Episode 47: Cheryl Allison

She grew up a good Baptist girl, singing in the youth choir, only to realize eventually that she was gay. How did that effect her relationship to the church and to God? Listen to Cheryl Allison talk about this and her redeeming story about returning home to the church of her childhood, now that it is “a better home.”

You can listen the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here to watch the video.

George Mason: Imagine being a good Baptist girl growing up in the church and realizing that you're different and then realizing that being different means that you're gay and yet you're a Christian.

George Mason: We'll be talking with Cheryl Allison, an actress and still a Baptist, about her experience. Coming up on Good God. Stay with us.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm the host, George Mason, and I'm delighted to welcome to the program today Cheryl Allison, who is my dear friend and church-mate I should say as a matter of fact, and that itself is one of the beautiful things I want us to talk about, but I think that we should start out at least by saying that Cheryl is an actress and a director and a producer, and she's lived all over the country, New York and LA and back in Dallas ...

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: ... which is a real treat for us, Cheryl, that you're back home in a way, and we want to talk all about that, but maybe we should start in fact with what brought you back to Dallas and what brought you back to Wilshire Baptist Church, because you grew up in Wilshire Baptist Church?

Cheryl Allison: I did. I did.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: I joined Wilshire in 1977 at the age of 11 ...

George Mason: Wow.

Cheryl Allison: ... so, now, we know how old I am.

George Mason: That would be 12 years before I got there as pastor.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. Yes. Our pastor was Bruce McIver.

George Mason: Right.

Cheryl Allison: My family joined then, and I was a member until 1990 when I moved. After I graduated with my master's ...

George Mason: Okay. Very good.

Cheryl Allison: ... I moved to New York.

George Mason: Your mom and dad stayed in the church, Brian and Cynthia ...

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: ... and were our dear friends until they retired and moved to Denton and all of that, but then you came back to Dallas ...

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: ... with your wife, Natalie.

Cheryl Allison: I did.

George Mason: That was a product of both a desire I guess to be back in Dallas, but also the possibility of you coming back and being whole because of the marriage equality decision.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly. I had moved to New York and lived there for over 10 years and then ... and met Natalie in New York, and we had a commitment ceremony there at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. Of course, there was no legal rites to that. It was really in the eyes of God for me, and then after many years there, we moved to Los Angeles because of a job promotion for Natalie. After being there about 10 years, Natalie was starting to look to retire, and we were thinking about it, and we didn't want to stay in LA for retirement and had no desire to go back to New York, and live very close to my family, of course. Her family is in Florida, and we thought Dallas is a great central location. I could still get to New York for a lot of my work, so, emotionally, it was an incredible decision because I have incredible relatives in Houston and my family is here, like you mentioned, so that was all good.

Cheryl Allison: As far as being a gay couple and coming back to Texas, it was very difficult because we had domestic partner rights. Marriage equality was just starting in the different states, and so, although we had state rights through California as domestic partners, Texas didn't offer anything, so it's very difficult to think about moving back to a state which is my home state and it doesn't feel like home.

George Mason: When you landed in Texas, you moved from being recognized in one state as being married with all the rights that accrue to such a public covenant and then, in Texas, you have to carry your papers around all the time just to ...

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: ... prove that, if something went wrong, that you would be honored in some way.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. Every time we were in a state that ... Let me back up. We had domestic partner rights in California, but we still had all our paperwork, healthcare proxies, that sort of thing, so, when we would come to Dallas, we would have those with us because if we were on I-45 South heading to Houston to visit my grandmother and we had an accident or something, we had to have that paperwork or I would not have been considered her next of kin or even been able to visit her in the hospital.

George Mason: Right.

Cheryl Allison: I think a lot of people don't understand that aspect of it, so-

George Mason: Right, which is why the marriage equality decision by the Supreme Court was so important to you and to so many ...

