Continued from Coming Out, Part Four: Bellow
To start from the beginning of the series, click here.
XVI. Coming Out
It was time to talk to my mom and dad. There was no other choice. I was too ashamed to tell them the whole story: that I was broke, that I dropped my classes, and that I was hardly getting out of bed. But I knew that if I didn’t tell them the truth about my sexuality, things would only get worse. The next time mom invited me over for dinner, I quickly accepted the invitation. Later that night, I pulled into my parents’ driveway.
“Hey, hey!” I shouted, stepping through the front door. The familiar smell of fried pork chops and lima beans wafted through the air as mom and dad greeted me with a hug. When we sat down to eat, normal conversation ensued. “Catch any fish this week?” I asked dad. “Nope,” he replied. “Been blowin’ twenty knots outta the north. Should calm down in a few days.” Mom changed the subject: “How’s school?” “Good!” I said, avoiding eye contact. Before I knew it, thirty minutes passed. Dad was talking, but I couldn’t hear him. I was thinking about my childhood, about the years I had spent sitting in that very chair eating that very meal with two parents who loved me very much. A pang of fear ran through me. Will home still feel like home?
“Everything okay?” Dad’s voice broke my stupor. Here was my opportunity. “There’s something I need to tell you,” I said.
I fixed my eyes on the table. In slow, broken sentences, I told them the other side of my story, the parts they had never heard. I explained that, as early as middle school, I knew I was different from the other boys. I reminded them of the many nights I spent holed away in my room: “I was praying that God would heal me,” I said. My whole body was trembling when I finally spoke the words:
As soon as I said it, dad reached over and pulled me into his arms. “Son,” he gasped, and I fell apart. The shame was too much. I’m sorry, I wanted to say, I’m sorry that I’m like this, but only incoherent sounds came out. Dad wept. Mom was frozen in space, her face drained of its color. Neither of them saw it coming.
Eventually, mom broke out of her daze and spoke. “Corey, we love you. There’s nothing you could ever do to lose that.” Little more was said that evening, even though we all knew there was a lot to discuss. Mom and dad were in shock. They needed time to process the news. We exchanged a few more I love yous, and I put on my shoes. “Whenever you have questions, please call me,” I said. “I’ll come over. We’ll talk as much as you need.” As I got in my car, a swell of emotion overcame me. I did it. The future was still uncertain. They said they loved me, not that they accepted my sexuality. But it was no longer a secret. The albatross was gone.
My parents watched the orange-red of my tail lights disappear into the distance. Then they sat down on the front porch, staring into the darkness, saying nothing. Later, they held each other in the living room. When they were delirious enough to sleep, mom looked at dad. “What now?” she asked.
XVII. How the Light Gets In
Coming out to mom and dad brought me relief, but not enough to part the grey clouds of reality: I was out of money and out of a direction. Jo, the middle-aged buddhist from B&N, took notice. “I feel broken,” I confessed to her on one of our shifts. “Know any Leonard Cohen?” she replied. “No,” I said, confused. Her eyes got big: “Stay right here.” A moment later, she pranced back over with a sticky note bearing lyrics from “Anthem”, her favorite Cohen song:
Ring the bell that still can ring,
forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything:
that’s how the light gets in.
When I looked up from the note, she was looking back at me. “It’s how the light gets in, hun” she repeated, squeezing my shoulder. I kept the sticky note in my wallet for months.
On another worknight, Jo overheard me mention to a co-worker that I couldn’t afford food. My bank account was bone dry. At the end of her shift, she grabbed my keys from the break room while I was working the customer service desk. Later, I found the back seat of my car full of groceries.
As often as we spoke about my depression, Jo talked about the years she volunteered at a rehabilitation camp for youth struggling with addiction. Her eyes lit up as she told me the stories: the one about the schizophrenic boy who tore pages out of books as he read them; the one about the trouble-maker she taught to be a leader. She loved those kids, and it became abundantly clear that those kids loved her, too.
One co-worker at the rehabilitation center wasn’t fond of Jo. He felt that her hairy legs made her a bad role model. So he complained about it to a supervisor. Later, when Jo was asked to shave, she said no. Word got out to the youth. In an act of solidarity, the girls turned in their razors and the boys shaved their legs.
As Jo told me about the camp, a seed took root in my mind. In years to come, that seed would grow into a calibration strategy. It goes something like this: when depressed, find someone to serve.
