“For I know the plans I have for you:” The coming out story of a queer Catholic raised in the Purity Culture Movement part 1 by Emma Cieslik

It was my last interview for the Muncie LGBTQ+ History Project. I was a senior in college, and I was about to complete my tenth interview focused on the intersections of Christian religion and queer identity. I was slated to conduct an oral history interview with Rachel Replogle, a nonbinary lesbian who runs Indiana’s only queer-affirming wedding videography business. I had expected to explore elements of her work in churches and religious spaces—and I had encountered experiences of trauma, both familial and religious, through the project—but Replogle’s story touched a nerve about my own experiences and made my question the project’s impact on the people conducting it.

Since 2018, the Muncie LGBTQ+ History Project has been collecting the stories of queer people who grew up in and around Muncie. I worked with the project for over a year as a research associate, conducting ten long-form oral history interviews with members of the Muncie LGBTQ+ community about their experiences growing up in Muncie, a small town in East-Central Indiana in the heart of the Rust Belt. Spearheaded by Dr. Emily Johnson [1] the project seeks to uplift and celebrate queer experience in the Midwest. I entered the project with an interest in how queer individuals engage with religious identity, especially in spaces that deny their personhood and/or invalidate their relationships.

As a little bit of background, I personally grew up in a Catholic family. Although raised by liberal and affirming parents—my mom regularly referred to God as gender neutral or as “she” and my father fought for equal religious education for all children growing up—I was raised in a conservative Catholic parish in the northwest Chicago suburbs in the early 2000s. Before my interview with Replogle, I had no idea what purity culture or internalized homophobia were. I attended religious education classes and retreats, particularly the True Beauty Retreat, that reinforced elements of guilt in my classmates and myself for sexual thoughts, actions, and attractions. We were told that we could control our thoughts, just like we could our actions, and therefore could be held accountable for them.

Homosexuality was so unthinkable, so sinful, that it didn’t even merit a mention, didn’t really exist and was not part of our education—we were just told in our bright yellow YOUCATs, a youth-oriented catechism, that marriage was limited to relationships between men and women and that it was our responsibility to maintain a sexless mind and body, complete abstinence, prior to heterosexual marriage. Men, we women were told, had it much harder, and we should help our brothers by dressing modestly and acting piously to uphold the dignity of our personhood and avoid being a distraction or stumbling block. I thought nothing of it. Faith was a central part of my life, so I figured my experience of guilt and shame was universal.  

During the interview, however, Replogle spoke about her experiences with purity culture as someone who grew up in a conservative Christian environment in the 1990s. Replogle grew up in Muncie, the daughter of parents running a conservation Christian youth ministry at Ball State, fully immersed in her Christian community. Just like me, her faith played a central role in her identity and her family life. She took part in a conservative Christian youth group and worked at several conservative Christian churches in the Muncie area before leaving the church following a traumatic encounter with the therapy program Sozo. For her, sexual abstinence prior to marriage was the only option, just as heterosexual marriage was the end goal.  

Replogle explained, “this was a world with a lot of different messages that I grew up in, hearing that being queer was wrong, hearing that my body was inherently bad and that any sort of sexual desire was inherently evil, any attraction to a gender that was not explicitly outlined in the Bible was inherently evil.”

Evangelical Protestant traditions, very similar to those uplifted by the Catholic parish I grew up in, emphasized[2] extreme abstinence that involves not only sexual reservation but also female submission. In purity culture, women are encouraged to take purity pledges prior to marriage and fulfill the role of a dutiful mother and faithful spouse within the gender binary. This could also manifest as purity rings worn prior to marriage as a physical reminder and outward symbol of purity, or other object-oriented metaphors for the vulnerability of female virginity—the chewed-up piece of bubble gum, a crushed rose, or a lit candle, often things that once they were taken out of the box and touched, couldn’t be repackaged, or reused.

With the growth of the industrialization of purity culture in the late 1990s, faith-based groups acquired funding for school abstinence programs and groups like Silver Ring Thing [3] and Truelovewaits [4] gained traction along with the sale of purity rings, pledges, candles, and educational guidebooks. At the center of this debate was the implicit understanding that the rules of sexual behavior and responsibility do not apply equally to everyone. Some people are “burdened” with gender expressions and sexual attractions that defy a specific binary or the male-female pairing central to the sexual politics of heteronormative Christianity. As Replogle stated,

“I grew up in this environment hearing these messages that my body was inherently bad both because it’s a feminine body (and would lead men into sin) but also because it’s a body—she’s a body, and bodies are inherently evil, and our flesh is a thing to overcome. So that was the world with a lot of different messages that I grew up in, hearing that being queer was wrong.”

I left this oral history interview with finitude—I am just a researcher who is passionate about creating affirmative spaces for LGBTQ+ young people in my Church, who is eager to advocate for gay marriage being recognized and people with diverse gender expressions and identities feeling safe, protected, and supported. I had felt this way since I was a child—this was the one issue that I drew the line about as a young Catholic. I firmly believed that unlike what our catechism and teachers were saying, gay people should have the Church’s blessing to get married. I never understood why I was so firm about this issue until this interview, until something about Replogle’s story seemed eerily familiar to my own personal faith journey.

To be continued tomorrow…

[1] Dr. Emily Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University

[2] It’s important to recognize that purity culture has not fully disappeared, but rather manifested in different shapes over time. While I use the past tense here to refer to belief systems as they were enforced in the Purity Movement (1990s to the early 2000s), it is not to discount or permit the continued legacy of purity culture in American Christian communities to this day.

[3] Silver Ring Thing is now called Unaltered Ministries oriented around the Unaltered Life, a 12-week program focused on “helping you become who God created you to do and do what He created you to do.” Unaltered Ministries offer seminars for young people and parents, preparing them to address the following questions in regard to their children: “How should you address topics of social media, depression, identity, pornography, and so much more? How do you raise a standard that the world is tearing down?”

[4] Truelovewaits still exists as part of Lifeway and markets products, including spiritual meditations and programming, to young people. Their newest product is Chasing Love, a Bible Study by Sean McDowell, about love, sex, gender, and relationships. As explained on the website, “he provides practical counsel on how we can embrace a life of purity by loving God and loving others with both our body and soul … and we will discover that god’s love heals our wounds and His grace frees us from the shame and guilt of past sin.”

BIO: Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a public historian and emerging museum professional eager to explore and curate the intersection of religion and gender and sexuality. She has conducted oral history, archival, and ethnographic research among different religious and LGBTQIA+ communities, and hopes to highlight more difficult conversations in American religious history through intersectional museum collecting and curation.

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