED BIG AL: Um, did Molly tell you she’s gay?
SIMULATED PHOEBE: Yeah, she did.
SIMULATED BIG AL: What do we do?
PHOEBE: I give her a sad look. I’m not really sure what to do. It feels like Molly’s hurling down a track to hell with no brakes on the train and there’s nothing Big Al or I or anyone can do to stop her and her gayness. A week later, Molly chops off her hair, I assume as some sort of gay statement. What a shame, I think.
PHOEBE: A few months later, I’m Tinder swiping on dudes:
SIMULATED TINDER GUY: Are you a pair of glasses?
SIMULATED PHOEBE: Uh, what?
SIMULATED TINDER GUY: ‘Cause I want you to sit on my face.
PHOEBE: Out of curiosity and disgust for men, I switch my settings to men and women, which quickly becomes just women.
PHOEBE: My encounter with Jessica. Aversion to boys. How I loved Sophia Bush and Hilarie Burton SO MUCH on One Tree Hill. The signs were there. Surprise.
[MUSIC CUTS OFF]
PHOEBE: I’m gay. When I came out, reactions were split. My friend Sam, a tatted chef on my cycling team, was entirely unphased:
PHOEBE AS SAM: Oh yeah, I’ve always known that. You wear Clarks. Those are lesbian boots.
PHOEBE: Other friends, mostly Christians, were caught by surprise. Sort of like they’d been duped into being a gay person’s friend. This transition from homophobic to baby gay was pretty confusing. I felt more complete than I’d ever felt before, like I found this missing part of myself, but I also felt ashamed of things I used to believed.
[CHURCH PEOPLE SINGING IN MANDARIN]
SIMULATED VOICE: We ask that you not let evil prevail in this world.
PHOEBE: I imagined what people were saying.
SIMULATED VOICE 1: Um, did Phoebe tell you she’s gay?
SIMULATED VOICE 2: Yeah, she did.
SIMULATED VOICE 1: What do we do?
SIMULATED VOICE 2: I don’t know.
SIMULATED VOICE 1: Oh! Pheebs!
SIMULATED VOICE 2: Poor Phoebe.
SIMULATED VOICE 1: She’s going to hell!
PHOEBE: What a shame.
PHOEBE: I knew people were talking, because I’d seen it happen with Molly. And I had been part of it. Slowly but surely, I backed away from my Christians friends, and they backed away from me. It felt like losing my family all over again.
Let your little light shine, shine shine.
PHOEBE: I have my first girlfriend. I have my first breakup. I decide I can’t reconcile gayness with how I interpret the Bible and leave the church. I move to New York a week after graduating. I have my second girlfriend. I have my second breakup. I make super gay art. My friends are subpar, but very supportive wing women at lesbian bars. I’m happy, I think.
Let your little light shine, shine shine.
There might be someone down in the valley trying to get home.
Well it may be me or it may be you.
It may be your brother or sister, too.
There might be someone down in the valley trying to get home.
PHOEBE: June 2016. Remote Pennsylvania, in a field, next to a church. I’m at a wedding reception for Elise, a friend from my college Bible study. I'm sitting with strangers, at the “not church-people table.” My Christian friends are seated together, at a long table on the other side of the tent. I watch from afar, as they pose for group photos. I haven’t seen them in over a year, and they sort of feel like strangers, too. My queer friend Jordan is also at the wedding, and we need a break. We walk to a nearby graveyard and plant our asses in the dirt, behind some old headstones.
[SINGING IN THE BACKGROUND]
PHOEBE: Ya know, just two queer kids hiding in a graveyard at a Christian wedding. I can hear my friends singing and contra dancing in the distance. Jordan smokes a cigarette, as I twirl a blade of grass around my fingers and rip it into tiny little pieces. Can I try? I ask. I’ve never had a cigarette before. He hands it over and I take a puff.
[SINGING IN THE BACKGROUND FADES OUT]
PHOEBE: December. It’s Saturday, and I’m doing what New Yorkers do on Saturdays. I’m eating vegan brunch with a friend who I’ve tried to hang out with but have not seen in a year due to scheduling conflicts.
PHOEBE: I met Bria at a Jesus conference a few years ago. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be around someone who thinks gayness is not okay, and I wonder if we’ll talk about it.
[BRUNCH SOUNDS CUT OFF]
PHOEBE: We do not talk about it. But I’m sick of pretending everything’s fine because it’s not, so I bring it up.
PHOEBE: “So…you still don’t think being gay is okay?” Bria’s face goes pale. “No…” she says finally. “Have you read the Eve Tushnet book?”