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: ... because it took away that state decision, state-by-state decision, and gave you the confidence that, anywhere you could go, you would be recognized in equal way.

Cheryl Allison: We had a hard decision to possibly make because, since marriage equality was going on the state level, it was legal in California, but it became legal after we had already moved to Texas, and then New York passed it, and so because we had had our commitment ceremony in New York, Natalie and I flew back there, and we were legally married in the state of New York by our same pastor who had performed our commitment ceremony.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: What was really bittersweet about that is our legal marriage was recognized in at the time I think it was 13 states, but when we would get on the plane to fly back to Texas, we were unrecognized, so it's a very hard thing to get off the plane at LaGuardia and be married and recognized and get off the plane at DFW and not be, and so when the Supreme Court was taking on the case to decide if they would now say, "It has to be federal. All states must recognize gay marriage," we thought, "If it does not pass, if it doesn't go in our favor, can we stay living in a state that we don't have rights?"

George Mason: Right.

Cheryl Allison: When talked to my parents about it and said, "Depending on how this goes on June 26, you know, we will then decide," we would probably have moved maybe back to California or New York, so I'm so grateful on many levels.

George Mason: We are, too, because you and Natalie have come to our church, have been such a delightful presence, great partners in ministry and enthusiastic, and we're so grateful for that in so many ways, but, growing up in the Baptist Church, tell us what it was like for you to come to a growing awareness of your sexual orientation and how you wrestled with that in a Baptist Church that was maybe not fundamentalist, but didn't necessarily at the time address the issue or support it in such a way as we do today. Talk about what that was like for you.

Cheryl Allison: Life changing. Wilshire was a huge part of my life growing up. Like I said, I was 11, so many of my dear lifelong friends I made at Wilshire. I was incredibly involved from softball to youth choir, starring in the musicals.

George Mason: Of course.

Cheryl Allison: It helped prompt my career.

George Mason: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting that I think most people may not realize how many people in the entertainment industry grew up in churches that either sing the choir or do church musicals. This became their vocational entry point, right?

Cheryl Allison: Absolutely. It was a huge influence and in a lot of ways gave me training because I had the opportunity to sing on Sundays and sing in the choir and also to see other incredible artists.

George Mason: Right.

Cheryl Allison: I mean, Cynthia Clawson walks on water to me.

George Mason: Yes. Sure.

Cheryl Allison: I was five years old when I met her because my father is a former Baptist minister of music. She had come to our church in Victoria, Texas, and made a huge influence, so the church was absolutely my family. I think around junior high when you start to go through puberty, I started to feel different. I couldn't put a label around it. I couldn't define it because, especially back then, there were no examples. There was no Ellen, people like that to be a change-maker for us.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: I knew that I felt a little different. I didn't know why. I knew certain things about ... The church bothered me. I remember I was very affected when we had first joined Wilshire, and I idolized our youth minister at the time, and he became engaged to a wonderful woman in the church who happened to be divorced, and he was asked to leave the church ...

George Mason: Really?

Cheryl Allison: ... because of that.

George Mason: This is a story I don't know.

Cheryl Allison: Yeah.

George Mason: Okay.

Cheryl Allison: I even asked my mother about it because I was like, "I am recalling this correctly, right?" and I am, and that shows how far the church has come, but I remember being in grade school going, "This isn't right, and I don't understand this," and so, when I began to feel different, I had a lot of fear because I had seen that, and I thought, "Well, I could be asked to leave," and I didn't quite understand yet why, but I knew something felt different, and I was a part, but separate.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: Then in high school, when things started to become clear and in early college, I was going to school up in Denton, so I wasn't coming back to Dallas regularly, and I ended up coming out to my parents, and it was a growth process for them.

George Mason: Sure.

Cheryl Allison: They're incredible people. They had gay friends in their life and people that had been in my father's youth choir ...

George Mason: Interesting.

