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I Went to Church Camp to 'Pray the Gay Away'

Photo courtesy Glenn Garner
Photo courtesy Glenn Garner

How I wrestled with religion to embrace my sexuality.

As much as our Vice President Mike Pence would like to believe, not even the Lord himself could make someone straight. I know from personal experience.

When I was 12, I knew I liked boys. One day I was watching Six Feet Under on HBO and saw David and Keith kissing. This was the first gay couple I'd ever seen on TV and it was in that moment I realized, "Well, shit, I'm gay." At this point I was still heavily involved in the Baptist Church. Growing up with a single mom, I had to go to daycare so she could work and support our family. I went to the church's preschool and daycare every day after school until I was 13. I was taught that choosing to be gay was wrong, vile and against God: "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." When I had this epiphany that I was one of these people I had been taught to hate, I wanted my feelings to go away. I cried and prayed for God to change me, taking this sinful carnal need away.

The next week at Sunday school, the youth worship group was advertising a summer camp to "renew your personal relationship with God." I took this as a sign--an answer to my prayers. I asked my mom if I could go to camp, telling her I wanted to go to be with friends and be with God. So I raised the money through fundraisers and set off to for the mountains.

When I arrived, I was shown my cabin. Our days were spent at daily services and Bible study groups, broken up by activities and days at the lake. Pamphlets shared guides to passages in the Bible for sins that afflict human nature. I focused on why it was wrong to be a homosexual, searching for advice to transform myself. I flipped through the pages of scripture, highlighting and underlining passages, hoping to learn, see, and be enlightened. I questioned if this is what I believed--was it even what Jesus would have believed?

Halfway through the summer session, I sat in my cabin with another boy from my group, where we talked about ourselves and lives at home. After half an hour, he placed his hand on my upper thigh and said, "Are you nervous?"

I answered this question over and over again with a simple, "No," as his hand continued to go higher. I did the same with him, experimenting and exploring his body. This was the first time I ever touched another boy--my first sinful encounter. I was exhilarated. I didn't think, I just acted, responding to the signals he gave me. A couple minutes later I heard a noise. Someone was opening the door. It was our counselor coming back from the Bible study we had skipped. In a flight of panic, we both grabbed the nearest thing to hide our boners, which coincidentally happened to be our Bibles. He was unaware what had been happening. He came in and saw us reading our Bibles and commended our private study. After we were done, I explained to the other boy that I wasn't gay. He agreed, saying the same to me.

In that moment, I felt different. I grabbed my Bible and went to the chapel in the middle of the woods. I wrote down my prayer in a giant ledger, giving inspiration to those who are lost, seeking forgiveness and a light to guide them. I asked for forgiveness for this sin. I had so deeply internalized the homophobia that my pastor spewed, I was blind that everything I did was normal and healthy. I'd tried so desperately to change myself that I lost sight of who I was.

At home I spent the next two years feeling trapped in the closet. I finally came out to my best friend Megan, who had been adopted by her two lesbian moms. I sent her a Facebook message saying, "I'm gay," admitting to someone for the first time the thing I could barely admit to myself. She said, "Congratulations! What took you so long?" From there, I was able to accept myself and build the courage to tell the only person whose opinion mattered: my mom's.

We were in the car one day when my mom was talking about celebrity bodies she admired, wishing she had breasts like Scarlett Johansson. When she asked me my opinion, I said "I don't like boobs. I'm not attracted to the female body. I can't sexualize the beautiful female form."

My mom asked, "Are you gay?"

"I don't want to talk about it right now," I responded, fearing she might crash the car from pure shock.

"We can wait until we're home, but I want to have this conversation with you. There's no need to worry" she replied, agreeing to my request. At home, we sat down on her bed and she asked the question again, reassuring me "there is nothing you can say that will make me not love you. I accept you for who you are. I just want to be there for you and support you." I then told her I was gay.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm positive," I confidently announced.

She voiced her concerns, telling me, "Life is already difficult, and now it's going to be that much more difficult for you." Her childhood was during the AIDS epidemic. She worried for my safety or that someone would attack me like they did Mathew Shepherd in 1998, one year after I was born.

Soon after I came out, I left the church, abandoning my faith. I no longer felt welcome or accepted in the space I'd spent much of my childhood. My friend Ryan said that when I left, the other kids gossiped about me, saying, "Thomas is gay now! He stopped coming to church and isn't a Christian anymore." The final service I attended was during the same week as the vote on Prop. 8, the decision for marriage equality in California. The pastor talked about needing to save the sanctity of marriage at all costs, advocating against supporting gay marriage. He even said, "The church shouldn't help find a cure for AIDS. We should just let them die from it." These words dripped from his mouth like venom off the fangs of a snake. This was similar to the stance outlined earlier in Mike Pence's 2000 congressional campaign website, advocating that:

"Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage... Oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a 'discreet and insular minority' entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws... and complete an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior."

After hearing this, I knew I could never come back. Several years after my self-imposed exile from the church, their stance on homosexuality was still rigid. When my friend Ryan finally came out, he was told, "He couldn't be a Christian if he was gay," and was asked to leave.

Now, I'm living in New York City and going to school in Greenwich Village, the first person in my family to attend college. I feel happy to be single and dating. I've been recently focusing on my understanding of what spirituality means to me and my new relationship with religion. I'm still religious, but now on my own terms. I'm enjoying being in the part of the city where the gay rights movement started and developed--where there are more hot men than one young twink can handle. I'm excited to attend Pride this year for the first time in NYC and continue to grow and learn from the many experiences I will have.

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

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