XVIII. A Season to Speak
I was an infant when mom decided to read the Bible. She wasn’t raised in a religious family—grandma only took her and my aunt Lorri to church on holidays—but as she made her way through scripture, she was moved by the stories. Especially, the story of Hannah.
Hannah was a barren wife who desperately longed for a child. One day, while praying at temple, she made a deal with God: “if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours all the days of his life…” She went on to give birth to the prophet Samuel.
After mom read Hannah’s prayer, she prayed it over me. Was it any wonder that a decade later, I became Preacher Boy? For all of my childhood, mom took me to church. Sundays and Wednesdays. Every night, when she tucked me in, she knelt down by the bed, and we prayed together. I thought she was just being a really good mom, but later, when I learned she had prayed Hannah’s prayer over me, it all made a little more sense. She was keeping a promise.
So when I came out, mom—unsurprisingly—went straight to God. Every morning, she looked at the eastern sky. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” says Psalm 30:5, but there was no joy to be found. “Heal my son,” she begged. “Please take this away from him.”
Dad was angry with God: “How could you do this? He’s devoted his life to you.” The only place he found respite from his heartache was in a Kenny Chesney song. Every night that he came in from work, he would sit down and turn on the boombox. “There’s a spirit of a storm in my soul,” the song began. Mom would listen quietly from the other room.
For about six months after I came out, my parents hardly left home. They mourned as if someone in the family had died. In a way, something had died: an idea of me. There would be no daughter-in-law, no comfort of a traditional future. I could lose jobs over this. People would talk about me. Some people might even want to harm me. In my parents’ minds, my life was going to get a lot harder.
In the beginning, they wondered if they were somehow responsible for my sexuality. Then, they wondered if they could fix it. On one of my visits, dad reasoned with me: “Son, the way I see it, there’s a difference between having these feelings and acting on them.” My dad has always been a proud husband, so I posed him a question as a response: “If someone asked you to do what you’re asking of me, could you do it?” Dad sighed. “I know,” is all he said.
True to plan, I visited often. I took them through the history of Exodus and the ex-gay movement. We talked about scripture, the “clobber passages.” I told them about the heightened risk of self-harm and suicide in LGBT teens. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable with it,” dad admitted one night. I took a breath and let it go. “How are y’all going to handle it when other people find out?” I asked. “I don’t care what people think of me,” dad replied, “I care about how people treat you.” The conversations were difficult, but we kept talking.
XIX. Coming Out as Parents
In the years to follow, my parents continued to grapple with their feelings and thoughts about my sexuality. Homophobia that used to go unrecognized was suddenly evident and personal. It showed up on TV, at work, in the pews, among friends and strangers. Nowhere was safe. The alienating effect of the closet had transferred from me to them.
But slowly, they came out, too.
Out at sea, one of dad’s deckhands made a gay slur. Dad confronted him: “My son’s gay. You won’t talk like that on my boat.”
On a Sunday morning, while mom was visiting family in Florida, she went to church with her sister. In his sermon, the pastor spoke out against homosexuality; after service, mom ended up in his office. “There’s a lot more to this issue than you realize,” she told him. “I have a gay son, and what you said today behind your pulpit is hurting people.”
As time went on, mom and dad grew more courageous. They told friends and family. Mom even sat down with the counselor at my old middle school to talk about bullying and the heightened risk of suicide amongst gay kids. In the process of being open and honest with others about me, my parents worked through their anxieties.
In 2009, I re-enrolled as a full-time student at the University of South Alabama, scoring 4.0s for three semesters in a row. In the same year, the fight for marriage equality gained momentum. I ping-ponged from classroom to library to follow the news breaking in Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The excitement was palpable. But a shadow was cast over the progress.
2010 brought a string of suicides to the public eye. Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Seth Walsh, and Tyler Clementi—all teenagers—took their own lives after incidents of bullying at school. I was never bullied for being gay, so I followed along helplessly, thinking back to my harder years. When I came out, I was met with love and acceptance. And yet, my mind still wandered to dangerous places. What if my peers and parents hadn’t accepted me? What if I had been bullied in school? What if I wasn’t able to reconcile my faith with my sexuality? What amount of pain leads someone to learn how to tie a noose?
