I’M SPEAKING UP.
For priding myself on being a storyteller, I’ve intentionally left a large part of my story out of the public eye. Not just online for obvious reasons, but I’ve kept it from people in my life for almost 2 decades. I can no longer keep it to myself…it’s time to speak up.
Recently, I’ve been reading stories of brave individuals sharing their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. I read one specifically that triggered some old memories and changed something inside of me. I sat there wondering, “what got them to the point where they decided to speak up?” I envied them for having the courage to do that. I had told myself for years that this was different. It wasn’t a big deal. So many people have it worse. I should suck it up and move on….but imagine if we all did that.
When I was 16, I was in a sexual relationship with a woman in my church. She was 10 years older than me and married to a man. She was someone I had looked up to since my 6th grade Sunday school days which she and her husband taught. This would be my first sexual experience. I didn’t know this at the time but that experience would go on to shape my future relationships. It would affect how I viewed love and how I viewed myself. This “relationship” went on for years. I remember falling asleep during class in high school because I spent so much time with her. We were very rarely apart and everyone knew that. My concern is how did no one in their right mind question this? My parents. My youth leaders. Her family in the church. Her husband in the next room. Gross.
To this day, I chalk it up to it being easier to turn your head or sweep things under the rug than to have actual discussions about the hard things in life. I’m pretty sure the only person who ever questioned her a couple years later was a married man in the church. Another person who I respected in a leadership position. When he confronted her she told him everything about our relationship including details about me sexually. Literally EVERYTHING. I found that out from her directly and I remember THAT feeling like it was yesterday. It would be the first time I would experience heartbreak and betrayal. She began cheating on her husband with this married man while carrying on a relationships with me. Every single week…several times a week we would all three be on stage at our church in the choir and on the music team like nothing was wrong. All while I stared at her husband and his wife in the crowd. They were all good friends. Probably still are. The person I am today would’ve exposed this right then and there, but at the time (as a closeted teenager who was terrified of her parents finding out she was gay) fear and the lump in my throat kept me silent. It was really easy for me to keep quiet. Especially when I was confronted in the church parking lot and blackmailed by a grown man in a police uniform (the man she was having an affair with). I remember leaving classes early on several occasions to run home and frantically check our mailbox because he threatened to out me to my family. I never knew when or if it would happen but that sick feeling, it lingered for a long time. I knew it was the real deal when he made me meet him (and her) in a motel room near our church to further intimidate and threaten me. I didn’t fully understand back then why they did this until I finally went to see a therapist LAST YEAR. She said, “they were trying to scare you and keep you quiet.” All I could think to say to her, almost 20 years later was, “well, I guess it worked.” I haven’t seen these people in years, but I doubt they would ever think that I would be an out and proud lesbian woman centering both my entire career and existence on doing my best to make sure no kid ever has to feel alone when coming to terms with who they are. Especially within a religious setting.
It really started to sink in when I turned 27. I was now the same age this woman was when she began a sexual relationship with me. I would see a 16 year old kid in our youth group and be completely sick to my stomach at the thought of a grown adult finding them sexually attractive. They were just children. Right then I knew something needed to be addressed but I still could not bring myself to say anything because I was protecting these people and their families. I couldn’t even allow myself to be angry at them…I couldn’t feel anything about it until I would drink some wine. That’s when the memories of what took place, the memories I had blocked out for so long, would come flooding in. I would fill pages in my journals. I would give myself permission to cry then I would beat myself up about it and hope the next day was better. It usually was. It was pretty easy to convince myself that I deserved what had happened and that it was absolutely my fault since I had feelings for her and looked up to her so much. I trusted her completely. My punishment was to live with this for the rest of my life while they moved on.
I’ve moved away. Started over. All the while carrying this secret around with me… to the point where the weight of it almost felt comfortable. For years, fear controlled me. Fear of disappointing, fear of being innately flawed, fear of abandonment, fear of not being able to love or trust fully, fear of burning in hell. The list is like a scroll. Years of emotional and sexual abuse had damaged my ability to have healthy and meaningful relationships.
It’s important to me that I’m very clear on this: I AM GAY. I am 34 years old. I have always been gay. Nothing happened to “make me gay”. I didn’t have a word for my feelings when I was younger but I knew I was not interested in boys and that was never once a doubt it my mind. I was innocent and sheltered. Even at the age of 16 I didn’t know much about sex…what I did know is that I had crushes on women. Admitting that I was gay did not even cross my mind until I was 24. I had already been involved with women for 8 years but still I was in denial that I was gay until I met my first group of lesbian friends. I was both relieved and terrified. After all of these years it finally made sense, but now the issue was trying to wrap my head around what that meant for me. I was alone and dealing with some pretty heavy issues that no kid should ever have to deal with by themselves.
When I look at 16 year old Steph I don’t see a kid…which is why I had such a hard time admitting that I had been taken advantage of. I was timid and innocent but I seemed mature because I had been around adults most of my life. I was not taught to think for myself. I invented the art of people pleasing. I just wanted to be loved and accepted for me. But who was I? I could adapt to any situation. I could be anything anyone wanted me to be at any time. I felt like a shell of a human being but no one ever saw that.
You’re probably wondering…so why now? Two reasons: 1. I am hopeful that my story will help at least one person. 2. In my mind and in my heart this situation has defined me and I am no longer willing to allow that to happen. I need to get rid of this. I will not take this to my grave and let it control areas of my life. I refuse to continue protecting the people who did not protect me. These people may have robbed me of my innocence years ago but they will no longer have any hold on me. In speaking up, I am taking the control back and moving forward. Now is the time to speak up and shed a bright light on some very dark places. Speak up for yourself. Speak up for the kids who feel like they have no voice.
Parents/Adults/Leaders in the church etc: Talk to your kids. Ask them questions. Love them for who they are. Protect them. But most importantly…fight for them.
“Don’t let fear keep you quiet. You have a voice, so use it. Speak up. Raise your hands. Shout your answers. Make yourself heard. Whatever it takes, just find your voice, and when you do, fill the damn silence.”
“The thing people forget is how good it can feel when you finally set secrets free. Whether good or bad, at least they’re out in the open, like it or not. And once your secrets are out in the open, you don’t have to hide behind them anymore. The problem with secrets is even when you think you’re in control, you’re not.”