I wrote the following for the blog of Maurice Broaddus in the Run-Up to Mo*Con VI, and its theme of homosexuality and Religion, at which I’ll be the Artist Guest of Honor next week. I was (and am) very nervous about this being posted, as I’m a pretty introverted guy. Sharing my personal history is uncomfortable for me, as I feel I’m giving something away I can never get back. But the following is a small piece of my life.
I’m the son of a preacher man. My father was a Pentecostal/ Fundamentalist/ Assemblies of God preacher in Flop-on-the-floor/ Speaking in Tongues type churches. The same school of thought as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Sarah Palin and their ilk. I grew up surrounded by that community, living their beliefs and requirements. My father began his ministry fresh out of a small Bible College with a Children’s Christian Radio Show, and then transitioned this to a traveling Children’s Crusade, where even we kids were made a part of the act. He later became an Associate and then a Head pastor at various churches before becoming a Home Missions preacher (moving once each year or so to a new church that was being sucked into the Assemblies of God). We attended a service of some sort nearly every night of the week, and multiple times on Sundays. I attended a Bible College for a short while. I later converted to Catholicism and almost entered the Seminary (a story for another day, involving another would-be Seminarian yelling out, “Oh God!”).
I am also gay.
When Maurice asked me to write about Homosexuality and Religion, a million thoughts entered my head. I could probably write an encyclopedia on the subject, based on my personal experience and studies. How to focus that thought, and bring it down to something manageable that people wouldn’t stop reading immediately? I don’t want to preach (though I was raised to do so). I don’t want to chastise, or castigate, or bore, or make pronouncements. We’ve all had enough of that, and it would be far too easy to get into a rant. So, I’ll try to focus on this one subject … growing up as the son of a preacher, and coming to terms with being gay. Fair warning: I am a long-winded writer. Not as long as the sermons I grew up with, thankfully, but brevity is not my strong suit.
Caveat and disclaimer: I personally do not now believe in the God of my parents’ church, and do not follow any organized religion. I cannot accept the hateful bile spewed by those who claim to follow Him. No, I did not rebel and blindly stop following. My current beliefs (and I won’t share them, because it really has no bearing here) were formed through many years of actual study, reading, debate and thought. I may be highly spiritual, but I am not religious. Okay, I’m boring you, and losing readers. So, on to my story …
There was a boy—for ease of memory (and to not pretend it’s someone else, but it’s more fun and a bit easier to write in third person) we’ll call him Danny—who loved Jesus very, very much. He won his first personalized, red-letter, gold-edged Bible for having memorized the books of the Bible at around age 6. He won his second for memorizing the “Love Chapter” of the Bible [1 Corinthians:13]. He’s probably read the Bible, cover to cover, in various translations and versions, and in a couple of languages, at least a hundred times. His parents were preachers, his grandparents were preachers (if you ever meet him, ask him about the adventures involving his mother’s father, leading his flock around town singing, accosting anyone who didn’t run fast enough), his aunts and uncles were all preachers or involved heavily with their churches. Nearly every childhood memory for Danny involved Church, or Church-related events: Pageants; Church Musicals; Summer Camps, retreats, and Preacher’s Kid getaways; Singing in a Street Mission (the poor guys there had to listen to him sing and his father preach, food sitting on long tables in front of them, before they were allowed to eat—even then, Danny thought that must be some form of torture); Royal Rangers (the Church’s version of the Boy Scouts, as the Boy Scouts were “Of the World”); ringing the bell in a mountain church to call the congregation to service.
