This past weekend, I attended the Gay Christian Network Conference for the second time, this year hosted in Houston, Texas. As my wife as I flew from Denver to Houston last Thursday, I reflected on the first time that I went to the conference 3 years ago and all that has happened in my life since then. I was in a very different place then, I had just come out and 2012 was the most turbulent year my life had seen yet. Having just looked death in the face (in more ways than one), I was turning a corner but not yet out of the woods. I came to Phoenix with a heavy heart searching for some hope that my life would get better. Thankfully, I found it. In a workshop I attended, a comment I made apparently perked some ears as I was later approached by a man and his wife who simply said, “Hi, my wife and I wondered if we could take you to dinner.” To which I was a little dumbfounded but replied, “…Ok!”
That was the beginning of a turning of tides for me, and 2 years later because of the bond that was formed with them at GCN that weekend, they ended up being the ones who stood in my parent’s place at my wedding in June 2014. They helped me get ready and they walked me down the aisle to give me away. Though I didn’t know it when I met them, it turned out to be a divine connection.
Now attending the conference this past weekend for the first time with my wife, my life is in a completely different place. Not only have I fallen in love, gotten married and purchased our first home together, but my life is finally positioned where I feel like I can do what God is calling me to do, and that is to be a voice.
One of the biggest take-aways I had from this past weekend is that, as the daughter of a executive employee at Focus on the Family who has lost everything since coming out, embedded in my identity is a responsibility to be a voice for those who can not yet speak. God is now using my story to catapult me into ministry and what an incredible ride it is turning out to be!
This past weekend, I was privileged to have meetings with a myriad of amazing people who are already doing incredible work on the front lines of changing our culture when it comes to these issues of faith and sexuality. There were so many people in attendance at the conference who were living proof of the capability for intersectionality on these issues. That was so needed because there were an equal number of people in attendance who were looking for that proof.
As we listened to Justin Lee’s keynote on Sunday morning where he talked about privilege and our need to be empathetic rather than sympathetic, I was reminded once again how much the way we interact with one another matters. How much respect matters. How much dignity matters. And how incredibly vital spaces like GCN are, not only for LGBT people, but for parents of LGBT kids and our straight allies as well. GCN is one of the only spaces I know of where people can come from all over the world, from every denominational background imaginable and from differing views and beliefs when it comes to Side A/Side B theology and agree to disagree in a safe space where we can love one another well. That my friends, is true love; unconditional love; amazing love.
At the end of Mary Lambert’s concert Friday night, she performed her Grammy-nominated song “Same Love” inviting all who wanted, to join her in dancing together in the empty space below the stage. As I slow danced with my wife, tears streamed down my face in a place where our love for one another was validated and we were safe to be our real selves among 1,450 likeminded people. It was one of my favorite moments of the weekend.
Similarly in the worship sessions led before each keynote speech, I stood there and cried as well because for the first time in 8 years, I was able to stand before God with my worshipper’s heart freely before Him without feeling the stare of disapproving eyes around me or the lurking feeling in my heart of, “If they only knew…” as if being gay somehow disqualified me from standing in church. But here, I was able to unashamedly with a room full of other LGBT believers, parents and allies sing:
My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood, His mercy reigns
Unending Love, Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace indeed. That is what this journey requires of us…amazing grace from God because of our humanity, amazing grace for each other especially when we have differing viewpoints and amazing grace for ourselves to see the beauty inside us and to celebrate that which makes us unique.
It is that same amazing grace and love that will in turn change our church culture if we, like Jesus, can love our neighbor and let the light placed inside each of our hearts shine brightly for all to see.
I was 27 when I had finally mustered every last bit of courage to have “the talk” with my family. I had been pondering, planning and praying for months. My heart weighed heavy and anxiety took my mind down every possible outcome. I knew, as the daughter of a Focus on the Family executive, the results of my truth could be devastating. But I had reached the point where living a lie was worse than whatever lay on the other side of truth. After much counsel, preparation and prayer, I felt the time had come to tell my truth. So on April 14th, 2012 I invited both my parents and brother over and we all took a seat in the living room of my split-level apartment. I told them the journey I had been on over the past several years and then, spoke the 3 short words that would forever alter my future…
Though I was born in Kalispell, Montana, by my third birthday we had moved to Glendora, California where my dad had accepted a job offer at Focus on the Family. When the company then relocated to Colorado Springs in 1991, my family did as well and that is the town where I grew up.
With the values and teachings of Dr. Dobson at the core of our family’s foundation, my parents decided to home-school both my brother and I from start to finish. They made daily devotions and cultivating a relationship with God a priority from a very young age. With programs like AWANA, we memorized Scripture frequently both in the program and as a family. A typical girl, I grew up playing with American Girl dolls and having frequent tea parties. I believed that my knight in shining armor would come for me, if only I would wait for him. At my thirteenth birthday, I even had a “Purity Ceremony” in which I signed a vow to stay chaste until marriage and was given a ring that was to be worn on my finger until it was someday replaced by a wedding band. I had been taught all these grandiose ideas of what love and traditional marriage were supposed to look like and innocently embraced them all as truths.