[BRUNCH SOUNDS FADE OUT]
PHOEBE: Eve Tushnet is a Catholic lesbian who wrote a book about choosing to be celibate. Christians love this book, Eve believes that god made some people straight and some people gay but that it’s not okay to act on your gay feelings and have sex. “I haven’t read it,” I say. After brunch, Bria walks me to the subway. “I don’t know how to be your friend,” I blurt out. “I don’t know how to be around you and not feel ashamed, and I don’t know what to do and I’m never going to be celibate.” Bria seems unsure whether to look away or watch me cry. I want to be friends, she says.
CARA: Hi i love you.
PHOEBE: Hi i love you too.
PHOEBE: It’s February and I’m on the phone with my girlfriend Cara. She’s pretty worried about me. Since the brunch incident, I’ve decided to figure out how Christians and gay people can be friends. It’s true that some Christians are okay with gayness, but I get the impression that my friends aren’t those kinds of Christians. I’m convinced that if I look hard enough, I’ll find a way for people with fundamentally different beliefs to get along. For months, I’ve been obsessively researching Christianity and gayness.
PASTOR 1: It’s a corruption, it’s a dysfunction.
PASTOR 2: Go and leave your life of sin.
PASTOR 3: Idolatry, homosexuality, slanderers, murderers, none of these people will inherit the kingdom of god.
PHOEBE: ...and I’ve started to have nightmares about going to hell. I’ve also read the book Bria recommended, by Eve Tushnet.
CARA: Do you think she’s crazy?
PHOEBE: Asks Cara. Cara thinks Eve is crazy for choosing to become Catholic and celibate after growing up happily gay.
PHOEBE: No. Well...
CARA: No I don’t mean like, I don’t mean crazy as in like, she seems very level headed and like reasonable and kind. Um. But I think she’s crazy. [LAUGHS]
PHOEBE: I start feeling really defensive.
PHOEBE: I think I don’t see it that way, because I believed it too. In a lot of ways I was her. You know? And so it almost feels like a self hatred if I’m like too opposed to her and then it also feel...
PHOEBE: It’s okay.
CARA: How were you her? She literally did the opposite thing that you did. She literally...
CARA: I had freedom and love and acceptance and I’m gonna fuck that up.
PHOEBE: Ah I don’t feel like you’re letting me explain.
CARA: Okay I’m sorry.
PHOEBE: No. I understand the headspace of knowing what you are and still suppressing those things, for the sake of your religion. For eternal glory, is what they used to say. I think one of the reasons why I’m doing this story is because I feel so alone in this position of being like trapped between worlds. Of having come from a world that a lot of people don’t understand. Somehow I need to like bridge those two things because then otherwise my history is just so confusing. Because cutting myself off from where I came from, makes me feel like, I’ve almost lost a part of myself? Or lost a part of my history which I don’t like...
PHOEBE: ...but it’s also the reality of my life.
PHOEBE: My therapist thinks I hold onto things I haven’t processed. “Have you grieved the loss of your friends?” She asks. I have not grieved because I’m not sure If I’ve lost them. Do we stop talking because I’m gay? Are we still friends? I realize that no amount of internet research will answer these question for me. I have to do the one thing I’ve been avoiding and just talk to my Christian friends. I imagine myself making them understand why they should accept gay people. That they’ll realize how much they hurt me and change their minds. That this was all a big misunderstanding and that actually, they’d be super happy to attend my future lesbian wedding. I feel really nervous. But, as my art TA Lydia said when I moved to New York, “Quit future trippin’. Straight ahead kid.”
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
TOBIN: Coming up...Phoebe works up the courage to confront her Christian friends.
KATHY: Nancy will be right back.
KATHY: We’re back with Phoebe Wang’s story, God + The Gays.
TOBIN: Here’s Phoebe.
PHOEBE: Thank you so much.
VOICE: Please enjoy your evening.
PHOEBE: San Francisco.
PHOEBE: Damn weedeater!
VOICE: Phoebe, can you hear me?
PHOEBE: Back to Philly.
PHOEBE: This is beautiful. You’re like a real life person.
PHOEBE: In some ways, it sort of feels like a family reunion.
VOICE: Hey! It’s so good to see you!
VOICE: Hello! So good to see you again!
VOICE: Is this on? I don’t know why you’re carrying a microphone around, but it’s really good to see you!
PHOEBE: My friends tell me first and foremost, that they love me.
PHOEBE VO: I love you, I care about you, but...I really love you, but...
