Continued from Coming Out, Part One: Preacher Boy
IV. High School
Between band practices and concerts, I battled the social pressure to fit in at high school. Other guys’ strutting and posing made me self-conscious, so I began to fixate on how I presented myself: I deepened my voice, I straightened my posture, I curbed my sensitivity. I was terrified that someone would figure me out, so I isolated myself whenever I could, eating lunch against a pillar in the breezeway instead of inside the cafeteria.
One day, while sitting outside, one of my classmates interrupted my solitude. “Mind if I join?” he asked. Mike quickly became my closest friend at school. We committed ourselves to becoming apologists: defenders of the faith. Any chance we had, we exchanged notes decorated with theological quotes and bits of Hebrew, a language we committed ourselves to learning so that we could study the old texts. I read somewhere that aspiring rabbis once had to memorize the entire Torah, so I set out to memorize all the interesting verses in the book of Matthew. I planned to do the same with the rest of the New Testament.
In private, I struggled to find peace with my sexuality. My prayers ended with “Lord, please take this away.” As time passed, I began to wonder if I was being punished. I couldn’t fathom why God wasn’t healing me. I had never acted on my attractions or even considered trying. No matter how hard I prayed, they wouldn’t go away. I recorded in my journal a passage from the book of Job. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” The verse became my silent mantra.
iii. Exodus: John Paulk
In 1995, John Paulk was named chairman of the board of Exodus International. Paulk quickly emerged as a celebrity amongst ex-gay advocates, spearheading Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out conferences and making appearances with his wife (also ex-gay) in the mainstream media. In the same year the couple appeared on the cover of Newsweek (1998), organizations sympathetic with the ex-gay movement spent over half a million dollars promoting reparative therapy as a viable solution to the problem of same-sex attraction.
V. Band Boot Camp
In a move to further the career opportunities of Kimberly and MMM, the Perrys moved to Tennessee. They coordinated with the rest of us to set up week-long practices at their new home in Greenville. We called the excursions “boot camp weeks” because we had to get so much done in such little time. Learning new covers, songwriting, running vocal exercises, recording: we’d cram each day, sleep, then start again. Dinnertime was our respite from the daily grind. Never short on stories, the Perrys were professional reminiscers, playfully hounding each other at every opportunity.
One evening, after dinner, I decided that it was time to talk to the band. The boys were family to me. If I could trust anyone, it was them. While everyone watched Neil impale orcs and uruk-hai on the PS2, I stepped into the doorway of the bedroom. “There’s something I’m struggling with,” I said, hardly louder than the clamor of the TV. Reid and Chadwick broke from their game-induced trance and looked over at me. All at once, gravity doubled. My chest tightened. The weight of what I was about to tell them began to dawn on me. I can’t do this, I thought. My jaw was trembling. I can’t do this. It was too dangerous. “Nevermind,” I said with a smirk, feigning triviality. I sauntered toward bed, the war for Middle-earth raging on in the background; a different war raging inside of me.
VI. All Poetry & Abeka Academy
Instead of building friendships at high school parties, I turned to the endless corridors of the internet. Eventually, I stumbled upon Allpoetry.com (AP), a place where people could post their poetry, host contests, and comment on each other’s work. I made a few friends my age, two of whom I convinced to start attending church. But AP wasn’t only a means for me to proselytize; it was a place where I could write implicitly about my same-sex attraction. For every seven or eight poems about my faith, I would post one about an ambiguous struggle.
The end of ninth grade could not come soon enough. Rumors began traveling the hallways about a boy in my history class. The jocks in the back of the room bombarded him with spitballs and hushed insults. The teacher ignored it. When the student turned to face his antagonizers, they would snicker, “What cha lookin’ at, faggot?” Whenever it happened, the back of my neck tingled. Once, in that same history class, a boy sitting in front of me turned around and snatched the paper off my desk. “What’s this?” he condescended. “It’s a song,” I said. He glanced at the lyrics and then gave me a long, accusing look before he returned the sheet back to my desk. “Jesus boy,” he jeered, but his eyes said something different.
