Published on June 24th, 2015 | by Nick Stillman1
Praying the gay away
In the summer of 2005 I was a prayer warrior. It wasn’t an official title, as there’s no certification for that sort of thing, but that was the grand, romantic image I had of myself. I was a thirteen-year-old new Christian with a capital C and lower-case t across my chest.
I prayed for everything. Through the power of prayer I made zits disappear, grass stains miraculously leave knees of favorite jeans, and cars transport family without suffering spontaneous explosion. I was a great and powerful pray-er. New Christians, I think, are always excited that they have new, heaven-endowed super powers. Not one person in my entire social circle had even been stricken by plague.
I was a golden child from a conservative, God-fearing family. The type of family that would watch the news and comment, “I can’t stand this. You know, invading Iraq was an underrated idea.” God and every possible advantage in life were on my side.
What followed was to be the most difficult summer of my life. And my status as Prayer Warrior would be put to the ultimate test: my sister’s sexuality.
Our family had recently been split apart by my parent’s fractured marriage and their slow attempts to rebuild. My sister, mother, and I lived in a tiny apartment, alone for the first time. Things were difficult. Perhaps that’s why I turned to God. God seemed very stable and, from what I knew, fair. Things didn’t feel fair or stable, but they had to be. Because God was fair and he was responsible for everything that happened, good or bad, in every phase of life.
One night, as I disengaged from the computer well after my bed time, I heard my sister call my name.
“Hey, Nick? Could you come in here?”
I stopped, frustrated as I was on my way to perform my nightly ritual of prayer and masturbation. (I would read the Bible, masturbate, repent, masturbate, and read the Bible until I passed out. I wasn’t making any connection between Bible-reading and self-abuse as far as I knew, but it was a comforting ritual of piety, self-abuse, self-hatred, and finally back to piety.)
I went to her door. My sister was two years older than me, and we rarely talked. I couldn’t recall ever setting foot in her bedroom. Despite my bookmarked New Testament and bottle of lotion waiting for me, I acquiesced. Because that’s what good Christians did. And I knew something had gone terribly wrong if I was being summoned.
I found her sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her head was down so all I could see was the pale line of her scalp and the tanned shoulders around her tank top.
“Would you pray for me?” she looked at me with a half-smile. Half of her mouth was attempting a smile while the other trembled. It was a terrifyingly vulnerable expression.
“Of course,” I said, kneeling across from her. I felt nervous. My sister had never committed to Christ the way I had although she was just as romantic about the idea, and despite my status as one who is very good at praying, she’d never approached me with a request.
I stared at her bent head, her frizzy brown hair, and her slumped posture. She looked fragile. I lived in fear of her for many years, the ones where she was bigger and meaner than me, and now here she was, a person, bent and small.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. “It’s easier to pray when I know what to concentrate on.” I hadn’t figured out all of the specifics of prayer battle, but I was pretty sure it was like mental telepathy. It required great concentration and conviction.
“I think I’m gay,” she said, her eyes coming up to meet mine. They were wet with the stage just before tears.
“Oh,” I said. I sank from my powerful kneeling position and met her cross-legged on the floor. “Are you sure?” My sister had always been dramatic and I was used to deflecting her attempts of making life more exciting than it needed to be. This didn’t feel like one of those times.
“I’m pretty sure. But I know that that’s wrong. Right?” Her voice cracked and it nearly undid me.
I almost said yes. I searched for a Bible verse that would apply to midnight confessions of homosexuality, but I was a new Christian and if there was an appropriate passage, I didn’t know it.
I wanted to tell her that God doesn’t make anyone gay, and that all she was going through was a phase. It would have been the proper thing to say, I thought. I experienced what I can only describe as cardiac dissonance. My heart conflicted between my love for the person I had known every second of my short life, and love of my new religion.
This wasn’t some delusional person who needed saving. It was Melissa, asking for my help. And, if I was being honest, she seemed pretty gay to me.
“Well…” I started. My cardiac dissonance subsided and I decided to save the lecture. “Thanks for telling me.” I laid a hand on the top of her head and the other on her soft, hunched shoulder. “Dear Lord, please help my sister during this difficult time…” and we prayed.
It was short and sweet and I didn’t know what to say or how to end it. I was a prayer warrior trying to pray my sister’s gay away and I didn’t know how. The moment of tenderness between brother and sister ended, we shared a rare hug, wiped tears, and I left.
In my bed I tried to find something in the Bible that would be applicable. Explain things, make them simple. The only things I remembered was that homosexuality was a sin, sinners needed to repent or spend eternity in hell, and also a place called Sodom was utterly destroyed once and there was apparently much sodomy going on there.
I finally gave up and turned out the lights. I couldn’t sleep and instead wondered about my sister and God. I was more ashamed than usual. How could I be angry at my sister? Wasn’t I also living in sin? Sure I repented each night, but was my lustful act any worse than hers? I prayed for both of our souls until I fell asleep.
There was no moment when my parents and I decided to accept my sister’s identity. It happened gradually, like a glacier of denial being melted away by the slow heat of reality. There came a day when my sister brought someone home and announced, “This is my girlfriend, R.” and we all stood up, shook her hand, and welcomed both of them into the house. I didn’t even see a choice to be made. R and I played hacky sack together and ate microwaved chimichangas when my sister wasn’t home.
As more months of collective family depression passed, I became increasingly sensitive to things I never took notice of before. Overnight, it seemed, saying something was “gay” was taboo.
“Melissa is gay,” said my mother one day after I expressed frustration with the performance of my Mariners by using the G-word, “and we love her. So do you really want to use ‘gay’ as a word for ‘bad’?” To me the phrase Melissa is gay felt more taboo than any other use of the word, but I had never thought of it that way. I started saying, “That’s lame,” instead. It was an awkward transition.
This slow process of acceptance revealed itself in my prayers, too. I would read the Bible and get frustrated. It didn’t sound right anymore. My cycle of piety and abuse was now only abuse and self-doubt as the book had its own dissonance surrounding the state of my sister. There were questions in my head where before there were only answers.
I was downtrodden. My attempts to pray Melissa straight, if anything, only seemed to make her more homosexual. Her girlfriend became more a part of our lives and as I got to know her, my requests for straightness came less frequent, as did requests in general. And when I prayed, I prayed for myself. “Dear Lord,” I would start, which was a good start, I felt, that way He knows He’s being addressed and can divert His attention accordingly, “please help me accept my sister. And for the Mariners to win the division.” But I did this without the conviction I once held. With that, I finally relinquished my title as Prayer Warrior (the Mariners will never win anything anyway. I think I cursed them).
It’s been nine years since my sister came out and I touched the top of her head and said words I didn’t understand, trying to fix her. She called me last week and asked if I would give a toast at her wedding; she’s getting married to a woman I love and respect very much. I gave her the same answer I gave when she asked if I would pray for her–pray her better–all those years ago.
“Of course!” I wanted to touch her head again. My cardiac dissonance was long gone, replaced by cardiac expansion, an over-swelling of the heart.
When I hung up, I couldn’t decide if my prayers for acceptance were answered, or, more likely, we were both going to hell.