It started out with a scare and ended with deep, pulsating anxiety. How did something supposedly so pleasurable end up with so much pain?

I was 23-years old when I finally had sex. A late bloomer, I’d been petrified of my sexuality. Coming from the midwest, I grew up in a religious home where we’d recite bible verses before we drifted into our dreams, sing hymns around the piano as if Christmas year-round and pray to God as if he’d never heard our voices before. They were all  reminders that He was always watching and that we were who we really were when we were alone. That meant the quiet moments were the most definitive.

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It was in high school when my pastor told me that gays were condemned to hell. It was proven because there’s a gay disease, he reminded his congregation. It was through sodomy, in fact, that cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Sodomites, after all, were male homosexuals who went against nature, having anal or oral sex. And the same God who destroyed the gays then, was the same God who brought down a disease to destroy them today.

I was petrified thinking that I’d surely be condemned to death as well. And so I kept my sexuality hidden away like Easter eggs in dark places, kept until someone discovered them. I opened my own egg in college, and out my identity came like pieces of colorful candy.

Still religious, I maintained my faith and suppressed my sexuality. At a time when others are discovering their bodies, transitioning into the person they’ve always been, becoming more empowered with who they are, I was the opposite: terrified of the repercussions.

“Sex should be pleasurable, it should feel powerful.”

And so when I eventually had sex it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was painful, awkward, and I laid on the bed wishing I hadn’t come this far. What was worse was the aftermath. I throbbed, body shaken, there was blood all over the mattress and I’d find a broken condom placed on the floor. Was I dying? Did this mean I had somehow gotten the gay virus? Would my death finally out me to my family?

The next 24-hours were turmoil. I wasn’t out to anyone and so I researched symptoms online and on forums. Being exposed to HIV had symptoms of the flu, chills, fever, cold sweats. I felt as if I was experiencing all of those. Too ashamed to go to the clinic and fearful that I’d see someone there from my small group, I drove an hour outside of my city to find a Planned Parenthood. I sat, avoiding anyone’s eyes, passing my insurance card to the nurse, realizing that they wouldn’t accept it. I didn’t have cash on hand and my credit card was linked to my parents. Not knowing what else to do, I started to welling with tears, my face becoming puffy and red, salty water running down my cheeks.

When the nurse told me they’d swear confidentiality, even on payments, I handed over my debit card. As I sat there before my name was called, I looked inside the waiting room and didn’t feel so alone. I was among a crowd of others who were surely as frightened, feeling isolated from their family and peers. Surely, they, too, were holding secrets they hoped no one would discover.

There was a teenaged girl with blonde curly hair, sitting crosslegged with a faded blue hoodie. An Asian American teen had his text book out looking over the words, getting his mind off of his current reality. A mother caressed her daughter’s back as they both watched HGTV on the flatscreens. I clasped my fingers together, praying to God and telling Him I’d be better. That I’d never have sex again. That if he cured me of this gay disease, that I’d promise to set my life straight. My fingernails pierced the fleshy part under my thumb and as I opened my eyes to see they’d become purple.

When they called my name, my heart decided it would burst. When the nurse came over and asked about my sexual history, how many times I’d had sex (once), if I had sex with men or women or both (just men), and what position (bottom), I thought I would disappear from all of the shame. She must have sensed this as she smiled and said that sex was a normal part of life. After she drew my blood and pricked my finger with a rapid HIV test, she lead me to Planned Parenthood’s resident doctor, a woman with auburn hair and sophisticated glasses.

“You’re going to be alright,” she told me. “Everyone gets tested and it doesn’t say anything about who you are except that you’re responsible.” The doctor explained that she wished more people would feel more empowered when it came to sex instead of scared or nervous. “Sex should be pleasurable, it should feel powerful, not the opposite.”

It was in that moment that everything changed. Sex was normal. Gayness wasn’t a sin. No one should feel terrified to share intimacy with someone else. God still loved me.

I’d never thought about sex as a normal part of life. It was always something that I’d be judged for, an action that led to the destruction of entire cities. But in that moment, the doctor’s words completely altered my perceptions of sex. It wasn’t sinful. It shouldn’t be painful. It should be celebrated.

I received my results in the next week and thankfully, I was negative of any diseases. But what I gained was the confidence that I could be empowered with my status, be whole with my gay identity, and not feel shamed for wanting to have sex. After all, this is the body God made, and he certainly makes no mistakes. And my sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of.