7 Years Later: Gay Daughter of Focus on the Family Executive Opens Up About the Years Since Losing E
April 14th, 2012 was the day that separated the life I had, from the life that was about to be. It was the day that defined everything. The day that determined that everyday that followed would be different from every day that came before.
The fear of coming out to my family was a weight on my chest that wouldn’t leave me alone–it followed me every second of the day and haunted me every minute of the night. I lived constantly with the anxiety that coming out as gay to my family–the family that was the epitome of perfection to the conservative Christian world–could potentially cost me everything; but I was not prepared for the fact that it actually would. With a father who’s been employed as an executive at Focus on the Family for over 30 years and a mother who stayed home to school and raise us, I knew this news would not be easy for me to share, nor easy for them to hear.
Gathering my family in my home that day, I held notes in my lap as points of reference for when my nerves got the best of me. Giving it my all, I took them on the journey I had been walking over the past several years, until the moment finally came when I told them I knew I was gay. My words hung in the air, forming what I now know to be an unbridgeable gap between us. I’d never felt more vulnerable in my life than I did in those moments awaiting their response. Then, with anger in my dad’s eyes, he simply said, “I have nothing to say to you right now,” and he walked out the door.
That door closing behind my family as they left that day felt like they were simultaneously closing the door on me, not only as their only daughter, but also as part of the family. As soon as they were out of sight, I collapsed into a puddle of devastation and tears.
THE FIRST YEAR…was the hardest. It was the year I didn’t know if I’d survive. The next conversation I had with my family was one where they looked me in the eye and told me they felt like I had died and that given the choice, they would choose God over me. They compared me being gay to murder, pedophilia, and bestiality. They called me selfish and said they no longer trusted me to have open access to their home. The unconditional love my parents professed growing up suddenly had very clear conditions attached, and as I walked out the door, they asked for the keys to their house back. That was the day I became an orphan.
Suicide was a very real threat to me in the months that followed as harsh words, passive aggressive behavior, and ghosting confronted me from all sides. I lost almost everyone and everything: my parents, my only sibling, my relatives, most of my friends, my home church of fourteen years, and the only hometown I’d ever known.
One tragedy took place after another that year ranging from loss, to critical illness, to death; it put a strain on me that, looking back, I still don’t know how I survived. I truly believe to this day that the affirming community I found in Denver, and my service dog, Half Pint, are what saved my life that year. When everyone else walked out, they stayed. And because of them, I’m alive today.
Cantorna’s service dog, Half Pint, continues to travel with her nation-wide.
THE SECOND YEAR was the year that love entered my life. I held in tandem a dynamic of losing everyone I’d ever loved and simultaneously gaining the unconditional love of someone who, for the first time, saw the real me. I rode a rollercoaster as the connection with my family became ever more strained, and yet I discovered joy and peace in my own skin unlike any I’d ever known. I fell in love, but couldn’t share that love with my very own family. By the end of this second year, I was engaged, and ready to share what should be some of the most exciting news of my life with the world, but rather than sharing that news with my family first, they ended up being among the last to know. It broke my heart in a way that words can’t explain. Yet somehow, the freedom I was finding to be myself kept me moving forward, as I slowly let go of the the love and acceptance my heart craved from my family.
Cantorna and her then fiance, now wife, Clara.
THE THIRD YEAR was the year I got married. It was the day I’d always dreamed of: the white dress, the first look, the first dance. People from my affirming faith community stepped up and stood in where my family should have been, filling the gap and making the obvious emptiness bearable. It’s a day that was everything I’d always dreamed it to be…almost. And yet the ache of what my family missed that day still stays with me, knowing we can never go back. It’s too late. They missed one of the happiest days of my life. Just three months after my wedding, my family cut me off completely. Their hope for “change” had waned and they gave up on our relationship. We haven’t spoken since.
Cantorna on her wedding day.
THE FOURTH YEAR was the year that we bought our first home. With the help of friends, we moved into a house and made it our own. We struggled with emptiness that comes with not having family support, especially around the holidays, and fought to bring some of the traditions of our past into our present, and to let others go in place of creating our own. It was a year of shifting, of growth, and of beginning to establish our own family, even without the love of our biological families. Together, we held onto love and let that fill our life.
Closing Day on the Cantorna’s First House
THE FIFTH YEAR was the year I wrote Refocusing My Family and began sharing my story with the world. Following what was clearly the voice of God through one of my friends, I was told that “Embedded in my identity, was a responsibility to be a voice for change.” I knew God was calling me. It was a hard and taxing book to write, but so rewarding. That year was the launch of what has now become my life’s work: writing, speaking, and using my story to help others with theirs.
Cantorna releases her story of growing up the daughter of a Focus on the Family executive and later coming out as gay in her groundbreaking memoir, “Refocusing My Family” (October 2017).
THE SIXTH YEAR was a year of continuing to grieve for the loss of what could or should have been with my family, while also finding strength and grounding in the family my wife and I were creating together. It was a year of letting go, a year of building up, and a year of finding strength in each other when things were tough. As I traveled and spoke across the country, I heard hundreds of stories that were far too similar to mine and because of it, soon published a second book (Unashamed: A Coming-Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians) in order to provide the very first resource for LGBTQ people of faith to navigate the complications of internalized homophobia, coming out, setting healthy boundaries, grieving rejection and loss, and embracing who God created them to be to the fullest.
Cantorna continues to produce meaningful work by releasing her second book within eighteen months of the first, and publishes the first coming-out guide for LGBTQ Christians.
THE SEVENTH YEAR…this year…is the year that I strive to embrace healing and wholeness to its full capacity. It’s the year that I seek to pour life into others, and be filled with life myself. Amidst all the pain and loss I’ve experience over the past seven years, I can honestly say I wouldn’t go back or trade what I have now for the world.
I came alive the day I came out, and my family has missed the happiest years of my life.
I now get the privilege of doing deeply meaningful work by helping other LGBTQ people of faith find their own purpose and self-acceptance. I get to live my life free of shame, guilt, and condemnation and instead know that there is a God bigger than my box that loves me completely and unconditionally. And I get to share a love with my wife which only continues to draw me closer to the divine Spirit of God.
Cantorna and her wife, Clara, will celebrate five years of marriage in June. She continues to have no contact with her family.
If you are an LGBTQ person of faith struggling to come out, know that there is love, acceptance, and peace waiting for you on the other side. You can love God and a person of the same-sex without any conflict in between. You can be LGBTQ and be at peace with the fact that God loves you fully and completely exactly as you are. For more helpful information, check out my Resources page.
If you are a parent, pastor, or ally of an LGBTQ person, I urge you to see the damage that faulty religion has done to my family and make a different choice for yours. You don’t have to understand completely to love unconditionally. Be willing to learn, to grow, and to expand your understanding of God. You willingness to be stretched could save the life of the ones you love.
I came out seven years ago today. I love my life and I’m not looking back.
Photo credit and thanks goes to: Missy Hill Photography
Amber Cantorna is a national speaker and the author of Unashamed: A Coming-Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians and Refocusing My Family. You can learn more about her work and view her speaking schedule at AmberCantorna.com or follow her on social media @AmberNCantorna. To support the continuation of Amber’s work, visit: Amber’s Patreon Page.