Growing up in Colorado Springs, the only daughter of conservative Christian parents, Amber Cantorna was raised on what she calls a “theology of fear.” Her father was (and still is) an executive at Focus On The Family, a global Christian ministry founded by the conservative evangelical James Dobson, and therefore Cantorna grew up with “A fear of going to hell. A fear of appearances. A fear of putting your soul in jeopardy.”
So, in April 2012, when she told her parents she was a lesbian, all of those fears were realized. Cantorna’s parents compared her to a murderer and a pedophile. They told her she’d turned her back on God. They took away her house key. In their eyes, her soul really was “in jeopardy.” When she got engaged and married to another woman in 2014, things grew worse. Several months after the wedding, her parents cut ties altogether. They have not spoken since.
Over the past five years, Cantorna has had plenty to process. She battled suicidal thoughts. She fell in love with and married her wife, Clara. She grappled with her faith and emerged a more progressive Christian. And recently, she wrote a book about all of it. Cantorna’s memoir, Refocusing My Family, was released earlier this month and details her “story of survival.” In light of the recent book, 5280 spoke with Cantorna about her upbringing, her evolving Christian identity, and her decision to leave Colorado Springs and move to Denver.
5280: You grew up in Colorado Springs—which is known for its conservative Christianity—and your dad was heavily involved in Focus On The Family. How did that impact your childhood?
AC: It played a huge roll in how our family functioned because my dad started working there when I was very young. All the teachings of James Dobson came into our home life. But there are some things that my parents did very well. They were very good about being present and always being there for recitals and performances. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so she put a lot of time into investing in [my brother and me] and raising us well. In some aspects, the way they raised us was very well done and very positive.
But that was my whole world. I didn’t have any exposure to anything outside of it and my parents thought they were keeping me safe from the outside world. And I thought that was great because I didn’t know any different. I was kind of kept in this bubble of safe Christianity. Or so they thought.
How did you come to the realization that you were a lesbian, and how did you go about telling your parents? How did they react?
When I initially had a shocking realization with my first girlfriend, I was about 23. And my parents actually found out about that, but they swept it under the rug as a big mistake that never should have happened. I went back into the closet and wrestled in isolation which ate me alive. I had a ton of self-hatred and self-injury and anxiety. When I got to the point, eventually, where I was able to accept myself and work through my own issues with my faith, I came out to them formally at 27.
I sat them down face to face. It ended up being pretty traumatic, because I sat there and poured my whole heart out—and then they sat up and walked out on me and didn’t speak to me for three weeks. When we did speak again it was a horrible discussion. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but I hoped that they would work through it and love me in spite of it. But that was not at all the case. My dad just looked at me and said: ‘I have nothing to say to you right now,’ and then got up and left.
You ultimately left Colorado Springs and moved to Denver. Why?
Moving to Denver saved my life. I was connected to Highlands Church here and they were really my anchor of support. And if I didn’t have that I’m not sure I would have made it. I think it really is finding the community and the people who saved my life. I was able to accept myself and reconcile my faith with my sexuality. It didn’t even feel safe to be in Colorado Springs anymore. I’d lived there for so long that everyone knew me and everyone knew my family and I felt like I was just looking over my shoulder. I just needed a place to breath and survive.
Are you still a practicing Christian?
I do still practice, but I’m a much more progressive Christian than I used to be. My faith and family condemned me for being gay, so I’ve had to do a lot of work. People ask me, ‘what has made you hold on to your faith?’ And I think the biggest thing is being able to pull apart what I know about God and what I’ve learned from God in my own personal experience from what people have done to me in the name of God. Overall, I think it’s made my faith stronger because now I don’t have to be confined to religion and rules. I have a much broader sense of God and the diversity of God.”
Are you hopeful that you’ll be able to mend things with your family? And do you see Christianity—especially the tenets of mercy and forgiveness— as a means to restoring those relationships?
It depends on the day to be totally honest. I grieve for what could be. Holidays are still hard. I would love to see my family come full circle to the point where they could embrace us and share things together again. But there’s been so much hurt and so much damage done that we’d almost have to start over completely and build from the ground up. If they were to come back and say ‘we really would like to try to mend this, to learn and grow,’ I think there definitely could be mercy and forgiveness and grace for all of that. But from the very beginning they have never been open to that so I would really have to see that change.
In March 2017, you founded a nonprofit organization, Beyond. What do you hope to accomplish?
I founded the nonprofit to help LGBTQ people through the coming-out process. I’m doing it with a specific focus on those that come from conservative faith communities because they’re at the highest risk for suicide. I’m really passionate about reaching all of those people and giving them a story of hope that they can cling to. The other group I’m trying to reach are the families, friends, and loved ones of LGBTQ people to help take this often politicized topic and bring it down to a more personal level. The point is to help these people get the right resources and connected with right groups.
On November 1 at 7 p.m., Cantorna will be at Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue for a book talk and signing of Refocusing My Family.