Cheryl Allison: ... things like that, but when it's your own child, I think it's much more of a journey for them, so a lot of communication, a lot of conversation, and they're incredibly accepting and loving and supportive, but I then started to back away from the church because I knew that ... I thought they love me because they don't know me.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Cheryl Allison: That's how I felt, and then I moved to New York so I didn't have to worry about my relationship with Wilshire then.

George Mason: Sure. That was our church, but in a sense it was the church ...

Cheryl Allison: The church.

George Mason: ... because it's the only church you really knew or had experienced very much of, and if our church was not a safe place for you, it's probably hard to trust another church as well.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. Exactly.

George Mason: I think many gay people go through this because they're young and they're trying to figure out not only their relationship to the church, but then also their relationship to God because of that. Did you struggle not only with the church, but with God about your sexuality?

Cheryl Allison: Interestingly enough, I did not. I had this innate sense that God was on my side.

George Mason: Interesting.

Cheryl Allison: I never went through self-hatred that some members of the LGBTQ community go through especially I think in the south, and Christian gays will ... They don't want to be gay. They ... and so they go through a little bit of that. I never did. Maybe it was my makeup. Maybe because I was so bent on getting to New York and very strong in that aspect to have a career there. I just knew God was on my side, that he loved me, so I had my own spirituality, my own relationship with Christ on my own and then ended up about five year after being in New York finding Rutgers Presbyterian on the Upper West Side, and they were one of the very first ... they call it More Light Churches in the Presbyterian Church.

George Mason: Yes. Right. I remember that.

Cheryl Allison: It was a different denomination, so it was a little different there, but I walked in and I was a part of them, and that was the first time I had felt that, and so I started to blend that relationship back again.

George Mason: What did it feel like to come back to Wilshire and feel a part again after having been gone for so long and wondering if you would be welcomed with your whole self?

Cheryl Allison: Well now see, I'll get emotional, but I don't think you can put words on it, because I visited Dallas numerous times obviously, several times a year when I lived away, and when mom and dad were still in Dallas, we would go for Christmas Eve service at Wilshire or Easter or whatever occasion I was home for, and I had resentment and I even fault my parents about it, and I challenged them. "How can you go to a church that would not accept or not marry me?" I put them in a rough situation, which probably wasn't fair, but I was struggling so much about that and then, when I came back and then found out the road you led the church down in 2016, mom told me about it and I was so incredibly happy, but I still found myself just a little bit okay because there was more hurt there than I think I realized with the church, not God.

George Mason: Okay, so let's pick that up after the break. I want to promote a local nonprofit that is dear to you, but I'd like us to be able to do some more of this conversation in that direction because I think it's so helpful to people who are wrestling with just the same kinds of things, so thank you, Cheryl.

Speaker 3: Good God salutes the vital services provided to our community by the North Texas Food Bank. Each day, the North Texas Food Bank Feeding Network provides access to more than a 190,000 meals for hungry children, seniors and families. Visit ntfb.org to get involved.

George Mason: We're back with Cheryl Allison.

George Mason: Cheryl, you were just talking about your experience of coming back to our church as an adult with your wife Natalie now and how at first, it was ... Though it was exciting, it was also still difficult because you had to wrestle with some of the old disappointments and bitterness that had made it hard for you through the years. I'm sure that's true of so many LGBTQ folk who wrestle with their relationship to church. Keep talking us through that a little bit, because it's not just about the question of how gay Christians feel, but also those who wrestle with how can we be welcoming and how to help their churches become a more open place. You were talking about getting past that bitterness.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. Yes. Natalie and I did visit Wilshire, and it was surreal for me. I have so many memories in the hallways and in that sanctuary, and I pictured myself up there singing and ... but I felt immediately a different energy in the church. The people that remembered me came up and gave me a hug, and I immediately said, "This is my wife, Natalie," because I have never not been out or denied who I am. The hugging and the embracing and the nonissue of it was slightly overwhelming at the beginning, but it was healing.

