L.S. is a 60 yr old lesbian who is just in the process of "coming out." Because of that, she can’t give her name, nor can she join us in New Orleans. She writes:
I’ve been Southern Baptist all of my life. I recall as a pre-schooler my dad leading the singing in our little Baptist church in South Texas. Both he and mother taught adult Sunday School classes most of their lives. Dad was an active deacon. He was also a leader both in the church and in the various communities, towns and cities in which we lived.
When at age 14 (1953) I experienced my first "same-sex attraction," I didn’t know what to think of it. I just told myself I was feeling something "very strange." To the best of my knowledge, I had never heard the words homosexual, lesbian, or gay. Consequently, I had no conception of what this attraction meant in the broad spectrum of sexual orientation. I wouldn’t have dreamed of discussing it with anyone, certainly no one in my church.
However, at the age of 17, as a freshman in college, I fell in love with a girl. At this point in my life, I was convinced that what I felt was evil and that succumbing to this attraction would make me an abomination in the sight of God.
By the age of 23, I had turned down numerous proposals from some truly fine young Christian men. I knew by then I would never fall in love with a man. It was time for me to marry. Society taught this. My church taught this. My parents planned for me to marry and have children. The idea of not "honoring my mother and my father" was beyond consideration. I would marry. Therefore, I determined to select a nice fellow to marry with whom I felt I could be reasonably happy.
I did this in 1963. We had four absolutely wonderful children whom we brought up as Baptists. My husband and I, respected leaders in our community, were faithful to each other for 37 years. Unknown to anyone, I fought constant depression and a desire to die. I was living a lie. I was pretending to be a heterosexual. The misery of the marriage bed was sometimes more than I thought I could endure.
I used to tell myself that the various abilities and talents God bestowed upon me, the wonderful children he entrusted to my care, and the respectable life I was leading was God’s way of saying He was sorry for the dirty trick He played upon me. That’s the way I always thought of my different sexual orientation: "God’s Dirty Trick."
No one ever told me that God loves homosexuals. No one ever told me that I was acceptable in God’s eyes. No one ever told me that I’m the way I am because that’s the way God made me. No one very told me He loves me just the way I am. No one told me these things until I was 61 years of age–and even then the words didn’t come from the pulpit or from a Sunday School teacher! These were words I had longed to hear all of my life. Oh, how different my life could have been if someone in the church had let me know how much God loves everyone, even those with a different sexual orientation. How wonderful it would have been to have been told I was not an abomination in His sight but a lovely human being. It’s too late for me to relive my life, but it’s not too late for those thousands of young people who sit in Baptist churches week after week who are being taught to hate themselves. No wonder the large majority of teenage suicides are homosexuals. The hate directed towards us comes primarily from Baptist churches! And yet Jesus’s message was love, not hate; acceptance, not rejection.
Regis Donaghey will be joining SOULFORCE in New Orleans. This is his first direct action and he wrote:
"Cold Turkey" were the words he used. I remember them well.
My partner and I met at a Christian "ex-gay" support group breakfast. Our first date lasted forty-eight days. Our tireless "Ex-gay" group leader was quick to figure us out. Was it the glow of new love in our faces? Was it the fact that we could finish each other’s sentences? Or could it have been the fact that we could not hide the love we shared (no matter how hard we tried). But the leader knew we must be banned from the group. Perhaps, because the others may see gay love and be swayed from their ex-gay brainwashing.
So our leader, I will call him "Mike", suggested counseling sessions with him. He stated it was not legal for him to charge us for these sessions, but he would gladly take donations. We went to these sessions out of fear of eternal damnation, yet still knowing the feelings we were having for each other felt so right, so natural and true.
"Cold Turkey. You guys need to end this relationship cold turkey." My heart sank. We had so many plans for the future. How could he expect us to end our relationship? We had yet to go to diving in Cancun and we had Phantom of the Opera tickets for the following week!
My partner and I both share a deep Christian faith. Coincidentally, we were both raised Catholic and then converted to Southern Baptist later in life. The struggles we shared together, and apart, during this time only made our commitment stronger and our love deeper. We tried to separate. We prayed. We cried. We made love. We cried. Why was our love so wrong? We made rules. We broke them. We made a contract with each other. The contract failed and became null and void.
