|Just As He Is
By Benjamin A. Berry
It's 2008 and the day is uncharacteristically hot for an April evening. The air conditioning chills the church basement where I sit in the company of six grown men, all of us circled in old, uncomfortable wooden chairs. An atmosphere of tension and anxiety pervades the room.
“I'm Ben and I'm a sexaholic.” I introduce myself as is the custom to begin the meeting. Announcements are read, including a reminder of the upcoming Sexaholics Anonymous conference in Nashville, Tennessee; I am informed that I cannot attend because of my age as a minor—I'm only sixteen years old. There will inevitably be convicted child-molesters in attendance at the gathering who, due to their sex offender registration restrictions, cannot be in the company of underage persons.
Around me sit men of all sorts—a minister, a salesman, a nurse, a gas station attendant, a defrocked priest. Surely just being in this group, much less the Nashville conference, is breaking some sort of law... didn't that defrocked priest get caught with an altar boy in the parish rectory?
A man with prematurely graying hair and faded blue eyes introduces himself as Chris. His eyes, surrounded by the creases of stress, bear a heaviness to them. He quietly explains that his sponsor instructed him to compose a list of body parts which cause him sexual arousal. With his dulled blue eyes cast to the floor, he almost inaudibly reads his inventory aloud—lips, neck, chest, arms, hands, tummy, genitals, buttocks, legs, feet—essentially the entire male anatomy. Completing his recitation, Chris lets the wrinkled piece of loose leaf fall to the carpet and sighs, “What's the point? I haven't met one person who ever got over... got over...” The word itself seems to deflate his lungs and suffocate his speech.
The room is silent in disheartened understanding. “Unwanted same-sex attraction” is what they call it; nearly all of the men present struggle with it.
The incessant buzz of the A.C. unit finally unnerves me to break the silence as I speak the words which have worn on my heart for the past three months of coming to S.A., “I'm scared too, Chris. I don't know what to do. I don't want to be... to be... gay...”
The rest of the room nods, identifying with my despair.
♂ ♂ ♂
It's the later days of May 1999. I'll be eight years old in just a few days.
I play pretend with my next-door neighbor, Donovan, in my suburban backyard. Imitating the hiss of a lightsaber, I joyfully announce, “I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi!” (The younger version of the jedi played by Ewan McGregor in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; the movie hit box offices only two weeks ago and my dad has already taken me to see it twice.)
Donovan takes a towel and drapes it over his waist like a dress. With a giggle and a twirl, he effectively kills my desire to play Star Wars with the words, “I'll be Queen Amidala!”
To me, Donovan is an enigma. A year older than me, he plays with Barbie dolls, wears his mother's high heels, and has his room painted pink. Conversely, I'm a fairly average second-grader; I like dinosaurs, Legos, baseball, and Superman (Though, while most of my peers envy Clark Kent's super powers, I admire his cut physique).
The world outside my seven year old perception is frightening. I live in Louisville, Kentucky and sodomy laws, which made homosexuality illegal, were declared unconstitutional in my state only a few years ago; many states still have such laws. Ellen DeGeneres came out a year ago and the whirlwind of controversy which followed shows America has a long way to go before being gay is socially acceptable. To a budding queer like me, such events are far outside my scope of comprehension.
At seven years old, I don't know that The Westboro Baptist Church (the “God hates fags” church which started their picketing campaigns the same year I was born—1991) protests the same behavior Donovan and I engage in when we lay on my blanket behind my house and fondle each other. I don't know that Matthew Shepard, who will hit news stations across the nation this upcoming October after being tortured and murdered for being gay, is “one of those people” like me. I don't realize that when Senator Jesse Helms, four years earlier, said AIDS was “God's punishment for homosexuals”, he was talking about me (or, at least, people like me).
Though Tony Perkins gets on Fox News and calls homosexuality deviant, immoral, and unnatural, for me and Donovan, nothing seems more natural than holding hands on my blanket behind the house.
♂ ♂ ♂
December 23, 2003.
A few days of reading Christian-produced and published books is enough to convince my twelve year old mind of giving my life to Jesus Christ. Maybe it's the spirit of the Christmas season, or the drowsiness of being up far past my bedtime, or the buzz of caffeine from numerous soda pops, but suddenly I am overcome with emotion and, with tears freely flowing, I kneel by my bedside. The last page of the book gives me the formula for “how to get saved”—The Sinner's Prayer:
1. Admit you are a sinner.
2. Profess belief in Jesus as Lord.
3. Repent of your sins.
4. Ask Jesus to come into your life.
I feel on fire! All those feelings of being so different from others seem to go away and I know there is a God who loves me. I feel a purpose and have an answer to all my problems. As an act of devotion, I set out to read the Bible in its entirety; I want to know more about Christ and God's word.
