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FREE TO BE ME.

It is Sunday morning. As is their weekly custom, the people of this sleepy, small town are in church. The pastor has just finished preaching, and he begins to lead the congregation in prayer. Yet, while everyone else in the congregation follows the pastor in praying about the subject of the sermon, a thirteen-year-old boy sitting on the second row is praying about something different altogether, for he has recently realized something about himself that he dares not ever say out loud: He is romantically and physically attracted to several of his male friends. And so, he prays:
Dear Lord Jesus, I am so, so sorry for my sins. I love you, Lord Jesus,
and I want to live my life for You. I know that these feelings that I
have are wrong, and I do not want to have them. Please take these
feelings away from me. Lord, please make me become attracted to girls.
Please make me normal so that I can bring honor and glory to Your Name.
Amen.


This was my prayer to God every Sunday morning, no matter the pastor's sermon.

For the most part, I have a perfectly normal life. I have a wonderful family, awesome friends, and a job I like. I love to sing, travel, watch television and movies, and spend time with friends and family. Politics, government, and history are among my favorite things. Like I said, I have a perfectly normal life. I also happen to be gay.

I grew up in the sleepy, small town of Pickens, South Carolina, nestled in the foothills of the majestic Appalachian Mountains. With a population of just over 3,000 people, Pickens is the epitome of your stereotypical small town in the South: Nearly everyone knows each other, there is a church on just about every street corner, you can see one end of Main Street from the other end, the older folks congregate at Hardee's on weekday mornings for breakfast and their usual gossip-fest. For Pickenesians, as we folks from Pickens jokingly call ourselves, life is pretty routine: People work during the week, relax on Saturdays, and go to church every Sunday. This is the world I was born and raised in. But from an early age, I knew I was different.

As a child, my male friends would start "going out" with girls, and I would secretly become jealous because I wanted them to spend more time with me. At the same time, I did not want to "go out" with a girl. When I was thirteen years old, I had an earth-shattering realization: While my friends were attracted to girls, I was instead attracted to my friends, all of whom were male. At that revelation, I was horrified and terrified. You see, I grew up attending a Southern Baptist church. The man who was the pastor of my home church hated all things that did not fit his heteronormative views of sex and gender, so much so that he disowned his gay brother.

Following my own self-realization and fearing what its implications would mean for my life, I threw myself wholeheartedly into church activities. The older I got, the more active I became. By the time I graduated from high school, I was serving in the Student Ministry and helping lead worship. If the church doors were open, I was there. And every single Sunday and every single day, I prayed that God would make me become attracted to girls.

For years, I begged and pleaded with God day in and day out to change my sexual orientation. When that did not happen, I grew frustrated to no end. I cannot even tell you how many nights I literally cried myself to sleep over it. I did not want to be gay; I just wished I was normal. In order to be "normal," I forced myself to date girls in high school, but I would always break up with them not long after the relationship started, and thus before I was expected by them to do anything physical beyond kissing. I was living a lie, and I hated myself for it. These years of lying and self-loathing mark one of the darkest chapters of my life I have ever known.

The turning point for me came during the fall of my senior year of high school. It was September of 2012, and I had a new girlfriend. In hindsight, I truly believe that she was in love with me. Every time we kissed, a little piece of my soul would die because I knew that I would never have the same feelings for her as she had for me. I was leading her on, and that killed me inside. Through my guilt, I had an important realization: If I were to continue on this path, not only would I be destroying my own life, but I would also be bringing down an innocent person with me. And so, I broke up with her. She was crushed, which made me feel even more awful than I already did, but I knew in my heart that I had finally done the right thing. After ending that relationship, I vowed that I would never date a girl again.

In the months that followed, I did a lot of intense soul-searching. In my prayers to God, I asked Him to give me peace and to show me the way forward for me and for my life. God answered my prayers by leading me to this life-changing epiphany: God made me to be who I am in every aspect, so why am I trying to be someone God never intended for me to be? For the first time in my life, I realized that there is nothing wrong with the fact that I am gay. God loves me, and I am exactly the person He made me to be. With this realization, I was able to finally reconcile my Christian faith with my homosexuality. At long last, after so many years of hating myself, I felt peace. What still loomed ahead, however, was the fact that at some point, I knew I needed to come out. Wracked by the intense fear of being rejected by everyone in my life and the strong possibility of being subjected to "conversion" therapy, I decided to wait until after I moved out of my parents' house and started college.