Seth Walsh was 13 years old.
vii. Exodus: The End
At the beginning of 2012, Justin Lee of GCN shared a stage with Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, to participate in a panel discussion on ex-gay ministries. The event took place at the GCN Conference, the largest annual gathering of LGBT Christians in the world. For two and a half hours, Lee, Chambers, and three other panelists engaged in a cordial (but oftentimes, tense) discourse on the viability and repercussions of ex-gay enterprises. It was an emotional experience for the queer Christian community; many audience members at the event were survivors of reparative therapy. Although he defended the work of Exodus, Chambers made one huge concession: “The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation…” It was a blatant reversal from the head of an organization that, for many years, marketed its agenda with the slogan: “Change is Possible.”
A year and a half after the event, Alan Chambers announced that he was shutting down Exodus International. He also issued an apology:
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know… I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.
Although Exodus was brought to a close, other anti-gay interest groups exist today, many of which promote the use of reparative therapy to “cure” same-sex attraction.
XXI. The Rally
In 2015, the US Supreme Court delivered the ruling that made gay marriage legal nationwide. In defiance, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore instructed the lower courts not to issue marriage licenses.
A rally coalesced in front of Mobile’s probate court, where I gathered with other queer friends and allies to make a stand against Moore. News anchors and journalists swarmed the scene while attorneys darted in and out of the probate court. The moment felt surreal. Eight years had passed since I came out to my parents. Back then, only a couple states had legalized gay marriage, and nationwide recognition seemed like a pipe dream. Back then, I wondered if my life would ever get better, if mom and dad would ever truly accept me. It all seemed so improbable.
“Is that your dad?” asked a friend, gesturing. I spun around. There was my father, marching down the sidewalk right towards us. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Saw you on the news,” he said. “I figured I’d join you guys.” He came to stand with us, for all the world to see. One willing dad. One proud son.
XXII. To parents with a kid who just came out:
It’s been ten years now since I came out to mom and dad. If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you that it was one of the best things that ever happened to the family. “It made us better people,” she says. And it’s true. I’ve watched my parents become more aware, compassionate human beings.
Coming out is hardly ever a smooth process, for kids or parents. For many years, mom struggled to find a church family that could meet her where she was. Dad wrestled with discomfort whenever I brought a boy around. But they both kept leaning in, even when it was difficult. I hope you’ll do the same. Somewhere on the other side of chaos is peace, but you’ll never find peace if you’re unwilling to engage with the chaos.
XXIII. To the kid who just came out:
Keep going. You’re going to find people who see you and accept you for who you are. If your religious beliefs make you hate yourself, let them go. Gay Christian blogger Kevin Garcia put it best: “Bad theology kills.” Find a spirituality that gives you life. Maybe that means leaving behind the understanding of God that you inherited as a child. Maybe it means trading in the pews for long hikes or yoga classes. Sometimes you need space from a thing to work out what it means to you. I did.
After seven years of avoiding sanctuaries, I walked into Gulf Shores First Presbyterian Church. My partner at the time had shared a sermon with me written by the pastor, Steven Kurtz. The sermon was a theological argument for inclusion. Skeptical but curious, we decided to attend a service. We quickly became regulars.
Several months later, Steven invited me to join him at the Wild Goose Festival. The Wild Goose—sometimes called “woodstock for Christians”—is a music festival that takes place on a campground in Hot Springs, NC. Steven thought I might have something to gain from the experience. He was right. The festival was soul-inspiring. But what meant the most to me was the nine-hour car rides to and from Hot Springs. While on the road, the two of us dug into the issues that had turned me away from the church for so long. Steven talked about his understanding of God and scripture in a way that made me fall in love with the gospel again.
Today, I play music for two churches: First Pres (with Steven) and Open Table (UCC). Open Table, pastored by Ellen Sims, partnered with Free2Be—an LGBT non-profit out of Huntsville—to create a support group in Mobile for LGBTQ teens. I began volunteering for the support group last year. We gather once a week to do activities, play games, and talk about what’s going on in our lives. When I hang out with those high schoolers, I think about a younger version of myself. I think about the kids who desperately need support but can’t find it. I hope we find them.
Free2Be offers counseling and youth services in six locations across Alabama. If you or someone you know could benefit from Free2Be, please visit the website for more info.
The featured image is a throwback of my parents. The last image is from Wild Goose 2017.
The Perry boys (from pt. 1 & 2) eventually teamed up with their sister to form the country trio The Band Perry.
Special thanks to mom and dad for digging up these memories for me, to all the unmentioned friends who’ve been a part of my journey (I didn’t want to write a book), and to Duke, Brandon, and Mike for helping me with the revision process.
A sermon by Steven Kurtz on LGBT inclusion: The Goodness of God in New Wineskins.