It's not long before I read a verse I didn't expect to find: “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
Memories flood my consciousness: images of Donovan and I fondling each other at my childhood home, images of all the pornography I have viewed, images of all the nights spent talking to boys on my mom's AOL account (I would pretend to be a girl because I didn't know there were other guys who liked guys, too), images of Luke who I lost my virginity with only a month ago... I feel so sick, dirty, and wrong. I am an abomination to God.
There has always been the knowledge of my difference from the other boys at school. I've heard them jokingly call each other “gay” or “faggot”. I guess I'd never identified myself with the slurs. But now, to think that God might not even love me... this is too much!
I must pray and practice my faith more devoutly. Yes! “With Christ, all things are possible.” I know I've read that somewhere. I know, with God's healing grace, I can get over this. I won't be, I can't be... God, I shouldn't even utter the word...
♂ ♂ ♂
Neither of my parents raised a hand to me growing up; sure, they would spank me occasionally, but nothing ever came remotely close to physical abuse. Now, at fourteen, I almost wish they had. Perhaps if they had used corporal punishment, if they hadn't faltered in their discipline, I wouldn't have become what I have.
It's been two years since I gave my life to Christ and everyday I strive to become the man he wants me to be; in order to accomplish that, I must work to rid myself of sin. The saints would often practice what my priest calls “self-mortification” to do penance for iniquity: my patron saint, Saint Dominic Savio, would line his mattress with twigs and stones to offer up the pain and discomfort to the Father. For my own penance, I have taken up whipping myself with a homemade device, its ends tied onto pushpins. Many people would see this practice as sick, but the sickness of my soul threatens my eternal salvation whereas this small sacrifice only causes a few uncomfortable nights of sleep. Besides, these devotions have all been approved by my spiritual director and I do trust this priest to steer me in the ways of God's will.
Two small statues—one of Christ and one of Mother Mary—sit enthroned upon my dresser which I have converted into a home altar for prayer time. Surrounding them, two votive candles of red and blue send flickering light and shadows around my room. I kneel in reverent prayer, having just finished my penance for the day: twenty lashes with my whip. While my back stings from the recent assault, I am not bleeding.
Our Fathers, Hail Marys, Glory Bes... I repeat the litany of invocations earnestly, fearing I may have condemned my soul earlier when I watched porn on the computer. Tomorrow is Saturday—my weekly confession day. In the sacred confessional I can be assured of God's absolution. Until then, I pray that my contrition is genuine and that I might not meet an untimely death in this state of sin.
♂ ♂ ♂
It's hard to read the look on mom's face: is it disgust? or anger? or sorrow?
It's a sunny March morning and I should be at church because it's Sunday. As I said my evening prayers last night, great emotional waves of despair overcame me at the lack of progress in my struggle against this sin. I guess I didn't realize how loud my sobs were, because my mother entered my room and questioned me over my sad disposition. That was it. The dam broke. Retrieving my Bible, I turned to Leviticus 18:22 and read the passage aloud. She calmly stated that we would speak about the issue the next morning.
I'm sure she spent the night in prayer and contemplation. Maybe she thought of her brother, my uncle, who had been caught with another man and is now ostracized from the family in Atlanta, Georgia. Maybe she remembered the brother of her childhood best friend—the gay brother who died of AIDS at twenty-nine. I'm sure she wondered why God would allow her thirteen year old son, her only son, to become this.
My grandmother is here too—my mother's ex-mother-in-law—the one who serves as Director of Religious Education at a local Roman Catholic parish; she remains much calmer, but I can see the news is distressing her too.
I'm sitting in the loveseat in our living room. I didn't expect this. It's just the two women in my life, my other grandmother dead just five months earlier. My grandfather (mom's dad), who's house I am sitting in, must be out somewhere and my dad was surely kept out of the loop on this one. Years of me pushing him away and his own preoccupation with hunting has created a barrier between us since the divorce.
I feel sick to my stomach as my mother explains, in graphic detail, the workings of gay sex; she makes it sound dirty, deplorable, wrong. My grandmother, possibly to divert attention or perhaps because she is so uncomfortable with the conversation, moves to the coffee table and fiddles with a marble puzzle game (the one similar to the wooden version at Cracker Barrel where you try to leave only one remaining marble); the gentle clicking sounds of stone hitting polished wood does seem to pacify my mother's rantings.