FRIEND: I love you but we also don't think that like, this is the way that god intended um...sexual relationships to be.
PHOEBE: There’s always a but. When I ask hard questions, my friends struggle to find the right words.
FRIEND: Um, I think that…
FRIEND: I mean, I guess...
PHOEBE: I think they’re are scared to hurt me. Or scared of looking bad. Maybe both.
FRIEND: I want you to be happy, um but...
FRIEND: Yeah, how do I put this...um...
PHOEBE: I feel pretty frustrated. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but I know I won’t find it with diplomatic, bullshit answers. I start digging deeper.
FRIEND: I think that it’s not what god designed.
PHOEBE: And deeper.
FRIEND: If you’re gay, that’s a choice.
PHOEBE: And deeper. Almost egging people on because I need to hear the hurtful things that I’ve imagined them thinking but can’t confirm it unless they say it out loud to me.
FRIEND: Everyone is broken and sinful in some way.
PHOEBE: Do you think gay people should be celibate?
FRIEND: I wanna say yes. I mean I don’t feel good about saying yes.
FRIEND: We just disagree on what’s best for you. Like you are saying like what’s best for you is to be able to marry a woman and that you should be able to have like healthcare and adopt children. And so we’re gonna disagree but like I feel like Christians are thinking about...by having an opinion, like it’s cause we are thinking about what’s best for you and we just disagree that that’s what’s best for you. Like thinking about just what our decisions here have on where we spend eternity.
PHOEBE: I want to be really clear and say that these things have been really, really shitty to hear. But I’ve also been around hateful people before, people who are really disgusted by gayness. And my friends aren’t like that at all. When I left my family, my Christian friends took me in for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My friend Amy let me live with her and paint my room a hideous shade of red, because my dad never let me paint, and I wanted an accent wall. And when I was diagnosed with PTSD, the Church paid for my therapy. I’ve never seen a community take care of people like I saw in college. And I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again. It hurts a lot to hear my friends say that gay relationships are broken and sinful. But I’m not sure it’s fair to blame them for something they genuinely believe, and something I also believed not so long ago. I can also tell my friends really care about me, especially when I talk to Big Al.
PHOEBE: I don’t want to feel ashamed every time, you know, I tell someone about my relationship. It feels like I need to protect that part of me that’s like really special to me. How can I be friends with someone if such a significant part of my life, I don’t even want to share it with them?
BIG AL: Yeah, I hear that. I’m sorry that you were afraid to tell me about Cara. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a safe person to talk to.
[CAR DOOR OPENS]
MEGS: All right. You good?
PHOEBE: Yeah. Thanks Megs.
MEGS: Of course. I’m so happy to see you and...
PHOEBE: Yeah same. Thanks for talking.
MEGS: And—that’s fine—And hey, you’re doing all this stuff for a reason so don’t give up on it. You’re in this spot for like some other reason, bigger picture stuff. Right? So just keep doing it and try not to get down or let the devil come into you and say things.
MEG: Okay? Cause you’re so loved, you really are.
PHOEBE: All right. Thanks Megs.
MEG: You’re welcome.
PHOEBE: I love you.
MEG: I love you Phoebe. I’ll see you later.
PHOEBE: All right seeya.
PHOEBE: There’s one more person I want to interview.
JOHN: Who I am and where we are? Yeah, my name’s John and we are in a church.
PHOEBE: John was my college pastor. He’s got pale skin, blue eyes, and bright red hair. Up close, I notice that even his eyelashes are red, and have this whitish glow when the light hits them. Two years ago when I first came out, I had asked him how I could reconcile being gay with being a Christian. Today, I ask him to remind me of his position on the issue.
JOHN: I think pastorally I’m more interested in walking with you and loving you. But if you are asking me what the Church says about this, the Church would say a woman should not have sex with another woman. I would say then that that becomes an offering of self to God as part of our discipleship where we don’t have sex with who we’re attracted to. Or at all.
JOHN: I...I’ve wondered sometimes, Phoebe, when I...and I think I have to say, am I wrong? Am I wrong on this point? I look at this cost of following Jesus. And I say this is great cost. This is a huge cost to our gay brothers and sisters in Christ. But there are others in the world paying great costs as well. The difficulty of it has not given me reason to change my opinion.
PHOEBE: I’m so mad that I’m hearing this from someone who has fallen in love, had sex, and then made a baby. That he could suggest that I give up falling in love, having sex, and making a baby. All I’ve ever wanted is to have my own family. Are you serious? Do you wanna be celibate? Why don’t you give up your sex life and make an offering to God?
