My name is Justin Wise. I’m in my early 20’s and was born and raised in Calhoun County, South Carolina. Calhoun County is located about 45 minutes south of Columbia, our capitol city, in a very rural part of the state. I was raised in a Christian home with a loving mother, father, four sisters and a grandmother.
I knew at an early age that I was a little different from other boys. I had feelings for other guys, but I thought I was the only one like that. I attended a Christian School and Church which was Independent Baptist and affiliated with Bob Jones University. The school had about 42 students, including pre-school through the 12th grade. I attended this school through the 4th grade. I was home schooled in the 5th grade, and I started in the South Carolina public school system in the 6th grade. I graduated from the South Carolina public school system in 2007.
My first year in public school, I felt that I was different from the rest of the kids. I was picked on most every day. I was bullied and many times it turned into a physical altercation. I remember reaching a point where many mornings I did not want to go to school. On the way to school I would get sick and have a headache. Many days I would end up in the nurse’s office — the result of being bullied.
During my middle school years I became very depressed. I would come home and sleep all day. I didn’t want to be around anyone. Many times I thought about suicide. This was the loneliest time of my life. I turned to my faith and I would often pray for God to change me. Many nights I found myself lying in bed crying. I was holding this deep dark secret from my family and friends. I would attend church and listen to the preacher preach against “homosexuals,” knowing that he was talking about me: “If I am gay, does God still love me?” I had nobody to speak or to turn to other than God.
As I entered high school, I was hoping life would get a little better. I gradually started to come out to a few of my friends. Many days I heard my classmates making anti-gay slurs toward me. I tried to be the bigger person — to just ignore them and move on. I met a couple other gay people around school. I even had a lesbian teacher who was kind and who would talk to me many days after class. I guess I knew then that I was not alone, but I still was not comfortable labeling myself as gay.
I found out about the SC Pride event in 2008 and attended. That was a scary but amazing experience for me. Finally!!! I realized I was not alone. To make this an extra special day, in a crowd of 8,000 people or so, I met a wonderful guy with whom I fell in love, and we started dating shortly after that. As the months passed, I realized I was holding two secrets from my family: I’m gay, and I’m in love.
In July of 2009 I decided it was time to come out to my parents and one of my sisters who I knew would not accept me. That was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. There was a lot of yelling and a lot of crying. It was a difficult experience for my whole family. I hated putting them through this, but I could no longer hide my secret from them.
During this personal and painful experience with my family, my youth pastor saw some pictures of me at SC Pride on my Facebook wall. He pulled me into the pastor’s office one Wednesday night after Bible study. The pastor stepped into the office as well and threw the Bible in front of me. He told me I was going to hell and that he was ashamed of me and my actions. He quoted Bible verses… and so did I. After an hour of debate he told me I had two choices. The first choice was to turn away from my gay friends and never speak to them again, to repent of my “sinful ways,” and to delete my Facebook account. My second choice was to walk away from the church. The pastor wanted me to make a decision that night, but I responded that I would have to think on this. He escorted me out of the office and told me he did not want me to come back.
That following weekend I drove to Charlotte to see my partner. I received a phone call on Saturday from my father. He wanted to let me know that he had signed for a certified letter for me from the church and wanted to see if he could open it up and read it to me. It was a three page letter written in first person reading as though I had written it. At the end of the letter they again gave me two “choices,” really a Catch-22 situation. The first choice was to sign it — saying I was gay — and return the letter via certified mail to the church. The second was to not sign, and that would also indicate to the pastor that I was gay. I did not sign the letter, but either way the pastor would have eventually held a church business meeting (which he did), out me to the entire congregation, and call for a vote on my church membership.
The pastor held the business meeting, to which I was not invited, one Sunday night. To make a long story short, the congregation that I grew up in voted me out of my own church either for being gay or for supporting LGBT rights. I’m not quite sure since I never came out to them as being gay. I’m proud to say that one of my sisters, her husband, and my father all left the church that night as well.
