Story Update: Crystal Cheatham on Faith and the LGBTQ+ Community. “I Found a Space for Myself Here.”

by Crystal Cheatham

Nathan: Welcome to this week’s I’m From Driftwood Story Update. Today, we’re going to be speaking with Crystal Cheatham, whose story we filmed over five years ago. Before we speak to Crystal, let’s take at her story.

Crystal: ?Tear me down till there’s nothing left. Fill me up with no regrets. ‘Cause in these palms… in these palms… yes, in these palms, there’s…?

My name is Crystal Cheatham and I’m from Cochranville, Pennsylvania.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community which is Seventh-day Adventism. And if you know anything about Seventh-day Adventism, you know it’s a lot like being Southern Baptist with added mix of Judaism.

My father passed away when I was 15 and it was devastating for my entire family but I had a really close relationship with him because I was pretty much a Daddy’s Girl. We would do everything together, everything together. So when he passed away I decided that I wanted to know what he found in faith and religion because he was a devout Seventh Day Adventist.

When I graduated and went to Andrew’s University that’s what I wanted to follow. I wanted to figure out how I could still be a part of my family’s tradition without being a minister. So I started to sing in the professional choir and I toured worldwide and I began to sing at the main stage at the university. As I was graduating, I was invited to sing at this giant youth conference, it’s called Pathfinders which is the same as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts of America, where everybody arrives with their uniforms and the badges that they’ve earned.

And from that experience, I met a youth pastor and he kind of became my mentor because we lived pretty close to each other. He had a mega church in DC, I lived in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, which is pretty much an hour and a half commute between the two and he really liked what I was doing with the youth and he really liked that I had recorded music.

And he said, “Crystal, I want you to come and sing at my church.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool, I can’t believe that maybe there is something outside of school for me to do in music and maybe ministry.” So I felt kind of called to this.

I end up driving back to my mother’s house and meanwhile I’m corresponding with Pastor Manny and I realized it’s not okay if I just go because I think that it’s time for me to actually start coming out. And so I decided to tell Pastor Manny who I was because I really felt called to minister in this way. And I told the pastor that, I emailed him and I was like, “I really want you to know this is who I am. I identify as an out lesbian.”

And he emailed me back quicker than I thought he would: “This is so great. When you come to my church I want you to not only give a concert, but I want you to speak.” I was blown away. This was not the response I thought, I thought this was one of those trials where you’re kind of going to be spurned and thrown to the wayside so my excitement built.

There were two weeks before I got there so once I arrived, I arrive with all my gear, there’s not enough time for a sound check, and right before I get on stage, the pastor said, “You know what, just sing. Someone else has prepared a message and they’re going to speak to the youth.” And there were like 200 kids there.

So I thought maybe it was because I didn’t have a sound check or what’s going on, so I get on the stage and I sing my songs and I’m kind of distracted and when I get off I ask him, “Why didn’t you want me to speak?”

And he pulls me into the lobby or the foyer and says, “Well, you know Crystal, it’s because you are a practicing homosexual. This is why. And in the Adventist Church practicing homosexuals can’t be leaders and it’s not even okay for you to be on the stage.”

And in that moment I started to cry. It’s worse than anything because he wasn’t just saying “no” to my music, he was saying “no” to me. He was saying “no” to my entire career, everything I had built up, he was saying, “Yes, it’s okay that you have the voice, that you have the skill to play the guitar, that you have the skill to lead a band, that you have the skill to put words together to speak and to write and to perform and to lead but all of these are for nothing because you’re attracted to women and you’re going to act on that.”

That’s the reason my world fell apart, why I had to protect myself and pull away from Adventism. And my next step was to learn as much as I could about the queer community. But if I was to fully integrate myself into queer culture and understand my identity as a lesbian, I was going to have to divorce myself from the sanctity of the Sabbath. And it was hard for me to keep in touch with the spiritual side of it but ultimately what I walked away with was, there’s a difference between religion and spirituality and faith, and I’m a very spiritual person and a very faithful person but the religion is not something I can carry with me.

I represent somebody who does claim both those identities and lives a very happy and fulfilling life. I believe that my God loves me and I’m Christian – and I’ll tell everybody that I’m a Christian –  but I’m also a very out lesbian. So I think my story is important because there’s a lot of people like me, there’s a lot of people like me still really far back in the closet and they need to know that there’s light that they can step into and not be ashamed of themselves.

Nathan: Okay, Crystal is so good to see you again. Thank you for joining us and taking the time. How are you doing these days?

Crystal: Thank you so much for having me. I completely forgot about that really intimate interview that we had together. But yeah, I’m doing great. As well as I can, for sure.

Nathan: I’m glad to hear that. And yeah, it was an intimate story that you shared with us. And I have a couple of questions about it. One is, I just thought it was really powerful that the reason you went deeper into that religion is kind of as a way to get to know your father better. And, but also that same reason is the same… same reason it was so heartbreaking when you were told essentially, “Hey, we want your voice, we want your talent, but we don’t want you.” Can you kind of reflect on that after all these years, like, how that made you feel in the moment?