George Mason: Good.

Cheryl Allison: One person told me, "Welcome home. We are a better home now."

George Mason: Wow.

Cheryl Allison: That's what they told me the day that Natalie and I joined the church, and I rejoined, and I think that that's what's true. I think, for me and maybe many LGBTQ community that is looking for a church, we want to find a church that doesn't say, "You are welcome here because, um, we, we love, uh ... We, we hate the sin, but love the sinner," that old saying.

George Mason: Right. Right. Sure.

Cheryl Allison: "Listen, you are welcome here because God loves all, and so all people in spite of your lifestyle are welcome here," because, to me, that's loving someone halfway, and I think that that's something that the church and many churches can continue to challenge themselves because I see a lot of time whether it's on social media or elsewhere, in articles where there will be a church or church members that are supporting, they really truly are in good intentions, the LGBTQ community, but ... and they've had a journey to get there, but they justify or show their support of the community by saying, "Listen, who are we to judge? Aren't we all sinners? Aren't we all?" and then-

George Mason: Which automatically makes you as a gay person sinful because you're gay ...

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: ... not because you've been in some way unjust or unfaithful or some such thing like anyone else, but just by the fact that you're constitutionally predisposed to love the same-gender person.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. The community could tend to get lumped into a list of, "Look, we love the liars and adulterers," and that sort of thing, and I always say, "Yes, I have transgressions and sins like anyone else, but being an LGBTQ person is not one of them," and I think ... because I feel like, when that happens, it's a backhanded ... It's a backhanded acceptance, like a backhanded compliment, and that I think sometimes keeps the community away from churches because they feel like ... I don't want to just be accepted because they're like, "We've grown so much. We're going to welcome the sinner."

George Mason: Right. Right. I think the thing that we're all learning is that there's hard work to do sometimes to read the scripture honestly and faithfully and to look in the eyes of your sister or brother who is your friend and neighbor and fellow Christian and put those two things together in a way that honors God that is not unfaithful and that realizes that maybe the things that we've assumed we knew all along, have to take a fresh look at not because we're suddenly modern people, but because this has always been true, not because we're suddenly trying to make something true, that people are created the way they are and then are responsible for who they are before God, so thank you for helping us grow in all of that and for being patient with us and encouraging us along the way.

Cheryl Allison: Thank you for what you did because I know it opened so many eyes, and it was a very difficult time for the church and still can be, but ... and a lot of backlash happened.

George Mason: It did and it does, and I think no growth takes place without struggle. For those who could not see things the way the majority at Wilshire saw them, they don't see that they have resisted growth. They think we have simply been unfaithful, and I understand this is something God has to work out for all of us and be our judge, but to those of us who have been able to experience new life with people like you and Natalie and to be church together, there is a joy and a freshness to our life now that we just ... we give thanks to God for.

Cheryl Allison: So do I, and you know what I think is important? Gay Christians back in the '90s, when I first moved into New York, we didn't have a lot of options for churches that we grew up in, so we formed our own, the community churches. We have the really big one here in Dallas ...

George Mason: Right, Cathedral of Hope.

Cheryl Allison: ... the Cathedral of Hope, which is an amazing church.

George Mason: Wonderful people.

Cheryl Allison: There are members of the gay community that want to go to church with the majority of other members being gay, and that's incredible, and I'm so glad that they have a church like that. For me, because it's a personal choice, I always wanted a church that was diverse in all aspects, whether it was race or sexual orientation or whatnot, because I never felt different. That's the whole key. I never felt different, and so I wanted to go to a church that just was ... that had so many different colors in it, and now we have that because of Wilshire and churches like Rutgers Presbyterian.

