Content Warning: This article discusses instances of homophobia and mental health issues in a way that could be distressing to some readers.
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My mum didn’t grow up religious. She prides herself in being a child of the 60s: a self-proclaimed hippie who protested for women's rights and enjoyed making canoes from scratch. My dad, on the other hand, was born in 1950 in a strict Catholic household, where no one dared to question the religion.
I’m one of four children from my parents' marriage, the second eldest. When the kids came along, I don’t think Dad had stepped foot in a church for decades. But when the time came for us to start school, Dad insisted we attend a Catholic one.
Although Mum didn’t see the point, she went to meet the priest at the local Catholic Church. Somehow she was convinced by his argument and it was decided that we’d all be baptised, her included. It was our first duty to the patriarchal institution that would eventually lead to many years of grief, judgement and abandonment, painfully clouding my family's ability to see me as their daughter, sister, aunty and best friend.
Our family moved to Nambour (which my siblings and I jokingly referred to as ‘Nam-hole' as kids). It's a small, poor, rural town on the train line, with every social service office possible. We had a public pool that was mostly filled with floating bandaids, and a skate park that wasn’t too bad when you visited in broad daylight (and kicked the needles out of the way). Nambour really peaked when we got a McDonald's, where all four of us kids would begin work at exactly 14 years and nine months.
Life in Nambour was simple and uneventful. My Catholic school was small, and it was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone. My parents were passionate about community services and would drag us into volunteering, fundraising and even performing in the street parades at the annual sugarcane festival.
I don’t recall ever seeing a single gay person, couple, or any sign of queer existence in my hometown. Growing up, I was the quintessential tomboy. I loved to skateboard, make tree swings, play tackle football and mow the lawn. I recall playing with the boys in the streets around the age of 12 one summer and being told to put a shirt on. This made me aware of my growing chest and the looks it attracted from the boys.
In high school, I began to notice a few hints of queerness here and there. The girls in my grade would kiss to impress the boys and I experienced a very passionate and emotional response to my female year 12 buddy graduating. Looking back now, I think it could have been my first heartbreak.
I moved away from Nambour for the last two years of school to pursue long-distance running. Although I was happy to finally get out, I missed my family terribly. I often felt homesick, and my parents would come and pick me up for a weekend of quality time with my siblings. I dated a handful of boys but they never really interested me.
But when I was 17, I moved back to Nambour. It was a relief to be home but also a confusing time. I’d been away from my friends for two years, and my life had been mostly consumed by my dedication to competitive high school sports that were no longer a part of my day-to-day life. I felt lost.
Mum picked up on my melancholy and invited me to a meeting with a friend of hers, a chaplain at a local high school. She was full of energy and confidence and made me laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself singing, dancing and praising the Lord at the front row of my Charismatic Catholic Youth Group. Trust me, I NEVER thought I’d end up here — I hated dancing.
One ‘slain in the spirit’ led to ‘speaking in tongues’, and eventually, I was signing up to devote my 18th year to the Catholic Church. To travel around Australia sharing my ‘testimony’ of how Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.
By the age of 20, I was excelling in my role as a ‘good Catholic girl’ and was appointed school chaplain at a large Catholic high school. I designed liturgies, ran spiritual camps, and in my spare time, I visited nunneries for silent retreats, read books about the lives of the saints and prayed for an hour a day, never missing Saturday reconciliation or Sunday Mass.
I continued to attempt to date men but to no avail.
By this stage, I had moved into a share house. One weekend at a house party, I’d had a few drinks and suddenly found myself kissing my female ‘best friend’. It was electrifying and though I wasn't conscious of it at the time, it was clearly something I had been longing to do. It soon became something we did when we were drunk (which we were, often) and it eventually evolved into a secret relationship.
I was still convinced that I wasn't gay and couldn’t possibly imagine what that life could be like. I also didn't have any examples of same-sex couples in my periphery to look to. I attended confession every weekend to atone for my sins of ‘lusting after and kissing a girl'. The pain of hiding the part of me that felt so natural was excruciating. But I still could not imagine myself being ‘out'; it was unthinkable. Impossible.
"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."- Leviticus 20:13
Within weeks of coming out to my friends and family, my entire life fell to pieces.
Two years into my covert relationship, I returned one day from a holiday to find my best friend in a relationship with a man. I was devastated and heartbroken.
