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  • Writer's pictureAs Told To Veronica R. Wells

Coming Out To My Parents: The Pastor And First Lady (Part 1)

jalissa coffee

I was in private school until fifth grade. So for sixth grade, I went to public school. And all the girls were super boy crazy. It was right at that coming of age time where it was a big thing. And there was this one boy in my class who was obsessed with pulling out his male genitalia. And I just thought it was the grossest thing in the world. And no one was like ‘Oh my God’ super excited about it. But I was repulsed. He would always do it. I do vividly remember it being very much like no one ever saw. And no one ever told on him because he was the class clown and the cool kid. I think it was also because we protected each other a lot. Which is a whole valley I could go through about sexual assault and when it happens in Brown communities. Anyway, I knew then that it wasn’t the same.

And you know how a lot of people are ‘I was in love with my best friend.’ It wasn’t ever that. It was never that I was super attracted to women but I wasn’t attracted to men.

When I had my first girlfriend at fifteen was when I did feel the major desire to tell my parents. I chose my dad who, in hindsight, was probably the most odd person to tell because he’s a pastor. But based on who my parents are, my dad is definitely the more gentle of the two. I had witnessed years of my mom’s reaction to things just being super extreme. So I think the comfort seeker in me knew that although my dad was the more--and I don’t know if I could compare and say that one was more spiritual-- but his profession made him higher in terms of spirituality. I decided to tell him. So I told him at fifteen. I told him through email and we never really talked about it, like talked talked about it. I never told my mom until I was eighteen and he never told my mom.

He was like I got your email and he’s praying for me and he doesn’t believe that that’s how we’re created, essentially is what the message came down to. I do remember him telling me that he wasn’t going to tell my mother.

jalissa coffee

I don’t think I remember expecting a certain response. At that point, I didn’t expect to be kicked out of my home. But I do remember when I was getting ready to tell my mom--I had to come out to my mom twice. I told her in the middle of a mother-daughter-terrible-senior-year-of-high-school-fight. My mom and I, by this point--it was was terrible. So much so that my dad told us, that one of the three of us was going to have to go. It was sad, Veronica. We just--we’re so much alike. I’m the only girl and I have three older brothers. So she had raised three boys and then she gets this girl who is sassy--and I hate that word--but has all of this mouth. And is not afraid of anything that will just say what she feels, how she feels and if she doesn’t say it, she’ll write it in a letter. I had a smart comment for everything, I was always witty. Of course, attitude is a thing. It’s the ‘Who you talking to with that attitude?’ All of that that we get from our moms. And so when I told her, we were actually in the middle of a fight and I brought up a really, super painful part of her past as if to tell my dad, as if he didn’t know. My dad knew. I didn’t know that he knew but I said it in a way that I was trying to out her about this. It just turned into all of this ‘I told you we weren’t ever going to talk about that.’ And so, in all of that it was very much, ‘That’s why I’m a lesbian!’ type of thing. I don’t advise anyone to ever come out [like that.] It’s not helpful to anyone.

And she was said, ‘What?! No you’re not. You were not made to be that way. And that is wrong.’ And I don’t remember exactly what else she said but I do remember it was just not ok.

Even though I knew since I was 12 that I was gay, I still played it very close to what “inside the box” looked like. Church-wise I was still very active. I led the praise-dance ministry. I was doing great things like bringing all types of technology to the media ministry. I was doing all of the things that seemed like--you know, they were great. And my parents trusted me. I had a car and I was able to do all of these things because I was a very “responsible” child. There was never a lot of tension. I didn’t get grounded for the first time until I was 17. That was the first time and last time I’d ever been in trouble, other than typical child stuff. But as far as rebelling and being crazy and wild, that just wasn’t me.

The girl that I was dating, was still the same girl from when I was fifteen and told my dad. I think that my parents knew what was happening but they never said anything. But it was framed as ‘You can’t be around this person anymore.’ And there were many things around this, right? The relationship started when she was 22. It was illegal, first of all. But I knew that they didn’t feel at ease about it.

She went to my church and we became friends at first and then she had mentioned something about having dealt with women in the past and I was like ‘Well, I’ve had experience.’ And I hadn’t. It took me until like five years ago when one of my therapists said, ‘You know, that was rape?’ And I was like, ‘Ok, so we’re not going to like put it in that category.’ And I mean, yes, legally it was but I do not consider myself a victim of rape from that. But I totally understand why there is this age law for most things. So that’s how we met. And so we were able to mask it with a lot of church stuff. We were in the same ministries and again, because I was such a “responsible” person, I was around adults a lot. Nobody questioned it until it just became obvious that we were--I wasn’t hanging out with my own friends that I had been friends with forever. Like, I was always with her. So, towards the end of my senior year of high school my parents started kind of saying, ‘You can’t hang out with her.’

