My mother knew I was gay when I was three years old.
Okay, so she didn’t KNOW, but she was pretty sure. “You were very eccentric”, she told me later. Thank you for that, Mom.
Growing up in Virginia Beach, I had about as normal an upbringing as one can imagine. The youngest of three kids, we went to church every Sunday, ate dinner every night at the table. There was relatively little instability in the way that I was raised. My parents told me that there was a higher power out there that made me, loved me, and would always be there for me. They told me I was smart, and I was special, and that I could do whatever I set my mind to. And I never believed anything different.
I was incredibly lucky. I have more privilege in my life than most people do, especially most gay people. My mother’s brother and sister are both gay, so being gay was always presented to me as completely normal. I grew up seeing my Aunt Sue and Aunt Kate together, and not thinking twice about it (except for that one time I said that they were like roommates who didn’t have enough beds). So when I eventually realized that I was gay, it was a relatively easy experience.
I first knew I was gay when I went through puberty in the seventh grade. It was not a welcome discovery, but rather something I felt was an added burden that I had to bear. I was unhappy, friendless, overweight, and now gay. What else could God throw at me? But I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. I knew my parents would still love me. I was just afraid of what everyone else would think. Because for how progressive and loving my parents were, the rest of the world had not caught up yet. Being gay was still the worst insult you could use on someone. It was certainly the thing people used against me, before I was old enough to know that I was. So I kept it to myself, for 4 years.
Those felt like the longest 4 years of my life. I would sit in church, reading the verses condemning homosexuality. I was careful to hide what I was looking at from my parents sitting next to me, who were listening to a sermon that was rather loving and had nothing to do with the hateful verses I was secretly torturing myself with. I would sit at the computer after everyone else had gone to bed, looking at underwear ads for men and feeling as though I may as well be robbing a bank. I would sit in class, dreading the other kids finding out my secret. I forcefully denied my homosexuality when asked, and kept silent when not asked. But sometimes, in my bedroom at night, I would whisper to God a silent prayer:
He was the only one I could tell for a very long time.
When I did eventually come out, I didn’t get a single negative response. My best friend supported me, my family told me they loved me no matter what, my Pastor congratulated me and shook my hand. The kids at school finally left me alone, once I’d admitted what they’d been badgering me to admit for years. Coming out for me was like walking on air- I wished I could have done it again.
I was involved in a youth group at school, mostly as a way of socializing with friends, but also because I had become very interested in my faith. After a vivid dream involving the Rapture and me slaying a Maleficent-style dragon, I had begun to truly question what the idea of God meant to me. I started to listen in church, to ask questions, to seek answers. I wanted to know why those verses against homosexuality were in the Bible. What did they mean? What do you think they meant? What do you think about gay people?
I wanted to know. I asked everyone. And even though no one was unkind when I came out, I quickly realized that asking these questions meant I might get some answers I didn’t expect. I found out that some of my friends believed that homosexuality was sinful. That if I prayed I could change. I was flabbergasted- did people really believe this? Why? Could they be right? I didn’t have much more of an explanation for those Bible verses than they did. All I had was my own experience, and a feeling in my soul that I was exactly who I was supposed to be.
When I got to college, I was so excited to meet other gay people. I immediately joined every gay group, wanting to make friends with gay people. I remember at the first meeting of Queer Student Union (QSU), they were having a lunch in the Gardens at the University of Virginia. There was another lunch happening in an adjacent garden for a religious student group.
“We should go over there and crash their party,” said one boy who I thought was the coolest gay person I had ever seen by that point. “We’ll say, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re stealing your pizza!”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I didn’t get the joke. Did I not understand gay humor?
“I mean, they don’t exactly like us,” he said.
I was taken aback. Why wouldn’t they like us? What had we ever done? I didn’t understand this feeling of prejudice, of dislike for people that he didn’t know. This was the first time my privilege began to dawn on me. I joined a Presbyterian youth group, which was very welcoming. I was overjoyed at these new groups I was a member of, but there was a part of me that felt incomplete. In the gay groups, I was the only person who believed in God. And in the Christian group, even though they were very accepting, I was the only gay one. I didn’t feel completely at home in either group.
I remember going out with friends from QSU on a Friday night, eating a gusburger at the White Spot on UVA’s Corner. I’d been to the restaurant many times before as a little kid, dragged by my father to UVA’s football games against my will, my only desire to read the Nancy Drew book stashed in my backpack. But tonight, drunk and gay, there was nothing greater than a gusburger and the company of other gay people. I was talking loudly and freely, until a girl named Courtney told me to reign it in.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s not always safe for people like us here,” she said. I blinked stupidly. She was a small girl, a lesbian with nerdy glasses and a polo shirt. Who would have a problem with her? I didn’t get it.
