The shootings that happened in Atlanta on March 16 were a needless tragedy — the loss of innocent lives at the hands of yet another gunman, where women of color once again were the victims. While lack of gun control and racism both have their ugly place in this story, the influence I want to draw your attention to today is purity culture.
Purity culture is something I know well because I lived and breathed it. Growing up in the epicenter of evangelical Christianity, I was taught young (and firmly believed), that sex was only meant to be shared between a biological male and a biological female (preferably from the same race) within the confines of marriage. There were no acceptable variations. This was the only option.
This meant that same-sex relationships were an abomination, getting pregnant outside of marriage fell just below that on the list of “most-egregious sins,” and sex before marriage was a black mark on both you and your family’s reputation.
I knew all this, and I took it seriously, believing if I served God with my life, one day my knight in shining armor would ride in on a white horse and carry me off to our happily ever after. This belief was so ingrained in my upbringing that my parents arranged a full-on purity ceremony for my 13th birthday, at which I pledged before my parents, friends, neighbors and relatives to keep myself sexually pure until marriage. I signed my name on the dotted line of a vow, and my father placed a purity ring onto my wedding finger that was meant to stay there until it was replaced by a wedding band.
You may be wondering how this directly relates to eight people being murdered in Atlanta this month, so let me connect the dots.
I remember being explicitly taught (in no uncertain terms) that I was responsible for keeping boys from lusting. If I dressed seductively, or in any way remotely outside of extreme modesty (enter spaghetti straps or shorts above the knee), it was my fault if I caused a man to stumble. If I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, I shouldn’t have been out so late because, “nothing good happens after midnight,” my mom would say. And if I had sex before marriage? Well then, no one would ever want me. My virginity was likened to a piece of gum — shiny and new out of the wrapper, but once used, completely undesirable and only worthy of being disposed of in the trash. Nobody wants ABC gum.
“My virginity was likened to a piece of gum — shiny and new out of the wrapper, but once used, completely undesirable and only worthy being disposed of in the trash.”
I remember feeling like that trashy gum. It was the day I realized (after more than 10 years of wearing that purity ring on my wedding finger) that I was in love with a woman. Not only that, but I had slept with a woman. And having lost my virginity outside of marriage, and to a female, was the most abominable act a woman of the evangelical faith could commit.
I was completely convinced at the age of 23 that no man ever would want me now, that God never could use me again, and that I was worthless, disposable, garbage with no goodness or value remaining. I hated myself. I hurt myself. And it led me to the brink of suicide.
This is the same kind of theology that infiltrated the mind of Robert Long. Like me, Long was taught that any sexual desire or activity outside of marriage is lustful and, therefore, considered a sin — something God despises — and something to be harnessed, controlled, fought against.
Like many in the Christian faith, Long tried to fix, heal and be delivered of these demons that plagued him, even to the point of attending an evangelical treatment center called HopeQuest Ministry Group in search of help and freedom.
“Long tried to fix, heal and be delivered of these demons that plagued him.”
But as I can personally attest, the more you try to overcome some of these so-called abominations, the more they control you. Your every waking hour is fixated upon them, trying to force them into submission as the Bible would command (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is such a thing as real sexual addiction and I’m not denying that Long suffered from that. But I am confronting the large part that purity culture and evangelical Christianity plays in shaping our beliefs around healthy sex, relationships, consent and responsibility. Because in Long’s case, he was convinced that the only way to rid himself and others of sexual temptation was to eliminate what he targeted as the source of the “temptations” themselves — real, living, breathing, innocent, human beings.
Purity culture theology is not only outdated, it is downright deadly. We have got to stop teaching women that they are responsible for taming men’s lustful desires, and we have got to stop teaching men that they are migrating sex objects without any control over their impulses.
“Women are worth so much more than their virginity, and men are responsible for their own bodies and actions.”
Women are worth so much more than their virginity, and men are responsible for their own bodies and actions. Men are not predators, and women are not prey. It’s time to teach consent, accountability, responsibility and agency. It’s time to call out bad theology that kills. And it’s time to stop brainwashing people into believing that others are responsible for the “temptations” they face.