Despite the silence that has now fallen on the room, I know it is not a sign of conclusion. Sure, the rants—“You're not gay!”, “This is just a phase.”, “You're just confused.”—have died down, but the argument is far from over. How could it be? My mother knows gays as perverts and AIDS-ridden dying men. My father is the classic redneck: hunting, fishing, big trucks, and pure masculinity. How could he understand? My grandmother? She's a religious educator! I've heard her say that life, marriage, and family are the foundations of America. She's quite fond of comparing gays to plug outlets: “A plug goes into an outlet, not another plug!” It hurts when she says that. It's like shes saying to me, “It's common sense, duh! Don't be so stupid! Just do things the right way, the way God intended them to be.” I wish it were so easy. And finally, my grandfather: I once heard him comment about how an interracial couple was “just wrong”. I know he wouldn't understand either.
Yeah, things are quiet now, but for how long? I know it won't last. They won't let something like this slide. What's sad is that I know they're right. The Bible—God's word—is clear; but maybe it would have been better for God and I to handle this on our own. I'm already regretting I said anything to them...
♂ ♂ ♂
Everything's so spotlessly clean in the admissions office of The Southern Theological Seminary here in Louisville. They say it's the largest seminary in North America and I believe it... the campus, the classrooms, the meticulously manicured grounds all centered around the towering chapel; it's overwhelming.
I claimed conversion to my family three years ago. I couldn't bear the thought of crushing their dreams for me—the American dream of a successful career, wife, children, house with the white picket fence and lovable puppy. How could I do that to them? Their looks of disappointment, sadness, even, at times, anger—they break my heart.
I've continued in my efforts to find healing of my sin: Christian-therapists (reparative therapists are what they're called; they specialize in dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction), Sexaholics Anonymous, an ex-gay group called Exodus International, intense prayer and devotion. After so long, I've learned to just stuff the feelings; sure, the sin occasionally surfaces and I act out—either with other closeted guys from school or on the computer surfing for pornography—but I am quickly overcome with shame and turn to God in repentance. It's truly terrible to believe I am under the wrath of God, but I'm sure if I just continue with my prayer, if I just read the right Christian book, if I just meet the right girl, then this would all be a thing of the past.
I'm seventeen years old and a recent convert to conservative Presbyterianism from traditional Roman Catholicism after feeling that maybe I'll find the answer here. It's the last few months of my senior year at an all-boys Catholic high school and I now sit at The Southern Theological Seminary. I'm scheduled to enter the college in the fall to study to become a preacher. I hope that a life devoted to God's word will score me some points with God, though I know that's a heresy; the Bible says that we're saved by sola fide—faith alone—not works. Nevertheless, I keep hoping...
Today, in particular, I feel quite depressed; yesterday I told a close friend that we couldn't speak anymore. We had been hanging out for quite some time, but recently my sinful nature had been creating an impure attraction to him. I knew I couldn't give dominion to lust, so I ended the friendship. While I know I did what God wants of me, it still hurts; I guess that's just the nature of my wretched depravity. Sometimes I think suicide would be for the best, but then, in my heart, I know that would mean an instant ticket to the fires of hell. I'd like to ask God why he put me in such a difficult situation, but I know to ask such questions would be blasphemous.
So, I suppose this is it. I sign away my life and my fate. I guess it's for the best. What other options do I have?
♂ ♂ ♂
I thought I had found the answer, the solution to everything. I thought I had found the thing that would finally silence the voices of the preachers, the priests, the reparative therapists, my family. The disgust of conditioned shame went away when I drank. However, with that release came a price: an insatiable craving for liquor that kept me in its grasp until I drank to oblivion.
Yet, though my drinking caused many a distasteful exhibition of self-destruction, it did give me two gifts. First, it offered me the opportunity to associate with a whole new social circle of people who, though they possessed their own set of shortcomings, gave me a new perception on life I had never known. The hope that I could live life as something other than a minister, as something other than the stringent churchman I had become, came to me and I withdrew from seminary.
The second gift that liquor gave me happened just now. It's February 24, 2010 and here I sit on Bardstown Road drinking with two of my new friends. In my state of inebriation, my inhibitions were temporarily hindered and I blurted out the words that had needed to be said for years: “I'm gay.”
A tidal wave of relief of alleviated burden sweeps over me, followed quickly by a sobering fear: what have I done? To my surprise, I am met with acceptance and understanding. My friends are even laughing, saying they had suspected such a revelation.