That sad girl summer, I was on leave from my role as the chaplain and encountered a new group of friends. They were open-minded and sexually free women — and also dangerous 'non-believers’. I threw myself into a holiday crush with a magical and openly queer woman. For the first time in my life, I felt at home in my body, heart and myself. I knew this is who I am: I'm gay!
Not long after my sapphic summer, I found myself on the verge of my first lesbian relationship with another powerful, sexual and embodied woman who had no religious beliefs. I was still a chaplain at this point and though I was no longer hiding my relationship with women, I kept it quiet at my workplace because I knew it wouldn’t be tolerated. I was living a double life. It was exhausting, and my partner encouraged me to come out.
I was terrified but excited to finally own who I was. Surely it couldn’t be that bad? My family and friends were all from a church that preached unconditional love. I still loved God and my job as a chaplain — I had just happened to have fallen in love with a woman. I was still me.
But it turns out, it could be that bad.
Within weeks of coming out to my friends and family, my entire life fell to pieces.
I was asked to leave my job at the Catholic school if I wasn’t willing to conceal my sexuality.
For the next four years, my family and I would become estranged, unable to reconcile our contrasting beliefs. I was excluded from family gatherings and stood down from my role as the maid of honour at my sister's wedding. I was exiled from special occasions, celebrating the births of my nieces and nephews and making memories with the people that I loved.
I received emails from people in the church telling me that ‘this isn’t what God wants’ for me.
The list goes on but you get the point.
My job, family, friends, faith and confidence were gone.
It took me a long time to undo the shame, guilt and self-betrayal that I had punished myself with because I thought it was what God required me to do.
I spent four years grappling with my inner demons as a result of the years of indoctrination. At times, I questioned whether perhaps they were right, and the devil had won my soul.
A therapist helped me to process the grief and compared the pain to what it would be like if I were to lose my entire family in a car accident. As I came to terms with the immense loss, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who never questioned my openly gay relationship, including my two elderly grandmothers.
If it weren’t for those people, I could never have fathomed living my life as an out and proud queer woman. It took me a long time to undo the shame, guilt and self-betrayal that I had punished myself with because I thought it was what God required me to do.
But my journey of loss, heartbreak and self-denial has led me to who I am today: an incredibly proud queer woman, in an openly loving relationship with the woman of my dreams.
It’s hard to explain, although there are so many ex-Christians I’ve met over the years who understand it all too well: the damage done to a soul that is cut off from its intuitive inner wisdom and sense of self at such a young age. The cruelty of being told I was wrong, an abomination, shameful and sinful at times endangered my mental health and ability to function in the world.
For me, coming out was a long and at times lonely road. But my journey of loss, heartbreak and self-denial has led me to who I am today: an incredibly proud queer woman, in an openly loving relationship with the woman of my dreams.
I’ve danced on the streets of Sydney in Mardi Gras parades, hosted business panels advocating for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in the workplace, thrown a Pride party in my hometown Nam-Hole and will proudly post hot pictures of my girlfriend all over the internet without fear of retribution.
After four long years in exile, the prodigal daughter returned home (that’s a bible reference for any Christian readers). My family and I were able to make amends because the pain of not being in each other's lives was unbearable. I even took my lover home for Christmas last year, which was one of the proudest moments of my life. For the first time, I could be totally myself with my family and them with me. We found a way to see each other as human beings and love each other for who we are. Mum has become an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ students at the Catholic school she works at, and Dad helped to organise the Mardi Gras party in Nambour, the town he loves and I’ve finally become fond of.
We are an example of what is possible beyond the hurt, pain and confusion when overcoming our differences. I can’t say that coming out will be easy for everyone, though I truly hope that it is. All I can honestly say is that for me, it was worth it.
Pride is our Christmas, New Year's and every damn celebration in the calendar wrapped into one. The sense of community is contagious; the gays take over the streets in the most glitter-filled way; and the city is pulsing with queer love and joy.
There is room for you here, and while your own family may take some time to accept and understand you, the queer community will always be here to love you and celebrate you for all that you are, whatever that might be.
Kaylene is an author, business coach, podcast host, creator and speaker. You can follow her on Instagram @kaylene.langford.
If you’re in Sydney and want to celebrate your queerness this World Pride, the BWYASSS House of Pride is the perfect place to do it. The immersive experience is being curated by comedy duo Two Queers and will see creatives from the LGBTQIA+ community come together to commemorate queer folk. For a chance to win a free double pass, all you need to do is tell BWS what part of your queer identity you're most proud of.