Jamiel Terry: A Rising Son

12.2.2011

By Jamiel Terry

When your father is famous for fighting abortion and same-sex marriage, how can you possibly come out?

When I was 16, I interned at the American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing public interest firm founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson in 1990 in Washington, D.C. I quickly figured out that I had no interest in pursuing a legal career, but my father insisted that I stay on that path. In 1998, I went to my father’s alma mater, Elim Bible Institute near Rochester, N.Y. The plan was for me to get my undergraduate degree there and then go to Regent University Law School which offers “the integration of Christian Principles into our curriculum,” according to its website.

My year at Elim was hellish. Everyone knew who I was, and I felt a huge pressure to perform well. At the same time, here I was at a Bible school, and all I wanted to do was sleep with my roommate. But I wasn’t the only one facing major personal issues: In 1999 my parents told me and my sisters that they were separating. We were devastated; we knew that my parents had been having problems, but in our house we thought that divorce was simply not an option, so we were able to hold on to that. After this stunning announcement, we got dressed and went to church like nothing had happened. This was a normal scene when we were growing up. Because we were in the public eye, we always had to pretend everything was fine.

While it may seem like an odd choice, I was so anxious to leave Elim, I transferred to Liberty University in Virginia, a school founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. He was an old friend of my father’s, and he was adamant that I not discuss my parents’ marital problems with any of the students or of course the media. My life was caving in, and I still had to pretend to be the perfect son who was part of a perfect family. My phone bills skyrocketed as a result of talking to reporters and national Christian leaders trying to keep the story quiet. I was largely successful until my dad decided to go fight gay unions in Vermont.

But before that happened, I decided to leave school in 1999 and go work on the Steve Forbes presidential campaign as a youth coordinator, first in Iowa, then in New Hampshire and Delaware. Meanwhile, my dad moved to Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, and started doing his radio show from there; he also brought his organization, Loyal Opposition, to challenge the civil unions bill. (It may sound strange, but I’d been so busy with the national issues of the Forbes campaign and the day-to-day tasks I was working on that the controversy over civil unions in Vermont was not on the radar for me until I started working with my father.) After Forbes dropped out of the presidential race, my dad asked me to work with him to defeat civil unions, which I did. During that time I began to feel like it would be OK for me to be at least privately gay when I was working in Vermont. The catalyst for me was my parents’ separation. I felt like I had been lied to my whole life, and even if being gay was wrong, I didn’t care and would suffer the consequences. After the civil unions bill passed, I stayed in Vermont to work with state representative Nancy Sheltra to defeat legislators who voted for civil unions. I was, of course, struggling with the very thing I was fighting against. When I would try to explain to gays and lesbians I met that what we were doing was not motivated by hate, I knew it was hypocritical, but I still felt I had no other choice. The only way I can explain it is that I’ve come to realize I strongly feared my father’s disappointment or lack of approval. I still held my Christian beliefs; when my siblings and I were growing up my father welcomed lively debate, and as a result what I still believe, I believe strongly.

Not surprisingly, homosexuality was not something that was discussed in our house a lot. Although of course I can’t speak for my father, I suspect he believes that what people in the privacy of their own home is their business. He doesn’t support police breaking down doors to find gays. But he does think gay people should be totally back in the closet and that the American public should not be exposed to what he would call a “self-destructive” lifestyle. Over the years he has certainly softened on this issue. When I told him I was gay, he said he wished he had known, because he wouldn’t have been as harsh. Still, I’m glad I didn’t, because my parents would have sent me somewhere to “get better.” (My father is still trying to get me to go to a three-month retreat to be “delivered” from homosexuality.)

After the Vermont campaign, I went home to upstate New York to take a year off and work as a waiter. My parents had separated by then, and I split my time between my father’s and mother’s houses. This actually gave me a chance to catch up on my gay self-education by consulting my parents’ well-stocked library. My father had a lot of books written by and about gay people so that he could speak with authority on the issue. (When I was growing up I would steal away at night to look at pictures of shirtless men, and I even picked up some useful knowledge about safe sex from these volumes.) One book I found there became very important to me: Wrestling With the Angel, an anthology of essays about spirituality,  religion, and gay men, edited by Brian Bouldrey, helped me to reconcile my homosexuality with my Christianity.

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