This was the person I got in trouble for [when I was 17]. Because she was from a town two hours from my house. And I told my parents that I was going to the movies with my best friend who lived 5 minutes from my house and I was actually driving to this town with her and my car broke down. Of course your car breaks down when you’re 97 miles away from home! So I had to tell my parents that I had gone out there. That was my first real dealing with trouble. So that’s when they started to raise red flags about how much time we were spending together. And then we had a lock in at church and I had to leave super early because I had a job. And I remember when I was leaving, I had to call my mom and say ‘I’m on my way home.’ And then our youth director had to confirm that I was still at the church and then I drove home and she was timing me to make sure that I was actually leaving to go home. So that was interesting. But still, my parents never really said-- my mom was still in denial. So they never said, ‘We know you’re sleeping with this girl. We know that there’s something not right. Like, stop.’ So instead of trying to change me, they tried to control my time with who they thought that I was in a relationship with.

So that’s when I went to college after that and got involved in Students Committed To Christ and there were several people who were very charismatic in the group. So I was like ‘Ooh.’ And I had always really been searching for a deep spirituality. And I felt like I found it, in many ways back home but I also didn’t feel like I could be as free because I was the pastor’s kid and everybody was always watching me. So it was like, I couldn’t really fully express--and it wasn’t just who I was by my sexuality--but I couldn’t fully express my spirituality because I felt so very judged. And I fell in love with these people and then I joined gospel choir and then I was in this Bible study group and it was very much like they didn’t believe in drinking, they didn’t believe in swearing, they didn’t believe in anything that I currently do. And so then I was like, ‘Oh, well maybe God really doesn’t like this.’ So I went back into the closet and told my mom that I figured out that I wasn’t really a lesbian but that I just like people and I have to figure out how to control this. So that left me being back in the closet but then I met Natalie*. And she was also in this group. She was one of the very first people that I met at Xavier. Then when we started talking and we were back and forth. ‘I can’t do this.’ I still was like, ‘I think actually I am gay.’ But she was not and then she was. So we went back and forth.

(Natalie’s parents were also ministers.) So her’s was familial but her’s was also in the way that she grew up. So I grew up, my church is United Church in Christ and although we didn’t really practice denominations, because when I was 15 and I started feeling these things, I started to look up what different churches and spiritualities believed. So I knew that our denomination that we technically belonged to was an open and affirming denomination. And I actually said that to my dad. And he was like JaLissa, you are absolutely out of your mind.’ But her parents were very-- she only wore skirts for years of her life, like Pentecostal.

VW: When did you come to the decision that you weren’t going to fight yourself anymore?

At this point, I wasn’t ready to come back out to my family because I knew full well that Xavier cost way too much money. And at this point, I was aware that it was a wrap. I knew that I would be cut off if I came out. So my junior year, I decided that I couldn’t do the back and forth with the God thing. Which meant that if she [Natalie] wasn’t all in then we just couldn’t be.I was dating other people but she came around that same school year and said, ‘This is who I am.’ It was a lot for her though because then she could drink now, she could swear now. She let go. She was letting go of all of that.

Jalissa coffee

[When I was going back and forth] I was fasting like crazy. Because my mother told me-- and I know this is not exactly what the scripture says but ‘there are some of these things that only come out by fasting.’ You can’t just stop. You have to actively work to not be gay. So I was fasting all.the.time. I was doing different-- it was almost like a fad diet. You know how people go from diet to diet to diet. I would do a juice fast. Then I would do an everything fast. And I was like, ‘one of these things has got to work.’ I was doing all the fasts.

And so for a while there, I was like ‘God just doesn’t-- He just doesn’t hear me.’ The first thing was ‘I am so far from God that even fasting and praying does not allow me to get closer to God.’ And then it was ‘Maybe I am not of God.’ I started questioning Christianity and spirituality in general. ‘Well, if I can’t get rid of this then the spirituality thing is not me.’ I never converted. But I did start thinking, ‘Maybe I should look into a different religion. Because if the Bible says that you can fast and pray certain things out and I’ve been fasting and praying this one thing and it’s not going anywhere, then what does this say about me?’

And I also was conflicted because, being a part of gospel choir, I could very much feel the presence of God at different times, when we were singing, and I could just... I could go in. I could dance and still feel very much in but this was still there. So I didn’t understand how it could be two things. Like how I could feel this but still feel this?

That message [that I was ok as I am] didn’t really didn’t come until after I graduated and moved to Oklahoma and was attending an open and affirming church. Because again, I was still very much in search of spirituality. I was in search of a place where I could be my spiritual being and my sexual being. And so I could go to this church and I was around same sex couples and in church and it didn’t feel fake. It felt like church. It felt real. I would never go back to this church because it was so country, it was so White and there was--it was one of those churches where old, stereotypical White ladies all had Black babies. Adopted all the Black kids. And so it didn’t fit as far as the racial demographic. I was like ‘Eh not my place.’ But as far as what they were feeding and how I was welcomed, I was like ‘Oh ok. This is it.’ So I guess that would be my revelation was just being in a place where I felt all of me just come together.