My mom came from a musical family, so (almost from the womb) she trained us as well, investing a lot of time into fostering our musical talents. We frequently sang at retirement homes and for Christian schools; we did full concerts at smaller churches and were always ready to perform for visiting family and guests. I was very blessed to be given 13 years of classical piano training as well. By the time I was 14, I was touring Europe with a youth choir and soon after, with the Young Continentals. Performing was a huge part of my life, and I thrived on it. As a very high-achieving perfectionist, I constantly put pressure on myself to rise to the top.
However, not all of that pressure came from within. As I moved more into my teen years, I began to feel the outside pressure of upholding my family’s reputation as well. As the daughter of a man who held a high profile position at Focus and whose work was known and loved around the world, being his daughter caused me to feel the weight of maintaining the appearance of that “perfect Focus family.” Friends would often comment to me how lucky I was, but behind the mask of perfection, I found myself struggling with depression and anxiety coupled with a need to keep all those struggles hidden behind a facade.
By the time I reached my early 20s, I still had never dated a guy. I admit at times I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, but mostly I just believed what I had been taught: if you prepared yourself spiritually and wait sexually, the right man will come along at the right time. The fact that I might be gay really never crossed my radar. I truly believed that God was just shielding me from the heartache of high school romances like the ones my friends were having, and that somehow the first man I would meet and seriously date would just magically be “the one.”
But at the age of 23, things in my life took a drastic turn when I suddenly found myself falling in love with my roommate…who was a woman. What started as a simple friendship, over time morphed into what was clearly becoming more than friends. I was so aghast the first time we kissed, I wasn’t even sure what was happening. My head was spinning, in more ways than one as I tried to figure out this mysterious attraction. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that experience ended up being the beginning of a deeper wrestling, the beginning of searching and eventually, the beginning of coming out.
I knew I couldn’t just sweep this “problem” under the rug, but I was terrified. I was terrified that in studying and digging deeper, I might find what I had been taught all my life to be true: God disapproved of homosexuality and, therefore, He disapproved of me. Focus on the Family teaches that marriage is strictly between one man and one woman and I was equally as terrified that in digging deeper I might find that belief to be false. Because if God did indeed make me this way, I would become part of a minority that is stigmatized, especially in Christian circles, and that too would be life-altering. So either way, my life would never be the same.
But, as I sat one night with my journal in hand, heartbroken over the loss of my first love and all together confused as to how and why it all happened to begin with, I gathered my courage and told God I was ready to start walking the difficult road ahead. I prayed, studied and researched for months allowing everything I had believed up to that point to be re-examined. I talked to people on similar journeys and, in doing so, found those who were both completely in love with their same-sex spouse and also completely in love with God, without any conflict between the two. That was when I began to realize that there didn’t have to be a dichotomy between my faith and sexuality, as I had been led to believe. Finally, after a long and difficult climb, the Scriptures in question settled in my heart, I found the answers I needed and knew that in God’s eyes, I was not only accepted but also loved for exactly how He made me.
The odds were high, however, that my family would not feel the same. Anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares swelled as I approached the day where telling them my truth would disappoint and break the illusion of that “perfect Focus family”. As I mustered every ounce of strength I had on that chilly April day, I looked my family in the eyes and said those three small, but life-altering words, “I am gay.” With my exposed heart hanging in the air, I awaited their response. To my deep dismay, the only response that came out of my dad’s mouth was, “I have nothing to say to you right now,” and he walked out the door.
From that moment on, things went from bad to worse. In a follow up conversation we had at my parent’s house several weeks later, they compared me to murderers and pedophiles, told me I was selfish for doing this to the family without thinking about the impact it would have on them and asked me to turn in my keys to my childhood home. Over time, because of their unwavering belief in Focus on the Family’s teaching and interpretation of the Scriptures on this issue, I was quietly pushed aside and shunned from the family. Only in my worst nightmares were the consequences as drastic as what they proved to be in real life. I lost not only my immediate family, but also my relatives, my church, many of my friends, and essentially, even my hometown. Because of the toxicity I felt living in a city where it seemed my every move was being watched by some degrading eye, I ended up moving to Denver. Even though almost four years have passed, I still feel anxiety every time I drive to Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, though many of my loved ones claimed to have unconditional love, what I discovered is that their love actually came with strings attached.
My world felt as though it were spiraling out of control. I’d never felt so lost or alone in all my life. Consistent nightmares and self injury reared its ugly head in my life once again and for the first time ever, I truly could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Suicide became a viable option in my mind.
Over the coming months, there were several key people who invested in me and added value to my life and in turn, rescued me from that dark place I was in. I don’t remember an exact turning point when I decided I wanted to live, but about 10 months after coming out, the tides had turned and I was sharing my life story at community hour at the Denver church I was attending. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that day was the day I met the woman who would one day become my wife.
