I have a Ph.D. in American Religious History but I’ve never been much of a religious person. It’s been one of the conundrums of my life but nevertheless, I found religion and its role in influencing, for good and bad, the lived experiences of the LGBTQ community something worth exploring.
I’ve been struggling with writing this post ever since I graduated and officially became “Dr. John.” In preparing for my defense, the Chair of my Dissertation Committee requested that at the start of the defense, he wanted me to introduce my project, its overall scope, and most importantly why I wrote it.
Why did I write it? How does one answer why they chose to devote 8 years of their life to a single subject in search of an original idea? While some would sit and grapple with this question, I knew what the answer was all along because it always was (and always will be) about my maternal grandmother, Gladys Hritsko.
I wanted to know what made me different. Throughout my dissertation, I interviewed people who, much like myself, grew up in similar small towns, attended the same conservative church services, and heard the same damning things that I did about my sexuality being preached from the pulpit. Many of my subjects were deeply hurt by religion and it set some of them up for years of searching and painful memories and experiences that both forced them to leave their religious and faith-based communities they grew up in or, in the worst case, being kicked out by their family as a result of their religion.
I carry all of these stories proudly and I cannot thank the individuals interviewed in my dissertation enough for being raw and emotional with me and opening up their hearts and souls to me. However, while I felt for every story that was told to me, there was still something missing: I couldn’t relate to this pain and I knew that this inability of mine was the answer to the question my Dissertation Chair wanted me to answer.
As a child, I used to run away from Sunday school. For several weeks I would run away the moment my mom would drop me off at St. Patrick’s Church in Ripon, WI. Instead of hiding out, I would run to my Gladys’s house. It was always my safe space and I knew that no matter what I did (or how much trouble I was in) she’d protect me.
I can still see her now: sitting in her chair watching TV or talking on the phone to one of her friends. She’d see me through the door and greet me without question. “What’s going on son?” she’d usually say, fully knowing I was supposed to be at Sunday school. She’d never question why I was there and instead, she always inquired about what was going on my life and regardless of whatever answer or childhood angst I’d be feeling, most of our time usually would wind up with her telling me stories or us just chatting about life.
Gladys became my religion. She became the person that I would go to on Sunday to talk to and answer questions about life or whatever I was feeling. Gladys and I created the community that helped protect and empower me to ignore the hate that I would hear or feel when I wouldn’t run away from Sunday school or be able to get out of going to church with my mom on Sundays.
What made me different from the people I interviewed? Why did I write my dissertation? The answer was Gladys.
My grandmother had quite a reputation around town. I never really knew what religious domination she was because she usually ended up going to whatever church had the best after service brunch (she was a sucker for a good brunch, much like her grandson is now too). Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, or Lutheran, Gladys knew where all the good spots were to have brunch.
In defending my dissertation, I discovered I was getting the chance to relive why I survived, why I was able to thrive and not be affected by people saying that I was going to hell or that I was a fag. None of this bothered me because my religion and my community was a community of two, and my religion loved me, for me.
I left Wisconsin and moved to California a year before my grandmother died. I’ll never forget my goodbye party. My grandmother, never one at a loss for words, was quiet. It was a hot August night, my family and friends were gathered at my mom’s house to wish me luck as I started this new chapter in my life. While I was opening my grandmother’s present, she burst out into tears and said: “I don’t want you to go.” I’ll never forget the sound of her voice. I’ll never forget the tears in her eyes. I’ll never forget that even though she didn’t want me to go, she knew I had to.
Much like when she walked out of her job and joined the Army, I too, was ready to start a new adventure that would define my life. To this day, I believe my grandmother didn’t want me to go because she knew she had limited time left. She died less than a year later after her health went downhill. I prayed that she could hold on until I would come home for summer break. She held on long enough to say goodbye. She was my best friend and my faith and the thing that I realized at the end of my dissertation is that faith, much like the love of a family member, is everlasting.
I finished my opening statement, tears and all, and continued to be questioned by my committee and the merits of my project and my findings. Spoiler alert: after an hour of questioning, I found out I passed, I was officially Dr. John.
Now, something happened the moment that they told me I passed that I don’t quite understand but I’ll never forget it. The entire time I felt my grandmother in the room with me. She was there, sitting at the other end of the table, watching and guiding me through the last few minutes of this chapter of my life. After I passed, I felt my grandmother get up from her chair, walk past me, and stop at the door to the sunny warm outdoors of Claremont, CA. She paused at the door, slowly shut it behind her, and was gone.
I wish I could leave you with some type of explanation of what happened but I can’t. I wish I could tell my subjects, or any other LGBTQ person who has struggled with their sexuality and spirituality that their pain will go away or to take what they experienced and help them overcome it much like my grandmother did for me.
The only piece of advice I have to offer you is this: faith isn’t something that we get on whatever day our respective religions choose to worship or from whoever is the chosen leader of our religion. Faith is something we get from each other, and sometimes in the most magical of circumstances, faith becomes embodied by the person you love the most.
John Erickson holds a Ph.D. in American Religious History as well as two MA’s from Claremont Graduate University. John served as a commissioner on the California Commission on the Status of Women. He is President of the Hollywood Chapter for the National Organization for Women, a Planning Commissioner for the City of West Hollywood, a board member for the ACLU of Southern California, the Legislative Action Chair for Stonewall Democratic Club, and a board member for the National Organization for Women.