QSU had a queer families night, where they invited the Dean and his husband to come speak. I flipped through their wedding album, completely in love with the idea of having a husband and speaking on panels. His husband shared about growing up Mormon, and how he was told he needed to change his orientation to align with God. I spoke to him afterwards, about my own experience being gay and going to church.
“Yeah, well, religion will try to brainwash you, and you can’t let them,” he said. I was taken aback. He was happy and married, right? Hadn’t he come to an understanding between his faith and his homosexuality? Or had he left one of them behind, unable to reconcile the two?
Through QSU, I joined a panel on bullying and the queer experience. This part was easy- of course I’d been bullied! Spencer Burmeister called me a faggot in front of everyone in gym class. There. But sitting on this panel, I heard other people’s stories. And there was a lot more than teasing that some people experienced. There was a lot of hatred. One girl talked about how her parents found out she was a lesbian and kicked her out of the house. She was homeless for several weeks, until she tried to jump in front of a train. When she returned home, her parents told her she could come back only on the condition that she meet with a therapist in order to change her sexual orientation.
I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine a parent that would do that to their child. My parents would never do that to me. I didn’t understand.
One day I was walking when I saw chalked into the sidewalk “Gay? Christian? Feel rejected by both?”
YES! I thought. It was an ad for a student group. I emailed the link, inquiring about what kind of a group it was. They emailed me back, explaining that it was for people who wanted to align their sexual orientation with scriptural standards. I couldn’t believe it- how could this group exist? How could people think this was possible? I wanted to know more, and I took it upon myself to learn more about this group under the false pretenses that I was seeking to change. I fed the information to QSU, and the whole thing blew up into scandal. The group didn’t end up forming. To this day I don’t know if that was for better or worse. The kids in the group wanted it to be a support group for people with Same Sex Attraction (SSA) who wanted to be celibate. Are people like that unworthy of support? Who am I to tell them their story?
My third year of college, I became a writer. I took a playwriting class, and I realized that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. The second writing prompt we were given was to write a play based on a newspaper article. I read an article on a gay website about a Catholic sports camp that sought to convert gays through athletics. I immediately wrote a play about this, 7 pages of innuendo and jokes. But as we moved on to our next assignment, that play stuck with me. I’d written the characters based on testimonials from this camp’s website- Louis, Steve, Jim, Eric. These were real people, with real stories, although there’s no way those names were real. They’re just too generic. But the people behind them, and the people at this camp, they were no different than the kids who wanted a support group to stay celibate.
I started to write about conversion therapy, and in writing about it I read about it. I researched, read, watched, immersed myself in the world. I joined a young adults email support group for people with SSA. I still receive those emails, from kids all over the world, lost and looking for someone to help them resist the temptation of their flesh. I have so much sympathy for them. I know how it feels to feel lost, to reach out to strangers because sometimes the only people who truly know what you’re going through are half a world away.
I moved to Los Angeles, and decided to turn my play into a TV pilot. I looked up the real life sports camp, and saw it was part of a larger group. There was a chapter in Los Angeles. I went to it, again under false pretenses. Although this time I tried to be as truthful as possible, saying that I was only there to check it out. Unlike the student group at UVA, I was here to observe, not to intrude. Most of the men at this meeting were much older- relics from a previous generation. What young person nowadays would choose celibacy when the call of the secular world is stronger than ever?
At that meeting I met a man named Bill, and finally I put a face to the idea of conversion therapy. No longer was it a story, a lifetime movie starring Sigourney Weaver. This was a man’s life. What was I doing here? This wasn’t my story, I didn’t need to be here. No one was trying to convert me. Not my parents, not my church, not my friends. Yet here I was, all the same. Why?
I’ve been asking myself that question for the last 5 years. Why do I want to write about conversion therapy, something I’ve never experienced? Sure, it’s happening. Sure, it’s legal in 36 states to force it upon minors. But it’s not being forced upon me. Why do I care? And I think the answer lies in my privilege. Because I realized once I left my little bubble, that there is a very good reason why so many gay people hate religion. There is a reason why most gay people feel unsafe in a church. And that is because horrible, unspeakable, unforgivable things have been done to gay people in the name of God.
That is why I need to write about it. Because it is one of the biggest wrongs that history has still yet to right. And even though I grew up and experienced God as love and light, does not mean that the same is true for everyone else. So if I have the privilege of having parents and a church that support me, then I should use it to try and help the people who don’t. I should make myself aware of other gay people’s journeys. Of Trans people’s experience. Of people of color, people with disabilities, people in another country. No one should ever feel unsafe about who they are. I had it easy. Most people don’t.