This expulsion from my faith community hurt me more than anything I had experienced so far. I knew that God still loved me. I also knew he created me just the way I am. But people I had known and respected my whole life chose hatred and bigotry over love and compassion and they continue to shun me to this day.
The painful reality is that my story is not unique for many gay teens struggling for acceptance. The details may be different, but the pain is very much the same.
In October of 2010 I was asked to organize and speak at an event that SC Pride and the LGBT Center of South Carolina were holding. The event was The SC It Gets Better Candlelight Vigil for the seven LGBT teens who had committed suicide within a short time frame across the United States earlier that year. I was honored to do so, and I wanted to invite my parents.
The night of the vigil, roughly 400 people showed up with candles on the lawn of the SC State House. My parents, my partner, and my lesbian high school teacher and her wife showed up that night. I stood on the steps facing Main Street along with the Mayor of Columbia, LGBT-affirming pastors and other LGBT leaders of the community. It was a night that I will never forget. Looking out that night I saw my parents with tears streaming down their faces. After the event they ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug ever and told me they were very proud of me. It was a turning point for my parents, and they began learning how to support me even more.
I shared my story to show others that anyone can survive the tough times — the taunting, the bullying, even being kicked out of church — to tell others they can make it and enjoy all the wonderful things yet to come in life because I did… and It Gets Better.
Since that night in October of 2010, my parents have opened their hearts and minds to accept me and to embrace all my friends.
I currently work for the City of Columbia Police Dept. I’m very active in my community volunteering many hours a week. I currently serve on the Board of South Carolina Pride, the Advisory Board of the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center, and YEAH! (Youth Empowered Against HIV!). I am a Peer Leader, South Carolina Pride Parade Coordinator, and a member of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Business Guild. I have served on a few diversity panels for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s Diversity Training Program. I have spoken at school board meetings and to groups of future teachers and counselors about bullying. I really enjoy giving back to my community.
Though I have yet to find a new church where I feel comfortable, I still hold my faith in the Lord Jesus. I know my God still loves me and He made me who I am. I have learned of and am happy to have found that there are so many supporting and LGBT-affirming churches around the South.
I was bullied growing up for being different, and I lost many of my friends and some of my family members by coming out. Many times I considered suicide. But I’m happy I never went completely to that dark place inside. I love my life. I’ve met so many wonderful people, both gay and our straight allies.
Please reach out to those you think might be heading to that dark place and PLEASE let them know they have so much to look forward to. Let them know… IT GETS BETTER!
Justin shared his story with www.imfromdriftwood.com in June of 2011
Here is a prayer I often share with others:
“A Prayer When I feel Hated”
by James Martin, SJ
Loving God, you made me who I am.
I praise you and I love you,
for I am wonderfully made,
in your own image.
But when people make fun of me,
I feel hurt and embarrassed and even ashamed.
So please God, help me remember my own goodness,
which lies in you.
Help me remember my dignity,
which you gave me when I was conceived.
Help me remember that I can live a life of love.
Because you created my heart.
Be with me when people make fun of me,
and help me to respond how you would want me to,
in a love that respects others,
but also respects me.
Help me find friends who love me for who I am.
Help me, most of all, to be a loving person.
And God, help me remember that Jesus loves me.
For he was seen as an outcast, too.
He was misunderstood, too.
He was beaten and spat upon.
Jesus understands me, and loves me with a special love,
because of the way you made me.
And when I am feeling lonely,
help me remember that Jesus welcomed everyone as a friend.
Jesus reminded everyone that God loved them.
And Jesus encouraged everyone to embrace their dignity,
even when others were blind to that dignity.
Jesus loved everyone with the love that you gave him.
And he loves me, too.
One more thing, God:
Help me remember that nothing is impossible with you,
that you have a way of making things better,
that you can find a way of love for me,
even if I can’t see it right now.
Help me remember all these things
in the heart you created,
loving God. Amen.
Editor’s note: Unfortunately, just last evening, Justin’s mother, who bravely refused to choose between her children and her church, was forced by her BJU alumnus pastor to resign from a ministry that was important to her because she loves and supports her gay son.