PHOEBE: Um...I feel bad almost saying this but like...it’s hard to hear from a straight married parent.
JOHN: Yeah. [DEEP BREATH]
PHOEBE: How do you feel...I’m curious how you feel hearing all this stuff?
JOHN: I…love always bears reality as it is. I think um…I don’t believe I have a hatred for gays and lesbians. I don’t. But the conversation, I feel it in my gut. What is that feeling in my gut? Is it fear? Yeah, it’s fear. And what is that, you know? You wanna just call it homophobia? I don’t know that it’s entirely different from it?
PHOEBE: What are you fearful of?
JOHN: Oh how it makes me feel. Maybe...oh gosh I don’t know how this sounds. But maybe part of my homophobia is having to have conversations like this one. And knowing that I don’t know how it feels, but that it has to be bad. And then I associate you with the feeling in my gut. You can see how this, when things, this is homophobia. I wonder what I must look like through your eyes, saying this uncomfortable thing to you. And so for that alone, if nothing else and I’m sure there’s more, I really can say I’m sorry.
PHOEBE: Towards the end of our conversation, I find myself at the same point I’ve reached in almost all of these interviews. A dead end. This impossible spot, where we’ve heard each other out, and we’ve cleared away everything but empathy in one hand, and our beliefs in the other. Where we stand just a little bit apart, with two options: step away, or ram our differences against each other in a futile and painful attempt to reconcile our competing interests.
PHOEBE: I don’t know, I’m curious what your hope is for me.
JOHN: I am so interested in trusting God with people. I think the best thing I can do is not try to argue anything into them [SNIFFLE], but to get very, very low like low as dust. And just plead with them. And say, “Do you know how much I love you? And do you know how welcome you are?” And, [SNIFFLE] that is always there.
PASTOR: Lord, I pray you have mercy for us, in all of our failings. I pray that we would be men and women of the faith. I pray that our faith will grow stronger. But that we would never think that you abandon us when our faith falters. Hear our prayer. Meet us at this meal we ask in Jesus name. Amen.
PHOEBE: I think maybe I’ve been trying to answer the wrong question this whole time. Maybe the question isn’t “can we stay friends,” but whether the cost of loving each other is worth it. I’ve realized that whether it’s between Christians or gay people and Christians or gay people and gay people, there’s just a cost to loving each other. I’ve been thinking about the cost for me, whether being friends with people who I feel shame around, people who are homophobic, is worth it. And then I wonder about the cost for them, whether it’d be so hard for my Christian friends to just accept who I want to love and F.
PHOEBE: Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
PHOEBE: It’s 2am, I’m at a gay bar sipping a whiskey ginger. I’m watching a drag show because I have been stood up and I intend to redeem the night. The queen is Pixie Aventura. She’s wearing a rainbow halter top dress with a little triangle of cloth hanging between her legs. Pixie looks straight down the aisle towards me at the back of the room. Her eyes lock with mine which peer through the crowd of sweaty drunk men. She’s singing “I’m A Survivor.” People wave dollars in the air. Pixie collects them as she sings and sashays up and down the aisle. It kind of reminds me of church except with more sequins and gay people. I wave a dollar for Pixie but she doesn’t see me. The guy next to me gives me an encouraging smile. He gestures at me to try again. Wave my dollar a little higher. This time she sees me. She reaches her hand out, takes the dollar, and sashays away.
ANNOUNCER: Please give it up for Pixie Aventura!
[CROWD CLAPS AND CHEERS]
Love is patient, love is kind. Never jealous, proud, or rude. Love does not demand its way, forgets the wrong that others do. Love is sad about injustice, but rejoices when the truth remains.
KATHY: This story was written and produced by Phoebe Wang, and edited by Kaitlin Prest. It originally aired on The Heart, a podcast from Radiotopia about intimacy and humanity. The story featured music by Joni Void.
TOBIN: The song “Let Your Little Light Shine” is by Pamela Warrick-Smith and was performed by Community Chorus, a resistance-themed choir led by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs in LA. And the song you're hearing right now is from a Christian conference Phoebe attended as a kid. It's called Love Never Fails.
KATHY: And that’s it for this week’s episode. We’ll see you next week.
If I didn’t love, how much would that be worth? Love is patient, love is kind. Never jealous, proud, or rude. Love does not demand its way, forgets the wrong that others do. Love is sad about injustice, but rejoices when the truth prevails. Love protects, just, oppose, perseveres. Love never fails...