When Amber Cantorna came out to her family five years ago, her world forever changed. Yes, coming out can be difficult for anyone, but when you are the child of an executive at Focus on the Family, a Christian fundamentalist organization, coming out can result in losing everything.
Cantornas’s parents tried to shelter her from the outside world and entrench her with the values that the organization embodies. Once she told her family she was gay, she faced instant rejection and lost not only the relationship with her family, but her extended family, many friends, her church, and hometown. This amount of devastation sent Amber into a downward spiral.
Now, five years later, Cantorna is a Denver-based author and motivational speaker who recently founded the non-profit organization Beyond. The goal is to help LGBTQ people of faith through their coming-out process. She is married to the love of her life and they are currently building a family of their own. Her upcoming memoir, Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God, will be released October 1.
First off, go ahead and tell me more about your upcoming book.
I grew up in a very conservative, Christian environment. My dad has worked for Focus on the Family for almost 30 years, so that was really kind of the theology I grew up with. Very conservative Christian. When I realized I was gay, my life took a drastic turn, obviously.
I came out to my family in 2012 and because of their religious beliefs and what we’ve been taught to believe about what the Bible says about homosexuality, my family turned their back on me. I lost not only my parents and my only sibling, but all my extended family and a lot of my friends, my church, my hometown, so that’s what pushed me to move to Denver.
This book is based on my coming-out story and what it was like to grow up in a conservative, fundamentalist, Focus-on-the-Family life and coming out of that and losing everything for the sake of authenticity. The goal is to share my story and reach other people who are in similar places or have similar stories. [For] people who are still hiding in the closet because of their upbringing or conservative religious beliefs, [this will] give them something to identify with and give them some hope.
It also [helps] to create the conversation for changes among families so they can kind of humanize the issue and help them see that how they respond directly impacts other people’s lives.
What made you want to write this book? To give others hope who are going through a similar situation as you?
That’s a big part of it, and then again, to create conversation for change among families because obviously, this is still a huge issue across the nation. The way families are responding is really impacting these kids’ lives. [They are] being shunned and ousted from their families and losing everything.
I think what really drove me to write the book was how high the suicide rates are among LGBTQ people. I, myself, was close to becoming one of those statistics after I came out. All the devastation I went through, the loss, the grief. Knowing how close I came to almost becoming one of those statistics and knowing how high they are among LGBTQ people already really helped fuel the fire behind writing this book. LGBTQ people who are rejected by their family are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. I want to help change that and bring those numbers down and give these LGBTQ people hope knowing that they can reconcile with their sexuality. They can have a great future.
I want to help families learn that they can come out and become allies instead of shunning their children out.
How was the writing process? Was it painful to recall these memories or more freeing?
It was quite a journey. It was still painful to recall a lot of the more recent memories. There were a lot of things I didn’t really want to look at or think of or recall, so it was painful, but I think in some ways, it was therapeutic. It let me pull back and look at my life from the outside and kind of analyze it in a different way. It let me look at things about my upbringing I may not have realized before. So, it was a painful but healthy process to go through. A lot of those memories are still tender.
Why did you come out? What was the deciding factor that made you want to have the talk with your family?
I think it reached a point where I went through such a rough time struggling to reconcile my own faith and sexuality. Those two worlds could not coexist. You could not be both gay and Christian, and I really had to work through that. When I thought I found that peace inside myself, I could not live this double life. My family and I were always close. We did everything together. Events, birthdays, I always lived near them; we just did everything together. So this pressure, feeling like I had to filter everything I did and said to ultimately make them comfortable, was exhausting. I got to the point where I felt like, no matter the cost, I had to be authentic with myself.
Even during how painful it was, coming out was freeing at the same time. I felt like I had worn a façade all my life. Even though I didn’t realize my sexuality until I was older, I felt like I had to hold up this appearance because of who my dad was and his position; I always had to be perfect and wear a smile. When I broke out of it, it was so freeing. I felt so much joy in being authentic in who I was as opposed to being forced into this perfect façade all the time.
Did you tell your family together or separately?
I told my brother the night before, but he ended up coming over again the next morning and I sat all three of them down together and had the conversation, so it really was altogether, and it did not go well. I tried telling them the process I’ve been through and what I worked through and what has taken place over several years of time, and they were just mortified. You could just see the look on their faces.