This past March, my partner and I celebrated our 7-year anniversary. We have opened our home to other gay/lesbian people for bible study. The stories of fear, abuse and degradation we hear are heartbreaking. The Christian Right, no matter what their motivation may be, is breaking the spirits of many gays and lesbians. Phil and I have chosen to stand firm in our faith AND our relationship.
Relationships, gay or straight, are hard work. Phil and I are proof that "Opposites Attract". He is corporate, I work in the arts. I am goofy, he is disciplined.
He is Hispanic, I am white. But, this is truly the first time in my life that when arguments occur (and they do), I know it is not the end of our love or relationship. That we will always work it out and continue on in our relationship.
So here is to "Mike", the ex-gay minister who brought us together. I am forever indebted to you – for Phil is a miracle from God. You helped me to see this, without even trying. Now the only ‘Cold Turkey’ I have is the day after Thanksgiving.
Because Sharon Vogt, couldn’t join us in New Orleans, she felt she needed to send us her story and her photo. She writes:
I am the youngest in a family of five children. I have three older brothers and one older sister. One of my brothers, Scott, became a Baptist when he was in his 20s. Even though this wasn’t the religion I chose for myself, I supported him in his conversion. I knew it was a faith that spoke to him and brought great joy to his life.
Since his conversion and my coming out, Scott has separated himself from the family. He fears that his children may somehow be affected because I choose to be in a loving, committed relationship with a woman. Whenever the family gets together, he chooses not to be present if I am present (whether or not my partner is there).
Just last month we had an 80th birthday party for my father. He decided to attend but none of his children were present. He would not speak with me even though I hold no judgement against him.
While this story doesn’t sound tragic, it is an example of what happens in many families. Many churches say that homosexuality breaks up a family. It’s not the homosexuality that breaks up families. It is the judgements against us that cause the break. Scott chooses to not be an active member of our family. We miss him dearly. And I am sure he misses the connection, too. But he has been taught by his church that he can have nothing to do with me….that this is the way for him to show his love. On the contrary, all he is doing is isolating himself from his family’s love and causing a break that does not need to be there.
Mike Herrington is another first time attendee to a SOULFORCE direct action: He tells us:
I always considered myself to be a God-fearing, born-again, Bible-believing Texas Baptist. I am from rural central west Texas and a graduate of the world’s most prestigious Southern Baptist University, Class of 1964. Being gay was simply not an option. In some sense I knew for a very long time that my primary physical attraction (it was more than sexual) was to those of my own sex. I was determined to be a good person so I felt very confused.
I was a farm boy who made his confession of faith at a little country church. Because I wanted the best Christian teachings, I persuaded my parents to attend church in town where I faithfully attended Sunday school, Training Union, and Wednesday night prayer services, revivals twice a year and, as a high school senior, was elected president of the associational Youth Rally. I was blessed with a few very fine teachers who knew their way around the Bible. Some of them would even admit that there seemed to be some contradictions in the Scripture. Almost all assured me that what was most important was that God is love and that, through the grace of Jesus Christ, all were welcomed into the family of God. The majority, though, did not seem so inclusive in their message.
I did not see or hear much ever said about homosexuality. If it was ever slightly mentioned, it was suggested that only strange, deviant type persons were attracted to having sex with their own gender. The topic of sex alone was almost as taboo as during the Victorian era. How could I hope to get accurate information or understanding for my feelings and for who I seemed to be?
My mother once guessed that my attachment to one of my dearest male Baylor friends was not totally "normal." I dodged her inquiry like a hail of bullets. I dated much more at Baylor than I had in high school. I had some very good female friends. For years I would believe that I was unusually blessed with the ability to respect female virginity. I did not consider the fact that I was not that interested in being physically intimate with a female.