Grow up. Own your actions. Control your impulses. And for the love of all things good and holy, be a decent human being.
As someone who is married to a first-generation Asian immigrant, my heart grieves for the part of this shooting that was racially motivated.
As a woman, my heart grieves for the continued misogyny and patriarchy that plagues our nation.
As an exangelical, my heart grieves for the countless people being influenced by the harmful and deadly theology of purity culture that is being cloaked in the name of God and Christianity.
And as a human being, my heart grieves that we continue to have mass murders occur on a regular basis throughout our country without better gun control and more value for human life.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
This column was originally posted on Baptist News Global.
I can’t remember what it feels like to not be in pain. It’s been years since I’ve had the energy of a healthy person. The litany of physical symptoms that rage war in my body daily are a result of inauthenticity, suppressed identity and the internalized self-hatred and homophobia I was raised to possess.
I was taught to be good, to obey, to submit and to be a role model for others. I was trained to love Jesus, serve others and put myself last. My internal voice — the one that whispers to you in the stillness — was something to be avoided, not trusted. Instead, I was to trust my family, my pastor, my church and those in leadership over me — but never myself. Listening to my self was dangerous and worldly. It was not an act of surrender. So I ignored it, I pushed it down, and I hoped it would go away.
But it didn’t go away. Instead, the gut instinct that I should have relied on gradually got quieter, while the signs that I was ignoring my own guiding light grew louder. In my teens, it took the shape of compromised mental health. I pulled my hair out in clumps trying to cope with anxiety that I felt deep inside but could share with no one. Pulling my hair out made me feel ugly and insecure. Feeling insecure caused me to withdraw even further.
Then came “The Trauma,” and with it, the inability to trust anyone or anything. I only trusted myself — but I was told that my self was bad, that there was something wrong with me, that I needed to be fixed, cured, healed, exorcised. I didn’t understand why, but I did all the things people told me I needed to do: I prayed, I fasted, I confessed to those in authority over me, I read my Bible, I trusted God and had faith.
I did everything I knew to do, wanting so deeply to get better. But brainwashing to suppress my inner voice and my identity led to a spiral of further depression, anxiety and inner turmoil, which led to the cuts and bruises of self-harm, which led to questioning if I should even be alive.
Finally, I discovered the truth about who I was and why I was different: I discovered I was gay. And I realized why everyone kept trying to fix and change and heal me. Being gay was unacceptable and the most egregious form of immorality for people with my evangelical background and Christian upbringing. But even more so because my father had been in a high-powered position at Focus on the Family for more than 30 years.
“Finally, I discovered the truth about who I was and why I was different: I discovered I was gay.”
Eventually, I realized if I didn’t start listening to my own inner voice, I wouldn’t have a life or a voice left to listen to. At the age of 27, I came out to my family, risking everything and in turn, losing everything. My family told me they felt like I had died. They compared being gay to being a murderer or a pedophile. They took away my keys to the house, and nothing ever was the same again. Almost everyone I ever knew vanished from my life — my family, my relatives, my friends, my church — gone.
Grief. Loss. Trauma. PTSD. These were the gifts my upbringing gave me as a result of being authentic. What I didn’t know is that being authentic would give me the gifts of freedom, self-love, confidence and the ability to finally feel alive for the very first time.
But when it came to my health, they were gifts that came too late. After coming out, I began developing symptoms — signs of the years of secrecy I’d harbored — manifesting in my physical body. Extreme pain that left me bed-ridden, fatigue that made lifting a spoon feel too overwhelming, migrating muscular pain, extreme weakness, air hunger and excessive infections and illnesses. My life shifted and changed in drastic ways as my body steadily declined. It took seven years of suffering and searching to receive the diagnosis that I have a complex, multi-systemic chronic illness, often brought on by extreme trauma, for which there is no cure.
“Years of forced secrecy has led to a body revolting against shame and inauthenticity.”
