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Jamiel Terry: A Rising Son


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

Jamiel Terry, the adopted son of Randall Terry, founder of pro-life organization Operation Rescue and a virulent opponent of marriage equality, died on Friday December 2 after his car was involved in a crash in Gwinnett County, GA. In 2004, Jamiel wrote a frank and powerful account for Out magazine of growing up gay and closeted, and of his shame at working alongside his father to fight civil unions in Vermont. His father responded with a lengthy essay of his own that reiterated his fierce opposition to homosexuality, and described Out as "committed to the homosexual agenda - homosexual marriage, special 'civil rights' for homosexuals, promoting the fallacy that their sexual activities are normal and even laudable."

Read Jamiel's piece from the May '04 issue of Out:

It's hard to point to one moment when you begin to come out to yourself, but if I had to, I'd go back to a night seven years ago, when I was 17. I was home from boarding school in my old bedroom at my parents' house in Windsor, N.Y., where my friend "Johnny" and I had just finished fooling around. Suddenly he asked me, "Do you think we are bisexual or gay?" The question so stunned me, I didn't know how to respond. I mean, we had been having sex for ages, but I'd always believed I couldn't be gay: I was the son of Randall Terry, a major leader of the Christian right's antiabortion movement and now a leader in the fight against marriage for same-sex couples. I'm 24 now and I'm still figuring out my own story.

My father founded Operation Rescue, which became well-known for staging mass demonstrations next to abortion clinics and sometimes flooded an entire city to hold it "hostage." Growing up in my house was anything but boring. And it was made even more "interesting" because from a very early age I knew I was different. When I was 4 my favorite female was Miss Piggy. That alone was probably not much of a giveaway, but my soft voice and my mannerisms turned out to be signs that I was gay. However, when you grow up in a house where to be the thing you are is an abominable sin, you tend to try to shed those behaviors. I would try to be more masculine in every way I could. My father would rarely say something derogatory about gays around my mom or my sisters, but he would around our male friends and to me. I guess it was the usual stuff you hear, but it hurt me sometimes, and I would ask him not to say those things; I felt that for Christians, it's not right to mock people, even in their sin. My father knew I was right, and he would apologize. One thing about my father: We kids could certainly tell him what we thought, and we usually wouldn't get in trouble.

In 1992 my father resigned from Operation Rescue as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Women. Though he could still protest abortion, he couldn't block access to clinics. Around this time, he began attending gay pride marches in protest and going to Hawaii to fight same-sex marriage. As I understood it, he'd come to believe that in order to stop abortion the country had to get to the roots of the other national "sins," like homosexuality.

Growing up, I was very sheltered from all this, since I wasn't allowed to participate in my father's activities--my family regularly received death threats. When I was 14, I went on an "Impeach Clinton" tour with my father all around the country. For a kid like me, everything about being on the road--the crowds, the hotels, eating out--was a thrill.

The tour only confirmed what I'd already felt: My father is probably one of the most engaging men I have ever met. He is witty, intelligent, and funny. I remember watching him and Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, in a heated debate on CNN. He's so charming, you could tell that even the icy Ms. Ireland melted. But charming as he is, I knew that as his son, I could never consider living the "gay lifestyle." I was resigned to the fact that in order for me to achieve the goals I had set for myself and to avoid hell, I had to squelch these feelings. I did everything from participating in charismatic deliverance meetings to fasting; many nights I literally cried myself to sleep while begging God to take these feelings from me. I kept all this to myself; no one had any idea that I was going through this struggle.

But while I was going through all this alone, I did have numerous sexual encounters with my friends, usually during sleepovers at my parents' house. I didn't consider myself gay; I just thought it was experimentation or an outlet because none of us had any way to fool around with girls. (I turned out to be wrong on that count, too. Two of my sisters ended up unmarried and pregnant by the time they were 17. One miscarried; the other eventually married, had a second child with her husband, and then divorced.)

None of this interfered with my father's plans for me or with my sense that I had a certain role to play as Randall Terry's son. Ever since I can remember, my father pushed me to be a lawyer and then a judge. He often joked that he hoped he could appoint me to the Supreme Court one day (I guess he had great ambitions for both of us.)

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.

After my summer off I decided that I would come out when I enrolled at a new school, John & Wales University in Providence, R.I. (I have received an AA in pastry arts and expect to graduate with a BA in marketing communications next year.) No one knew me, and more important, no one knew who my father was; and I wanted to keep it that way. At this point I was not interested in hurting his career. I just wanted to live my own life, meet other gay people, and have a social life. However, I still clung to my faith and was the president of the Catholic club on campus. (I was baptized Catholic and raised Protestant, and I later returned to the Roman Catholic Church.) During orientation week I went to the Pride Alliance meeting. I walked around the building five times before entering. I knew that once I went in there, there was no going back. People would look at me as a gay man. It scared me to death. I didn't tell any friends or my sisters I was gay. My older sister noticed that I had a lot of gay friends and often went out to clubs. She asked me several times if I was gay, but I always denied it.

I decided I wouldn't come out to my parents until I had a boyfriend, not so much because I felt they would accept him but because they would be forced to see normal, functioning gay people. Unfortunately, my plan went awry. I had created a new America Online screen name (RINYboi), and when my father noticed this strange screen name on the family's computer, he called AOL, got the password, and looked at the mailbox. He told me he didn't read my mail but that he could tell by my screen name and the other screen names in my mailbox that the account was being used for "homosexual activity." I was very upset about this invasion of privacy. Around the same time, my mother put two and two together from talking to the same sister who had asked me if I was gay. My parents reacted in the way that I thought they would. They are loving parents, and I never thought they would disown me. I knew, however, that our relationship would never be the same.

My father seems to believe that the fact that I'm an adopted child may help explain why I'm gay - not because of the adoption process itself but perhaps because of things that may have occurred before I was adopted at the age of 5. (When I was 4 my father talked my natural mother out of aborting my little sister, later, my parents adopted my older and younger sister and me into their family.) Although my adoptive parents are Caucasian and I'm mixed-race (black Cuban and Caucasian-American), I always felt 100% part of my family. Of course, who can account for the influences of nature and nurture? My father's mother and two aunts were outspoken feminists; my aunts worked with Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women. (In fact, they're thrilled that I'm gay!) While my father dropped out of high school at 16 and went to Texas to try to become a rock star, he eventually developed in a very different way than his family background would have suggested.

I'd like to think my family is coming along. My father's first question was, "Are your sisters and cousins safe around you?" I told him I couldn't believe he asked me that question and that I didn't want to talk to him for a while. My mother felt that I was acting out in anger against my father because of the divorce. I realized that my parents' idea of what being gay is was so confused it bordered on stupidity. Also, my being gay put them in a quandary. All of the ideas that they had about gays had to be reexamined to some degree, because I was not any of the negative things they thought gay people are.

We are still on a long journey together. My mother and father are in different positions. Because my father is an activist, he feels that he cannot change or modify his position. Our relationship won't be quite the same as if I were straight because he won't be involved in a very important aspect of my life. My mother, on the other hand, is not in the same position, and she has told me that even if she doesn't agree with my decision to live as an openly gay man, she will support me in every way she can.

Since my coming-out, I have had arguments and differences, mostly with my father. But my mother still desires very strongly for me to "Get out of this life" as well. I haven't been able to introduce anyone to them yet, but I hope to soon. I recently moved to Charlotte, N.C., to attend school at my university's new campus here. I met a wonderful guy who is everything I have ever desired. I'd love to have him meet my family, whom I love deeply. I hope the day will come when we can gather together, despite our differences, and enjoy some time with one another - as all families were meant to do.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Jamiel Terry