I don’t know if I’m an introverted person by nature; or because of growing up in Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) environments where a spotless reputation and testimony—“abstaining from all appearances of evil”—was paramount to a healthy soul; or because of growing up queer within the IFB culture. (See here, here, here, and here for how the IFB has been defined). It may certainly be a combination of these three, but whatever the reason, I have never really opened up to many people about the real me. I’d like to think of myself as a reasonably sociable person, but my levels of interaction usually reach a certain point of superficiality and stay there. At any rate, I mention all of this to say that opening up about something very private has been quite a big step for me. I realize that by writing this, what I have kept guarded for so long will now be somewhat public. I suppose that should be a liberating feeling, and in some ways, I know it will be. I have already found such peace in finding likeminded people with similar histories to mine who have already been so brave in sharing their stories. But part of me is having difficulty knowing that these things could quite possibly be known by people I have professional relationships with, or, perhaps more terrifying—future students. Nevertheless, I know this is something I want to do. I am taking a step of faith. A different kind of faith…
Part 1: “Wounded Children”?
I’ve never been much of a rebel. If anything, I’ve always dutifully followed the establishment wherever I’ve been. So, it might come as a surprise when I tell people I was expelled from Bob Jones University back in October 1999. Granted, this piece of news is not something I tell many people because it’s been quite a source of shame for me. But I recently came across a phrase about secrets—“‘[Y]ou are only as sick as your secrets.’”—while watching a video clip on YouTube by Linda Hyles Murphrey, the daughter of the late, powerful Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher Jack Hyles. I too am an IFB preacher’s kid, born into a fundamentalist household and professed faith in Christ as my Savior at the age of 5. While I do not claim to have experienced the same horrifying circumstances that Murphrey endured growing up in an extremely severe and perhaps even duplicitous environment, I did grow up with similar ideologies that are hard to explain to those not in IFB circles. Moreover, I too have held slowly unraveling secrets that I wish to discuss in this post. For the past few months, I have been encouraged to write my story, and while I have considered myself a combination of an academic and creative writer who has kept an active journal for some time now, this kind of personal writing for a public sphere was very difficult to begin, especially because I consider myself a private person, never really sharing many details about my personal life (for reasons I’ll explain soon). Nevertheless, watching Murphrey’s video helped prompt me to continue drafting.
Both my parents graduated from Bob Jones University. In fact, that’s where they met. And without any coercive prompting from them, I always knew it’s where I wanted to go, too (not only to receive a Christian education, but also to ultimately find a wife). The only thing my parents ever said to us children is that they wanted us to go to a Christian college for at least one year; otherwise, we were on our own for college financial support. No arguments from me. As someone always interested in continuing my education, I considered BJU the best of both the academic and Christian worlds, and even took the initiative to take college credit classes on campus the summer before my senior year of high school. I identify with Paula Bass in her blog post when she described her time at BJU: “I don’t want you to think that I lived my life after this point in utter depression and self-hatred. I also do not want you to think that this was an easy time in my life, either. I had made a lot of friends and I did have fun during outings and group gatherings, but there was a lot of fear, too.” I too had a great experience throughout my undergraduate time there, and still, to this day, I look back fondly at my time there—for the most part. They always say that your college years are the best ones of your entire life, and I can see how that may be, even for fundamentalists. I oftentimes surprise other BJU alumni when I say that in some ways, going to BJU was quite liberating compared to my public high school life because I did not have to ask permission from my parents to participate in certain social activities on campus: they would have approved of every social event BJU had to offer. But there were severe limits to this liberation, far too many than I could hope to discuss in this short blog post. However, the most relevant liability and limit to this liberation was that I was queer. In some ways, being fundamentalist (fundy) is being queer.
As Abate and Kidd note in their Introduction to Over the Rainbow, “The word ‘queer,’ which first emerged in English in the sixteenth century, has long meant ‘strange,’ ‘unusual,’ and ‘out of alignment’” (page 3). We as fundies were taught to be proud of being a “peculiar people” as conservative Christians, the “Israelites” of the New Testament age. As such, our family did not participate in mainstream societal revelry, most notably attending dances and movie theaters or experimenting with smoking and drinking. Our dress, our hair, our music all conformed to a queer, extremely conservative, Protestant, evangelical, fundamentalist subculture. Consequently, our social spheres, especially by the time we matriculated into the public school environment, were quite limited. Fortunately, my relationship with my immediate family has always been a highly loving one in much the same way as many contributors on here like Jeff McCoy have already mentioned, and in the same way that Matthew Vines describes his childhood: “I grew up in as loving and stable of a family and home as I can imagine. I love my parents, and I have strong relationships with them both. No one ever molested or abused me growing up, and I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and nurturing childhood than the one that I had.” It was a good thing, too, because my social relationships with my siblings helped balance my lack of close friends outside of the house.
Abate and Kidd go on to note that “queer” also “has been linked to non-heteronormative sexuality since around the turn of the twentieth century” (page 3). I had known I was this kind of queer since I was a child, too. Ironically, my first interaction with representations of this kind of queer culture was through a didactic, fundamentalist tract when I was around 2nd grade. Through a deal with my church, I purchased approximately 100 Jack Chick tracts. These religious tracts were designed in comic book format and ranged in topic from child abuse, witchcraft, rock music, “false religions,” and more, all sensationally designed to convert. The tract titled “Wounded Children” was especially poignant for me.