This diagnosis has robbed me of so much more than my health. It’s robbed me of my social life, my productivity, my sense of adventure, my ability to have children of my own, and so much more. All because I was taught to suppress my identity, was schooled in the torture of self-hatred and was made to believe that being gay deserved eternal damnation. Years of forced secrecy has led to a body revolting against shame and inauthenticity. We weren’t meant to hide our truest selves. We never should be trained to despise who we are or silence our inner voice.
Auto-immune diseases and chronic illness disproportionately affect the LGBTQ population for this very reason. If someone had taught me in my youth that diversity was to be celebrated and that everyone was equal, regardless of how they identify or who they love, my story could have been so very different. Yes, I found my way to authenticity and freedom, but because it took me so long, that freedom came a little too late.
I am and will continue to do everything I can to heal my body and the trauma it holds. But my story and the story of so many others are a prime example of why loving yourself and embracing who you are (and teaching these lessons to our children young) is so vitally important. You never know when the secrets you harbor will suddenly become too much for your body to bear.
It’s not worth it. Don’t wait.
Embrace yourself now. Love yourself now. Celebrate your love now.
You deserve to be free and to feel alive. And I promise you, regardless of what other people say, it is exactly how God intended it from the very start.
This column originally appeared on Baptist News Global.
If you haven’t yet, there is still time to register for Season 2 of the Unashamed Book Club. There’s not many book clubs where you actually get to meet and dialogue with the authors of the books you read. And this season’s lineup is definitely one you won’t want to miss!
We’ll have Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about sexual shame, Colby Martin on deconstructing the clobber passages, Abby Stein sharing her journey from ultra-orthodox rabbi to transgender woman, Emmy Kegler on how God’s love stretches to the margins, and Kathy V. Baldock discussing some of the most ground-breaking research to surface in decades that has the power to change history for LGBTQ Christians. It’s also a great place to build community and find support along your journey. Everyone is welcome regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or faith. We have a beautiful mix of LGBTQ people, allies, and parents of LGBTQ kids and would love for you to join us!
Space is limited so hop on over to the link below to register, and then invite a friend along to join you! You can get all the details and reserve your spot now here:
I hope you will join us for this incredible adventure!
Be Brave, Live Unashamed,
Registration for Season 2 of the Unashamed Book Club is Now Open!
Good Morning Friends!
I am delighted to announce that registration for the Season 2 of the Unashamed Book Club is now LIVE!
It’s been a dream realized for me to create a safe place where spiritual nomads, those who have been wounded by religion, and those who were told they were unlovable in the eyes of God, could come together to read, to learn, to dialogue with the authors of our books, and to build a beautiful community with one another.
After an amazing first season, I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am for season two! We have an amazing lineup of author interviews featuring Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about sexual shame, Colby Martin on deconstructing the clobber passages, Abby Stein sharing her journey from ultra-orthodox rabbi to transgender woman, Emmy Kegler on how God’s love stretches to the margins, and Kathy V. Baldock discussing some of the most ground-breaking research to surface in decades that could have the power to change history for LGBTQ Christians.
We would love to have you join us! Space is limited so secure your spot early and invite a friend along to join you! You can get all the details and reserve your spot now at the link below.
I hope you will join us for this incredible adventure!
Be Brave, Live Unashamed,
One of the highlights for me of 2020 was creating a safe place where spiritual nomads, those who have been wounded by religion, and those who were told that who they were was not loveable in the eyes of God, could come together to read, to learn, to dialogue with the authors themselves, and to build a beautiful community with one another. Something I had once only dreamed of, has now become a reality, and a safe place for many who are journeying difficult roads, to lean on one another and to learn more about themselves and God.
If season one was this amazing, I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am for season two! Over the next six months, we will be reading books covering topics of deconstructing theology, sex, self-love, self-discovery, and groundbreaking truths that could change the course of history for LGBTQ+ Christians.
I am delighted to announce that this season, we will be reading the following six books and having private dialogues and discussions with the authors:
March: “Unclobber,” by Colby Martin (Featuring a live interview!)
April: “Shameless” by Nadia Bolz-Weber (Featuring a live interview!)
May: “One Coin Found” by Emmy Kegler (Featuring a live interview!)