Saturday, January 4, 2014, is a day that will be etched in my mind forever, as that was the day that life as I had always known it was over. I was still on winter break at the time, and the beginning of my second semester at the University of South Carolina was still a couple of weeks away. I was dating my first boyfriend ever at the time, and so I decided to come out to my family, my friends, and to the world. It was, to be blunt, a total disaster. Right before my very eyes, my worst fears came true: My parents, along with the rest of my family as well as my childhood friends, were not accepting, and they all turned their backs on me.

After coming out, the only support I still had was from the friends that I had made since starting college. Their support, especially the support of my friend Anna (who is now one of my best friends), was, is, and always will be something I am truly grateful for! After all, I honestly cannot say for sure that I would still be alive had it not been for them, and especially if it had not been for her. However, not having my family and my childhood friends in my life was a devastating blow to me emotionally, and it was something that I cried about many, many times. Indeed, this period of my life was a lonely journey for me.

In the aftermath of my coming out, it felt like the earth had stopped turning. My world was turned upside down, and I was left to pick up the pieces. I had just experienced a huge loss, and consequently, I soon sank into a deep depression. Yet, despite everything that I was going through personally, I did realize that life was going to continue on, no matter if I decided to actually participate in society or not. And so, I put on a "happy" face and tried my best to pretend that everything was fine. To some extent, my efforts were successful. However, no matter how much I smiled, the truth was that I was not okay, not even a little bit.

Not long after my second semester of college began, I started a new job: Page for the South Carolina House of Representatives. I was beyond excited, given my aforementioned passion for politics. I thought that if anything could pull me out of my depression, then surely it would be this job. For about two months, I was noticeably happier, and I even began to regain a sense of hope and optimism. However, this proved to be short-lived. About halfway through the semester, all the sadness and pain that I had tried so hard to suppress came flooding back--and with a vengeance. It quickly got to the point where I could not even bring myself to get out of bed every morning to go to class or to go to work. Consequently, my grades slipped, and my job performance as a Page suffered. By the end of the semester, I had failed many of my classes, I had lost my job, and I was gradually losing my own sense of self-worth. However, the worst had yet to come.

As the semester drew to a close, I knew that I would be forced to move out of my dormitory on campus. To prepare for that, I arranged to move into an apartment for the summer. However, on the very day that I had to move out, I found out that I was going to be unable to move into that apartment. In other words, I was going to be homeless. As I loaded each of my belongings into my car, I was overcome with an ominous sense of dread. Driving away from campus that day, I started to panic. What do I do now? Where am I supposed to go? This is a moment that I will never forget. I had already been through so much over the previous months, and just when I thought that things could not possibly get worse, I had to face the harsh reality of being homeless. And so, I decided to check into a motel until I could figure out what to do next. Over the course of the following week, I tried to find another apartment that I could move to--all to no avail. By this point, I could no longer afford to stay in a motel, and so I was forced to check out.

As spring turned into summer, things began looking up. In May of 2014, I began my second job, this time as an unofficially paid intern on a political campaign. I ended up loving my job for many reasons, but chief among them was the fact that the demands of the campaign trail allowed me to take my mind off of everything that I was personally going through. I also was ultimately fortunate enough to find an apartment that I could afford, which I quickly moved into. At long last, my life had a sense of stability and normalcy once again: I had a job that I liked and a roof over my head. These positive developments were such a tremendous and welcome relief! Little did I know that the best was still to come.

On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, seven and a half months after I came out, my family members, one by one, resumed communication with me. They each genuinely apologized, and I forgave them. By early 2015, all of my childhood friends from Pickens had also apologized and come back into my life. I forgave them as well, and I did not and still do not hold grudges against any of them. Not to sound cliche, but life really is too short to hold grudges. Today, my family and I could not be closer. The same is true for my friends and I. Everyone in my life is now fully accepting, and for that, I consider myself to be blessed beyond measure!

So why do I share my coming out story? Without a doubt, everything I went through in terms of my sexuality--from the years of lying and self-hatred to my coming out and its aftermath--was terrible. However, the reality is that sadly, there are so many others who go through far, far worse, solely because of who they are. This is especially true in the American South. And that leads us to three essential questions.

First, why is it that so many LGBTQ, Southerners go through such painful experiences, especially when we come out? The answer centers on Christianity and its influence on the South--whose culture is already generally socially conservative to begin with. But in order to understand why Christianity has influenced Southern culture to the extent that it has, we have to first acknowledge the importance of Christianity here in the South.

