In October 1996, I was attending Berea College, a small, private college in central Kentucky. I was also dating a girl I had met on campus. Her name was Jessie and she is still one of my best friends (even today). I was a different man in 1996. I was very different. I was also very confused about a lot of things — -religion, Christianity, career choices, and of course my own sexual orientation. Looking back on my experiences there, I can confidently say that I was “in transition.” God taught me a lot of things that semester (the only semester I was there) and he had a lot to teach me that October.
Jessie and I had only been dating for a couple of weeks when she suggested that we go to the “Coming Out Dance” on campus. She had gay friends and she was very comfortable around them. She also claimed to be a born-again Christian, but serious doubts about her salvation and sanity came into my head when she spoke about attending such things. Me, of course, knew no gay people (openly, that is) and had no desire to attend a dance supporting the gay agenda. I had been raised in a strict, fundamentalist, Baptist church and I knew that God didn’t approve of anyone practicing that lifestyle. Remember, you’ve got to “hate the sin and love the sinner.”
Even though I believed all of this, I knew down deep inside that I struggled with homosexuality. Even at that time, Jessie suspected that something was not quite right. She wasn’t blind or naive. Looking back, I do remember commenting on the handsome college boys around campus (who was I fooling?). After rejecting her invitation to the dance, she asked me, “why don’t you want to go? Gay people always have the best parties!” I tried to explain the reason behind not going — -“Jessie, you know I can’t betray my conscience and go to that dance. Even though it might be fun, I can’t go there and support their cause. I wouldn’t mind talking to them about issues, but I can’t support them like that. You know that.”
There were several reasons why I couldn’t go. Obviously, I didn’t want to associate myself with gay people. I had a “Christian reputation” to uphold and I didn’t want to be labeled as a liberal, left-wing, radical supporter of their cause. Second of all, I didn’t want to betray my conscience. I couldn’t subject myself to the mental anguish that that would cause me. Third, even if I was gay, I didn’t fit in to that “lifestyle” — the stereotypical lifestyle of the gay subculture (drugs, promiscuity, effeminate behavior, etc.). Ultimately, the reason I couldn’t go is because I would have to face the issue of my own homosexual orientation. Their “outness” would melt the fake veneer I had and expose the reality of who I really was. And, Lord knows, I was not ready to do that right now (if ever).
Before the dance, Jessie and I received a slip of paper in our mailboxes about a special prayer service being held in Baird Lounge on the night of the dance. The slip of paper read — -“Come and pray with us for God’s will for this college.” The prayer service was being led by the Baptist Student Union. The ironic thing about the whole situation was that Baird Lounge was adjacent to the room where the “Coming Out Dance” was being held. Were the Christians holding a prayer service in response to the “Coming Out Dance?” Were they planning a protest? So, inevitably, factions began forming on campus. The right vs. the left. The Christians vs. the Gays. The “good” vs. the “bad.” The school newspaper began printing articles and opinion columns about the upcoming dance/prayer service. The whole campus was in a turmoil.
Personally, I didn’t want to get involved in the whole thing. I didn’t want to go to the prayer service. I didn’t want to go to the dance. I wanted to run as far away as I could possibly get. I didn’t want to get caught up in the political/religious entanglement that was forming on campus. However, begrudgingly, I got involved. As the day approached, Jessie introduced me to several of her gay friends on campus. One guy, Chuck, really changed my opinion of gay people. He was such a sweet, kind and relatively “normal” (as normal as I thought gay people could be) guy. We actually talked quite a while one night before the dance/prayer service. We talked about what the Bible said about homosexuality and the struggles he had been through coming out. He told me about the pain and suffering he had gone through — -from his parents and from his church. I listened with great interest. I guess I’ve always been a person who questioned things — -I’ve always felt like life was more about “gray” than absolute black and white. After talking with Chuck, my heart began to soften a little bit. I began to question my limited understanding of sexuality. I began to wonder about other gay people. Then, something quite extraordinary happened the day before the dance.
