Growing Up Gay In Focus On The Family - One Woman Shares Her Story

Jan 24, 2018

Amber Cantorna was raised in a devout Christian family in Colorado Springs -- the daughter of an executive at the powerful Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian ministry, Focus on the Family. She was homeschooled, deeply involved with the church, and a firm believer in the religious values espoused by the organization. This included Focus' stance on the topic of marriage, which Cantorna characterizes as being "strictly between one man and one woman, and that was not to be debated -- that was a very black-and-white issue. And the LGBT community was seen as destroying the family unit." 

However, over the course of her teens and early twenties, she began to feel that the values she'd been raised with didn't align with her emerging sense of who she was. In 2012, at the age of 27, after years of struggling with severe depression, she came to terms with a fact she’d known for some time but was afraid to admit — she’s gay.  

In her 2017 memoir, Refocusing My Family, Cantorna tells her story of coming out, leaving the evangelical community she’d been raised in, and redefining her Christian faith. Today, she lives in Denver, where she attends a progressive Christian church and runs the non-profit, Beyond, which "helps LGBTQ+ people through the coming out process."  

She spoke with 91.5 KRCC about her experience. 

91.5 KRCC: In the prologue of your book you describe the feeling before you came out to your family. You say, “half of me belonged in one world and the other half of me in the other. Both worlds coexisted in my heart yet refused to cohabitate in real life.” What are those two worlds that you were referring to in that in that line?

"For me, [coming out] became a matter of life and death, because I had spiraled into such a deep dark place of self-hatred and self-loathing."

Amber Cantorna: Well the one world is the world of evangelical Christianity which is what I grew up in, and then the other world would be the LGBT community, and in my upbringing those were two polar opposites that could never coexist. They didn't blend whatsoever. They were ultimately kind of pitted against each other in many ways. So it just felt like a complete disjoint and kind of like you’re split in half with a war raging inside of you.

KRCC: And talk a little bit about your upbringing and specifically about what you had been taught about sexuality growing up.

AC: Sure. My dad started working at Focus on the Family when I was three-years-old and he still works there to this day. So he's been there for 30 years. And that was really the world that I knew, I grew up very much encased kind of in this Christian bubble. And I was also homeschooled so I really had no exposure to the “outside world.” What we knew about sexuality was strictly that marriage was between one man and one woman and that was not to be debated. That was a very black-and-white issue. And the LGBT community was seen as destroying the family unit.

KRCC: So those were the views of the community that you were raised in. Did you share those feelings growing up?

AC: I did of course because I knew nothing else.

KRCC: At what point in your life did those cracks start to emerge, that sense of living in two worlds and a sense that you might disagree with some of the things that you'd been taught to believe?

"When you're a part of the LGBT community that, 'love the sinner, hate the sin' [mentality] is so damaging and so dehumanizing in so many ways because it's not a choice. It's like saying we welcome you but we're not affirming who you are."

AC: As far as sexuality goes it really wasn't until I was in my early 20s. I think before that I tended to question more of just the level of authenticity within Christianity. But it wasn't until my early 20s when I fell in love with my female roommate that I then began to really question my sexuality as a whole and what I had been raised to believe in regard to that.

KRCC: You came out to your family in 2012. Did you feel like you had to square your sexuality with your faith before you could approach your family about it and understand kind of how those two things fit together for yourself?

AC: Absolutely. For me I mean really it became for me a matter of life and death because I had spiraled into such a deep dark place of self-hatred and self-loathing. You know when there's this kind of community or group of people that you're taught to hate – even if they don't use those words that theology is underlying. When you're taught to kind of hate that group of people and then that group of people becomes you, then you start to hate yourself. For me it was important to be able to reconcile my faith with my sexuality both theologically for my mind to be able to wrap around and then also just for my heart to be able to understand that was going to be possible for me to live a happy fulfilling life in the future.

KRCC: Talk about what happened when you did come out to your family.

AC: I sat them down one day and told them about the journey that I had been on and I told them a lot of what I had gone through in regard to my faith, because I knew that was going to be their biggest fear and concern, but I don't think they heard any of that. They just were very upset and very, I think, concerned and probably scared in many ways. And so I finally put everything out there and told them that I was gay and it was absolutely the most vulnerable I've ever felt in my life as I just kind of hung in the air waiting for the response. My dad just looked at me and he said, "I have nothing to say to you right now," and he got up and walked out.

KRCC: What do you think it was for your family that made them so upset?

AC: In their minds to embrace being part of the LGBT community is to turn your back on God and is also the equivalent of putting your soul in jeopardy of going to hell. And they said, “I feel like you've died. How selfish of you to do this to the family and not think about how this would impact us or your dad's position at Focus.” And they were just I think very concerned and very angry.

KRCC: Sometimes you hear this expression, “love the sinner, hate the sin” or something along those lines – this idea that, “we still love you, but we just detest this choice that you're making and the sin that you're committing.” Can you talk about the effect of that type of mentality? How does that register as someone who doesn't feel like you're making a choice, this is part of who you are?

"The point of the book is not to throw [my parents] under the bus, or make them look like bad parents, or nail Focus to the wall. The point is to elevate some bad theology that's causing a lot of harm to specific people group."

AC: Right. This whole idea of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” or kind of tough love approach, I heard so many times. “We love you, but…” there was always this caveat of, “…but we don't agree with your choices,” “…but you're embarrassing us.” When you're a part of the LGBT community that “love the sinner, hate the sin,” is so damaging and so dehumanizing in so many ways because it's not a choice. It's like saying we welcome you but we're not affirming who you are.

KRCC: You are married now.

AC: I am.

KRCC: And you met your wife, Clara, in 2013?

AC: 2013, yup.

KRCC: Talk about that experience in the aftermath of losing the connection with your biological family. What it meant to forge this new life and find a loving partner and kind of move into that space that you wanted to be in.

AC: It was an interesting place that I lived in for a while because in the midst of us meeting and dating I was still very much in a place of turmoil with my own family and trying to work this out and I think in a lot of ways they kind of still hoped I would change. And then as we dated and as we got engaged and then of course as we got married their hope for that change just disintegrated. So it was shortly after I came out to them that they just cut ties completely, and we haven't spoken since. So that's been, you know, over three years now. But in the midst of all that grief and loss, at the same time I had never felt more happy or more at peace or more comfortable in my own skin or more free.

KRCC: This book has been out for a few months now and obviously you've kind of gone public with your story, although you don't identify your family members by name in the book. Have you heard about their reactions to the book?

AC: I have not had any contact with my family at all. There has been no response from any of them to my knowledge. Whether they've read it or not, I really don't know.

KRCC: And did you have your family in mind when you were writing this book in terms of imagining how they might react to what you were writing?

AC: Yes and no. In some ways, I tried to be very sensitive to protecting their privacy. The point of the book is not to throw them under the bus, or make them look like bad parents, or nail Focus to the wall. The point is to elevate some bad theology that's causing a lot of harm to specific people group, and as a result taking many lives. The suicide rates are so high among people from conservative faith communities because of this bad and harmful theology. So the point is to elevate that and shine a light on that, not necessarily to say that my parents were bad parents, because there were certainly a lot of things that they did very well. I was specific in that way, but at the same time I tried to not think about them when it came to just how authentic I felt like I needed to be to tell the story.

The most common response I've gotten is, one, that people can't put the book down, which is of course a huge compliment. But two, that they're finding themselves within the story, and they say, “I feel like I'm reading my own life.” And those were really the people I was writing the book for.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.