Guest Blogger Spencer Shoup

Chosen family. This is a common phrase inside the queer community that holds glowing hope and agonizing death in the same breath. It means that a queer person has somehow broken from their birth family because of their sexuality or gender, and are doing the work to build a new family that loves and accepts them as they are. Glowing hope and agonizing sadness.
This is the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs. They offer belonging, and parental love and support for those who don't have it. A little bit of chosen family.

The Journey to Find Myself

The journey into my sexual and gender identity turned out to be a search for community as much as a search for myself. If I could remove the discouraging experiences I had with religion, or parents, or the culture around me I can see that internally I was always settled about my sexuality and gender, even as a child. My young mind didn't have the framework or the language to express how I was feeling, but internally I always knew who I was. I was in sixth grade when a girl in my class took my breath away when she dared to speak to me. I just stood there, paralyzed by her beauty, mouth hanging open like a hooked fish. Even though I couldn't verbalize or define my crush back then, my feelings were clear.

And even though it was never said outright, I knew instinctively that I needed to keep my sexuality a secret. My fears were confirmed one summer at a christian music festival where Jennifer Knapp was supposed to play. Before her set, a man came on stage and awkwardly excused her absence even though everyone knew she was being suddenly and completely boycotted by the christian world for coming out as gay. I felt completely alone and scared in that crowd of people. Scared because deep down I knew I was like Jennifer. I knew I was gay, and in that moment I discovered I had to keep my sexuality a secret or risk being thrown out of community like Jennifer was. My church community and my family were my whole world, but Jennifer's cancelled concert taught me that my belonging would be immediately revoked if I came out.

For years I stayed afraid and in the closet. I knew I was gay, and I also trusted my faith leaders and my parents spiritual authority in my life. How could I possibly know better than they did? They believed the bible did not allow for gay relationships, and I believed them. I was in a near constant state of guilt and confusion; constantly managing my 'sinful desires for women' in a devastating cycle of deeply recognizing myself as gay, and then plunging back into guilt when the conflicting doctrine of my church floated through my brain.

My People

I stayed in the closet from seventh grade until after I graduated college. I deeply understood my sexuality, and I also deeply believed that the bible said being gay is wrong. This conflict led me to seek out answers and comradery at the second to last Exodus Conference that existed in the summer of 2012. Exodus International was an ex-gay umbrella group that officially dissolved in 2013, understanding that they had been wrong about queer people and the bible, and that they had done damage to the queer community. I am thankful for their closing, and I am also strangely thankful that I attended Exodus. While the teachings of Exodus were erroneous and harmful to people, this was also the first time I was able to meet other gay christians and not hide either my christian or my gay side. When we were just hanging out together, talking or playing frisbee, I felt at peace and at home. These were my people.

Through my trip to Exodus, I met some people from another ex-gay ministry called Living Hope and decided to become part of their community. They were (and still are) online based, and created community through chat threads and a yearly retreat in Texas. The other gay christians at Living Hope were my first true gay friends, even though we all believed our sexuality was sinful and deeply flawed. When we were together, it was almost like we could let those terrible, conflicting thoughts sink to the bottom of our minds like sediment. For a few moments, the swirling clouds of doubt that consumed my mind were quiet and we could just exist together, fully as who we were. I was able to talk about my feelings and experiences with people who deeply understood me, without having to explain anything.

For a while, the people at Living Hope gave me some much needed community with other gay Christians like myself. Over time though, I began to see more and more things that troubled me. Gender was taught as a performative act which was somehow both rooted in our American culture, but also considered biblical and correct. For instance, the men in the group were encouraged to walk without moving their hips too much, and on one retreat, the men all learned to play football. While the men were learning sports, the women were given partner dancing lessons; taught and lead by men of course.

It was a strange experience because it was clear that very few of us actually wanted to do the assigned exercise. In a way, it was like we sympathized with each other, knowing how hard it was for some of us to participate in our assigned task. We went along with the activity, but I got the feeling that no one was really taking it seriously. Our love for one another ran deep; like underground streams of connection that even we couldn't define or articulate. An unspoken kinship. Queer siblings trying to find our way out of the threatening and oppressive culture we'd grown up in.

As I passed my time with Living Hope, I began to learn more about their theological interpretation of scripture and I found that I didn't agree with them. I gave about a year of my life to Living Hope and then was unceremoniously blocked from the group when I started posting about my theological disagreements with their interpretations of gender and sexuality. I was invited back only if I would apologize and recant my earlier statements.

Saying Goodbye

I never got to say goodbye to my first group of gay friends, and I haven't spoken with them since the summer of 2014. I still miss them deeply, and grieve for the ones still part of that community. I hope every day for them to find peace within themselves.
My time with, and ultimately my removal from this strange ex-gay community experience taught me two things: I was ready to come out as gay without any qualifications, and I desperately needed community. I was willing to ignore and tolerate a weak, ex-gay theology that couldn't even hold water within its own theories over my own intelligent, thinking brain. Even when we trust ourselves, risking relationships and community is terrifying.

Free Mom Hugs Welcomes You

This is where the beauty and the magic of Free Mom Hugs come in. They offer genuine love, belonging and celebration for queer people. Even though leaving a known community for the unknown world is terrifying, it is completely worth it. There are wonderful people out here waiting to welcome another queer sibling in to the family.