My dad was like, “I have nothing to say to you right now,” and he got up and walked out. They didn’t speak to me for weeks after that, and when they did, it was a very tough conversation. They compared me to murderers and pedophiles and bestiality and there was just tons of guilt and shame. They took back the keys to my childhood home. It was a painful conversation and the relationship continued to erode from there.
So your mom was just as upset about this as your dad.
She was. They have always been a cohesive force. The only thing she said that day initially when I came out to her was, “thank you for being honest with me, but we’ll have to see what this means for the future of our family.” In my mind, I’m like ‘what could that mean,’ but I knew in that moment things would never be the same again.
Was it your choice to cut ties with your family or theirs?
It wasn’t like I was instantly out, but it progressed slowly over time. This shunning pushed me further and further away. They wanted to change me, wanted to fix me and do all these things. This constant disapproval of who I was and reminder of how far outside of God’s will I have fallen. How deceived I had become. Their passive-aggressive behavior over time pushed me further to the outside, and when I met the woman who is now my wife, when we started dating and got engaged, that solidified that I wasn’t going to change.
My family hoped I was going to come back to Jesus and back to them. When I got married, that was it for them. They realized I wasn’t going to change. I had no family whatsoever present at my wedding, and it was only a few months after that we cut ties completely and we haven’t spoken since.
Let’s chat about Clara for a moment. You were still in touch with your family when you met her?
I was, but it was strained. It was nothing like it used to be. I used to talk to my mom every day on the phone, sometimes a couple times a day. We saw each other every other day; we were so close. Once that moment happened, we rarely saw each other, rarely spoke, and when we did, it was superficial and awkward and uncomfortable. Over time, we grew more and more distant to the point where we hardly talked at all. Anytime I spoke with them on the phone, I felt so threatened and backed into a corner. I eventually came to the point where I would only communicate with them through email because it gave me time to process and respond appropriately without reacting and saying something I would regret. So that’s kind of what it came to. It became very cold and icy.
Clara has changed your life for the better, hasn’t she?
Oh my gosh, she has been my biggest support by far. She has been great. Since she has never met my family and doesn’t know the dynamic, she doesn’t persuade me one way or another on how I should handle things, but she has been behind me all the way. The amount of devastation and loss I endured, I would have nightmares and wake up sobbing so hard, but she has been there to support me through it all. She has made all the difference in the world.
Have you attempted at all to contact your family?
I haven’t. The only thing I usually do is send them a Christmas card, and they usually send me a card on my birthday. There’s really no contact outside of that. I think it finally dawned on me why they contact me on my birthday instead of Christmas. It’s because on my birthday, they only have to acknowledge me and not Clara. That probably makes them more comfortable than sending me a Christmas card where they have to acknowledge both of us. It’s very superficial, and that’s the only contact I’ve had with them.
How exactly did you pick yourself up and move forward with your life? Like you said, you faced so much devastation and grief.
It was a pretty quick decision for me after I came out when I saw how poorly things had gone. That quickly sent me into a dark place. I had already started building community in Denver and had a good support system here, so moving to Denver was really a survival tactic. I was suicidal and trying to find a way to survive. Living down in Colorado Springs, which is such a tight-knit Christian community, I grew up there all my life, I felt like I had to look over my shoulder and people were always watching. I could never be myself. The area felt so toxic. Moving to Denver allowed me to start fresh, and having a good support system made all the difference, which helped me to rise out of that dark place.
Out of this, you started a non-profit organization called Beyond. Tell me more about that.
It recently launched, and its focus is to help LGBTQ people through the coming-out process, especially those who come from conservative backgrounds and strict religious upbringings. Not only does that complicate things, but more often, it causes conflict within individuals to reconcile their faith and sexuality. We want to come alongside them and help them through that. Also, we want to help them through the coming out process with whatever support they need as they potentially transition churches or have difficult conversations with family and friends. We want to help support them.
What advice do you have for those who are currently going through a situation similar to yours?
I think the biggest thing is to build support before you come out. I think that is one of the biggest defining things to help you succeed or not. I really believe having a good, affirming, supportive community underneath me saved my life. I don’t think I would have pulled through if I didn’t have that. Finding other people really encourages you and affirms who you are. Also, get plugged into the resources available. If you don’t know they’re out there, you will feel isolated. There are so many other people like you that can help you. That’s the biggest piece of advice I would give.