Dichotomies are all around us: poverty and wealth, love and hate, good and evil, body and soul, material and immaterial. Sometimes they have no resolution. Other times they find ways to co-exist and harmonize as they do in nature—the yin yang of all things.
In fiction as in life, the dichotomy is the author’s go-to literary tool for creating conflict and tension—characters divided by opposing values, beliefs, cultures. The dichotomy can also be a single character made up of contradictory parts: a protagonist, say, whose conflicting feelings and behavior cause a Jekyll and Hyde type of inner turmoil. Like the shape shifter who loathes her animal self, the ice queen who fears intimacy but finds herself falling in love, or…oh, I don’t know…how about a lesbian Christian?
I bring up the religious dichotomy because of my upcoming novel, Coyote Blues. There are two single-character dichotomies. The main is a psychotherapist-werewolf (werecoyote, to be exact) who meets the one true love she hasn’t seen in twenty years—an evangelical preacher’s daughter who, now married to an abusive narcissist, shows up for therapy with her young child. It seemed like a good plot when I wrote it, but while editing the manuscript I started second-guessing myself. Will a psychotherapist-werewolf appeal to readers? Sure. Why not? Everybody loves a furry protagonist. But a lesbian Christian? Has that become an oxymoron—a dichotomy without resolution? Are we allowed to even talk about it?
Unlike our Generation Y sisters, those of us who came out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s faced a world of social, political and religious dichotomies. Back then, everything about being gay was dichotomous with everything else. The things we wanted, which were pretty much the same as our straight counterparts—to be accepted, fall in love, marry, make a family, and go to heaven when we die—were biblically untenable. The message was clear: you can’t be gay and be married; you can’t be gay and parent a child; you can’t be a lesbian and go to heaven. Either deny your nature, live a miserable lie and pray for salvation, or embrace your authentic (gay) self and go to hell. Either/or. You can’t be this and that. Pick one.
For me, the religious dichotomy was the worst. I mean, what do you do when you’re raised in a religion that condemns homosexuals and suddenly realize you are a condemnation? However slowly, at least cultures progress, societies evolve, laws eventually change, but the religious dichotomy appears to remain in full effect. There is no resolution, only promised punishment for all eternity—think burn victim in a cosmic internment camp where there is no water and the fire never goes out.
Yikes! No wonder we all ran in terror from the church. But beneath the fear lingered the horrible hurt of being ousted, unfairly damned for being born this way. For people without religious convictions, renouncing the church was easy, but for those of us with spiritual inclinations, the only way to reconcile the conflict was to replace God with the soul-soothing notion of a benevolent goddess or, better yet, an impersonal higher power that has absolutely no opinion on the subject of sexual orientation.
I was raised in an evangelical church. My grandfather was the pastor. My father was expected to enter the ministry, but instead became an art director. Working in advertising and television was considered a worldly and sinful occupation, and my grandfather never did approve of him. For me, growing up was like living on the set of Mad Men Monday through Friday, then sneaking over to the Jimmy Swaggart show on Sundays. In retrospect, I suppose my dad, who considered himself a good Christian and a good Mad Man, was himself a single-character dichotomy, which is probably why my parents were accepting when I came out. Of course, I was asked to keep my sexuality on the down-low lest the congregation find out that the minister’s granddaughter was an abomination. Eventually, disdain for the self-righteous, coupled with no small amount of shame (I always say it’s the most underrated emotion), steered me away from the church, as it did most of my interfaith sisters in the gay community. And for a long, long time, it seemed the topic of organized religion was taboo, unless it was raised within the safe confines of Provincetown comedy clubs where we listened to Kate Clinton’s hilarious musings on Catholicism and collectively laughed away our bitterness (a wonderfully cathartic release).
But is a serious conversation about religion still taboo? Sitting at my computer, I started to think I’d made a mistake writing a lesbian character who, no matter how edgy, likeable, and attractive, believes in Jesus. Not that my novel is about religion—it’s a werewolf romance with a murderous plot—but still, would such a character be a big turnoff, big enough to make readers cringe? Or would they respond with a tired been-there-done-that yawn, unaffected by a subject that’s lost its relevance to modern-day lesbians? And, you know, if there’s one thing writers need to do, it’s to stay relevant.
“Step away from the manuscript,” said my partner, who knows when to shake me from wasteful literary perseverations. “Come watch the new L Word.” We had three recorded episodes waiting for the holiday rush to be over and a houseful of guests to leave.
Watching the show couldn’t have come at a better time. One of the new characters, Finley, has an affair with a woman who turns out to be a priest. She’s mortified but also curious because she’s falling for the woman. She decides to attend a service. But you know we women never like doing anything alone. A co-worker accompanies her, and when they get to the church Finley freaks out. “I can’t go in there—I’ll burn up!”
The idea of holy water having the same effect on lesbians that it has on vampires and other evil entities provides a moment of comic relief, but we realize Finley is only half-joking. Maybe not joking at all. Raised in the Catholic church, she apparently hasn’t stepped foot in one since she came out and fell from grace. Sometimes, no matter how thick-skinned and emotionally armored we think we’ve become, unresolved issues have a way of stabbing us in the gut. Finley sits in a pew and begins to cry. Cries for the Christian she once was, for the church that shamed her, the family who rejected her—cries in grief, perhaps, over the part of her identity she lost when she identified as gay.
I didn’t care for the minister much. I mean, we can’t choose who we are, but we can choose how we are, so the idea of any minister, straight or gay, engaging in casual sex without having an emotional or spiritual connection to their partner doesn’t agree with me. But whatever. The point is that the L Word has broached the subject of organized religion.
The next morning, I received a fortuitous post-New Year’s call from an old friend and colleague I hadn’t heard from in months. Her and her wife’s son is getting married, and she wanted to give me a heads-up on invitations being mailed. The wedding will be at a Presbyterian church they recently joined in New York’s Westchester County. You’ll enjoy the ceremony,” she said. “Our pastor is a lesbian with a wife.”
I was shocked. “Is the congregation straight?” I asked.
“Not entirely. Lots of gay families are attending. Now that we’re allowed to marry and have children, I think many of us are returning to our roots and to the church. Maybe out of nostalgia…a desire to share our own childhood traditions with our children. Or maybe in this crazy world they want to provide their kids with spiritual enrichment, give them something to believe in. Who knows? Maybe it’s the parents needing to believe in something again.”
I’d always heard that among Protestant denominations, Presbyterians have been criticized for being too liberal, but that this church not only welcomes gay people but actually condones homosexuality? I’m looking forward to the service, to attending church without having to worry about shopping for a fire-retardant pantsuit (they’re awfully stiff and unstylish and don’t come in color choices). I’m thinking the experience will help heal old wounds, harmonize my contradictory parts.
Between the show and that phone call, I’ve returned to editing with renewed self-assuredness. After too long a silence, maybe we really are ready to revisit and resolve the religious dichotomy—on the L Word, in conversation, and in novels. If a werewolf can harmonize her human and animal selves, then a woman of faith can harmonize her this-way and that-way parts. One day we might discover that the religious dichotomy was a false one all along, nothing more than a patriarchal control tactic used to—oh, never mind. That’s another discussion. For now, I’m just happy to think my character will be well received, and that she is, after all, timely and relevant.
This essay first appeared as a member spotlight in the February 2020 member newsletter of the Golden Crown Literary Society.