I did plan on marrying eventually not only because it was the natural course of things but also because I very much wanted to have children of my own. Compared to a number of my peers, I was late marrying. I was blessed with a wonderful, beautiful, educated woman who was everything I could imagine in a wife and the mother of my children. We seemed to have a lot in common. We were quickly blessed with the births of three children. For the first few years, the marriage went seemingly well, but the relationship began to slide downhill for no particular reason that I could identify.
Both of us took our Christian parenting of our children very seriously. Both of us were very active in our church. We tried very hard to have a good life together. I feel that we did love and care for one another as human beings and as partnered parents, but something was definitely missing. I suffered from depression off and on for years; but then it became more intense. I began to feel guilty: first, for being depressed; second, for having moved my family to a new location in search of elusive happiness; and third (probably most important), for my inability to be totally honest with myself. I thought of many excuses: things that would make everything okay. It was not that simple.
I began to seek out both pastoral help and professional medical intervention. Something was still missing. Trying a career switch did not bring the solace that I hoped it would. I struggled to tell my spouse that I had "inappropriate" sexual feelings for men. I thought if I could just say the truth to someone that I could get better. She probably never knew exactly how to react. She was not cruel, but she did ignore my hints. Being ignored can be very painful.
When my job situation became critical, our marriage rapidly worsened. Ultimately, even though I did everything within my power to fix the situation, the marriage was doomed. Marriage was something I had desperately hung on to like a lifeline. I did not think I could survive its demise, but I did. Still I worked hard at being a moral person and a good divorced father. I became almost asexual. I had no difficulty remaining totally celibate, though most everyone made jokes about the sexual freedom of the divorced man.
I danced around the possibility that I was gay. I tried to find a mental health person who would allow me to discuss my questions about my sexuality. It was a difficult search. Once I did find someone, I could move ahead in accepting. Ultimately I chose to move home to Texas and to allow myself to be. I soon found more accurate information as well as support and affirmation. I was 57 years old; but, surprisingly, I felt as though I had come home.
Here’s a story of reconciliation from one of our volunteers who will be joining us in New Orleans. John Davis talks about the process of coming to accept himself as a gay man and finding a community of faith that accepts him just as he is:
I grew up active in a Southern Baptist congregation. In 1983, while a junior at the University of Illinois and president of the Baptist Student Union, I came out to myself and a few close friends in my church community as a gay man. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I have come to understand how very lucky I was at that point to have the loving and supportive responses from those to whom I chose to come out. Those friends helped me to reconcile my spiritual life and sexual reality in spite of my conservative fundamentalist background. A couple of weekends ago I attended a Gay Men’s Spirituality weekend at Kirkridge led by John McNeil and Chris Glaser. What struck me throughout the weekend was the degree of woundedness in the 100 plus men attending the retreat, and as individuals began to tell their stories, it was clear that many of the wounds were inflicted and kept from healing by the absence of any support from their faith communities.
For the remainder of my time in college, I hid the gay part of my life from all but the closest of my friends. Having two separate lives was difficult and tiring, so when I moved to St. Louis to begin the glamorous job the University had prepared me for, that of Accountant, I decided that I would try to be as honest and open as possible in this new chapter of my life. Not wanting to lead a double life anymore meant making the decision that church was not a healthy place for me to be, and that therefore I would have to find spiritual connection on my own. So, 1985 was the year that I reconciled my spirituality and sexuality, with the result being a decision that church was not a safe place for me.
Throughout the next 12 years, that decision felt right and in fact was frequently reinforced by what I heard from the "religious" world. Conservatives had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention and institutions, and sexual minorities continued to lose ground, as did women, racial minorities, and just about anyone else who was not part of the established power structure. As close friends began becoming ill and dying of AIDS, the hurtful and often hateful response I saw from some who claimed to be members and even leaders in the Christian community created a strong contrast to the loving generous response I saw from those supposedly in the secular world.
In spite of that, I began to attend CBC in 1997 and although it felt like home, it began a new process of reconciliation. For instance, how could I voluntarily associate myself with a religious community, even one as radical as CBC, when I still felt that much of the religious community in the world was so interested in protecting their position of power and authority they were unable to recognize, or even allow for the possibility of, movement of the Spirit around them. When I read the headlines of the voices raised against same sex unions, or adoptions of children by same sex couples, I still find myself sometimes asking, "What am I doing here?" Not here at CBC, but here, as part of a mainline protestant denomination that still seeks to exclude me. And often I feel more in common with what is traditionally categorized as secular, than with what passes for religious.