I saw Chuck in the cafeteria that day. He saw me and asked Jessie and me to sit beside of him for lunch. So, we got our food and joined him. After hearing all about the plans for the “Coming Out Dance,” Chuck asked me, “James, why don’t you come and see for yourself. Come and talk to us. Come to the dance and see how it is. If you don’t like it, you can leave. No one will force you to stay. Just come.” For a moment, I was totally confused. Over the course of a few days, I had gradually went from “there’s no way I’m going” to “I can’t go” to “it wouldn’t be right for me to go” to “I don’t want to deal with it” to “what will happen at this dance” to “what is the purpose of this dance” to almost “OK, I’ll go to see what it’s like.” I had went from avoiding the issue to asking intelligent questions. After a few minutes, I told Chuck, “Well, OK, Jessie and I will go to see what it’s like and then we’ll have to leave. We have other things planned that night.” Chuck was so excited and he began talking very loudly. Of course I tried to quiet him down — -SHHHHHHH!!! — -I didn’t want everyone to know I was going to the “Coming Out Dance!”
The night of the dance was so crazy. I was a nervous wreck. I really was hesitant about going, but I told myself that if things got weird I would leave immediately. Also, I had prepared my response to those who asked me why I went to the dance. In my head I told myself, “well, go as an unbiased observer and see for yourself what gay people do for fun. Try not to judge and let them speak for themselves.” So, Jessie and I dressed up “to the 9’s” and went. As we walked up to where the dance was being held, we saw people praying in Baird Lounge (through the glass walls). I think it really hit me there. I believe I finally realized that this was the beginning of my own personal struggle. There was no turning back for me. It was a foreshadowing of things to come. In one way, I felt like I was betraying my faith by heading for the dance. In another way, I felt like I was being brave — -finding out for myself what this “gay” thing was all about. My spirituality and my sexuality were hanging in the balance.
As Jessie and I walked into the dance, I was symbolically “coming out” to myself. I was, subconsciously, acknowledging the fact that maybe (just maybe) these people are OK in their acceptance of themselves. Even though I didn’t realize it then, I was leaving a “crack” open in the closet door. I certainly wasn’t affirming them or their “lifestyle,” but I was trying to see outside of the box (for once). I was trying to see these gay people in a different light. I really didn’t want to demonize them anymore. It was hard. Believe me, it was very hard. As I walked around the dance floor, I saw a few people dancing (maybe 10 or 12 people). They actually seemed happy. They apparently were having a good time. Then, I saw Chuck from a distance and I kindly smiled and waved to him. He saw me, smiled, and blew me a kiss.
As Madonna blared out of the speakers, Jessie strutted out onto the dance floor and pulled me with her. (What is she doing?) She began to dance and tried to move me along with her. I was so tense and definitely NOT in the mood to dance. But, after a few minutes, I began to dance…ever so cautiously and hesitantly, checking around to see who was watching. It was incredibly surreal. It was like a dream. Was it true??? Was James Edward Deaton, the good Christian boy from Hillsboro, Ohio, dancing at a “Coming Out Party?”
It was totally shocking.
It was totally out of character.
It was totally unexpected.
It was totally ironic.
And, it was totally beautiful!
For a brief moment, I was real.
For a brief moment, I was honest with myself.
So, for me, that was the beginning. It was the beginning of my journey — -the journey of acceptance and reconciliation. It was the “crack” in the closet door.
Looking back on that story, I can say with unabashed honesty — -I thank God for the “Coming Out Dance” held at Berea College in October of 1996. On that day, I came out for the first time.
Currently serving as managing editor of Brethren Press, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, James Edward Deaton graduated from Cedarville University in 2000 and earned a Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He has served as Soulforce coordinator in Chicago and as a Christian educator, student pastor and retirement home chaplain for various denominations including Free Will Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ.