Ed. note: Today, we publish the first of a three-part series by Justin VanLeeuwen, who, like several others of us, was born and brought up entirely within the fundamentalist sub-culture of Bob Jones University. Justin will return tomorrow with Part Two of his story.
It is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. – William Shakespeare
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale who have an adulterous affair. In the midst of a Puritan society, judgment is swift and vindictive as Hester is condemned to forever wear the letter A upon her breast, damning her to scorn and revilement, an outcast. Compelled as she is, she wears her letter brazenly. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, her unsuspected partner in their so-called crime, wears his concealed in the flesh of his heart, inscribed there by the agony of his duplicity. For much of my life, I also bore my own secret hidden away in the recesses of my being, condemned, like Dimmesdale, by a puritanical society yet unaware of my crime. My scarlet letter was a G. I am gay.
I had never come out publicly until now. I hesitated, dreading the influx of sincere, yet condescending, pleas for my soul from friends and acquaintances: the condemnation. I realized, though, that the people I fear reading my story are precisely the ones whom I may have the unique ability to touch, to give them a face and a name for something they fear. And so, my story…
I was born in Bob Jones University’s very own hospital, went through the nursery school, elementary school (attending day camp during the summer), junior high, high school, and finally college. My parents both worked at the university, and I started working on campus the day I turned fourteen and continued doing so until I earned my B.A. And of course I attended a Bob Jones approved church (during my formative years arguably the most conservative church in the area) three times a week. Bob Jones was not merely my world; it was the world, and I was very happy.
Perhaps you were expecting an “or so I thought” or similarly glib undercut to tag that last line. I almost wish I could oblige. And perhaps in retrospect I see a naïve boy who did not realize his potential for unhappiness. And I cannot ignore lost opportunities: I will never have the chance to take a boy to prom, a tired cliché that nonetheless tugs at my impulse for wish-fulfillment. But for all that, I was for the most part a very happy boy, though perhaps as you read what follows you may find that difficult to remember.
I once read a book in which a prominent character described herself as having been raised with a well-developed sense of guilt (she had also “given up her own practice of [religion] when she discovered that she could say the Lord’s Prayer quickly but not slowly,” a phenomenon I always found eerily analogous to reciting the University Creed in chapel). Guilt. This is the weapon with which unscrupulous men take hostage and wrack the lives of the young. And I, my emotions being easily played upon, was unequipped to defend myself. I loved the praise in obedience, feared the censure in disobedience, and, adept at discerning what was expected of me, I grew very skilled at navigating the fundamentalist system. In a secular setting I would probably have manifested simply as a teacher’s pet, benign if obnoxious. However, armed with a black and white perspective of the world and backed by divine inerrancy, I became a sincere, yet tyrannical, little archangel. I don’t mean to say I was perfect – a little absent-minded hypocrisy goes a long way – but I thought I had an unquestionable rubric of right and wrong, and I was prepared to impose it on myself and everyone else.
Unlike many others, I did not recognize my orientation until puberty. However, I do recall an earlier incident when I realized how tenuous is the presupposition that the differing genders are necessarily mutually attracted. My mother once made a comment pregnant with implied objectivity that men are more attractive than women. I distinctly remember sensing the understood necessity that I disagree with her, which I dutifully did even though I don’t recall having any real feelings on the issue at the time. The assumption subconsciously being taught was clear: as a male, I was by definition attracted to women; and yet the message was surprisingly confusing: as a male, I was supposed to ignore the standard of beauty my mother had just propounded. If men were truly more attractive than women, why should my maleness preclude me from acknowledging that? Why should any one’s sex impose upon him or her a predetermined standard of beauty? Though this experience did not spark in me any sudden desire for men, it did register with me the existence of an expectation for what to me seemed an arbitrary, inflexible dichotomy of sexual attraction that I failed to understand.
