Queer Person Thrives After Choosing Theater Over Evangelism. “How Could It Possibly Be a Sin?”

by Dina Paolo Rodriguez

My name is Dina Paolo Rodriguez. I’m from El Caja, Peru. 

We immigrated to the US, to Miami, in the late nineties and my mom became a born again Christian, evangelical Christian. My whole entire childhood really from that point was just… everything was church, and then the pockets of in-between were like, “Oh yeah, you have to go to school.” It never clicked for me. I never accepted Jesus the way you’re supposed to. I never felt the spirit the way you’re supposed to. 

And then as I got older, I got really into dance and theater. Specifically in middle school it was heavy dance and then theater in high school because I went to a performing arts centered high school. In high school, everything shifts because school is just much more important, you’re planning for your future. And then sort of combining that with having to go to church three or four times a week became much more of a big deal.

So it was like having to convince my mother that school was important. And for me, I was like, “I just want to do theater every day, how can I make this happen?” And then my time in church was also difficult because the kids who were my age who went to church who I actually went to school with definitely were fully into that evangelical experience, were fully into like, “We are the children of God.”

In that pocket of time, I met my best friend at the time and she was this amazing person that I wanted to spend all my time with. And we made sure we spent every day together as much as we could. And so then that became another battle against church because it was like, “Why do I have to go to church when I could just be at my bestie’s house?”

Slowly I started to realize that I wanted to spend all my time with her. I was like, “Wow, what are you doing today? Oh, you have a boyfriend? That’s cool, but we should hang out.” And she similarly would be like, “Oh Dina, why don’t you come with me?” And her boyfriend at the time, why don’t… She was always inviting me as… it felt like a third but not a third, because we were 15.

And then we were hanging out at her house once and it just… I don’t know how, but she kissed me and I was like, “Huh, what is this feeling? What is happening?” And until that point, I had no moment of thinking of my sexuality. And I of course then walked home and was spiraling. I was like, “What is this feeling? Oh my god, what’s going on?” And then I remember the next day in school it was as if nothing had happened.

And then how we usually went home, I mean, we went to her house, it flipped. As soon as we walked into her house, it was very like we were in love. It was this very beautiful moment because it had no shame. There was just like, “Oh I’m gay. Okay, that’s awesome. Maybe that’s why I felt different in my family or different in my church experience or different with the kids that I had grown up with.”

It was this very beautiful moment because it had no shame. There was just like, "Oh I'm gay. Okay, that's awesome.”

I was like, “Oh, this is such a relief.” And then I went home and I had insinuated to my mom that I might have feelings for my friend, but I hadn’t said, “Oh I’m gay,” or, “I’m a lesbian.” I had just sort of insinuated that it may be something that I felt. Un-coincidentally, the next week when I was about to go in a theater competition, she was like, “You can go to this but you have to go to church camp if you want to go.”

So I went to church camp and when I got there it sort of slowly dawned on me that every kid that was there was struggling with something, very different things. Whether it was divorce or some sort of substance or just general teenage angst. We would go to these really long church sessions for what felt like eight hours, but maybe it was four. And the whole time they would preach and preach, and at the end of each service they would ask us kids to accept Jesus into their hearts. So when you’re evangelical, you go to the front of the church, people lay hands and usually you feel the spirit.

And by that it means that you fall to the ground and you’re reborn. And so it came to the end of that week, I think it was a long weekend church camp thing and I was on the very short list of kids who had yet to feel the spirit. So they brought us up. And slowly, I’m just seeing everybody fall, feeling the spirit, and they get to me and in my head, I’m like, “Okay, I don’t know. I don’t know about this.”

And so the preacher is preaching and he’s talking about how… This is all in Spanish, which makes it very specific. And he’s talking about saving me and bringing me into this world of God and love and whatever. So I was just standing there, very rigid, kind of the most stoic I had ever been it felt in my life. And I could see him being frustrated. I could see him thinking that I was purposely battling against him, which was just not the case.

And so he brought over his wife, who was also a preacher and then they were both laying hands on me. He was in front of me, kind of pushing against me, telling me to accept God. And she had her hands on the back of my shoulders trying to essentially push me down, trying to get me to accept God. And I just was very much the strongest I had ever been in that point, and just kind of looked him in the face and didn’t say anything.

It was just very much like, “Well, this isn’t going to happen because I don’t feel this and there’s nothing here.” He was like, “You’re just not ready today, but that’s okay, there’s always tomorrow and God is always here for you.” On the bus ride home because it was a few hours away from Miami, I was in my head about that moment quite a bit and I felt actually deep shame that someone would have to tell my mom that I was the only kid who didn’t accept God.

And I saw her and I told her and I could see the disappointment in her face. And I went to bed that night and then I went to school the next day and I saw my friend and I was like, “Oh, I’m definitely gay.” Specifically that moment for me was this huge relief of, “If I can be gay while having so many people pushing against it, then I’m obviously this. And there’s no shame in this because this must be the path that I’m supposed to take.”

So I was still that summer going to church just as much as I had to. I just felt even far more removed than I had already originally felt. I felt forced to be there and so that’s kind of how I acted.

And then the next year in 11th grade was the year that my mom told me that I could get a weekend job. And so when I got a weekend job, a part of the catalyst to that was because I wouldn’t have to go to church if I had a weekend job because church happened on the weekends at that point. And then at that point I fully stopped going to church. A lot of, I can only speak to Latina immigrants, do become evangelicals because there’s a need for community when you come to a new country. And I think that’s what my mom was looking for, especially for her children.

But I just never found community there. I found it in theater and obviously it was because theater was full of queer kids and I love theater. I just didn’t know that that’s what I was looking for. And then when I found it, I was like, “Oh well, this is my place.” Finding my queerness gave me this understanding of, “Oh, this can’t be true because my queerness is so important and so joyful and so happy, so how could it possibly be a sin?”

So it gave me a moment of liberation, of being like, “You were exactly right, of course you couldn’t buy into this because nothing about your queerness is wrong.”

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