It's happened! I've come out of the closet! What a release of mixed emotions: joy, relief, ecstasy. The secret, my greatest secret, my oldest secret, is out. Those two words can't be taken back and I don't want them to be.
I return to my friend and coworker's apartment (I have been living with him now for a little over a month) and I come out to him as well. Again, I am met with equal warmth and understanding. The feeling of elation is only intensified. I vow to let the true me, this me, be known to everyone.
As I lay down to sleep, back-dropping the excitement of this magnificent day stands the old familiar guilt from my religious instruction. It never really did go away and it hasn't been removed by my act of coming out. The thought frightens me, so I light up a joint and let the marijuana take me into a deep sleep.
♂ ♂ ♂
July 17, 2010.
I stand on a train trestle a hundred feet above the small road below. I can't cry because I've sobbed so much all week. I've attempted suicide twice this week already and am drained of all emotion. Either the religious conditioning of my past is irreversible and I will never be free of this overpowering shame or what I believed for so many years is true—that God does hate me for being gay. Either way, I can't bear to live another day. I'm done.
I've been out of the closet for five months. I've tried dating. I've been open; everyone knows. So why aren't things better? Why won't the shame and guilt and self-hatred leave me? Why won't those damned preacher's voices go away? My drinking and drugging have progressed and worsened, but now even that doesn't give me relief.
As a young kid, I remember hearing about unfortunate teens falling to their deaths from this very train trestle. No one ever survived. As I kick a rock and listen to its descending echo, I wonder how many of those tens intentionally jumped. I wonder if any of them were unhappy queers like me...
As I look downward and imagine my helpless body falling from this height, I wonder if the impact will hurt or if I will die instantly. Surely any pain I might briefly experience would pale in comparison to the anguish I feel inside. Surely this is what I must do to be free...
Yet, something tugs at my heart—the faintest sensation of hope telling me to hold on. I take in a deep breath and smear sweat and blood on my brow with the cuff of my sleeve (I tried slitting my wrists earlier today; the blade was too dull). I do something I haven't done for some time: I pray. I pray and ask God, if there be such a thing, to help me.
With a final look at the ground below, I begin my descent and call the police to take me to treatment.
♂ ♂ ♂
The sun glistens against the towers of glass and steel. Rainbow flags wave brilliantly in the air signifying diversity, joy, and hope. I wear a royal blue T shirt my sister bought me at an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rally near her college. In white letters reads the phrase “Another Kentuckian for Fairness”. On my wrists, over the long ago healed cut marks, I proudly sport a bracelet of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
Today is June 15, 2012 and the day of Louisville's Pride Parade. As I march along with thousands of others for equality, I think of how far the LGBT movement has come. The long-standing, discriminatory policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed nearly a year ago. President Obama just came out in support of gay marriage a few weeks ago, a historical first. Legislators in California are currently trying to pass a bill which would ban reparative therapy for minors—the same therapy I received only three years ago to “make me straight”.
I remember the horrible number of gay teens who killed themselves in October 2010, only two months after I went to treatment and got sober; I am so grateful I didn't end up as part of those statistics.
Today I have friends—gay and straight—who love me for who I am and who walked me through the new conditioning of loving myself exactly as I am. I am strongly involved in LGBT activism and will be attending college in the fall to study political science so that I can more effectively fight for equal rights. The dialogue is now open between me and many family members. Many of their opinions have changed drastically. Will the others ever change their beliefs of what being gay is? Who's to know? What's important is that I have changed my beliefs of what being gay is. The most powerful political move I can ever make has already been done: I have come out and now those who always viewed “the gay problem” as a foreign issue of deviants outside their cloistered existence are faced with the fact that their own son, grandson, friend, coworker is gay and is no different than before the revelation came to be known. By coming out I have become the face of LGBT to those who would otherwise never know an LGBT person, and they see that this face is not the perverted, scary, evil thing their church made us out to be. I have brought the LGBT equality issue into their homes, their workplaces, their schools, their churches. It is the same for anyone brave enough to come out of the suffocating closet.
The next morning after the parade, I see my picture in the local newspaper. My only hope is that some scared gay teen—not so different from me as a teen—might see me and the thousands upon thousands of other LGBT people and our supporters. My hope is that he might see us and for the first time in his life, he might sleep without tears of fear of judgment, hate, and intolerance. For that one night, that boy might sleep soundly because he got a glimpse of hope of a world where people accept, embrace and love him, just as he is.