Dean Stalnaker, Part One

B.S. English Education, 1985

Dean Stalnaker

It has been only two years since I first admitted to myself that I am gay and began the process of coming out. I know some people say that they have known they were gay all of their lives. Perhaps if I had been able to look at myself objectively or had a less sheltered life experience, I would have realized who I am sooner. Perhaps not. But in any case, that’s not my story, and I can’t change how I got here or how long it took me. I’m just glad to be here at this point.

I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, the youngest of three kids with a much older brother and sister. My parents loved me, and I always felt safe growing up. I went to a two-room school for kindergarten through eighth grade, and there were never more than 30 students in all 9 grades. Being somewhat isolated on the farm, with no siblings close in age, and being in a school with no sports program, I never developed much skill playing sports, didn’t like playing sports, yet really enjoyed watching football. I started taking piano lessons when I was 8 and did well. In 9th grade, I went to the junior high school in the town closest to the farm, and it was a huge culture shock. There were roughly 1,000 students in 7th – 9th grades. I had never had a real gym class in my life, and I dreaded having to go in the locker room to shower and change. After the first gym class, I do recall noticing the quarterback for the football team and being completely mesmerized. He seemed to have the perfect body—tall, lean, muscular. He was so different from the chubby, uncoordinated junior high kid that I was. But I didn’t have any clue why I just wanted to keep looking at him. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice my stares, and my own body did not respond in a way that would have made that situation even more awkward than it was.

My family was very active in our Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church. When the doors were open, we were there — meaning that we were always there. I immersed myself in learning the piano and being active in church and the youth group. I began playing for services around 9th grade. What I could never figure out was why I wasn’t interested in dating any of the girls I knew. I started a pattern that I kept up for the next 25 years — finding the coldest, most unavailable women to be “interested” in. That way when the relationship would fizzle (as it always did), at least I had tried. I’m sure there were anti-gay doctrinal messages preached, but in my mind being “gay” was a behavior, not an identity. Gay people only existed as an example in a sermon of someone participating in totally depraved, outrageous behavior. Personally, I didn’t know anyone who was gay, and on television, the only gay character I knew was played by Billy Crystal on “Soap.” I do recall thinking that he didn’t seem that bad to me compared to some of the other characters. Here was an example of the disconnect I was starting to feel. The church teachings were so adamant, so narrow. Why was grace freely given with nothing I could do to earn salvation, yet there was this list of things a good Christian would never do? How do we know that the way we are being told to live our lives is really the right way or the only way? But in that world you never questioned the pastor, nor did you ever say no when you were asked to do something.

Growing up in an IFB church, where both the pastor and the assistant pastor were Bob Jones University graduates, I never had a doubt where I was going to attend college. I looked at this as my first step toward beginning to experience the world outside of the farm. When I arrived there, BJU was exhilarating at first, but I soon realized that I didn’t quite fit in. Again, I was not good at sports, and I also chose not to major in music because I feared I wasn’t talented enough. However, I did take my first lessons on a pipe organ. I quickly became enamored with that instrument; this began a lifelong passion.

I didn’t understand why I still had no desire to date women — even in that surreal world of dating at BJU* — and seemed much happier just being with my guy friends. It never occurred to me that it might be because I am gay. Instead, I kept thinking something was wrong with me that I should be so disinterested in women, and that probably I just wasn’t being a good enough Christian. So, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I changed my major to English Education, so I could teach in a Christian school, thinking that surely this would please God. I was so out of sorts inside myself that I walked the aisle in the opening evangelistic meetings between semesters that year to “get right with the Lord.” I would go on an occasional date because I knew that was what I “should” do. But nothing ever developed, and I just knew something had to be wrong with me.

After graduation, I was hired to teach at a highly regarded Christian school in Pennsylvania. I figured that in a church of 1,000 members, there would finally be the perfect single woman for me to date. In addition to my teaching job, I was also the assistant organist. But I continued in my same pattern, and toward the end of my five years of teaching, I found yet another emotionally unavailable woman to pine for. I quit teaching and took a job with the federal government, but I stayed at the church and continued serving as the assistant organist. The woman was in the choir. After five years of on-and-off dating (mostly off), she suddenly decided that I was “the one.” We attended my 10-year reunion at BJU together (she was not a graduate), and it was one of the most excruciating weekends of my life up to that point. Seemingly all the people in my class were married with children, and I realized that not only was I not attracted to this woman, but also everything she did grated on my nerves. That weekend could not end quickly enough, and I broke off the relationship when we returned to Pennsylvania. I tried to convince myself it was because she was too attached to her mother and too clingy to me. Even to me that rationale seemed weak, but that was my story, and I stuck with it.

At my government job, I was initially assigned to work with one African-American man. He was impeccably dressed and very attractive. I thought the attraction was just that we were both really into clothes. There were whisperings around the office that he was gay, but here was a single man with no family responsibilities that liked clothes. This was the perfect friend in my mind. I was re-assigned to another group in the office, but we maintained our friendship. He suggested we go on a overnight shopping trip, which I thought was a great idea. The day before the trip, a colleague “jokingly” warned me to be careful that I didn’t wake up with him trying to have sex with me. I assured him that nothing was going to happen. It was just about the clothes. That warning did cause the scenario to play out in my mind — but I quickly tried to banish such a shocking, “wicked” thought. I was spared having to further consider such a wild thought: the trip was cancelled at the last minute, and soon after he took another job in another state.

