by Hillary Brownsmith
The Body of Christ has seen queer folks angry. That anger is warranted. The church as the purveyor of a lot of violence against the queer community should witness that anger and make efforts to understand it. But I think the church also needs to see queer folks in our grief for the loss we experienced when we learned that the church is rarely the safe space it should be. The church may not have earned our vulnerability but it needs to bear witness to our grief for there to be true reconciliation.
That being said, I want to share with you my personal story of grief and then, in the spirit of this month, I want to talk to you about pride.
I was born in Dothan, Alabama. It’s a small town of no particular importance. It was named after a biblical city that is mentioned once in Genesis 37. The line is “I heard them say let us go to Dothan.” That verse is a nice, concise tagline for a small newspaper or welcome sign. However, if you read the verse in context, heaven forbid, you find that the whole story isn’t so pleasant. Genesis 37 is about Joseph searching for his brothers. On the way to find them, he runs into a man and asks him of their whereabouts. The man responds with the aforementioned tagline. Then Joseph, the teenage dreamer in the rainbow coat, goes to Dothan where his brothers strip him of his coat and sell him into slavery. I get the irony.
I was baptized into a mainline Southern Baptist church after making a public profession of faith at age five. The display was so inspiring that my father made the plunge too. The verse chosen for my baptism Proverbs 3:5-6 reads “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight”. Again, the irony does not escape me.
I was in love with the church. I skipped Sunday school because I wanted to be able to attend the adult services. Being part of that experience was powerfully important to me from the very beginning. This would change as I got older.
At age 12, I began to question my sexual orientation. By 13 I knew I was gay. Shortly after 14, I found myself consumed with guilt for lying about who I really was. So I came out to two classmates who I imagined would be sympathetic and keep my confidence. A few weeks later, one of those people stood up in a morning math class and outed me. By noon, the whole school of less than 700 students knew. Despite my initial fears, I was never bullied by peers. Teachers were a different story. Because it was a private school, instructors could say what they wanted to students and they often did.
The real trouble started several months later when my mother found out. Initially, she wept. Then she refused to look at me or touch me. On occasion, when she would accidentally catch my eye in the hallway she would run to the bathroom and vomit. One evening, weeks or perhaps months into this disorienting, painful rejection, my mother hugged me. I thought her disgust had subsided. But she whispered in my ear “You are sick. I am going to help you get better.” What followed is now commonly known as “reparative therapy.” I was sent to a series of therapists on a mission to find the root of disease. They asked about my absent father, my overbearing mother, and if my height made me feel self-conscience around boys. After my sessions, what I said would be released to my mother. Because I was under sixteen, this breach of confidentiality was legal. I would then pay for my honesty when I got home. I was also sent to a Baptist minister for counseling. He was surprisingly kind, liberal even. But he was run out of his church a month later for being too progressive. He moved to Texas.
By the time I was sent to a psychiatrist, just before my sixteenth birthday, I was broken. My level of paranoia was palpable and justified. I was not allowed in bookstores or libraries for fear that I might come upon positive representations of queer culture. A few of my phone calls with friends were recorded, my internet history was checked often, and I was followed when I went out with friends. My anxiety had become so pronounced that I couldn’t enter a church without slipping into a crushing panic attack which I learned to hide so that I wouldn’t be punished for acting out in church. The psychiatrist, seeing my distress, prescribed an SSRI, a powerful form of anti-anxiety medication. At that time, SSRIs had never been tested on children. Now doctors are aware that these medications elicit suicidal fantasies and self-harming tendencies in young people. I experienced those symptoms. I realized the medication was altering my behavior and flushed the pills. I suffered withdrawals I did not know would occur. When I confessed to my mother that I was overwhelmed by depression and fear, she attributed my suffering to my sexuality not the repression of it.
College seemed like my salvation. I would be away from a town and a family that had deeply wounded me. But it was a continuation of what I had suffered in high school. I talked to an academic advisor about where I was coming from and these things said in confidence were once again shared with my mother. That breach of confidence was not only frustrating but illegal. I never pressed charges.
At the end of my freshman year at college, my mother found out that I was dating a woman. She called and asked me to choose between my girlfriend and my family. Since my girlfriend was less abusive, I chose her and was summarily disowned. With no other financial resources than what my mother had given me, I became homeless, squatting in a condemned building off campus.
Eventually, I dropped out of college. Multiple factors attributed to my departure from school but the way I was treated by my advisor certainly influenced my decision. I moved to Atlanta and began working in a homeless shelter. At that point, I had been away from the church for nearly six years, but I found myself relying on God in order to stay present in my work. So when I went to visit my mother in Dothan I picked up a bible I had been given at age 15. On the dedication page, my mother had written Proverbs 3:5-6. Annoyed, I flipped quickly through the pages and landed on a verse that was bracketed, starred, and highlighted. That verse was Psalm 27:10: “When your father and mother forsake you, the Lord has taken you up.”
I had lived in Atlanta and been to the annual pride parade but it didn’t make much sense to me. I had been fighting to exist. I hadn’t had the time or the emotional energy to cultivate pride. It was in the re- discovery of that verse that I began to understand what gay pride could mean for me. God chose to give me a peculiar lens through which to see the world. My Parent knew that I would grieve until the grief gave way to the gift intended for me. That gift, the ability to stand in two divergent worlds and tell both communities that they need one another to be whole, is a weighty responsibility that I had the opportunity to reject. But I was trusted by the One who took me up. I will live out my days making sure that the trust was well-placed.
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