George Mason: Yes. Right. Yeah, I think it's a misconception that some people think that gay people want to be treated specially when, actually, they want to be treated equally.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: They want to be acknowledged as being who they are and different in that respect, but it seems to me that all my gay friends are asking me to do is to recognize that we're sisters and brothers in Christ and we have unique gifts and ways of looking at the world, let's enrich one another by our friendship and commonality in Christ and serve the Lord together.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. Exactly. You nailed it. It's not special rights. It's equal rights, just wanting to be treated equally.

George Mason: That has actually driven you to a lot of the work that you do in advocacy, too, and we'll talk later about on the next episode some about your work as an actress and filmmaker and all of that, but I know that you are a passionate advocate. In fact, when the border crisis happened, you jumped down to the border and made sure that you were there to help with Sister Norma and meeting children that had been separated from their families, but it seems that your experience, if I'm reading you right and understand you well, your experience of feeling somewhat a marginalized person in society drives you not only to just support LGBTQ rights, but also those who are equally marginalized in society.

Cheryl Allison: Oh, absolutely.

George Mason: Yeah.

Cheryl Allison: Absolutely. The immigration, for example, the separation of the families and children just really hit me. The way I look at it is it's not a political issue. This was a human issue that was going on here, and no matter what our differences may be as far as how we protect our borders, that's another conversation. I had the opportunity and some free time to be able to go down there because if I start to feel so passionate about something and if I can act, then it helps me. It helps also heal me through my frustrations of what was going on. I have to tell you, I put out the call to the church and to friends and family, and we raised ... I think it was over $2500, $3500, like that ...

George Mason: I mean, like that. Right.

Cheryl Allison: ... and went down there, and the Humanitarian Respite Center really needed it, so ... and it is probably, like you said, from fighting for my own rights from a young woman on-

George Mason: There's a beautiful verse in 2 Corinthians, the first chapter, where Paul is talking about how we have been comforted by God in our distress and then offer the same comfort to others who are going through times of distress themselves, and it is as if what he's saying is the compassion of God for us strikes us in certain ways that heal us and then it makes us sensitive to people so that we can offer them the same kind of compassion. This seems to be the kind of beautiful cycle of compassion and love that ... and mercy that God has given to us, and you're beautifully demonstrating that.

Cheryl Allison: Oh, thank you. Thank you. I think, as I've gotten older, I've realized how important that is. As an actress, it's a selfish business, and you're on the road a lot, and it's hard to have a lot of free time to do things like this, but at this point in my life, I've decided I really want to spend my time working on projects or filming projects that raise awareness, that is more than just a film or a movie, that helps bring a social issue to light.

George Mason: Right. I think it's also maybe partly what happens to us at this stage of our lives, too, is ... Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, talks about how there are two halves of life, and the first half of life tends to be about your building your own career and your own path, but then there's a kind of recognition that that's not everything, and then the question is what will you do then, and often it comes from some life crisis. It comes from some epiphany, some awakening, and we really honor that gift of time best when I think we turn then to say, "What has all this been about, and how can we use our lives to serve others?" and then the meaning really starts flooding into us.

Cheryl Allison: It really does, and I think it's not a coincidence that this part of my life in activism really started to blossom once I was back home.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: Isn't that interesting?

George Mason: Beautiful. Yes.

Cheryl Allison: You come home. I'm home, physically here in Dallas. I see my family and relatives so much. I'm back home at Wilshire, and it just ... The pieces have all fit. It's come full circle. It's really interesting.

George Mason: It's a great joy to us, Cheryl, to have you back and to get to know you and Natalie together as well and to serve the Lord together. I look forward to another conversation where we'll talk more about your filmmaking and acting and all of that. Thank you for being with us.

Cheryl Allison: Absolutely. Thank you.

George Mason: Okay. Good. Good. Good.

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Speaker 3: Good God, Conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

Speaker 3: Good God salutes the vital services provided to our community by the North Texas Food Bank. Each day, the North Texas Food Bank Feeding Network provides access to more than a 190,000 meals for hungry children, seniors and families. Visit ntfb.org to get involved.

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