According to the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, 76 percent of Southerners identify as Christians, of which 34 percent identify as Evangelicals. Additionally, 62 percent of Christian Southerners consider their faith to be among their top priorities in their everyday lives. Furthermore, church attendance across the denominations is also higher than the national average. And when it comes to being LGBTQ In particular, only 36 percent of Christian Southerners believe that it should be accepted.

Therefore, given Christianity's prominence, it is no wonder that it has actively shaped Southern culture in many ways. Because so many Southerners identify as Christians, Christian influence is virtually everywhere. In many towns, there is literally a church on every street corner. There are student-led Bible study clubs at schools. Sports teams pray before games. Many elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of government are Christians. Even Southerners who are not Christians still hold many Christian moral beliefs. In fact, Christianity is so intertwined with Southern culture that its influence is even seen in popular expressions (among the more famous examples is "bless your heart"). The list goes on and on. The reality is that Christianity has become deeply engrained in Southern culture.

Some argue that this is a good thing. In some ways, I agree. After all, Southerners are known for their friendliness, kindness, manners, and hospitality. However, for we LGBTQ. Southerners, this culture has had a devastating impact: It has created a closet of darkness where we grow up being scared out of our minds, feel deeply ashamed, and hate ourselves--just because of who we are. For our straight families, friends, and communities, this culture has created a society where opposing all things non-heterosexual is as automatic and as required as knowing the color of the sky. Therefore, when we do have the audacity and the courage to finally come out, virtually no one in our lives knows how to react. All of a sudden, their opposition is no longer merely a stance; our visibility brings the issue to their own backyard, so to speak. And so, given that it is human nature to both resist change and to fear the unknown, those whom we love the most often times respond badly. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to see our loved ones come back into our lives and accept us for who we are; but all too often, this does not happen. This is truly heartbreaking, and this must change. Yet, as heartbreaking as this is, coming out is sadly only one of the many challenges that we still face.

That brings us to the second question: What exactly are these other challenges that LGBTQ Americans, especially those of us in the South, still facing? First and foremost, there is the fact that "conversion" therapy is still an actual thing that happens. The reason that I have placed quotes around the word, "conversion" every time I have mentioned "conversion" therapy is this: "Conversion" therapy has been discredited as junk science by numerous national health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and a host of others. Such organizations have rightly concluded that there is no scientific basis for changing one's sexual orientation, and that attempts to do so are profoundly damaging as such efforts often lead to feelings of guilt, self-hatred, and worse. However, despite being disproven, the practice still happens, largely because it is still perfectly legal throughout most of our country. To date, only fourteen states have banned "conversion" therapy; the remaining thirty-six states have not ("Equality Maps"). Moreover, none of the fourteen states that have banned the practice are in the South. While this last statistic certainly comes as a shock to no one, it is still very much worth mentioning, as a large number of "conversion" therapy camps are located here in the South. In fact, according to The Post and Courier, a Charleston, South Carolina news publication, there are at least twenty-two of these camps in the South, nine of which are in South Carolina alone (Majchrowicz and Wildeman).

As I previously shared, I feared being subjected to this barbaric practice, which is one of the main reasons why I did not come out until after I had already moved out of my parents' house. However, while I was lucky enough to avoid being put through it, the same cannot be said for many others. Indeed, the reality is that a truly shocking number of LGBTQ Americans, many of them Southerners, undergo "conversion" therapy. A report by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law reveals these appalling statistics:

* 698,000 LGBTQ adults have been subjected to "conversion" therapy at some point in their lives.

* 350,000 LGBTQ adults were subjected to "conversion" therapy as adolescents.

* 20,000 LGBTQ, youths will undergo "conversion" therapy from a licensed healthcare official before they reach the age of eighteen in those states that do not ban the practice.

* 57,000 LGBTQ youths will undergo "conversion" therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of eighteen.

Furthermore, it is estimated that 77,000 LGBTQ. Americans--again, many of them Southerners--are currently being held in "conversion" therapy. What is even more horrifying is that these statistics are just estimates. The actual number for each of these categories is likely higher.

For me personally, I am beyond thankful that I never underwent "conversion" therapy. I cannot even begin to imagine just how truly horrific an experience it is. My heart breaks for each and every single innocent person who is subjected to it. It is my sincere hope that this currently-still-legal form of torture will ultimately be banned nationwide.

