COLUMN: Faith and identity can be conflicting

When I was four years old, my parents converted to Catholicism to heal their marriage. They joined a church-based family counseling program that met every month — and were convinced that embracing their newly found faith would bring our family back together. By default, my brother and I followed suit.

Like any other child, I neither had a say nor did I ever question my parents’ decision to get me baptized. I wasn’t old enough to fully grasp the concept of religion — but what I did know was that I was rewarded for every prayer I memorized in Vietnamese and every rosary I recited before bed.

For over 12 years, I remained active in a variety of programs at my local church, sometimes against my own will. Saturday mornings were reserved for Bible study and Sunday afternoons for Catholic youth scouts and Mass. I wasn’t engaged in bible study because I wanted to have a better understanding of God. I was engaged because I knew it would make parents proud when I memorized the most prayers and had the highest exam scores among my peers. No matter how much I dreaded it, I never complained.

It wasn’t until fifth grade that I finally began to embrace my faith. After becoming an altar server, I went to Mass at least twice a week plus on Sundays. From that point on, I became fully committed to God and Catholicism. And for several years, my life outside of school was completely dedicated to being an altar server and scout leader.

Even when I discovered my sexuality in eighth grade, I didn’t think about it within the context of my religion. Though I knew the Catholic Church did not support homosexuality, I assumed that I would never be affected by it or discriminated against if I just remained silent, continued pursuing my faith and prayed to God daily.

As I grew older, however, it became apparent that this was not the case. These sentiments of guilt, shame and embarrassment began to consume me when I was told by one of my scout leaders that same-sex marriage is unacceptable because it obstructs God’s natural intentions, and that God doesn’t protect gay people. As I became more exposed to the Church’s ideologies, I began to struggle more and more with reconciling my identity with my faith.

The guilt worsened gradually. I spent many of my high school years wondering if being bisexual and Catholic were two mutually exclusive identities. Would God still accept me if I remained who I was? Or would I have to lose a part of myself to go to heaven? My experience and involvement at church was never quite the same after this.

I quit going to youth scouts partly because I was getting busier with high school activities, but the main reason was that I grew uncomfortable with the environment that I was in. I was often teased by other scout leaders for a variety of things, like being a Lady Gaga fan. At one point, I was even told to be less flamboyant and start acting like a man. These small details ultimately pushed me away from church. I didn’t want to be in a place where I was not welcomed, and I couldn’t possibly remain in an organization that implicitly shamed me for being myself.

By senior year of high school, I stopped going to Mass completely. I was finally able to accept myself and be content with who I am — but that ultimately meant sacrificing my faith. In retrospect, I regret making this decision. It’s strange that it took giving up something that was such an important part of my life to finally be in the place that I am today. As I’ve continued to mature, I’ve learned that religion doesn’t just give people something to believe in — it’s also a part of their identity.

Though I still have qualms about the Catholic Church and its ideological stance against the LGBTQ community, I now realize that my faith and beliefs shouldn’t be defined by what people tell me is right or wrong. I’m no longer ashamed of myself, and no longer worried that God won’t accept me. I’ve fully embraced the idea that my identity can be intersectional and that I was brought into this world for a reason. And though I don’t go to Mass regularly anymore, I know that there is a greater force out there looking after me and supporting me through life.

And as long as I am happy with myself, He will also be happy for me.

Allen Pham is a sophomore majoring in public relations. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “The A Game,” runs every other Monday.