I had learned early on that sex (mentioned only in the unhelpful biblical language of youthful lusts, fornication, adultery, etc.) exceeded most sins in depravity, at least in practice if not in technical theology; however, due to its taboo nature, I never heard it discussed, and thus I came to puberty without any understanding of it at all (I recall that even in biology class at Bob Jones Academy, students could be exempted from the chapter on the reproductive system if their parents sent in a note, and that class strayed nowhere near sex education). So when I innocently and accidentally discovered masturbation, I did not know what it was, let alone that it had anything to do with forbidden sex. I felt no guilt. However, being a naturally inquisitive child, through some brief but fairly exhaustive cross-referencing in the dictionary and encyclopedia, I discovered that this new-found recreation of mine had a name and that it was a sexual act. Suddenly, mountainous waves of guilt that I had learned through dedicated teaching flooded over me as I realized the trap of sin Satan had so cleverly lured me into. I thought I would have found signs to warn me of its approach; I thought they would be clear and unambiguous; I thought that sin was supposed to be obvious, self-apparent. More wretched I to learn through the dictionary that I was already guilty, if only indirectly, of one of the worst possible sins.
Eventually this guilt led me to confess to my parents, and an anguishing cycle of struggle, failure, and confession ensued. I recall periods of success sometimes lasting more than a month, but my sin inevitably tripped me up. And then dread. My parents would never have known. I could have lied, had they asked, and they would have believed me if for no other reason than because they wanted to. But so deeply entrenched was the guilt I had imbibed that I felt compelled to go through this process. I needed the catharsis, the relief from the guilt I had adopted, and I knew no other way. I remember inching down the hallway toward my parents’ room to tell my dad, cringing inside at the disappointment and disapproval I knew I would find. I would sometimes stand outside the doorway for agonizing minutes before working up the gumption to go in and confess.
Imagine then the trepidation I felt when I first realized I was gay. As with any reevaluation, it is not the happening of a moment, but rather a dim, meandering discovery that culminates in scintillating recognition. When you see a group of people crowded around some point of interest, the commotion naturally sparks your curiosity. You move in closer, nudge your way through the seething mass until you reach the center and can see what has caught every one’s attention. But what if you don’t at first understand? You look around and everyone, all the boys, recognize an immediately apparent attraction, and you don’t get it. So you listen to what they say, holding silent yourself for fear of saying the wrong thing and betraying your veiled confusion. You hope that with time you’ll figure it out; but in lieu of that you wait, and eventually, tentatively, you mimic. Once you’ve learned the rules, can act by rote, you can spare attention for other things, and finally you look around, and you see. Boys. Suddenly all the curiosity you witnessed makes sense, just in a different way. You understand. And fear.
My moment of realization came oddly enough when watching porn. Not gay porn. Straight porn. I know gnostic body/sex negativity sways heavily over the religious community, so I understand many people may instantly object that my sin of pornography served as a doorway to still deeper corruption. I can only say that had I never viewed pornography and remained confused about my sexuality up to my wedding night with some poor, unfortunate girl, I would then have experienced the same recognition I faced staring at a computer screen. Better, I say, to have spared that girl. To return, in the course of my struggles to control the sin of my youthful lusts, I fell into that deep evil of pornography. Of course, I turned to straight porn because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to like. Imagine my frustration (and lack of self-awareness). I was continually nonplussed by the fixation on the women. I thought my irritation arose from a sense of egalitarianism: sex is an intimate physical dialogue that requires more than just one person–shouldn’t the cameras reflect that? But then came the inevitable onslaught of scenes featuring only women. I would become so bored I would skip past them. And then came understanding. I don’t like women. I like men. And then came fear.
I realized that I could not share what I was feeling. The self-awareness I had sought, once found, was a curse. Added to my already heavy guilt over my sexual impulses themselves and the complication of pornography was the understanding that I no longer had an out. No matter how long I waited, no relationship allowed to me would fulfill the desires I had. Not so for all the other boys I knew who had only to wait until marriage to consummate theirs. And in my mind none of the other boys were like me. (It is critical to remember that the silence-inducing stigma pervading the fundamentalist religious culture creates a belief in LGBT youths that they are the only ones; that he, she is alone. It is a terrible isolation). As a gay teen, I was categorically condemned. Unless I could rid myself of my orientation, salvation was closed to me.
By my freshman year of high school, I knew with certainty that I was gay and, with greater certainty, that I could never, ever admit it. I hardly admitted it to myself, and by that I mean I fought it. I knew it existed, but I was going to believe it out of existence. I had no other choice.
To be continued…