Over my university’s spring break I spent time reading through Melody Carlson‘s book Bright Purple: Color Me Confused as it was the first available novel on my list that I would be reading for my project. Going in I had a lot of reservations, knowing that it was a Christian author whose intended audience—as with her other “Color Me” books—is Christian youth. I was weary of the way it would end–what final conclusions would the author make? would those conclusions be written to persuade the audience that that is how issues of homosexuality should be addressed?—as well as how LGBTQ characters would be represented. Still, I had hope going in knowing that because the issue was being discussed—that the lesbian character, Jess, is the best friend of the protagonist, Ramie—that this book would no doubt, in the end, be promoting some form of Christian love.
I couldn’t help underlining and annotating every single page of the book. I have so much I could say! And yet there are key things I know I should hone in on. But first, before diving into the central problem of the novel (“How do I, as a Christian, approach a loved one who comes out as gay?”) I want to acknowledge the strength of intersectionality this book possesses. There are issues of gender when the high school’s girls basketball team is treated as not as worthy of investing in than the boy’s team; class is an issue as Ramie’s family has an economic disadvantage so that her mom is not in position to afford giving her a car, prompting Ramie to consider getting a job instead of playing sports; religion, as it is what tears Ramie initially apart from her best friend; and certainly race, as Ramie herself is biracial—white mom, black dad—giving her some social disadvantages, though she uses her identity as part of a marginalized group to recognize the marginalization of her lesbian friend. In these ways, Bright Purple deals with a bigger, intersectional picture, keeping in mind that there is so much in life that affects people outside of the main conflict in the book: sexuality and religion.
One of the main things I found myself annotating again and again was the self-centeredness of Ramie. From the very first line of book, “My best friend just told me she’s a lesbian. A lesbian!” (7) she does not see Jess’s situation from a vulnerable, brave, trusting coming out point of view. She sees what Jess does only as it impacts Ramie’s own life. To name a few specific places: after receiving the initial news, Ramie thinks “I wish that I’d never met her…Why me? Why does something like this have to happen to me?” (14); Ramie’s outburst to her mother “‘Who deserted who?'” (27) when she is determined to cut off all ties with Jess after Jess’s initial reaching out; then Ramie’s response to her teammates’ negative reaction to Ramie’s voluntary quitting the team because of awkwardness with Jess “This is her fault. She’s the one who brought all this on. But it’s like I’m the one who’s getting tortured here. I’m the one with the friends who are turning against me. I’m the one who lost a spot on the team” (80).
And possibly the most important thing about Ramie’s self-centered point of view is the fact that she is blind to the selfishness and hypocrisy it creates in her character—which is very damaging to non-Christians who look to her as a Christ-like example. However, this does at last come to turn on page 129 after Ramie has left Jess, vulnerable and alone, in the middle of their jeering basketball team after Jess swore at teammates who were harassing her. “I realize that I am the one who threw the first stone into Jess’s life. Oh, not literally. But I was the first one that Jess confided in and, as a result, I was the first one to judge her, to condemn her … to basically hate her. I am ashamed. Really ashamed…But eventually I realize that I will have to do more than just bring this to God.” Which leads to the next chapter where she is able to approach her friend with kindness and love without condoning or affirming her sexuality.
I wanted to post this blog fairly recently after I finished reading the book. But after I had started it, it was just too painful to keep going right away. Flipping through the book over and over again, looking for important quotes to use just really got to me. It was several days ago that I finally wrote down every section of the book I had but a star next to. You know, a little reminder that this part is important. Well it turns out that those important moments took up pages and pages of notebook paper. And even after that, I could start writing this. It was all too heavy on my heart. I am weary to encourage people to read this book because of how emotionally straining it can be. Knowing that while Bright Purple is fiction but that out in the world, people are feeling pain and isolation enough to reject God and/or take their own life is something I—as a very sensitive INFJ—can hardly dwell on for long stretches of time.
That being said, to paraphrase Ramie in so many words, it seems to be the typical, righteous reaction to say that: churches who have marry same-sex couples cannot be traditional Christian churches (23); coming out of the closet is selfish and disorienting to the people around you (34); not wanting to associate with people because they are gay is not homophobia (45); it’s okay to tease people, they “really shouldn’t get offended so easily” (52); being rejected by friend group for not wanting to be near an old best friend is “being persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (80); and someone expressing suicidal thoughts because of orientation is manipulation into making others accept their sin (104).
Whew. That was a lot. And those are just the key points. What I think dejected and hurt me so much reading through this book was the first half when basically what is perceived to be “righteousness” is rejection. Jess is rarely seen at ALL through the first half of the book. We only hear about her and how much Ramie doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore. The book does a pretty good job by the end of showing how important it is to not cast LGBTQ people off just because of their identity.
But there was one major question I had at the end stemming from one fact: Jess is never in a relationship throughout the book and expresses no immediate intention for one. While Jess is identifying herself as a lesbian, there is no acting upon it. Justin Lee wrote a fantastic memoir called Torn (2012) in which he spends the bulk of the book arguing that homosexual identity by itself is not sinful—because you’re not doing anything—and that the debate of sin over homosexuality should actually be over actively seeking sexual relationships or not.
This is a recent development in the ongoing debate in the Church—perhaps too recent for 2006 Bright Purple. But whether or not Christians believe that same-sex relationships are not okay, this book is leaning towards the idea of meeting people where they are at and working from there—not pushing “healing” down people’s throats. So maybe Melody Carlson would agree with this. It certainly does take the effort and respect, however, that orientation is not a choice and therefore unchangeable—something that Ramie does not agree with at the conclusion of the book, saying “That doesn’t mean that God can’t rescue us—from anything. And so I still believe that Jess could be rescued from living the rest of her life as a lesbian…” (203).
Still, with the novel’s conclusion with Ramie’s youth pastor trying to have a respectful panel about Christian and LGBTQ people getting along—which goes completely awry—I believe that though the beginning is full of more hetero-normative, rejecting, and sometimes hateful parts, it does end on a note that says that there is hope for the progression of the future. Because if “they will know that we are Christians by our love” and they are called to reach out to all people, that certainly does not equate to eliminating people completely out of their lives because they have one social/biological/religious difference between them. (Agreeing to disagree is okay!! AKA Third Way) Let’s build each other up in Christ again and not block the gate for those wanting to seek Him.