“Can’t I be homeschooled?” I pleaded with mom. The suggestion had already been floated by the Perrys. It was difficult to balance the demands of boot camp weeks and concerts with my workload at school. Homeschooling suited my irregular schedule. I pushed hard enough that mom finally relented. After some research, we decided to use Abeka Academy, a Christian program that grafted fundamentalist values into its curriculum. I had escaped. No more alpha males; no more paralyzing self-awareness. I could confront my struggle on my own terms.
Or so I thought. One night, while discussing theology with a friend on AP, he interjected: “Cor, there’s something I want to talk to you about.” This didn’t send up any red flags. Most of the conversations that I had on AP were fairly intimate. So I invited it with open arms: “What’s up?”
“I’m attracted to guys,” he typed.
There it was, the albatross around my neck. I leaned back into the cushion of the chair, staring blankly at his confession. I let my mind drift to the steady humming of the AC, to the darkness of the room made darker by the glowing screen, by those four words staring back at me. As the numbness began to fade, I took a few deep breaths and put to words what I had grown to believe but never spoke aloud until then:
“The attraction isn’t a sin, but the behavior is. It’s your response that matters.”
I took a breath, and then I gently led him through the seven passages that I had come to know so well, the inescapable evidence that being gay isn’t part of God’s plan.
“You just have to keep fighting and have faith. He will heal us. I know He will.”
iv. Exodus: A Crack in the Surface
Three years after helping create Exodus, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper left the ministry and their wives to be with each other. Bussee would become an outspoken critic of Exodus.
In 2007, the sitting president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, was questioned about Bussee on NPR.
MADELEINE BRAND: Michael Bussee, the founder of Exodus, he says he couldn’t deny his homosexuality. He fell in love with another man and another ex-gay counselor. He now speaks out against ex-gay therapies. Do you agree with him?
CHAMBERS: The issue of homosexuality is very clear from a biblical standpoint. Just like so many other sins that are listed in the Bible, homosexuality is called a sin.
VII. MMM: The Breaking of the Fellowship
As time wore on, my relationship with the band began to suffer. Here were my very closest friends. We had worked together, explored together, shared our ideas, dreams, and idiosyncrasies with one another. But a rift was growing between us, and I didn’t know how to bridge it. What would happen if they knew? I wondered.
I almost found out. One of the Perry boys and I were sitting on the crest of a hill, looking out across the mountains of Greenville, Tennessee. “There’s something I’d like to tell you, but I don’t know how.” The weariness in my voice caught me by surprise. I can’t remember how he responded, but I do remember how compassionate it felt. “Have you ever had a secret that you couldn’t share with anyone?” I asked. He waited patiently for me to continue. I couldn’t look at him, so I fixed my eyes on a stream at the bottom of the hill.
Brother, I wanted to say, Will you remember the long car rides, the conversations, the music? Is there anything we wouldn’t do for each other? Brother, I thought inwardly, Will you let this define me? Brother, I’m broken, and I’m afraid of your rejection.
The only thing that scared me more than rejection was alienation. I didn’t want the dynamics of our brotherhood to change, but I was certain they would if I shared what I was going through. A shift in trust, in confidence, in perception: I dreaded the possibility that my struggle would fundamentally recreate the image the band had of me.
I didn’t find the courage to tell him.
On one night a few weeks later, I was playing worship music at home, trying to work a knot out of my stomach. After an hour, I emerged from the laundry room and told my dad I had to quit the band. When he asked me why, I couldn’t give him a reason. I wanted to be in the band. I wanted to be a musician.
As he picked up the phone, I felt the knot in my stomach tighten. I couldn’t tell him the real story: that I was attracted to men, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore, and I couldn’t bear the Perrys seeing me differently.
“I feel like it’s what God wants,” I said. The lie ricocheted inside me like gunfire. It was over. He called Dr. Perry and told him I was leaving the band. I went to my room and sobbed into a pillow.
Continue to Coming Out, Part Three: Water Fire.
“The Breaking of the Fellowship” is the last chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.