Crystal: It was devastating. I think that it broke my spirit in a way. But I’m of the mind that when a door closes, another one opens and so it kind of made room for this whole life embrace of the LGBTQ community. And so like when I left Adventism and I found, you know, queer Philly, it just, like, it changed everything for me.

Nathan: That’s beautiful. Have you had any other experiences since then that – I know you said that you left Adventism, but any experiences where people wanted you for one reason, but didn’t want you to be your full or open self?

Crystal: You know what? I think that religion is really good at cutting people off and saying, “We’ll take these three things, but we don’t want the other five.” You know, and that’s kind of what I have come to call toxic theology. This idea that you can’t be your whole self there. And I think that there are parts of queer culture where you’re not allowed to be your whole self.

So part of my struggle when I moved to Philadelphia was trying to be a Christian in these like really rich and queer spaces. But, you know, so much has changed even over the past five years that I’ve found my community. I’ve found my people and that isn’t… that isn’t really a problem.

Nathan: I’m so glad. And a question on that, you said you found that your people in your community there in Philly, I know that the Philly queer community is just amazing, it really is like a family, have you found that the queer community might not be as open or accepting of your religious part? Or are they fully accepting and open to who… to all of who you are?

Crystal: Right now, I go to a really amazing church. Tabernacle United in West Philly. And the pastor has a lesbian with a wife and a beautiful son. And the congregation is very mixed. You know, we have old people and young people and black people and white people and everything in between as far as, you know, sexuality and gender identity.

And I think that is how I’ve begun to see Philadelphia and my queer community. Because it’s not just, are you a lesbian or are you gay? But now it involves like, What are your pronouns? If you’re a straight person, you have pronouns too, you know? So I just think that like, everything about what we’ve been preaching about queerness is just growing. I mean, it’s growing and it’s creating community and yeah, I’ve found… I found a space for myself there.

Nathan:  I’m so glad. That’s… that’s really amazing. And I love how you described that as is finding really the family there at the church. Any other things you want to brag about Philly? I feel like this is becoming like a Philadelphia brag moment and I’m… I love it.

So what else is going on in Philly that you’ve found since moving there that has really attracted you and pulled you in?

Crystal: That’s a really good question. In my free time, pre-pandemic, I would spend evenings at the Tavern on Camac, which is like this old queen piano bar. And one of the things that I really love about Philly culture, especially that bar in particular, is that you could walk in to a room of people, all singing something from The Sound of Music. Like drinks in hand, somebody at the mic at the piano, somebody playing like a beautiful rendition of, you know, whatever. And we’re just all having a great time. So that’s one thing I love about Philly is our gayborhood. Very alive.

Nathan: Yes. I have been to Tavern. And Crystal, I know that you’re a musician, you’re a singer. Be honest, what song do you sing at Tavern? I know you belly up to the… to the piano and sing something.

Crystal: You know what? I absolutely do sing. I think that my go-to karaoke song right now is “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. And it’s so old, but I mean, like, I feel like when people hear that song, they’re like, Oh yeah, that… that existed. So yeah. That’s mine. What are you singing?

Nathan: Oh God, no, no, no, no, nothing ever. Never. I wish… I feel like I’m a singer on the inside, but once I try to get it out, it’s just a horrible disaster. So I have never sung at Tavern, but I do love going there and watching everyone else sing. And I can’t wait until this pandemic is over so we can get back to that. But Crystal, anything else going on in your life that you want to share with people?

Crystal: Yeah, I mean, since I’m since our talk, I think, you know, I talked a little bit about Soulforce and the identity kit. Now I have founded an app, Our Bible app, which is a progressive Christian app with daily devotionals that are LGBT affirming. You know, we affirm women in leadership. We do all of these things around Christianity that was very much… that has been very much taboo and what I would call very toxic.

And so our offices are here in Philadelphia. We have a WeWork space in Northern Liberties and we actually won a $10,000 grant from them in August just, you know, for being a fantastic new business in their space. And so, you know, cool things are happening and I have continued to do work at the intersections of queerness and faith and ,I don’t think I’ll ever stop to be honest.

Nathan: Oh, that’s beautiful. I’m so glad to hear that. And what was the app called again?

Crystal: Our Bible app

Nathan: Our Bible app. We’ll make sure to include that in the description and share it when we publish this story. That sounds incredible.

So, Crystal, thank you so much for taking the time. We’re filming this just a few days before Thanksgiving and I hope you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving. And you know, if anyone has any questions for crystal, leave them in the comments and Crystal, maybe you can check back periodically and respond to some of them if you’re willing to.

Crystal: I sure will. Great.

Nathan: Great. So thanks everyone for watching. We’ll see you next week for next week’s story update.

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