In this story, a young boy, prompted by a demon, discovers his father’s stash of (we assume heterosexual) pornography and apparently becomes tainted and driven to play with dolls and to believe that there is a little girl inside of him. He eventually enters the gay world through the stereotypical promiscuous bar scene, only to find himself lonely and depressed after failed attempts at a long term relationship. Surprisingly, he is “witnessed to” inside the gay bar by a man who was told by God to go there and specifically talk to him. As is the case with most of these tracts, the main character has to make a spiritual decision, and usually accepts salvation. In this case, the young man is told that salvation equals not being gay, and, after some consideration, he accepts salvation. I must resist analyzing the problematic rhetorical strategies Chick implements in this particular tract and save that for another time, but I cannot mention this particular didactic text without emphasizing the unintended lasting impression it made on me, even as a young child, specifically in its representations of personal interactions between men. I can vividly remember being drawn towards the panel in which the young man’s face is held by an attractive man.
Instead of being repulsed by this visual as Chick wanted me to be, I wanted to see more. (I should also pause to clarify that this tract did not make me gay but signified an awareness even at that age of what I found myself attracted towards.) At a time when the words “sexual attraction” did not yet exist in my cognitive world, I could only stare at the picture with attentive curiosity. But even at that age, I knew that my gay-queerness was forbidden in my house, my fundamentalist church, and my Christian school. So began the compartmentalizing of my two opposing queer identities. In a matter of a few years, my family moved from Alabama to Illinois so my dad could pastor his own small IFB church. Again I feel I must emphasize that, like Justin VanLeeuwen said in his entry, “I was for the most part a very happy boy.” I was self-aware of the fundy-queer environment as a strict way of living, but I never felt suffocated or completely isolated from mainstream society. Our family even began to somewhat thrive in the public school environment. (We didn’t attend the Christian school in town because they were deemed too liberal by my parents.) Sure, there were times when we could not fully participate in certain activities. (I remember one time during our Junior High Christmas Program, my brother and I had to inconspicuously excuse ourselves from the rest of the choir when we reached the song “Jingle Bell Rock” in the Christmas Medley. To do this, we quickly left the front row of the choir, walked back behind the risers, and stood there until that song excerpt was finished.) But, on the whole, we were as conventionally “normal” as a fundy-queer family within a “worldly” community could be. In fact, to this day I cringe at misrepresentations of religious families on TV. My family certainly did not resemble the insanely fanatic mother of Carrie White in the Stephen King movie, nor were we as integrated into mainstream culture as the pastor’s family was on TV’s 7th Heaven.
Nevertheless, it was also around this time that I started to become more and more aware of the meaning of “sexual attraction.” I was a late bloomer in many ways, but even though I hadn’t quite approached puberty, I became more and more interested in finding anything I could that resembled a gay-queer text, and aside from random shows on TV and the underwear section of the different magazine ads that came in the Sunday paper, pretty much the only outlet that could satisfy my curiosity was the city public library. Until I could drive there on my own, I was extremely limited in what I could access. As many others have noted on this blog, self-love, masturbation, was just as big of a no-no in a fundamentalist household as was pre-marital sex itself.
It might also come as a surprise to some that my first sexual experience with a guy (or anyone) happened when I was in junior high. I was only 12 or 13 years old at the time, far from any mindset that I was choosing a “lifestyle” when I initiated the experience with a friend who was around my own age. While our interaction was purely consensual and experimental in nature, I can still recall experiencing the cycle of pleasure and ensuing, extreme guilt, much like David Diachenko mentioned. As a result of feeling this incredible guilt about physical actions that were a direct violation of what I had been taught from the pulpit, I can still remember making a bold declaration to my friend that I would deny anything ever happened if he told anyone. Interestingly enough, the pleasure I felt from the physical encounter served as a powerful force to meet with him on several subsequent occasions to explore more. As I had more and more opportunities to meet guys throughout my adolescence and young adult years, I better understood that this cycle of pleasure and guilt was a clash between my two queer identities. I could not suppress either side, so the best I could do was mentally divide myself so I wouldn’t have to think too much about how one side of myself utterly loathed and was ashamed of the other.
Looking back on my closeted years, both before and after my time at BJU, it becomes clear that I felt the need to gravitate towards anything or anyone around me which seemed remotely gay-queer. Of course, these occasions were rare, but when they did happen, I responded out of intrigue and curiosity, because I wanted to be as close to what was considered forbidden as possible and maybe even see if a gay-queer person would find me attractive. It hasn’t been until recently that I could even begin to identify as gay-queer myself, but just the near presence of other gay people helped at times. In high school, I remember an openly gay couple from a neighboring school community who ran track and field. In a rural, predominantly-white, conservative community like mine, anything outside of heteronormative behavior was extremely uncommon and derided, so it is no wonder that my team mates kept their distance from them and even made fun of their having taken their senior pictures together. I can remember wanting to see their pictures, but trying not to seem too excited about it. Also around this time I began to pray for a suitable wife. I didn’t date in high school under the guise that there was not a suitable Christian girl around. Even though I was aware of my gay-queer attractions, I believed I could be “fixed” or lose those attractions once I found my wife. That’s what BJU was for. Why not model my parents’ timeline? That’s where they had met. I had no reason to believe it couldn’t happen for me too. Besides, I could see that they were extremely happy together. So, while my brothers had girlfriends of one sort or another in high school, I kept busy with school and work. The moments I was looking for an outlet for my physical expression, which were never opposite-sex oriented, I was forced to do so in secret because I knew my attraction to guys would not be understood or condoned. The compartmentalization continued. Finally, my time had come to attend BJU. I was very excited to leave my small community to continue my education and to find a wife, not knowing that my planned time at BJU would be cut prematurely short.
Ed. Note: Lance will return next week to describe his years at Bob Jones University and the further disconnect that being two kinds of queer brought him in that environment.