As the child of a Preacher, one is expected to act and be a certain way, to set the perfect example for the other children. Don’t embarrass your parents, never question, never act out, never say or do anything that may cast a negative light on the standing of your parents. Danny and his many brothers and sisters were placed in in the front pew during services. As his Father preached, his Mother would sit in the row behind them, and if they in any way acted out (or looked like they might be contemplating not paying attention), a quick flick on the back of the ear was the first warning. You didn’t want your Father to have to stop the service to scold you from the pulpit. From the time he could write, Danny dutifully took notes of each and every sermon. He learned at an early age to hide himself, his thoughts and pain and feelings, to be the perfect son. His entire sense of self-worth was wrapped up in this image. He was taught about Christ’s “unconditional” love, but also that if he didn’t obey, God was an angry God, and he would burn in Hell, painfully and shamefully, forever. And it would look bad for his parents.
To be fair, Danny’s Father was one of that rare breed of Pentecostal who actually went to school to study the Bible, and who really believed what he preached. From his parents, Danny still holds an extreme sense of compassion, along with a temper that is quick to anger when he sees others being abused or taken advantage of. Danny’s family was very poor, due to his father’s chosen life, and they were often paid with farm goods, or truckloads of fish, or other such trade items when a Church had no cash. His Father worked other jobs to support his family—Meat packer, gas station attendant, Carpenter (to follow the ways of Christ)—as the churches paid very little. Later, when some of Danny’s siblings started to get into trouble, their Father stepped down from being a preacher, stating that if he couldn’t control his family, he couldn’t lead a flock. He lived what he taught.
But Danny learned early what it was like to defy the Church. God was angry, God was fear, God was the being in the 70s-era Second Coming Horror films he was forced to watch in church whose followers rejoiced as those who stood with them were put into the guillotine rather than suffer the Almighty’s wrath. Danny learned the dichotomy of the religion: God is love, but God is also anger and pain and death. His sense of self-worth was based on the idea that everything he was, everything good about him, came from God Himself. Any affront to his body—any sin—was a direct attack on God. Without Him, Danny was taught, not only would one burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity, but without God, life was worthless. Danny was worthless. He was nothing. The same beliefs taught by many American churches, who preach the same laws—God (the version taught by that certain sect) is everything. Humans are nothing without God. And, as there is only one “right” church, to stray from that particular institution’s view of God is the worst sin. As mentioned when our little tale began, Danny loved Jesus very much. He believed, and he wanted to be good. He wanted to make God, and his parents, happy. He wanted to be a preacher when he grew up just as much as he wanted to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist, or a doctor, or a journalist. He truly believed.
Danny easily forgave those in the Church who would sin—who would hurt or use others, who would beat their wives or molest their their children, and then be protected by the Church. It wasn’t Danny’s place to judge, that was God’s job. And they could pray to Jesus for forgiveness and be pure again. If Jesus could so easily forgive them, why couldn’t he? All he could control was himself, and he worked hard at this.
While Danny strove diligently to fill the role of that perfect son—learning early to act, to hide himself—he knew he was different. No, he didn’t know he was “gay.” He hand’t any idea such a thing existed, really. A naive lad, he only knew that, inside, he wasn’t what he was “supposed” to be. Sure, some of his interests melded with those of other boys. He liked skateboards and comic books. He liked getting muddy. His TV idol was The Six Million Dollar Man. He loved Batman and Spiderman. He wasn’t interested in Barbies, or wearing girls’ clothing, or baby dolls that peed or cried (though there was a brief fling with a Cabbage Patch Doll dressed in a Chicago Cubs uniform). He liked the music he was allowed to listen to (church and classical music exclusively). And he didn’t particularly like playing with girls over boys. But Danny was tiny, so not very good at sports, though he loved running, and riding horses, and after interviewing a semi-pro hockey player at age 9, became obsessed with that sport (though didn’t really get into it until years later). He didn’t particularly enjoy making out with girls in the back of church vans, as was the norm. He liked to sing the snatches of old Gene Kelly songs he’d overheard. He played the flute, and enjoyed being in Church Musicals. His favorite pastime, above all else, was reading. He escaped into the pages of books he wasn’t supposed to have, hiding in the stacks of libraries and sneaking (temporarily stealing) books to read in the barn or the fields in secret. He consumed volumes, yearning for the inconceivable worlds beyond his own revealed in those pages. He became a pathological liar, in his head, creating his own stories which he tried to believe, to hide out in—to be a part of something new and exciting and … different. He knew he was not the same as others, not what he should be, and he became an excellent actor, hiding his true self behind a mask lest he disappoint. And he felt shame and self-loathing.