For my third assignment, I had to travel extensively, and one of my trips was to Dallas where I met the organist at one of the largest Baptist churches. We became good friends. I visited him and his wife at that time — he is now in a relationship with a male partner — a couple of times, but noticed a growing distance between them. During one of my visits, he and I were running some errands, and we stopped at a large clothing store. We ran into a man there that he knew, but it seemed rather obvious that he was not pleased I was along. During that visit, we talked about how dangerous fundamentalism was, and he showed me several books he had read about being gay and a Christian. I remember being very confused why he was talking to me about this. In my thinking at that time, encouraged by the churches I attended, being gay and Christian seemed completely irreconcilable.

Shortly after ending my five-year relationship, the church purchased a new organ, and I arranged for my organist friend from Dallas to give the dedication concert. As we were driving from the airport, he said to me, “You know it’s okay if you’re gay.” I almost drove off the road. No one had ever said that directly to me. I immediately said, “Well, it’s not okay, and I’m not gay.” I put it out of my mind as best I could, and it bothered me that he would say that to me. That was the first of many times I said those three words. I realized I was becoming the stereotype — dressed well, very particular about my appearance, an organist, single — and I hated that. Maybe it was time for a new start far away.

I knew shortly after I ended the relationship that I would be getting laid off from my job in a few months. Church was becoming unbearably uncomfortable. The entire alto section (the part she sang) of the choir seemed to shoot daggers at me with their eyes during every choir rehearsal. So when the job ended, I moved to Denver where I fell back into the same pattern — attending a Bob Jones-affiliated church and going on enough occasional dates with women in order not to raise any suspicions or invite any questions I couldn’t answer.

After living in Denver for almost a year, I became aware of a church that met in an older building with a historic pipe organ. I contacted the pastor, and he allowed me to come in and play the instrument. His teaching was unlike anything I had heard before — very Reformed (Calvinist) theology — and I thought maybe this would be the answer to all the questions I had about my faith and why I always felt out of sorts in fundamentalism. The part-time organist had just been transferred away from Denver with his day job, so I stepped in and within a few months had taken over as Director of Music. Musically, it was a highlight of my life. The church renovated and expanded the pipe organ. It was a glorious instrument to play. At the same time, I found a good job in a small law firm, and the owner paid for a gym membership for her employees. I was in better shape physically than I was as a 9th grader in P.E. class, so the gym and locker room were not nearly as frightening. And it was the place where I could subtly (at least I’ve always thought it was done subtly) look at and be around these really attractive, fit men. But just as I was becoming more aware of my attraction to men, I was still in a church environment where that was not acceptable. It was preached from the pulpit that being gay was wrong, and I saw children of elders mock people driving a car with a Human Rights Campaign equal sign. I continued to try to find the perfect woman. I tried an online dating site and ended up, yet again, dating an emotionally unavailable woman; this time a widow who only wanted a child. It ran the usual course and ended after a short time.

After a couple of years, another woman started attending the church. Her husband had left her for a close friend with whom he had been having an affair. She was beautiful. I was able to squelch my attraction to men almost completely while we were dating, even though I remember more than once driving home from her house and having this great fear that I would screw up her life as badly as her first husband did. But something must have happened in her mind, too, between midnight on Christmas Eve after I had helped her wrap the presents for her kids and Christmas Day dinner with her entire family; she dumped me on Christmas Day. I still don’t know what happened, but she made it very clear that we were over. What was amazing was that I was the victim — she had dumped me. So I was free from having to date for a long time while I healed. I comforted myself with images of the most beautiful men on the planet which I found on the Internet. As all of my dating experience had not had a sexual component — that was in the Do Not Do column of the list of requirements to be a good Christian — I had not ever truly faced the fact that I wasn’t attracted to women sexually. I clung to the image in my head of what I thought my life should be — me with the perfect wife and kids. I couldn’t bear to look at myself closely because then everything would unravel that I had clung to for so long. Little did I know how much unraveling in my life was about to happen.

*Ed.: Fundamentalist-style heterosexual “dating” at Bob Jones University and other such institutions rarely even involves casual touching, let alone any other more intimate physical contact. The university maintains a “dating parlor” — a room full of sofas with attendant chaperones — where couples are carefully monitored to be certain that they are not even touching each others’ hands and that a physical distance of at least six inches’ separation between them is constantly maintained. Many gay men have found this type of repressed environment conducive for “passing as straight” publicly.

Editor’s note: Next Monday, September 24, 2012, Dean returns to share the tragic events that ultimately led to his realization that he is gay and set him at long last on the road towards self-acceptance, integrity, and wholeness as a gay Christian man. Please check back next week for his encouraging message of hope.


  1. Lance says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I can’t wait to read more about what happened to you!

  2. Rebllious Maximous says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Dean. I look forward to reading the rest of it. I also grew up in a similar (IFB) environment and I battle the repercussions of it daily. Whether one is straight or gay, we learn to cut off parts of our most precious selves in order to exist among fundamentalists. Thanks for being brave. Sharing your story is incredibly important.

  3. Chris says:

    Dean, Allison and I (Chris) both read this story and were moved by your story. We would love to be able to talk with you offline and catch up. I looked for an email, but couldn’t find one.