On Being Gay and Christian

By Carol Stenger
South Carolina State Coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign

"You are not a Christian." Those words seemed to echo in my head for months.
It was a conversation I had one day with the assistant director of my son's
day care. It was a conversation that angered me to the point of action and I
haven't looked back since.

Like any parents, when Michael was a baby, Sonya and I looked into several
day cares in the area and chose this particular day care because of the way
it was presented to us. We were told it was a "nondenominational Christian
day care that celebrated diversity." How perfect is that? We went to look
at the school and really liked what we saw. We saw children of all races and
ethnic backgrounds. They didn't just baby-sit children at this school. They
had art activities, pre-K activities with the alphabet and numbers and
colors, even Spanish (unusual for a day care in South Carolina). The
teachers were kind and loving from what we saw in the interview. Most of the
teachers were from African Methodist Episcopal Churches. They said prayers
every day, prayers that were different from what we were accustomed to, but
we welcomed the learning experience for us as well as our son. We felt we
had made a good decision in placing Michael in this school. However, we made
one grave mistake. We did not come out to the school. We felt it was best,
since he was just a baby and could not communicate with us yet, that we
present me as the single mom with "my angel of a roommate" who helped in
raising Michael. That way, we would ensure that if someone did not like our
relationship, they couldn't take it out on him. Wow, did that backfire!

When Michael was 2, he started calling me "Mommy" and he called Sonya "Mom."
We worried that he may get hurt for calling us that and thought about
correcting him. Then we realized that it was a wonderful thing that he was
acknowledging that he had two parents and making the distinction that Sonya
was not just Sonya but his Mom. So we left him alone and didn't encourage
him or discourage him. When Michael turned 3, he called us only by "Mommy"
and "Mom" and evidently, unbeknownst to us, this just did not go over very
well with his day care teachers.

We had started to notice some behavior problems but didn't think much of
them until one day when Sonya picked Michael up from day care, he told her,
"I hate you and I want you to leave." This was anything but normal. Since
Michael was 1 year old, he has been Sonya's sidekick. They are truly
inseparable. Michael is more like Sonya than he will ever be like me.
Michael was the apple of Sonya's eye and he worshipped the ground she walked
on. When she tried to talk to him about this, he started kicking, screaming
and crying. Needless to say, Sonya was heartbroken. She dropped him off at
home with me, explained briefly what had happened and went for a drive.
Michael just looked at me and very calmly told me that he had asked Sonya to
leave but wouldn't tell me why. I finally got it out of him that he had
mentioned his "Mom" and "Mommy" to his teachers at school and his teachers
had told him he was wrong. He "could not have two mothers and everybody has
one mother and one father." Two of his teachers then proceeded to tell him
that he had a father, but his father simply wasn't there. These teachers
told him, at the tender age of 3, the biological process of having children
and read from the Bible to him "the God-spoken truth."

By this time, Sonya had come home and I explained to her what had happened.
Now, not only was she hurt, she was angry. We had always told him, "listen
to your teachers" and "when you are in school, you do what they say, just
like Mom and Mommy at home." Now what were we to tell our son? We went
against everything we had previously told him and tried to explain to him
that not all teachers were right and that sometimes they could be terribly
wrong. I went to the school that afternoon and withdrew him as well as
having a nice little discussion about Christianity and diversity with the
school's assistant director. She argued adamantly that it was impossible to
have two mothers and that everybody has a father. I asked her if there were
any divorced, remarried, widowed or single parents at the day care. She
denied that there were any. I find that hard to believe. She repeated the
conversation almost word for word that my son had already told me about. She
told me that she spoke to him the "God-spoken truth" and that I was not a
Christian. I informed her that our views on what constituted a "Christian"
were very different and she did agree about that. I found out six months
later there was another family of two mommies at that day care that we had
known nothing about. They left the school, as well.