As he grew into that “certain age,” when most children were being given the “talk” or learning about their bodies in Sex Ed classes, Danny was not allowed such things, as they were “Of The World.” And while his sisters were given approved Christian books describing the changes of their body and the glorious preparations for breeding for God, Danny was told, as curtly as possible, that “God will tell you what to do on your wedding night.” That, Song of Solomons, and furtive glances at dry texts in libraries were the extent of his education on the subject. Yes, he did have early childhood explorations—awkward, naive and bumbling as they were. And he’d overheard the other Royal Rangers whispering furtively of virgins and cherries as they explored. But Danny was naive, and a late bloomer. Danny had been taught that his body was a temple, an extension of Christ. Alcohol, tattoos, sex, and anything else done to one’s person was done to Jesus. He was taught that when you spit, you are spitting on Jesus as he carries his cross to the hill to die for you. Dancing and Rock Music were a tool of the devil, as they invited temptation. Television and movies, unless they were approved by the church, were of the Devil. Boys going shirtless was showing too much flesh, and was temptation to sin. Everything Danny did, he was told, was seen by God, and anything “unclean” was an affront to Him. Danny’s punishment for any thoughts or ideas, no matter how deeply hidden in his mind, came from himself. From trying harder to block out the sin, to be a good boy in the eyes of the world—no matter how filthy he felt on the inside. He learned to loathe himself and his sin.
Balancing his natural urges, and his ignorance of them, with his desire to neither burn forever nor to disappoint his parents soon consumed our young hero. He lived in fear of his mask slipping, of others discovering what he had done, or had even fleeting thoughts about doing. A sense of worthlessness overcame him, and for years he struggled with this self-loathing and his faith. Why would God, who is pure love, make a boy like Danny, who tried so hard to be good and right, and to follow His Word, and yet who failed at every step? How could he sit back and watch those who proclaimed Love and compassion also espouse Hatred and Fear of those who did not follow, knowing he himself was one of those sinners, in a few hidden deeds and especially in thought? By the age of 10, Danny dwelt in constant depression, living every day with the notion that the world would be a more godly place without him, that all would be better if he died before he could disappoint. Suicide was also a grave sin, so Danny created another space in his head to hide those sorts of thoughts.
Somehow, through blind luck or pure stubbornness, or more likely out of fear of sinning, Danny survived to leave home (at the age of 16). He went “ye out into the world”, still believing, though honestly questioning, his parents’ way. At a Bible College, studying to become like his Father (though, even if he could preach up a storm, perhaps taking a different path—he had learned well how to create masks for himself, and acting and writing appealed), he encountered more of the same people, singing and praising the Love and Glory of God, while not-so-silently telling their closest friends how sinful and unworthy others were. He was confronted again with the reality he’d seen throughout his childhood, that those who act one way for Church so easily act another in the outside world and then furtively pray for forgiveness. Do anything you want, and with one simple phrase, all your sins are washed away.
