Sometimes I stared at the Bible in my hands and wondered if I could have avoided all of this had I just known to pray about it earlier. Once, as a Christmas present, my father bought me a book full of short stories that described real-life miracles in the lives of various teenagers, and I wanted that for me. 

My favorite story featured a young man whose addiction to smoking had nearly killed him until the night a friend dragged him to a church service, where he accepted Christ as his personal savior. The next morning, faith renewed, the hero discovered that even the scent of smoke filled him with nausea. With a life forever changed, he thanked God for healing his addiction.

Those stories offered the hope I always dreamt of—the hope that reassured, “Give it to God, and He will fix it.” Yet even then, a voice in the bottom of my heart whispered that I was too late. The smoker in my favorite story hadn’t been a Christian while addicted, but I’d accepted Jesus as my Lord at the age of six, before I ever knew my own sin. I didn’t even know a word for it until a girl my age hurled it at me as an insult one day.

At nine years old, though, I didn’t recognize the consequence of watching a movie with a beautiful actress and wishing to take the actor’s place when the two kissed. At eleven, it did not occur to me to fear the butterflies in my stomach when a girl held my hand.

But one day, I heard a sermon during youth group where a preacher shook his fist and yelled about some people who wanted to destroy marriage. They even desecrated the rainbow, God’s special symbol of promise. Gripping the pulpit, the preacher declared that God in turn allowed a special disease to destroy such people. With a shudder, I thanked God that I was not like that—waving rainbow signs, cursing at Christians, suffering from AIDS.
Those people, whoever they were, lived in San Fran and all seemed to be adults who slept around. Those people didn’t obey, go to church, or love Jesus, so I didn’t connect my innocent crushes to being one of them.

One day, I mentioned my crush to a close friend. She told me I was confused and warned me not to talk about it again, but not before she informed me that I sounded like one of those people, rainbows and all.

I told her to shut up and wept onto the pages of her Bible that night, clutching the edges as I asked God if that could be true. How could it be, when I had never even given much thought to marriage, much less a way to destroy it? I prayed until the sun rose, recalling the miraculous healing of the smoker, and smiling at the thought of my own victorious future.

But I could not keep my gaze from lingering when a beautiful girl walked by, even when I cursed herself a second later for it. At fifteen, I could not shut out the dreams of marrying a woman, no matter how I begged for forgiveness. At eighteen, I couldn’t help the urge to shy away when any man leaned in. The words “I love you” rang hollow in the air no matter how much I wished to mean them. It frightened me to think of hurting someone I cared about by lying until they heard the truth behind my empty words.

Well-intentioned friends advised me to simply avoid sin by never dating anyone. Sometimes when I passed the swings at my university, nicknamed the Lovers’ Swings, I’d catch a glimpse of them sitting with an arm around their girlfriends. My heart sank with the knowledge that I could never do the same, not without destroying family and disappointing friends, not without the people I loved and respected perceiving it as a threat to the very sanctity of marriage.

More than that, I hated how I robbed my parents of their daughter’s wedding day. They would never see me wrapped in white, glowing with a happiness enough to light the chapel, resting one hand on my heart the way I always did when the nerves kicked in. My father would never clasp my hands in his to pray one final time before he walked me down the aisle, or hear the organ’s music swell to meet my joy. While they questioned my lack of relationships, I silently cursed my own daily failure.

In my junior year of college, a friend introduced me to a girl who gave me butterflies when we held hands. We still attend church and love Jesus, but neither of us cry out to God to change us or wonder how this can be, because we know now that it can be beautiful. Love is beautiful and life-giving and fulfilling no matter its outward appearance.

Love in Mississippi isn’t easy. Before our fingers touch, we glance over our shoulders to be sure that no one walks nearby or close enough to notice. When a man appears around a corner, our hands slip to our sides, and we fix our eyes below his, on the ground, until he passes. We wonder if he glimpsed the hasty movement of our hands, if his eyes narrowed, or if his stare still lingers, weighing on our fading backs.

On Jackson’s streets, we cannot walk too close. In earshot of her people, we must watch our language, whisper our most loving words. We can’t embrace for long before they glare, or clasp our hands in prayer before a meal. One time a mother covered her boy’s eyes, but surely not because of us? Surely she could not know—we have long hair; we wore our floral dresses on that day to church.

But we have a church that loves and accepts us. We count our blessings when white-haired couples smile and wave goodbye while hand-in-hand we cross the parking lot. Before we part, we drive down the brick streets for lunch. I help her out the car and, standing to her feet, she presses a quick kiss against my lips. My heart beats too fast; I glance over my shoulder.

Even so, I thank God everyday for the miraculous gift of love. Now, my sexuality helps me empathize with outsiders and promote honesty in a culture that encourages secrecy and shame; my fiancée and I hope to show the light of love and truth in a dark place. A year from now, we will walk down the aisle, glowing with happiness enough to light the chapel just like I dreamt as a child. Though he still refuses to meet her, my father always told me that the truth will set you free, and I agree.

AMY LAUREN is a graduate student in Mississippi. Among other publications, her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Wherewithal Lit, Lavender Review, and Sinister Wisdom.