The reconciliation comes, as often is the case, by replacing stereotypes with personal contacts, and by trading in expectations for personal experiences. By ignoring the categories of gay and straight, male and female, religious and secular, we are able to see the individual similarities beneath and the values that connect us so tightly. It seems that whether people have named it or not, many of us here are doing this same reconciliation dance of trying to work out who we are and where we belong.
I have also been struck during this series by how often activism is intertwined with reconciliation. The hope that homophobia in our churches can be addressed binds me to this community of faith because I see people working with that hope in mind. The belief that power structures based upon race, gender, and money can be overcome holds me in community with The Other Side magazine and the individuals who live these values everyday. The idea that spirituality does not begin and end within our denominational frameworks, keeps me walking with those who work on coalition building beyond what we are usually comfortable with. All of these things give me hope that I can reconcile who I am and where I belong.
As I said at the start, this reconciliation process is one that is ongoing, and one that I doubt will ever end. I think there will always be a portion of the larger religious community that makes me want to run the other way. But what keeps me here are those zen moments when I know that I am in the right place at the right time with the right people, and the reconciliation bells ring again.
Luann Conaty is one of our faithful PFLAG allies. She didn’t grow up Baptist, but was deeply affected by the Baptist culture within her community. She shares her story with us:
Oklahoma in the 1940’s and 50’s (when I was growing up) seemed to be dominated by the southern Baptists. My family went to the Presbyterian church. However, the influence of the Baptists was felt throughout the community. There was absolutely no civic meeting held on Wednesday night. That night was reserved by mutual agreement for "prayer meeting." The Baptist church was directly across the street from the one and only high school (except the one for the African Americans in town). There was a Baptist youth center in the house next to the church. It was a popular gathering place for the teens, no matter what their denomination might be. I have fond memories of the Baptist church and the activities they provided.
I also remember the coercion exercised on teenagers who went to Fall Creek, the Baptist summer camp. They were persuaded to promise NEVER to dance, to drink, to go to movies on Sunday, along with other promises I no longer remember. I doubt that they promised not to be homosexual or to engage in premarital sex, because those things were presumed simply not to exist.
It was a lifetime ago, and unless you lived then, it is impossible to believe how naive teenagers were, especially in a town influenced so thoroughly by the southern Baptists.
It is now 50 years later, and I have known for 23 years that my older of two sons is gay. Because my father believed in the strictest and most literal interpretation of the Bible, and because one did not question one’s parent all those years ago, I was not prepared to be the parent of a homosexual. My father, however, believed totally in salvation by grace alone. Southern Baptists talk about grace, but stress works.
For ten years I struggled alone (I couldn’t let anyone know). For ten years I pleaded with the God of grace to show me how He could condemn my son for something over which he had no control. Of course, reaching the place where I understood and acknowledged that my son had no control over being gay was my first enormous challenge. Finally, God assured me that my son and all the others like him, including my lesbian step-daughter, are not condemned.
I struggled alone because of fear, ignorance and shame. Once I opened my closet door, beginning with six years as a buddy to AIDS patients, next being appointed to Governor William Weld’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth in Massachusetts in 1992, there was no turning back.
I have been a member of Soulforce since its founding. I have participated in several of its group activities, beginning with the trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, to meet with Jerry Falwell. I have been arrested four times, and I will be again in New Orleans.
Largely because he was told by his church that he was condemned, my son no longer calls himself a Christian. Neither does my stepdaughter. I have been allowed to be open about my Soulforce activities in my Presbyterian church. I have been allowed to present an open and affirming Biblical point of view. Because families are being torn apart, because people are being robbed of their self respect and of their faith (sometimes of their very lives), I shall continue to confront the denominations (including my own) which are responsible for distorting the grace of God There is nothing in my life which gives me more satisfaction than the work of Soulforce. I believe we are making a difference.