On Friday, June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, marking one of the most important victories for LGBTQ Americans in history. Finally, after generations of struggle and strife, marriage equality became the law of the land nationwide. Ever since that historic day, however, many of our fellow citizens have assumed that those of us who are LGBTQ have equal rights in every aspect of everyday life. In fact, a whopping 80 percent of non-LGBTQ Americans believe this to be the case (Stephenson 2016). As much as I desperately wish that this was true, it is merely a misconception.

Indeed, the reality is that despite the immense progress in recent years toward greater LGBTQ. equality, there is still no federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Consequently, this issue has thus far been left to the states to decide. So, what have the states decided? As of 2018, LGBTQ citizens can be fired, evicted, or refused service simply for being who they are in thirty-one states (Ortiz 2018). In regard to the South specifically, the following is true: The only states that prohibit at least some form of LGBTQ. discrimination are Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. However, such discrimination is banned only in the workplace (Fu 2017). With the exception of those three states and the only-partial protections they each provide, no Southern state has any law whatsoever prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ. citizens. And in a region as socially conservative as the South is, this means that a gay couple could get married on Saturday, post their wedding pictures on social media on Sunday, and then get fired and evicted on Monday.

But this is not just a hypothetical; there are plenty of examples of LGBTQ. discrimination. For discrimination in public accommodations, consider what happened to Collin Dewberry and Kelly Williams, a gay couple in Pittsburgh, Texas: The two of them went to eat at a restaurant called Big Earl's. While there, they were approached by a waitress, who called them a homophobic slur, informed them that the restaurant does not serve gays, and told them not to ever come back (KLTV Digital Media Staff 2014).

Regarding employment discrimination, take a look at the case of Casey Stegall, a gay man who lives in Lubbock, Texas: Stegall was employed as a children's social worker at the Children's Home of Lubbock. After his fiance came to work with him one day to help chaperone a field trip, Stegall was called into a meeting with the president of the organization. At this meeting, Stegall was told that because of his "lifestyle choices," he was being fired (Poole 2014).

To make matters worse, numerous states have laws that actively discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, especially here in the South. From legislation barring transgender citizens from using bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity, to legislation preventing local governments from enacting their own non-discrimination ordinances, to so-called "religious freedom" acts, these types of laws exist in many Southern states. However, it is Mississippi who has the most expansive and most extreme law yet. House Bill 1523, titled the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," was signed into law in 2016, and it came into effect in October 2017. This legislation allows businesses, corporations, organizations, government officials, and others to refuse services to LGBTQ citizens, if doing so contradicts "religious beliefs or moral convictions" (Kennedy 2018). Among other things, this wide-ranging law allows government officials to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, state employees and religious organizations to opt out of officiating same-sex weddings, healthcare professionals to deny medical care to LGBTQ citizens and/or their children, adoption agencies to refuse to allow LGBTQ citizens to adopt children, businesses to refuse services to LGBTQ citizens, and much more. In addition, this law also declares that gender is unchangeable and assigned at birth (Kennedy 2018).

The challenges I have described provide merely a glimpse into the world that LGBTQ. Americans--especially those of us in the South--have to navigate day in and day out. Indeed, in outlining these challenges, I have only begun to scratch the surface. The reality is that there are many, many other obstacles that we continue to face. However, the hurdles that we face generally share one critical element in common: Religion, in this case Christianity, is used to defend and perpetuate them.

Throughout the history of humankind, religions--including Christianity--have been corrupted to justify persecution, oppression, violence, war, and death. During the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, people mercilessly slaughtered innocents and committed other unspeakable atrocities in the name of Christ. In our own country, the name of Christ was once used to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as to forbid interracial marriage. The list goes on and on. Now, Christianity is once again being corrupted to justify the indefensible. This time, however, the target is everyone who knows what it is like to grow up believing that there is something wrong with themselves because they are attracted to the same sex; it is everyone who has ever endured the horrors of "conversion" therapy; it is the closeted teenage boy who is scared out of his mind to come out as gay to his family and friends for fear of being rejected and abandoned; it is the closeted transgender woman who is too afraid to express her true identity for fear of being targeted; it is everyone who has ever lost their job, been evicted, or been denied service just because of who they are and who they love; it is me; and it is all of us.

And that leads us to the final question: What can we all, both LGBTQ. and straight alike, do to make positive and lasting changes for the better? From a public policy standpoint, the answer is clear: Help all LGBTQ Americans, especially those of us in the South, raise awareness about the struggles and hardships that we face. Secondly, only support candidates for elected office who will advocate for full equality and inclusion for all LGBTQ Americans.