I didn’t pay her much attention at first, but she noticed me from the start. After several months of intentional pursuit on her part, we started dating. We both quickly knew that each other was “the one” and about a year and a half after we met, we were married.
Somehow along the way as my relationship with her solidified, my relationship with my parents became even more bleak. When we got engaged, my parents realized this wasn’t just a phase that would pass and the gavel came down. We cut all ties.
Not having any family at my wedding was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, and yet, it was still the best day of my life. In front of the people who stood by me when it mattered the most, I got to consecrate my love to my wife in a sacred covenant before God. In that moment, all the labels washed away and I was able to be fully myself, completely in love with my wife and also completely in love with God. It was the perfect day.
We’ve been married a year and a half now and our journey continues forward. There are still bumps in the road and hard days where I miss my family. The truth is, I still cherish my family values just as much today as I did growing up, but I’ve just had to learn to re-focus my family. I truly have so much to be grateful for. God has given me beauty for ashes and is continuing to be true to His promise and make all things new and beautiful in His time.
By Amber Cantorna
Speaker/Writer Beyond: Renew Your Faith, Restore Your Hope, Reclaim Your Love
The question of “How are you?” has become a familiar one, hasn’t it? Maybe too familiar. How many times a day does somebody pass by you at work and say, “Hi, how are you?” continuing to walk without even waiting for a reply…as if the two statements were meant to be lumped together to create a cultured American greeting, rather than an actual question that awaits a response? How many times have you been guilty of doing the same? If you’re anything like me, the number is probably more than you’d like to count. Could it be that we don’t really want to know the answer? Could it be that to actually await a response might inconvenience our lives for more than the mere five seconds it takes us to ask it?
But what if “How are you?” was more than a greeting? What if when we asked the question, we actually made eye contact long enough to receive a reply? What if? Could it be that we might earn the opportunity to peer into the lives of those we pass by? That we might actually get to be Jesus to a person who’s dying for someone to stick around long enough to listen to the answer?
But that’s our fear, isn’t it? We’re not sure we want to know the answer. Doing that might require work, time, sacrifice. We’d rather live our cookie-cutter lives where everything flows smoothly and we don’t encounter any detours. But a fabricated life created from construction paper and glue is rarely as exciting as the real photograph containing vibrant color. The journey may be smoother, but the picture is quite dull.
Several years ago I found myself on the asking side of this scenario in the teacher’s lounge on a Professional Development Day in the elementary school in which I worked. As I sat down with two other co-workers, one of them began to describe the fear she was wrestling with as her daughter approached ever closer to the day in which she would undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor that was discovered during her recent pregnancy. The count was now down to less than 72 hours and I could tell each hour wore a little harder on the co-worker beside me, her daughter miles away in a hospital rather than by her side. I listened intently as she poured her heart out to the two of us and it suddenly occurred to me that before me lie a great opportunity. The question was, did I have the courage to take it? Wrestling with idea for a brief moment, the Spirit of the Lord prompted me and I found myself saying “Why don’t we just pray for your daughter right now,” spoken as more of a statement than a question. My friend seemed to appreciate the offer. So the three of us joined hands in a circle and I lead out in intercession for her daughter’s life. The power of God was evident among us as we prayed and a boldness was infused inside of me that melted away my fears of what other people were thinking as they walked in and out of the room. This was the common area for teachers after all, and this was a public school. I found myself not caring though and the situation almost comical as I heard people walk in, suddenly realize what was happening and, in embarrassment, turn around and walk back out, as if they had just walked in on someone in the bathroom stall.
When we were finished, the tears streaming down her face and the long embrace she gave told me I had done the right thing. And I was so glad that I listened to the Spirit’s urge within me rather than letting my fears of what other people would think override that still small Voice. Had I not offered, I would have been the one that missed a great opportunity. Yet how many other times have I done exactly that? How many other situations have I flippantly passed by hoping someone else would take care of it, letting my fear of people’s opinions win over the what I knew God was asking me to do? Or perhaps it was because my delayed response closed the door for me before I was able to act. My prayer is that my number of obedient actions will increase and tip the scale so that delayed or fearful responses won’t even be a considered option any more and serving will win every time.
And what about you? Are you willing to risk, even just a little, to invest in someone’s life? To see and experience the vibrant color rather than the cardboard cop-out? If so, what would you see? Reality? Yes. Pain? Probably. The brightness of the sun is often mixed with some stormy clouds. Yes…storms will come, I guarantee it. But I also know that the shadow proves the sunshine. And don’t we want it to? Isn’t that the way life was meant to be lived? God created our lives to be intricately woven together with the lives of those around us. Is it never easy and rarely convenient, but it’s the only way His perfect will can be complete. He chose us, simple human beings, to be His vessel. Let’s together resolve to ask more people “How are you?” more often, and echo the prayer of Thomas A. Kempis who asked, “Lord do what You will, as You will, when You will.” And as we look more to the needs of others and less to ourselves, maybe “How are you?” will become more than just a greeting.