Since then, my partner and I have spent a lot of time talking about
organized religion and what does and does not constitute a "Christian"
person or family. It has something that has become a bit of a thorn in the
side of our family. Although we do not attend a church or claim an organized
religion, Sonya and I consider our home to be a loving, Christian home in
which we raise our son. We have tried and tried to find a church that will
accept us as a family here in our area. We have found several that have told
us we were welcome to attend but that they would openly state that
homosexuality was a sin. How could we attend a church that taught our son
that we were sinners? So now we have stopped looking. However, I still
believe that we raise our son in a Christian home.

Sonya and I were both raised in different faiths with one common belief. We
were taught to believe that God is a loving God. God does not hate or
condemn anyone. Today, we carry with us the beliefs that were taught to us
more through our families with some help from the church. In our beliefs,
the word Christian would be defined as someone who is kind and giving to
others, as someone who is willing to help a friend or even a stranger in a
time of need. A Christian treats all people equally and does not judge
others for being different, but instead embraces and learns from diversity.
These are the beliefs that we teach our son.

Fortunately, a friend told us about a new day care about a half-hour away,
closer to Myrtle Beach. Myrtle Beach is a transient area and has a much more
diverse group of residents. She told us that the director of Hunters Ridge
was white, married to an African-American man. Here in South Carolina, a
biracial relationship faces much of the same prejudice as we do. We went
straight there and asked for the director. We ran in so quick, we probably
came close to knocking her over when we met her. With desperation in my
voice, I asked for Heidi Arnold, the director of the day care. When she came
up, "I am told that you understand discrimination?" was the first thing I
said to her. She smiled and said," Yes, I do. How can I help you?" We told
her about our family and what our values were. As we told Heidi the story of
what had just happened to Michael her mouth dropped in disbelief, and I knew
we were in the right place. I believe I probably gave her a speech at that
time. She just kept smiling and said, "We would love to have your family
here." "Your family," that was so nice to hear. She welcomed us with open
arms and assured me that her teachers would, as well.

Michael started school there with a bang. He was so angry at the world,
especially at adults, he colored on walls, spit at teachers, screamed,
kicked, all of these things that were not habits of our son. We worried so
much that he would never return to the way he once was. All it took was love
and strong limits. His amazing new day care did just that. Heidi and his
teacher, Lanie Masburn, loved him until he couldn't hate anymore. They set
limits that he could not cross and he spent many days in "time out" for
crossing those limits. However, he was always assured that he was loved and
praised for doing well. Most importantly for Michael, they consistently and
to this day recognized us as a family and related to him that his family was
OK. Within a year, our loving son returned. I hope that he will never
remember his fourth year of life. I know we will never forget.

I am sure you are asking why didn't we just move to another state, maybe one
not so conservative. Well, that was my first reaction. It was also an
ongoing argument between Sonya and me. However, Sonya's grandparents gave
the land we live on to Sonya. We live on what used to be a working tobacco
farm. We have 20 acres of beautiful land with three beautiful horses.
Sonya's grandmother and mother both own houses on the property and are very
supportive of our family. My parents, also supportive, are within an hour's
drive. All of these things I have grown to love as much as Sonya has.
Instead of leaving, we made a decision to try to make a difference in South
Carolina.

The more we learned and continue to learn about our lack of rights the more
we got involved. My partner and I started giving speeches at Coastal
Carolina University, educating the students on our family, volunteering for
the Human Rights Campaign and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and
Gays. I am now an HRC state coordinator, guardian ad litem for the Horry
County Family Court and just began working with a new group entitled the
South Carolina Equality Coalition. I am also pursuing a degree in political
science at Coastal Carolina University.

We are eternally grateful for the love and support we have received from
Heidi Arnold and her staff at Hunters Ridge. Without them, I don't know how
we would have made it through that fourth year of Michael's life. However, I
can honestly also thank the assistant director of his first day care for
opening my eyes and pushing me into action. She has pushed me to make a
difference here in South Carolina and the United States through education
and legislation.

This article originally appeared on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's
FamilyNet: the most comprehensive and up-to-date website covering
relationships, parenting and home life for gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender people and their families. Visit HRC FamilyNet at
www.hrc.org/familynet.

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