It was Christmas Eve 2009, and I had been putzing around on Facebook, aimlessly catching up with statuses while waiting to meet a friend for lunch. I had the day off and was procrastinating; I was supposed to clean the house in anticipation of my parents’ visit. I don’t know how it always sucks me in—the photos of people I hardly know and their chatter—but it does. I happened to be struck by a post from a gentleman I went to church with as a teen. Matt and I both worked on the television ministry, which meant we ran the cameras for our non-denominational megachurch. What caught my eye was his relationship preference: it said men.
Saying my parents are Christian is a bit of an understatement. I forget how much so until my mom asks me to quiz her on her memory of verses or reminds me she has been on a peanut butter fast (her favorite) for fifteen years, in solidarity with God about specific prayer requests. Basically, no PB until one of her most important prayers is answered. We not only attended church every Sunday morning but also youth groups and church camps in both the summer and winter.
As a teen, I fell in and out of Christianity, either fervently embracing it in prayer around the flagpole at my public high school or completely turning my back and stirring up trouble with my Nine Inch Nails and curfew-breaking bad self. But I still had to go to church every Sunday or be grounded for the day, so I took up TV ministry because I really liked running cameras. Before the church expanded, it let youth parishioners like Matt and I lead and get creative (perhaps too creative) with the TV ministry. I remember with glee the time we made a double image of the minister’s head preaching in the middle of a Christmas wreath.
I met Matt when I was in high school; he was a year or two older and a geek like me. But he was always a good Christian, and I assumed he would become a minister or computer guru or theology professor. Although I liked him a lot, we were different and grew apart after I stopped doing TV ministry. Facebook, as it does, reunited us but only as “click friends” and nothing beyond me categorizing him as one of those church friends from my youth. So when I saw his post about him and his partner, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and immediately started digging for more information. He was the ideal Christian golden child and was supposed to be a proper Christian adult. And he was…gay? It didn’t make sense. I looked at all of his pictures; he and his partner looked amazingly happy together. But I still couldn’t fathom it. How did the uber Christian kid become a happy Christian gay?
On the subway ride home from lunch, I continued to process. I compartmentalize people and make assumptions, and I didn’t know how to align it and reality in my head. I wondered about him concealing and assumed he concealed his gayness until he left home. It was quieting and humbling. I had completely walked away from Christianity, but Matt hadn’t and had found his place and peace. Meanwhile, I was in a strange place, reflecting on my past while readying myself mentally for the present day and my folks’ arrival. I have constantly tried to remove my upbringing other than the occasional joke about me growing up under a Christian rock when I miss pop culture references. In spite of this, I decided I was going to take my parents to a Christmas Eve service, as it would mean a lot to them. I had not set foot in a church since I left my parents’ house after high school. I had found a Christian, gay-friendly church in Park Slope that wouldn’t perform marriages until everyone could get married (my folks didn’t need to know that part). I started to feel excited about attending the service because I’d missed the Christmas carols and communal singing, even if it was about wise men and silent nights. As I expected, my parents were thrilled to go to church on Christmas Eve with my daughter and me. They got dressed up, and my mom chatted with me while brushing her hair that never seems to do what she wants. We trekked to the church, and as my mom is legally blind, we sat in the second row. I even found her a large print program. I tried to pay attention to the sermon but instead thought about my assumptions and wondered how often I’m completely wrong. It was all going quite well—church, introspection, my parents’ visit. My parents were happy, I was happy; I was at church, for christ’s sake!
Working it out
Coming out to my parents was hard. Although I got married young and had a baby while I was still in college, I somehow figured it all out. Well, I figured out how to finish college with a baby, how to be a young parent, and how to make it as a photographer in NYC. But I couldn’t figure out how to be hetero. I knew and didn’t know I was gay. It took meeting Meike and her putting the pieces in front of me to really know.
Meike and I met on a photo shoot for British Esquire that turned out to be somewhat pornographic, as the model was wearing only stilettos. We bonded over the bizarreness of that shoot and became fast friends (seriously, only friends!). I learned, retrospectively, that she suspected I was gay, and so she started taking me to watch the L Word on Sunday nights at a then-popular lesbian bar in Brooklyn called Caddy Shack. As I watched Alice and Shane and Carmen, I got a bit short-breathed, which eventually led to that quieting and definitive moment of knowing I was gay.
After months of working it out with a therapist and my husband whom I loved dearly and who was incredibly supportive, I was ready to break the news to my parents. Unfortunately, I had to do so by phone as they were in Wisconsin and I was in New York. I sat on the floor of my tiny office before I dialed and worried they would disown me as my mom had done to her sister when she moved in with a man out of wedlock (although they did reconcile once she was properly married). Eventually, I picked up the phone and dialed. My mom and dad listened as I explained I was getting a divorce—and then I had to tell them why.
