One morning after breakfast, I was pulled aside by two of the Christian-camp organizers, who let me know that I was upsetting some people by wearing a tank top with “Sex Pistols” emblazoned on it in pink. “We’d like you to go change, please,” they said. It hadn’t occurred to me that this band’s name would offend anyone, and I got really defensive about it and said that I absolutely would not. (I was such a ~rebellious youth~, you guys.) I was angry that even just LIKING A BAND made me a bad seed in the eyes of other people in a religion that I loved so strongly. Later that day, someone told me that my small group of girlfriends was being referred to by everyone else as “the unholy six.” Who calls a child “unholy” under the guise of following God’s will? That felt much more offensive to me than three letters on a muscle tank. After a week of this, I had basically had it with Jesus camp. So I made a really bad decision.
Our dormitories were shaped like a U. The straight parts were where the boys and girls slept, each side separated by a huge metal door in the curve of the U. After our counselors fell asleep, my friends and I would sneak to the door, where we’d slide notes back and forth to boys we’d spoken to earlier in the day. It was always really innocent stuff about where we were from, and what music we liked—until the last night of camp. That afternoon, I had indignantly explained the “unholy six” insult to my friends, who were all just as hurt by it as I was. I capitalized on their anger to convince them that we should do something hellacious, since we were already considered “bad” anyway, and they agreed. So that night, we pushed a note under the door that told the boys to go to their bathroom window, which faced ours, and when they appeared, we were standing in front of the glass as usual, except entirely naked.
I don’t know why I thought they wouldn’t tell on us. I guess I figured that the unexpected gift of seeing girls in the buff would buy the boys’ silence, but these boys were probably terrified of sinning, and they reported us to the counselors first thing in the morning as though they hadn’t stuck around to stare at us until we put our shirts back on. They didn’t get in trouble, but we caught hell—pun very much intended—from the camp and from our home church. I think we eventually managed to convince our pastor that we didn’t do anything wrong and were victims of a bad rap. Still, I was asked not to return to Pittsburgh the following year.
Though my Christian enthusiasm was flagging, I decided to find a new church that wasn’t familiar with my nudist history. My evangelical friend Josh, with whom I would trade wristbands and swap criticisms about the politically charged lyrics of our respective bands, brought me to his teen Bible study that fall. I was 13 and a freshman in high school, and though I had trepidation about evangelicalism based on my experiences at camp, I went along for two reasons: (1) I wanted to keep exploring my Christian faith, and (2) I thought Josh was really cute. The youth group was presented to me as a fun, hip, happenin’ way to meet other Christian teenagers, hang out, eat snacks, and talk God, and I was down. The evangelical idea of Jesus jived with my idea of wanting to be a tool of God’s perfection, and it seemed like this denomination’s goal, like mine, was to do one’s best to be as good a vessel possible for God’s unflagging love. So I figured that, during discussions of the social issues about which I disagreed, I’d just choose to remain silent until the conversation returned to the parts of Christianity I found resonant and beautiful. This picking and choosing went totally OK until, of course, it didn’t.
At first, youth group was completely awesome. Josh’s friends were even cuter than he was, and like me, they were heavily into punk music and God. I assimilated into the group quickly, despite really disliking the youth pastor who led the lectures. His views about masturbation, abortion, and gay marriage would often be the themes of weekly hour-long speeches. His speeches about homosexuality became particularly disconcerting to me, because I had met a girl at youth group (whom I will call S.) with whom I fell very much in love. We became best friends on the night we met after finding out we had just about everything in common, from our family issues to our taste in artwork to our inclination to explore behavior that was looked down upon by our faith. In fact, S. was my first girl-kiss, on the curb outside the church, and at that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to withstand the pastor’s condemnation of LGBTQ people much longer. When I asked myself why I wanted to align myself with people who fiercely believed that God hated me and others queers, I could not come up with an answer. S. and I stopped going to youth group. She became an atheist, and soon after, I followed suit.