‘Pray the Gay Away’: On Being Beaten with the Bible Belt

As my first year of graduate school rolled to a close, I decided to celebrate with a couple of friends. We opted for a quiet evening at home, a nice dinner, and a bottle of wine, so my friend Debbie and I headed off to the grocery store. I didn’t realize as we pulled into the parking lot that it would be a shopping trip that would stick with me for years to come.

After five years at Baylor University, a proud Southern Baptist school, I knew that the key to survival was conformity, a difficult task for a young man struggling with his sexual identity. I had altered my wardrobe shortly after arriving to match the unofficial school uniform of nice tan khakis and a button-down shirt. I frequently held my tongue, keeping catty comments that might be deemed as less than Christian to myself. I dated women – not often, but enough to be classified as “straight but shy”. On this occasion, walking through the store, I felt safe… one basket, one man and one woman. Who could question that?

What I failed to take into account was my shirt, a white silk shirt with some gold trim. Very trendy and GQ for the time, and a definite violation of the conservative code. As Debbie and I walked through the store, we approached two tall, frat-boy jock types, who looked at me with disdain and called out “Faggot!” as we passed. Despite Debbie’s assurances that they were assholes, I was panic-stricken. Would they be waiting for me in the parking lot? Was it something other than the shirt that had tipped them off? Had I been delusional in thinking that my five year masquerade was effective?

That was my last semester at Baylor. I transferred to the University of North Texas over the summer, a place where homophobia still existed in pockets, but they were small ones and I felt much freer to be the person I wanted to grow into being. That incident back at Baylor, though, was hardly the first time I felt that I was being held in judgment and that religion overrode common courtesy or decency to belittle me.

Unfortunately, I am not alone in that experience, and my encounter in the store is mild compared to some of the harrowing stories related in Bernadette Barton’s new book Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays. A mother attempting to stab her own daughter, an exorcism, a school suspending a student, parents reclaiming everything in their son’s dorm room and leaving him with nothing, a mother threatening to have her daughter’s college scholarship revoked – these are just a few of the tales of gay men and lesbians who have suffered physical, mental, and/or emotional abuse once their devout families or social networks learned of their same-sex orientation.

Barton bases her research on interviews with 59 lesbians and gay men, all from the Bible Belt states of Texas and Kentucky (a fact that struck resonance with me, being the two states where have I spent most of my life). A resident of a small town in Kentucky, Barton has experienced religion-based prejudice first-hand, but it wasn’t a part of her growing up experience, leading her to wonder about the lives of those men and women for whom Christianity has been the social force through which their lives are assessed.

In addition to talking to these women and men, Barton also interviews others, such as the attendees at an Exodus International convention and various ministers, and she tours the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Her mission isn’t to vilify those who have deeply-held beliefs, and she recognizes that their actions and concerns are based in a genuine fear for relative and friends who they think have gone astray from the fold. Yet, she is blunt about the damage that they can cause.

For those unfamiliar with life in the Bible Belt, Barton first clarifies how dominant the Christian presence is through the region. Bumper stickers, billboards, yard signs, even ads in the Yellow Pages all declare support for Christianity or pass judgment on some issue based on Scripture (i.e., abortion, gay rights). During a recent trip to Houston, I couldn’t help but notice that the editorial page of The Houston Chronicle contains a daily Bible verse, one of many Southern papers to do so, nor could I ignore the stories-high white cross jutting up out of nowhere alongside the freeways.

Faith in Biblical teachings is absolute in a high percentage of households, and more often than not in Christian homes in the South, this faith tends to follow a conservative path. Barton quotes one study of a fundamentalist church that found the members emerged most all aspects of their lives in the church. Social events, dinners, even kids’ sports activities were done through the church. To question this lifestyle is unthinkable; Barton describes an exchange between a mother and young son in the Creation Museum, which ended with the mother pointing to a placard on the wall and telling the boy, “Look, this is what happens when you question, you go to Hell.”

