Written by William A. Campbell
This is a continuation of my previous post where I laid out the first four of 8 things about growing up queer in the country. You can find the first post here. As I said there, this is not meant to speak for all people who grew up with similar experiences, but instead just an articulation of some unique aspects about my own story growing up queer in the country. Much of what I have to say is likely shared by others who can probably say it more articulately or even with more passion. I am part of a large and diverse community, and we should each be telling our stories so that we don’t slip into the danger of a single narrative. Here commences the rest of my list.
5. Girlfriends were just girl friends
All throughout high school, I had a string of girlfriends, and I’m not sure if this protected me or not from bullying. I had dinner recently with a high school friend, and we were reminiscing on the fact that our particular year didn’t really descend into the worst of bullying that happened in our surrounding years.
It was during my first long-term relationship with a girl that I realized I was gay, but I didn’t see any tension in that. The word for me wasn’t “gay” but instead “homosexuality.” It wasn’t an identity but instead a sickness or sin within me, which could be avoided like other sins. With my girlfriends, a space came between “girl” and “friend” and that space was my sexuality. Eventually, we would realize that we’re really just friends and decide to break up. It was sad, and the conflict avoider in me didn’t want to do it, but even then, I didn’t make the connection to my sexual orientation. When one relationship ended, it wasn’t too long before I found another. None of this was conscious, mind you. It was about being with someone with whom I felt safe. They were the ones with whom I could be myself, confide in, and not have to worry about meeting norms of what I was “supposed” to act like as a guy. Like I said in my last post, I didn’t have access to boy culture and as a result, I didn’t have any guy friends. So my search for girlfriends was really just a search for best friends.
6. Church abstinence classes were the best
Abstinence classes were the best. Because I knew I had this homosexual sickness within me, I became a champion at purity. I wanted to be the purest of them all. In both youth group and summer camp, whenever those abstinence sessions came about, I knew all of the analogies: used tape, dirty water, chewed up gum, a flower with no petals.
I wasn’t about to have sex with a girl. That was the last thing on my mind. Here I was thinking – Why was this even an issue any way? Do they really have to have it that badly?
My sexuality was so pushed down that I didn’t even know what it felt like to “be attracted” to someone.
And once again, homosexuality was barely discussed in those sessions. But when it was, the message was loud and clear that those who have that struggle have a serious disorder and need the help of a therapist.
Which, in much of Iowa culture as I experienced it, is the worst thing possible. No one admits they go to a therapist. That would mean you aren’t “normal”, and you might have “problems”. That’s the worst thing possible.
I say this because that cultural taboo around mental health and its connection to homosexuality reinforced my own closet. So why would I ever go and tell anyone about my “struggle”?
7. I sublimated my sexuality into Christian leadership
Properly executed, a repressed sexuality can be quite the driving force. To avoid thinking about my issues, I plunged myself head first into church activities. I took on worship nights, prayer groups, youth group, committees, fundraisers – the list goes on. Instead of thinking about sex, I was thinking about how to please my Church peers and leaders. Yes, I say pleasing them because it wasn’t about God, whether you believe in him or not. At the time, I thought it was the way I could be a good Christian and work my sexuality out of my system, but those expectations weren’t put on me by the God I do believe in now. They were put on me by others, whether they knew it or not.
This is the period of my life where I found myself pulling away from my family. The Christianity around me was sending a message that I needed to remove temptations and remove that which causes doubt. As a result, I didn’t spend much time with my mother anymore who didn’t believe in the same faith as me. Or my sister who disagreed with me at the time on a lot of matters of faith and belief.
That form of bunkering Christianity is destructive towards helping Christians learn to engage others in authentic ways. It would be my mother who later said that the God she didn’t believe in was the God who wouldn’t let me be myself. That’s now also the God I don’t believe in.
My mother is my interfaith hero because she has shown me what its like to live in a community of people so different from yourself while staying true to your own values and convictions. My mother’s more progressive and secular view of sexuality helped save my Christianity. In a rural setting where you only have one perspective on your own faith, it’s impossible to know that not every Christian or scholar believes homosexuality is a sin. But my mother’s view helped to change my interpretation of scripture without throwing out the entire book. One of my favorite comments from New Testament scholar and queer writer, Dale Martin, is that the Bible doesn’t actually say anything. We interpret it.
8. Ex-Gay No Way
Though this part of my life happened after I left Iowa, its directly as a result. As I’ve said numerous times, the danger of a single story is that you interpret it as the only narrative. With no other options on the table about faith and sexuality, I figured one of them had to go. I entered college and soon encountered the story of an ex-gay individual who was a speaker at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship event. This was a man who had led the “homosexual lifestyle”, which for him was one caught up in a lot of partying, a lot of sex, and a lot of drugs. That led him going to therapy, avoiding all same-sex sexual behavior, and eventually marrying a woman.
Now, this is not meant to be my commentary on this individual or his choices. What it is meant to be, though, is an articulation of how in the absence of any other narrative in my rural upbringing, his became mine.
Hearing that man’s story, I thought I finally found someone who “got me.” I had been so lonely without anyone who could relate to my experiences growing up. I immediately contacted him over email, and as a result, I started on the path to becoming “ex-gay.”
For the next 5-7 years, I went to therapy, read as many books as possible, and prayed like no one’s business to overcome my homosexuality. In time, I became the token ex-gay example for churches and ministries. When people were asked why they believe homosexuality is a sin, they would turn to me as an example of someone who had “changed.” In truth, though, I had never changed (and no one ever does). Instead, I was struggling all the more, and not making the wisest choices. I do not want to take this section to speak at length about my experience during this time, because there is a lot to be said here, and I would not want to do injustice to the complex matters at play.
But in it’s ironic way, this period actually did help to normalize my sexuality. My therapist was actually the man who’d spoken at that event in college, and having him as a conversation partner made me feel like my “sins” weren’t any worse than others. Those conversations helped me discover what all the straight kids were talking about in those abstinence workshops. The therapy did help me develop a sense of pride in my sexuality, albeit twisted because it was the pride of being the sinner of sinners. As always, I was the champion at purity.
It would take awhile, though, before I would realize that I had been hoodwinked. It would require equal amounts of reading, equal amounts of therapy, and equal amounts of prayer. Rewriting the scripts of shame took a lot of work, as shame is actually hardwired into the brain. The process is akin to starting your life over and figuring out who you are all over again. Suffice it to say, it was hard.
All of this is another post, but the point I wanted to make, is stories matter. In the absence of positive narratives, evolutionary psychology shows that our minds will latch onto the narratives that give us the most fear and anxiety. I do wish that I had encountered said positive narratives growing up. I would like to believe that a lot has changed, but in a certain way, things are still the same. But nowadays I’m a mostly well-adjusted gay Christian man who’s working on learning and growing.
Thus ends my 8 things about growing up queer in the country. This was not meant to be an indictment or a sob story. In fact, I hope you saw both the anger and the laughter. In closing, I just want to say, that we all have multiple identities and for me, I don’t want to be a gay man who escaped the country. This series and this very project with Un/Settled is a way for me to bring my country self back in sync with the rest of me.