June: “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle (This is the only author not confirmed for a live interview)
July: “Becoming Eve” by Abby Chava Stein (Featuring a live interview!)
August: “Forging a Sacred Weapon” by Kathy Baldock and Ed Oxford (Featuring a live interview!)
If you love to read, if you love to learn, or if you are looking for a safe community to journey with in the midst of all of life’s “hard”, I encourage you to join us for this incredible season. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or faith.
Registration will launch THIS Friday at 10:00am MST.
You can get all the details here: https://ambercantorna.com/book-club/
Space is limited so be sure and secure your spot early! I hope you will join us for this incredible adventure.
Be Brave, Live Unashamed,
I hope this finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy after one of the craziest years any of us have ever seen. In the midst of all the chaos, hardship, and pain, I want to take time to let each of you know how deeply grateful I am for your consistency in supporting my work through this extremely difficult year. Your steadfastness has kept me afloat.
In January, I made a trip down to Atlanta where I had the honor of spending time with Dr. David Gushee and spoke at his university class as well as his Sunday school group. I also was hosted by The Village for an event around coming out with Pastor Ray and Jane Waters. It was such a refreshing trip for my soul, rich in meaningful conversation with incredible people. Little did I know that would be my only trip of the year.
When March 13th arrived, our world (as yours too, I’m sure) came to a halt, cancelling all upcoming speaking engagements and events for the foreseeable future. I haven’t been on an airplane since and my wife and I have now been quarantined in our house for over 9 months (yikes!). Because of my health diagnosis in June, we’ve had to be extremely strict in regards to safety and social-distancing, which has basically meant that we never came out of lockdown and have only “bubbled” (or spend in-person time) with one other couple since March. We’re grateful that both my wife and I have been able to work 100% remotely and that we have a big enough house to keep us busy with projects and avoid driving each other crazy (at least most days). But I admit that I deeply miss YOU. I miss being with my people, hugging and laughing and crying and holding space for one another. I miss traveling and speaking and seeing your faces. And I hope that in 2021, we will find a safe way back to each other again.
During this time at home, I became a monthly columnist for Baptist News Global and have enjoyed writing about a broad range of topics. I had the (rare!) opportunity to speak virtually to a Fortune 200 company in July, and I’ve offered a series of free webinars and events online as a way of supporting people during this time of social distancing. I’ve also enjoyed being a part of a variety of podcasts, interviews, and panels discussions.
But my favorite project that I’ve launched during the pandemic is an LGBTQ Faith Book Club. Comprised of both LGBTQ people as well as allies and parents of LGBTQ kids, we read one book a month written by a queer author or ally and meet virtually to discuss the book in small groups and dialogue with the author. The private online Facebook group has become a safe haven for those involved as they process things about life, faith, coming-out, relationships, sex, etc. and build an affirming community with one another where they can truly be seen and heard. I’ve have loved watching this beautiful group of people develop rich relationships with one another as they dialogue online throughout the month and connect at our virtual monthly gatherings. This season, we’ve been honored to host authors such as Dr. David Gushee, Matthias Roberts, Mihee Kim-Kort, and Austen Hartke. We are already gearing up for Season 2 with a stellar line-up including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Colby Martin, Abby Stein, Emmy Kegler, and Kathy Baldock. I couldn’t be more excited about continuing this project! If you or someone you know would be interested in joining us, registration will begin on January 15th and you can get all the info by visiting: AmberCantorna.com.
Again, I can’t say how thankful I am for your continued support during this season. I couldn’t continue doing what I do without you. Thank you for the part you play in my ministry to others. I am so deeply grateful. I pray that this season blesses you with morsels of joy amidst a very difficult season, and that hope will lead us into the new year with much better things to come. Until then, please be safe and know that I love each of you dearly.
Be Brave, Live Unashamed,
This year is, without a doubt, unlike any other. The daily events happening on a personal, professional and political level are enough to make all of us want to disappear from time to time. As we look ahead to the holidays, what can we do to make them special, rather than one more way to dread 2020?