Danny’s attraction to other males—not sexual, really, but more of a camaraderie, a wish to be held and to hold—grew stronger. But the place inside where he had long since learned to store such thoughts was overflowing. He spent hours alone in churches and in abandoned fields, tearfully praying for guidance and strength. He had seen other Preacher’s Kids who could not accept themselves fall onto the streets and die out, and others wrap themselves even tighter into the cocoon of the church to hide who they were, killing their true selves just as much in their own way. And through his experiences, both good and bad, Danny began to learn that, God or no God, the answers he sought were inside of him. He had to stand for himself. He was responsible for his own life and happiness. And he did not want to have to hide himself anymore. That the bottling up what was inside, what he naturally felt, was a lie. That to get married and have the “traditional family” his parents demanded was a greater lie, and no one would be happy in the end. Lying is also a sin, and the life he was living—pretending to be something he was not, being miserable and suicidal and hating God and everyone around him for making him the way he was—was the biggest hypocrisy of all. The God of the New Testament, the New Covenant, was a God of Love and compassion—of caring and joy—and the hatred and fear that consumed Danny stemming from what he naturally felt was a greater sin than anything he’d ever done. If the God Danny was taught of as a child created us all, and that God could do no wrong, then why was he “faulty?” The self-loathing, the lying and hiding, were what was destroying him, and to truly love others, he had to learn to come to terms with himself, and to love who he really was.
It turns out that the only Boy who could ever reach our Danny was himself, the son of a preacher man.
Sorry for that hokey last line, but it’s good for a quick giggle. Are we sick of this third person thing yet?
For me, just as our hero above (and if you’ve forgotten by this point in the tome, or weren’t paying attention, that Danny is me), the toughest part of coming to terms with being gay, with learning to accept myself, was to learn to love myself, in discovering my own self-worth. That, really, was the longest and hardest part of my journey. Until I learned that I was important, just for being me (something I feel every kid should have constantly affirmed from the moment of birth), I could not actually begin to live and be happy. I am the way I am. I have no idea why, I just am. I wasn’t “recruited.” I wasn’t coerced. I wasn’t sexually abused by a man at a young age. I wasn’t acting out to rebel against my parents or their church. I did not choose to be the way I am, meaning being gay along with everything else about me, but I did choose to accept myself and allow myself to be happy. I had to teach myself to overcome the idea that without the acceptance of some all-powerful being as defined by my parents’ church, I could not live a full and happy life. I basically had to tear down everything I’d been taught and to realize that, no matter who I am, my life is important. It is worth living. I had to build from scratch a complete foundation of positive self-esteem and worth, something I was never taught as a child. My whole sense of self was wrapped up in my parents’ God, and I’d seen both sides of that entity and its hypocritical followers. I refuse to accept that there is need for a “cure” or help to “resist the temptations.” To me, that’s hate-speech for “You’re evil and wrong, your natural feelings are impure, and if you don’t act like the rest of us, you’re destroying everything good.” I refuse to lie about who I am, no matter the consequences of that, because the alternative is pain and suffering and … wrong.
When I came out (a long and messy process), my parents sent a church psychologist after me to “cure” me (which didn’t last long after I met his son, who I recognized from HIV-prevention ads in a local gay magazine). They cried the usual pleas: “How could you do this to us?” “What did we do wrong with you?” “We don’t want you to get AIDS, die painfully and burn in Hell.” The Unconditional Love I’d been taught as a child showed its true Conditions once again. There were many years of distance between my parents and I, partially from them, partially from me. In the meantime, I learned not only to accept myself, but to create my own family. To surround myself with those who, though they may not always agree with me, love me for who I am. Not for what their God or Church tells me I should be, but just for me. My partner and I have been together for over 15 years now, longer than most straight couples I know. We have differing religious backgrounds. We are confronted by the same challenges and obstacles as everyone else, some unique to our situation. But what we do have is a relationship based on reality, on accepting who we are. Of not hiding behind masks because it’s easier or because that’s what others want from us. We have honesty and integrity and hope—for ourselves, for the world around us, and for those kids, from church homes or not, who are confronted every day in this country by those who profess to be followers of Christ’s love, yet who who tell them (through word or deed) that they’re evil and bad and better off dead. I am open about who I am for myself, as well as to show those kids that all the tools they need to survive are inside them, that they ARE important, and that life is worth living. Their worth is not wrapped up in some God or certain way of living, but in what they do and say, and who they are inside. If I can do it, so can they.