Orlando, religion, the South, and me

Southern Baptist Church in Manhattan

Many of my gay friends bear the scars of religious upbringings. Some more than others.

I know, I know. The stories of the Young Gay trying to pray away his alleged sins, trying to hide his clandestine hook-ups with curious friends and knowing strangers, trying to avoid handsy priests and youth ministers after choir practice or during lock-ins: these are the stereotypical stories that draw the media’s attention, sell books, spawn movies and plays.

But just because they’re stereotypes doesn’t mean that they’re not true.

* * * * *

I was raised in the Southern Baptist church in the middle-of-nowhere Mississippi. Difference and diversity were as foreign as subways and discotheques.

I was a poor match. As soon as I figured out what “gay” meant, I knew that “gay” meant me. And I knew that that was bad. Our preacher said so, my teachers said so, my family said so.

I spent a decade running from myself — hiding from myself, really — denying my urges, wishing I could be “normal”, and fooling around with plenty of guys on the side. Living that kind of double-life required loads of secrecy and Olympics-level mental gymnastics.

Even now, long after I’ve given away my last fuck about what people think, I’m still wary of religion. Christianity is the scariest monster under the bed, but honestly, all faiths make me skittish.

Which is why I was surprised to get this message from my sister-in-law on Sunday:


If you’re versed in the nuances of Southern speech, you might think she’s saying that she’s “praying for me”, in the way that hateful, pompous, pious people often do. But that’s not how I read that last sentence, because that’s not her. I promise you: it’s a genuine, thoughtful, thoroughly unsolicited message of support and love.

When she and I first met, I made plenty of assumptions. Like me, she had a traditional Southern upbringing and was raised in the Baptist church. She looked and sounded like hundreds of girls I’ve known — girls with minds even narrower than their waistlines.

But like me, she’s also different: the cover doesn’t match the book. I get along with her better than almost everyone else in my family. She’s funny and incredibly perceptive. When it comes to emotional intelligence, there’s no one smarter.

She’s also been warm and kind to Jonno and to Peter. Unlike many people below and above the Mason-Dixon, she’s not prone to judge. My sexual orientation has never been an issue.

Which makes it all the worse that I responded to her message by de-gaying the whole situation (even adding a lamentable emoji).


My sister-in-law’s message was open and honest. She didn’t mince words. She saw the attack in Orlando for what it was: an attack on our community.

I repaid her candor with aversion. Typically, when a fellow Southerner indicates that she’s LGBT-friendly, I try to change the conversation. It’s as though I’m saying, “Oh, that’s so cool that you’re open-minded. But I’m not going to push it  and make you dwell on the injustices that we’ve faced down here, much less what our relationships with one another are like. You’ve done enough by simply acknowledging that we have a right to exist.”

I did the same with her. Because she’s a Southerner — more specifically, a Southern Baptist — I assumed that she’s uncomfortable talking about gays and lesbians and transpeople, like she’s never been out in the world, never met another openly gay person in her life. In trying to be polite, I treated her like a juvenile. Far worse: I erased the brutal homophobia of Sunday’s attack.

It was a slap in the face to my sister-in-law and to the 49 LGBT people and allies who died at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

This doesn’t mean that I’m less wary of religion. It only means that I ought to be more wary of myself, too.

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