It’s true that things will undeniably be different this year. You may not be able to travel the way you’re used to, it may not be safe to go visit grandma or have all your loved ones gather around your table, and the big Christmas party you always host is now a fraction of the size.
Here are a few tips to make the best of our current situation:
Take advantage of the slower pace. The holiday season usually is so filled with the hustle and bustle of parties, events and shopping that we just operate in a constant state of chaos. This year, most of that chaos is being removed for us. Slowing down may be difficult (I know it can be for me) but this is an opportunity to focus on what is really important, rather than getting sidetracked by the trivial, meaningless things that often rob us of our time and attention.
Instead of striving to “keep up with the Joneses” this season, take a breath. Read the book that has been sitting on your nightstand for months. Write a handwritten letter to someone you miss. Sit and enjoy a cup of hot cocoa by the fire with your pet. Let your soul breathe.
Our hearts need healing and respite after such a tumultuous year. Don’t rob yourself of that gift.
Consider observing Advent. If you don’t already, consider observing Advent this year. With the long-lasting effects of a global pandemic, we all have things we are grieving: family we are missing, weddings we’ve postponed, loved ones we’ve lost, graduations with far too few people present, big life moments that somehow feel empty, dreams that have been paused, trips that feel too far away to be excited about.
Disappointment seems ever present and grief like our daily companion. Taking time to pause, to reflect and to ground ourselves this holiday season may be just the thing our souls need. If you’re looking for a progressive lens through which to view Advent, consider Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, by John Pavlovitz or A Weary World: Reflections for a Blue Christmas, by Kathy Escobar.
“This year may be different, but that doesn’t mean giving back has to stop.”
Volunteer virtually. The holidays are typically a time of year when we look for ways to give back. We volunteer at the local soup kitchen, buy toys for kids whose parents are incarcerated or hand out sandwiches in the park. This year may be different, but that doesn’t mean giving back has to stop.
Earlier this year, our church did a Volunteer-a-thon and provided a fantastic list of virtual volunteering opportunities. I invite you to check out the resources they’ve researched and listed.
A couple other options would be doing a “Safer-at-Home Service Project” with Together We Rise to help foster care youth, or partnering with Glennon Doyle’s non-profit Together Rising to support families in need.
You also could serve those in your local neighborhood by raking leaves or shoveling the driveway for someone living with chronic illness, the elderly or a single mom who is trying to do it all. Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to still find ways to give back this holiday season. Families need it now more than ever.
Deliver doorstep packages. It will be hard to gather for our usual festivities this year like we are used to doing. However, that doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. There are creative things we can do to still engage old traditions in a new ways.
You can use platforms like Elfster to create a virtual Secret Santa among your co-workers, friends or family. You also can make goody baskets with all your favorite baked goods and deliver them to people’s doorsteps. It keeps you safe and socially distanced, while still sending love to those you care about. I can almost guarantee this will make their day.
Remember, simple acts of kindness not only remind us of our humanity, but of the fact that we are all connected and in this together.
“Sit down as a family and brainstorm ways to keep the holidays special.”
Be creative with your kids. If this year has been hard on us, it certainly has been hard on our kids. They, too, are enduring lots of change, disappointment and fear. I encourage you to sit down as a family and brainstorm ways to keep the holidays special.
Perhaps make a list of all your ideas and put them in a basket. Then pull one out every time your family is looking for something to do together.
A few ideas that would offer you some fun while keeping you safe include baking cookies together, decorating a gingerbread house, going ice skating or ice fishing, building a snowman, sledding, doing a puzzle, or cuddling up to your favorite Christmas movie by the tree. Letting each family member choose at least one activity they want to do during the holidays will give them sense of belonging as well as a feeling of control over their environment during a time that feels so out of control to us all.
Finally, if in past years you’ve taken your kids to visit Santa at the mall, consider dressing up like Santa yourself and making a home visit. This will create a Christmas memory for your young ones they’re sure to never forget.
Yes, the holidays will be different this year. But different does have to be negative or bad. Lean in, dig deeper and see what gems arise as you find new and meaningful ways to celebrate this season.