I got the shock of my life when my pastor told me that he wanted to support me. I know there are many liberal Churches in the USA but it is something when an evangelical from the South decides that he is going to join the struggle. What makes it even more amazing is the fact that this is a straight man. I have heard about straight allies but I never did think we would have this kind of partnership. Preston is actually quite serious about stuff so it is not as if he is just going through a campaigning phase.
Growing up, I was always the odd man out in our Church. It seemed that everybody was so straight and so correct. They hardly committed any sin, save for perhaps having too much of the Church coffee on Sunday. Other than that we had a very friendly neighborhood…as long as you were not an outsider. Gays were definitely unheard of and I suspect thoroughly unwelcome. I vividly remember the fiery sermon about Sodom and Gomorrah. All the time, I kept thinking “they are going for me”. Any time the pastor looked my end of the Church, I was fearful he would come out with it “There is the sodomite among us”.
Being outed was every gay person’s nightmare but worse if you lived in our town. First of all, everybody liked to gossip about virtually everybody in the village. Secondly, you would definitely have overstepped the bounds and there was bound to be a backlash. We had been taught to stay away from the sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit. Being homosexual was a sin of spirit and flesh as long as you failed to turn away from it. Our pastor advised that those who rejected the “vice”, repented and led a worthy life would end up in heaven despite their personal “affliction”. Those of us who were in the closet were ignored as long as we did not pursue any romantic interest. Indeed, it seemed to me that I had to live a lie in order to live in this community.
Expert Liars and Con Artists
I was very good at hiding the fact that I am gay and have always been gay…even going to the extent of hiring a girl to pretend to be my girlfriend. She charged me 30 bucks a date and it was a heavy burden on my short budget. I did not want to let down my parents and grandparents. They always said I was a good boy…but they didn’t know the half of it. I have a terrible feeling looking back that they all knew what was going on but thought that by ignoring it, I would eventually come to my senses. My grandfather used to speak about those “filthy bastards” who liked to dabble in nasty stuff. Apparently, God created “entrances and exits” for a reason.
What he didn’t realize was the fact that his own beloved grandson was one of those filthy people. There have been many times when I wanted to come out if only to stop them from making throwaway homophobic comments in my presence. My dad used to find it amusing that there were men who were not interested in women. He used to joke that he would like to be on an island with many women married to gay men. My mom did not find it amusing. The look she gave him when he said this always managed to shut him up…for a few minutes at least. Then he would go off into tangents about the silliness of “girly boys”. If only he knew the kind of time bomb that was sitting right in front of him.
As I grow older, I started joining the game. In order to fit in and perhaps keep the suspicion away, I started doing the same thing. There was no gay story I did not comment on and very negatively. That is until my mom said pointedly, “you seem very interested them”. A chill went through me…I was about to be discovered. After that near accident, I was careful not to be too enthusiastic about my pretend homophobia but I made it clear that I could not stand them. I am not sure everybody in the family believed me, but at least I was giving a good impression of being a manly homophobe. That is what my community wanted and I would give it to them in plenty.
An Unusual Pastor
Preston was like a lightning rod in our Church. He was young, good-looking, athletic, charismatic, could sing and play the guitar. You really could not have better qualifications for being a pastor if you tried. The congregation soaked him in like a rare sunlight in the middle of winter. We were all mesmerized. He always said the right things Biblically but in a way that was humorous and kind. Yes, he did occasionally criticize the rampant “iniquity” in our world today but you never got the impression that he would do serious damage to anyone who was sinful. Preston was more of a great uncle that would tell you when you were going off the rails but would always support you if you really did go off the rails.
I liked Preston and enjoyed the youth work we were doing together. I volunteered for all the activities and I think I might even have developed a silly crush on him. Of course, it was all nonsense. He was dating a pretty girl named Laura and eventually married her. Over time, I came to rely on the couple. With them, I could really open up about everything…except for the big “g” word. I knew that the moment I told them who I was, that would really be the end of our relationship. I realized pretty quickly that they were not rabid homophobes, but at the same time, I could hardly expect a pastor to cheer me on when I was going down this path. To be honest, I was becoming nothing more than a self-hating gay.
The Final Straw and a Revelation
The final straw was a suicide of a Jeff Morris. Everybody kinda knew that Jeff was queer…you could not miss it but somehow we all kept up the pretense that there was nothing wrong. I particularly went out of my way to avoid Jeff because I knew that we would be found out the moment we were seen together. There was that secret recognition that I suspect all gay people instinctively have. He never said anything but the way he looked at me told me that he knew who I was but was keeping mum to protect me. At least he had been semi-outed by the process of supposition. I was deep, deep into that closet.
One day Jeff was found hanging in his bedroom. His parents were overwrought. In fact, the entire community was devastated. It was one of the most traumatic events that I can remember. This was the time to cut through the hand-wringing because everybody was pretending they did not know what caused this young man to take his own life. I knew that I had to do something so the next time I went to Church, I had a little surprise for everyone. I had written out a simple message on a placard on plain white paper. It read “My name is Chris Bates and I am a gay man”. I expected a confrontation but I was past caring. The last thing I wanted was another person killing himself because we refused to talk about our sexuality.
When I stood outside at the end of the service, there were shocked faces. My mum rushed to me with a look of “WTH”. My dad laughed and my grandfather scowled. I knew we were going to have words at home and that has exactly happened. My mum accused me of making a scene but my dad could not stop smiling and making crude jokes about what I had been up to. “You did keep that quiet, didn’t you?” he kept saying. My grandfather was just too incensed to say anything. He sulked and went up to his bedroom. It was only in the afternoon that Preston shocked us all by coming to our house. He just went straight for me and hugged me…” you are one strong dude”.
No Happy Ending
I wish I could say that everyone was as accepting as Preston…but I would be lying through my teeth and that is something that I am not prepared to do again. They were absolutely beastly. I ended up moving away just to keep my sanity. I still keep in touch with Preston who has since opened up a support group for gay Christians. Needless to say, he was kicked out of the church and driven out of the community. They got some old boots from a pastor to preach fire and brimstone. I hear that all the young people left…there is a dwindling market for homophobic congregations that want to lead people’s lives for them. As for Preston, all I can say “what a guy”. My grandfather eventually missed me so much we ended up in a tearful reconciliation. That was good enough for me.