However, as important as this is (and it is very important), there is an even greater way to bring about meaningful and lasting changes for the better: Treat others as you would want to be treated. Yes, I did just invoke "the golden rule," which itself has its origins in the Bible:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for
this is the Law and the Prophets.
(Eastern Standard Version, Matthew 7:12)


In fact, Jesus Christ Himself taught that the following is the second-greatest commandment, second only to loving God:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
(Eastern Standard Version, Matthew 22:39)


In other words: Be land, compassionate, and respectful to others. As I shared, yes, I am a Christian. But regardless of one's faith, including if one has no faith at all, these two basic morals remain every bit as important. The fact is that life as a gay man--and life for all who are LGBTQ--is not easy. The story of my life so far is a testament to that. As I previously said, and as I intentionally reiterate now: Everything I went through in terms of my sexuality--from all those years of lying and hating myself to the core, to my coming out and its ensuing aftermath--was horrible. But as awful as it all was, I also realize that so many others who are LGBTQ go through far, far worse. Knowing this not only breaks my heart more than I could ever convey, but it also serves as a solemn reminder that, at least in this regard, I am one of the lucky ones.

That being said, I will never let injustice stand. I will spend my life doing all that I can to help build a better world--Not just for those of us who are LGBTQ but for all people. But for LGBTQ individuals in particular, I envision a world where no one has to experience anything even close to what I experienced (or worse); I envision a world where no one is targeted or discriminated against; and I envision a world where everyone is free to be who they are and to reach their greatest potential. However, if that world is ever going to exist, then we all--regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, ethnicity, class, and all of the other artificial barriers that divide us--must do our part. No matter what nation we call home, we must all work together in the pursuit of what is right and what is just. I will be the first one to admit that I do not know all of the answers. I personally believe that no one does. But one thing I do know is this: Building that world is possible. And for that reason, I have hope.

Works Cited

"Equality Maps: Conversion Therapy Laws." Movement Advancement Project, www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/conversion_therapy. Accessed 15 December 2018.

"Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics," Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. 11 May 2015. www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/region/south/. Accessed 15 December 2018.

The Holy Bible. Eastern Standard Version. Crossway. 2018. "Views About Homosexuality." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. 11 May 2015. www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/views-about-homosexuality/. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Fu, Lisa, "LGBTQ. Workers Still Subject to Employment Discrimination," Fortune 25 June 2017. www.fortune.com/2017/06/25/lgbtq-employment-discrimination/. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Kennedy, Merrit, "Controversial Mississippi Law Limiting LGBT Rights Not Heading To Supreme Court,"NPR 8 January 2018. www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/01/08/576500364/controversial-mississippi-law-limiting-lgbt-rights-not-heading-to-supreme-court. Accessed 15 December 2018.

KLTV Digital Media Staff, "Couple Says They Were Asked Not to Come Back to East Texas Restaurant Because They Are Gay," KLTV 27 May 2014. www.kltv.com/story/25624630/couple-says-they-were-asked-not-to-come-back-to-east-texas-restaurant-because-they-are-gay/. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Majchrowicz, Michael, and Mary Katherine Wildeman, "Taught to Hate Myself: How Gay Conversion Therapy in SC Is Thriving," The Post and Courier 2 October 2018. www.postandcourier.com/news/taught-to-hate-myself-how-gay-conversion-therapy-in-sc/article_3b53124c-abb9-11e8-8428-ef7b8427bd63.html. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Mallory, Christy. "Conversion Therapy and LGBT Youth." The Williams Institute. January 2018. williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Conversion-Therapy-LGBT-Youth-Jan-2018.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Ortiz, Nicole, "New Campaign Puts a Spotlight on 31 States Where LGBT Discrimination Remains the Law," Adweek 19 April 2018. www.adweek.com/creativity/new-campaign-puts-a-spotlight-on-31-states-where-lgbt-discrimination-remains-the-law/. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Poole, Stevie, "Lubbock Man Says He Was Fired for Being Gay; Law Says It's OK," Lubbock Avalanche-Journal 25 July 2014. www.lubbockonline.com/filed-online/2014-07-25/lubbock-man-says-he-was-fired-being-gay-law-says-its-ok. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Stephenson, Ashlee Rich, "Majorities Support Equality for LGBT Americans and Updating Federal Nondiscrimination Law," Project Right Side 18 July 2016. www.projectrightside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/PRS-National-Survey-Memorandum-July-2016-Key-Findings-Memorandum.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2018.
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Title Annotation:faith and coming out
Author:Harris, Brett
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Personal account
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Words:5005
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