Part One of a series of essays concerning the struggles of married life as a gay man. This essay covers life before marriage, and the pressure to be involved in heterosexual relationships many gay teens face growing up in a fundamentalist culture.
Early childhood was a happy one for the most part. I always knew I had parents and grandparents who loved me, and I felt safe. The southern United States was my home, and fundamentalism was the religion of my family. Since there are variations of fundamentalism, perhaps a distinction should be made concerning the brand of fundamentalism in which I was raised. Despite the occasional heated rhetoric of passing preachers and some family friends towards homosexuals, I do not recall any external, constant hatred toward gay people. This may be because the topic just did not come up very often, but I also think it is because I was surrounded, for the most part, by a genuinely loving family. Any outbursts against homosexuality were from individuals outside the sphere of family, either in the church we attended or from friends of the family.
I do not remember being bothered by the condemnations I heard until I was around 11-years-old. My first crush was on a boy in Sunday school, and, at first, I was not completely sure what I was feeling. I knew that my desire to be close to him was different from other boysÌ desires. My attraction to him was the same attraction other boys in Sunday school had toward girls. My earliest feelings of guilt associated with my homosexuality occurred at this time. I did not know what to call my feelings, or exactly what was happening, but I felt bad and good about it at the same time. I was convinced everything would be fine as long as nobody knew how I felt. I could keep it secret. I knew I must keep it secret if I was to remain a part of the community, and I also felt a deep need to please my parents. Eventually, the boy moved to another church, and we lost contact.
Over the years, from age 11 to 18, I was attracted to numerous guys in school. I also dated a few girls during this time to keep up appearances. By the time I was fourteen, I internally labeled myself gay, though nobody else knew. I was withdrawing more at this point, spending a lot of time alone in my room, reading or playing the piano. I considered my attractions as sin, and I prayed daily, sometimes more than once, that God would heal me of this perversion. That is what I believed it was. I did not know why I was the way I was, and I became angry towards God. One minute I would plead with him to change me; the next minute I would curse him for not doing it. The more I prayed, the stronger my sexuality became. It was as if my prayers were having the opposite effect of what I intended. I could not imagine living openly as a gay teenager. My only source of income was playing the piano for our church services, and I knew the minute I became open, I would be fired. I was also concerned about my parents, and what they would think. I became increasingly depressed, and I internalized much of my anger. My self-image was getting lower and lower by the day, as was evident by the way I carried myself. I remember considering suicide when I was sixteen. I had a plan. It was not a vague “what if?” More nights than not, my pillow would be soaking with tears.
I fell in love with a classmate my senior year of high school. He was a new student, and I had never before experienced the deep longings I had for him. All schools have cliques, though I think mine had more than others. He seemed lonely, and nobody befriended him, so I introduced myself to him, and told him if he needed help with anything, just to ask. We became close friends immediately. Sometimes, a gay person can tell if someone else is gay. I could not tell if he was gay or not. So, without knowing how he would respond, about four weeks into our friendship, I wrote him a letter that informed him of my sexuality. He was a little surprised, but assured me it did not affect the way he saw our friendship or me. I took it from his response that he was not gay, and this proved to be correct. However, we became closer friends. My love for him deepened. Sometimes we would kiss, but nothing more. I think he knew I needed at least that. In a way, he loved me. He would respond to my love letters with long letters of his own expressing his platonic love for me.
We attended a very fundamentalist (in the worst sense of the word) private school. I had attended it since the age of three. There is a college connected to the school at which students can work during the summer. We both worked at the college during the summer of 1997. We were both enrolled to attend the college our freshman year. Somehow, one of my letters was found and given to the supervisor of our work unit. I was called into the DeanÌs office, and confronted with the letter and my sexuality. He said there were two options for me: to resign or to be fired. I resigned. This was the scariest time of my life. The school offered no assistance, no one to talk to. They just told me to get my things and go home to parents who had no idea who I was. It was the longest drive home ever. When I got home, I went directly to my bedroom, turned off the light, got under the covers, and sobbed. My mom wasnÌt home and dad didnÌt know what to do. When mom came home, she came into my room and asked me what happened. I told her the whole story, including everything about my sexuality. I was devastated by the loss of the boy I loved. I have never seen him since.
My parentsÌ reaction to my homosexuality was better than I expected, though not completely healthy. Mom would cry all the time. They said they loved me, and I know they did, but they would also reiterate verses in Leviticus and Romans and Corinthians. I thought these verses really did condemn me. I had none of the resources I now know of which counter the abuse of those Scriptures. I felt I had to change or lie. My parents asked me to go to counseling, so I went for two months to a Christian counselor who thought homosexuality was a sin and tried everything in her power to convince me that it was sin or make me change. After two months, I said I was no longer gay. MomÌs crying stopped. The bombardment of Scripture stopped. I was happier for the time lying than seeing the unhappiness I would cause by living as a homosexual. When I was eighteen, I met the woman I would marry two years later.
It is my belief that fundamentalist (or any anti-gay) upbringings are the direct cause of many cases of suicide committed by homosexuals, and itÌs certainly the direct cause of a multitude of depression cases, not just for homosexuals. Anti-gay teachings found in most fundamentalist communities are perversions of portions of a book that was never meant to be a rulebook to be followed letter by letter. Even if the Bible was meant as a rulebook, the verses many use to condemn homosexuals say nothing of homosexual orientation. Some of the false teachers who use these verses to condemn gay people are genuine in their belief that the verses actually teach that homosexuality is a sin, but many others know better. They know that the Greek and Hebrew languages do not have a word that can be faithfully translated as “homosexual,” as it is done in many English translations. They know the verses they use are either ambiguous, or that they teach against gang rape, temple prostitution, etc. Many people feel safe in the confines of absolutes, so they make Scripture say what they want it to say. All this is at the expense of hundreds of thousands of precious lives.
It is my hope that, if you are struggling with your homosexuality and your faith that you will know that God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are. He does not condemn you. He stands with open arms to receive you. You can fall into those arms and rest like youÌve never rested before. He will give you strength to face anything you have to face to be honest and real with yourself and others.
God bless you. Know that people love you regardless.
Author, educator, pastoral counselor and ordained interfaith minister Dr. Paul Daniel Payne served as the founding pastor of Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church in Seoul, South Korea, and as director of faith formation and communications at Harvard (Mass.) Unitarian Universalist Church. Author of The Fellowship of Yeshua: Communing With Your Ascended Soul Guides, he earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in theological studies from Nations University, and a doctorate in pastoral counseling.