I came back out to my mom a few days after my birthday. And it was because my brother and his wife were in a very bad place and they were talking about separating and I, through email--I’m at work. (There’s a theme here.) My mom and I were just going back and forth and I was wrote, ‘It really frustrates me when people are arguing about the sanctity of marriage and people like me can’t get married but straight people can just throw away marriages.’ And she was like, ‘What? What do you mean people like you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah Natalie and I are actually together and we’ve been talking about being married.’ So mind you, during college my mom sat Natalie and I both down because she knew that something was going on. And she said, ‘If y’all are sleeping together in my house, you both need to get out.’ And of course we denied it because again, tuition is real.

So now, she’s like ‘Well, I asked you recently and you said no.’ And yadda yadda. So that was pretty much that. And a month later, six weeks later, I got engaged. So got engaged and I didn’t tell them that same day. But I clearly had on an engagement ring and I was in Ohio because it was Christmas time. So they didn’t really say much and before I went back to Oklahoma, I don’t remember how I told them or how it came up, but it did come up. And they were, first of all, like, ‘Well, I’m disappointed because it’s been several days and you’re just now telling me.’ And then they pretty much said this isn’t who I was made to be. My mom was a weeping hot mess and she went into the whole she’s praying for me and she hopes that God changes me and until then she doesn’t really have much to offer me, basically.

And so we initially chose a super long engagement because it was my hope that we would all figure out how to make this work. We started premarital counseling and it was with the pastor that was going to marry us. She was a pastor of an open and affirming church. So my parents wanted to have this sit down with me, Natalie, and her parents. They wanted to talk about this and figure out, basically, how to make this not happen. [Natalie’s] mom was ok. Her dad-- they just never had a good relationship anyway. And so he didn’t really ever say anything about it. He just stopped talking to her. But it wasn’t ever a fight. I could still stay there [at her parent’s place] but, at this point, she was no longer welcome in my parents’ home.

So we ended up, at some point, during this time of engagement, sitting down with my parents and I had created this statement. And it was very much, ‘This is what’s happening. I really hope that you’ll support me; but even if you don’t, it’s still happening.’

And that was pretty much it. It was a...that was a tie that was severed severely. And I remember, actually, the conversation happened an hour or two after I found my wedding dress. And so I was like, ‘This is supposed to be one of the happiest days and my mom should have been there.’ And I was telling them a list and they were very much like we don’t care. ‘You’re choosing this. This is a choice that you’re making. You’re choosing to be with her. You’re choosing to be gay and you’re choosing to now go against anything we’ve ever taught you about who you are.’

And so, we still had probably 9 months before we were going to get married. We had a date. I invited my parents. They never engaged in anything. Again, I was living in Oklahoma and someone else that I got really close to there, offered to throw me a shower. She invited my mom. My mom never responded. It was just very much like all of these things weren’t going on. I didn’t get responses. And I knew that they were getting stuff. And it was hard.

For Christmas and all those holidays, I would come home and my mom would just cry like the whole time. Before I left, she would say, I’m still praying for you. It was still a ‘we’re not okay with this’ the whole time.

jalissa coffee

I didn’t feel like I thought I should have felt [on my wedding day.] It was happy in many ways but it was still a very heavy day. And as I look back at pictures you could just see a lot of sadness in my eyes. And a few days before my wedding my mom sent me this letter in the mail and she told me that-- there was some saying or some quote about how you can sometimes let people that you love pull you over the cliff. And the ending was like, ‘I refuse to let you pull me over cliff anymore. I’m letting go.’ Like, I was basically about to be the end of her. And instead of letting that happen to her, she was letting me go. And this was like a week before I was supposed to get married.

I had a lot of anxiety about it. So much so that my best friend took my phone the night before and that day because-- I don’t remember who it was, I want to say it was one of my cousins text me and said something like, ‘I love you. Although I’m not there and I don’t really agree, I know you’re gonna have a great day.’ And then she put a joke in there, ‘I’m so jealous that you’re making it down the aisle before me.’ It didn’t feel tense. It didn’t feel bad. I could still tell she was sending her love and well wishes. But I was nervous about what else was coming. So my maid of honor took my phone, ‘I’m just going to take this with me.’ I still, to this day, do not know if any negative thing came through because by the time I got my phone back, it wasn’t there.

That day we had people around us all day that just really poured love into us. My godparents were there and my godsister and her wife were there. And Natalie’s mom was there. So we did have some familial representation. My oldest brother was supposed to be in the wedding and he came but he did not end up being in the wedding. Still don’t know why. Still not sure. It felt a little dark but it still was exciting. It was like ‘I’m getting married.’

Now, I did have other feelings that have surfaced like what I’m realizing now that I’m divorced. Like, 'Maybe that’s what it actually was.’ There were some things that just didn’t feel right about our relationship. But I didn’t really know what else to do. I felt like I was making this decision because this is what happens after you’ve dated for someone for three/ four years. And I never really had a sounding board of my parents or even older people in my family that had gone through some of these things that would tell me that this kind of relationship isn’t normal. Not because I was gay but because it was abusive as hell and it was toxic. And it was just all of these things that nobody told me because they weren’t able to look past the fact that I was with a woman and to understand that I was being physically and emotionally abused and I was being cheated on and all of these other things that were so painful but nobody was willing to engage in because they couldn’t get over the fact that I was a lesbian.

Come back tomorrow for part 2.

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