My coming out was met with, “Are you sure? Maybe you’re not. How do you know?” The thing is, I didn’t exactly know. I had no real physical proof. I had only kissed a girl once back in college and didn’t feel anything. But I couldn’t ignore that the L Word made me bothered for the first time ever, nor could I ignore my numerous crushes on girls and women over the years. When I explained my anxiety about being disowned, my mom said that unlike her sister, I wasn’t proclaiming to be a Christian. Her sister was a believer choosing to live in sin. My mom made the analogy that if I had robbed a bank she would still love me, the sinner, but admonish the sin. I had become the equivalent of a bank robber.
Pentecost at Christmas
The last hymn that Christmas in church was Silent Night. Before the song, we each received a little candle with a paper skirt, and we all lit each other’s by kissing them to our neighbor’s candle. It was sweet and touching, and the church was ablaze with candlelight. My mom was juggling her hymnal, her giant magnifying glass, her program, and the lit candle. The minister asked us to all rise to sing, and although I didn’t see it, I know exactly how it happened. I can mentally see her movements that I know so well. As my mom stood, she tipped forward and her hair touched the candle and was instantly engulfed in flames.
I have no idea what I did with my own candle. My mom’s entire head was on fire and as she cried out I smacked out the flames with my hands. It was over quickly and the whole church was silent and paralyzed in shock, the smell of burning hair wafting throughout the room. After a moment, everyone reacted and tried to help. In a very small voice, my mom said she was fine and pleaded that we please continue and sing Silent Night. Shaking, I tried to get her to go to the bathroom to assess her injuries, but she shrugged me off.
When I was younger, I was always so embarrassed by my mother’s voice. She sang with such vibrato, and it always rose over all the other voices. That night, she sang with such strength, whereas I could barely stand; I was shaking, my teeth were chattering, my hands still feeling her fragile head. I was silent. After the song, everyone tried to help. Her face and head had minor burns and there was charred hair that somehow wasn’t all gone. Someone had a brush and began to brush out the burnt clumps. The minister kindly arranged a car for us after it was determined she didn’t need to go to the emergency room. My mother kept praising God that she was okay.
That night, I asked my mother if I could photograph her, as that is what I’ve learned to do when I’m figuring things out, conceptually or just plain emotionally. She has always been so kind to oblige all my photography requests over the years. Once I was doing a series of photos in bathtubs, and she wore her bathrobe in a water-filled tub as I photographed her. The shoot took me an hour, and she just sat in the tub in her robe, patiently asking if she was doing it right. I know she felt completely humiliated by the events at the church, and I’m sure she wanted to put the evening behind her. Yet she still let me photograph her with her burns and charred hair because she knew it meant something to me. And maybe it was a way for us to be closer. There is an incredible intimacy that transpires between subject and photographer.
Reconciling and reconnection
My parents still struggle with me being gay, but they are trying. They joined their church’s equivalent of PFLAG and recently came to the premiere of my documentary film, Ladies Out, with several of their other P-Flaggers. They always ask about my girlfriend and invite her to family events. They have come so far, as have I.
Matt, my church friend, and his partner made Wisconsin history a few weeks ago as the first gay couple to wed in Milwaukee County. As I write this story, I have been flipping back and forth between writing and gleaning on Facebook. These days have been easier than ever for us gays, and my focus has been on figuring out how to raise a teenager who just yelled at me to leave her alone after not being able to help her get out the dental floss jammed in her braces, developing my work as an artist, and being so completely in love with my girlfriend.
My mother once again kindly agreed to be photographed for this article. Writing this has opened up a dialogue between us about the unsaid, which has led to clarifications and ultimately closeness. Now I understand my mother didn’t disown her sister, but, as she explained, she broke fellowship with her temporarily, and it was one of the hardest things she has ever done. We all have our work cut out for us, and right now mine is to try to stop making so many assumptions.
Lois Bielefeld is a conceptual photographer who splits her time between fine art and commercial/fashion photography. She was born and currently resides in Milwaukee, WI, with her girlfriend and daughter. Lois has her BFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology, and from 2003–2010 she lived in New York City. Besides photography, she feels passionate about Scrabble, bicycling, urban gardening, and bicycling adventures. She has two solo shows opening this fall: Room & Board will open Sept. 12 at ArtStart in Rhinelander. Androgyny will open at UW – Parkside Nov. 1. She can be contacted through Portrait Society Gallery. See more of her work here: loisbielefeld.com