Imagine growing up in an environment that not only screamed at you continuously that what you are is wrong, but also that you would suffer eternally because of it. For many, learning that a family member is homosexual is worse than learning that a relative is a murderer, rapist, or sinner of any type, so it’s not surprising that a large number of the interviewees hid their sexual orientation from their families, including hiding relationships and significant others. Neither is it surprising that many of the lesbians and gay men interviewed have suffered psychological harm along the way. Barton notes that many are “…forced out of the heavenly family — and in many cases flesh and blood families as well — and facing eternal damnation, gay Christians struggle with fear of hell, depression, suicidal thoughts, ex-gay programs, feelings of worthlessness, and self-destructive behaviors.”

For younger gays, the ramifications may be multiplied as they are at an age when they are seeking their way in the world as adults for the first time. To suddenly have your world turned upside down — no home, kicked out of college, friends turning away – can be devastating. Some don’t handle the situation well and turn to drugs, alcohol, random sex, or other destructive behaviors.

Yet, many emerge stronger, more aware of the struggles of others according to Barton. Katie, a 26-year-old lesbian, now pays attention to the disenfranchised and tries “to listen to the voice that’s not heard because my voice wasn’t heard and I would have loved it if someone would have listened to me”. Ernesto Corsone shared similar feelings. Corsone was Kentucky’s first and only gay legislator and now serves as a circuit court judge. He feels that things are getting better and that the Christian influence in politics is waning. He likens the prejudice against gays to an ice sculpture — standing there melting, sometimes faster than at other times.

It’s easy to look at recent election results and see Corsone’s analogy as prophetic. Gay marriage seems to be gaining acceptance among the electorate. Further, California is fighting reparative therapy in the courts and through law, while Exodus International, the largest gay-to-straight ministry, has announced that it will no longer attempt to “pray the gay away”, opting for teaching members how celibacy or finding an opposite-sex partner who is understanding are preferable to a homosexual lifestyle.

In Kentucky, where Barton bases much of her work, both the larger city of Lexington, population 301,000, and the tiny Appalachian town of Vicco, population 335, have gay mayors. Perhaps the heat is being turned up on the ice sculpture.

Indeed, Barton makes it clear through the stories she shares that the sculpture is melting in some areas faster than others, and data reinforces her argument. No Southern state has come close to allowing gay marriage, and only four Southern states recognize sexual orientation in their hate crime laws (Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky). Perhaps as a backlash against gains made by gay rights groups, the number of hate crimes based on sexual orientation is actually on the rise, according to the latest FBI crime data.

Election results and crime data mean little to someone who is suffering on a personal level, however. One of the more tragic stories told in Pray the Gay Away is that of Josh, a 29-year-old man who describes being “spiritually raped” after his parents learned of his boyfriend’s existence. Josh, the one whose parents reclaimed all his possessions from his dorm room, was physically forced to undergo an exorcism, as church leaders held him and tried to pray the demons out of him. Prior to this experience, Josh had tried to reconcile his Christian faith and homosexuality through attending a Metropolitan Community Church; however, this experience “shattered any chance of me ever wanting to identify as a Christian again.”

Having been out to my immediate family for quite some time, who accepted my partner and me unconditionally, I am blessed. However, after the death of my partner last spring, I learned that none of my aunts, uncles, or cousins knew of my sexual orientation or of my 17 year relationship. “It’s just easier not to deal with it,” my parents explained, and recalling the fervor for Jesus felt by many of my distant family members, residents of a small town in North Carolina, I understood my parent’s perspective. Still, I remain conflicted, that I am somehow supposed to stay in the closet to appease their religious beliefs, no matter how contrary they may be to my own. Why do their beliefs trump who I am?

Barton’s book asks this same question, and while she can posit her response, her answer isn’t likely to satisfy those Bible Belt Christians for whom homosexuality is the ultimate betrayal of God’s love and grace. Then, it isn’t likely that many of those will be reading her book. Instead, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays serves as validation for the experiences of those who have lived through religion-based homophobia and as an education for those who haven’t.

Cheers, Queers: To two passing gay rights pioneers. Jeanne Manford, who marched alongside her gay son in one of the first gay pride parades and went on to form PFLAG, died on 8 January 2013. Richard Adams, who passed away last December, married his partner Tony Sullivan in 1975 in Boulder, Colorado. Although his fight for legal rights was defeated, his marriage was never voided, making Richard and Tony the longest lasting married gay couple in the US, together for 37 years.