Yesterday, a bunch of people linked to this article about Daniel Dobson, the son of a prominent fundamentalist preacher, talking about being a gay Christian. One of the places that linked to it also linked to this blog post by Ryan Barnhart, which sort of goes off on a tangent. But I understand why, because Dobson’s interview sent me on an even more meandering trip down memory lane.
During high school, I joined an interdenominational evangelical teen touring choir. I’d been raised in evangelical churches in several much smaller towns. Moving halfway across the continent to a bigger town had me feeling more adrift and out of place than before, so an organized religious musical activity was a welcome refuge.
I’d also spent my middle school years discovering beyond a doubt that I wasn’t straight, while experiencing entirely new levels of bullying. I was desperate to get rid of those feelings, so being confronted with a way to do “god’s work” seemed like the solution to all of my problems. Here were a bunch of people more or less my age who had a common background and a holy purpose—plus it combined aspects of music, theatre, sound, and light production…
My first two years in the group I didn’t make the cut for the summer tour. So I performed with the group during the school year, befriending and bonding with a rather large group of kids, and then I was left behind while about half of them went to have adventures elsewhere. The third year I finally made the tour group. It was as fun and exciting as I had imagined. Yeah, it was also a bit grueling, but it all seemed well worth it.
Each tour included a couple of days where, instead of going to a church in yet another town, set up all our equipment, and perform a big inspirational concert, we were taken to someplace fun. One day would be at an amusement park somewhere, and another would be at some other sort of touristy/education thing.
One such free day on my first tour was in San Francisco. We were to be turned loose for several hours near the waterfront, and then we were all to meet back at the bus at dinner time.
One of the guys in the group who had gone on the previous couple of tours, was a big, burly football player. We’ll call him Don. He was the kind of guy who always got the big, dramatic solos. He excelled at several sports, being captain of the high school football team. He worked out a crazy amount, was good-looking and popular.
And he arrived at the bus the morning we were going to San Francisco dressed in the tightest Levis anyone had ever seen him wear, with an even tighter plain white t-shirt. When someone commented on his attire, he explained that since we would be wandering around a city that was notorious for harboring so many avowed homosexuals, he figured this was a good way to scare “the pansies” off. Seeing how big and muscled he was would make them realize no one should mess with him.
My immediate response was an overwhelming urge to laugh out loud, then proclaim, “You idiot! That isn’t going to drive gay guys away! That’ll just bring them running to you!”
But I didn’t make a sound. Because the instant I had the thought, my internal censors went into a five-alarm panic and closet-reinforcement mode. If I said something like that, other people would immediately ask, “How do you know what attracts gay guys?” So I clamped my mouth shut, looked away, and tried to think about something else.
I’d been doing god’s work with them for a couple of years. Visiting different churches and communities to spread the good news to the lost and bring inspiration to the faithful. I had spent numerous hours studying the bible, discussing matters of faith and life great and small, praying alone and together, for each other and strangers. Plus countless hours praying by myself, begging god to make me stop noticing the cute guys, to stop getting crushes on male acquaintances and friends, to be normal. Despite being promised salvation, strength, and confidence as a reward for my diligence and faith, I remained as gay and frightened on the inside as I’d ever been.
So, of course I said nothing. We arrived at the waterfront and were handed tourist maps. I went with a small group of my friends, and we wandered to various shops and sites for the day.
When we gathered at the appointed meeting place in the evening, several of us noticed that Don’s girlfriend, Sue, was standing a bit away from most of us, looking unhappy. Turned out that she, Don, a couple of her closest friends, and the friend’s boyfriends had started out sightseeing together, but they lost Don at some point during the day, and they spent hours trying to find him. When he finally turned up, he claimed he had just gotten separated from them, and had spent all the same time looking for her.
Since this was the late 70s, no one had cell phones, of course, so there was no way to communicate if you did get separated.
A little voice in the back of my head suggested that maybe Don hadn’t been so clueless about the tight jeans and t-shirt as I had thought. But I couldn’t let myself contemplate that, because it would surely lead to trouble.
A few years later I learned that I was definitely right about the trouble. There had been an incident on the previous tour, which I hadn’t been on, where one of the other guys, Will, had been sent home mysteriously midway through the tour. No one seemed to know why or what happened. I hadn’t learned about Will being sent home until after everyone was home, of course, and by that time Will had just as mysteriously moved off to Portland to live with some relatives and finish high school there, instead of living with his parents and staying in Longview.
As I said, years later, from another friend who had been on that tour, I found out that what had happened was that someone had caught Don and Will together somewhere, and Will was giving Don a blowjob. Because Will was small, delicate featured, had been active in drama club, and so on, while Don appeared the stereotypical hyper-straight jock the adults in charge actually believed Don’s claim that Will had forced himself on Don.
Will, who was about a third the size of Don, had forced Don to let him give him a blow job?
So, Will was sent home in disgrace. Will’s dad refused to let him stay in the house, so for a while he was living with the family of their pastor.
Don’s parents, meanwhile, notified the school, and the school contacted Will’s family and pastor to inform them that even though this had not been a school activity at all, and even though no charges had been filed, if they insisted on trying to send Will back for his senior year in high school, the school would have to expel him as a “sexual predator.”
I made a couple of attempts, after I learned this (as I said, years later), to contact Will. I did eventually get a valid phone number for him and left a few messages on his machine. But he never called me back. About eight years later, another friend told me that Will had since died of complications of AIDS.
Just a year after managing to convince a religious leader and a bunch of parent chaperones that he had been the victim of the smaller, less athletic guy sucking him off, Don had boarded that bus with the lasciviously tight jeans and t-shirt, and boldly told people he was dressing that way to scare off gay guys.
And they believed it.
Don kept getting rewarded with solos and leadership roles in the Singers, continuing to tour with them for a few years into college. He married Sue and became a preacher at a fundamentalist church in Oregon. According to an old classmate who attended our twentieth high school reunion, he’s still married to Sue, they have a couple of kids, and he’s now working as some sort of consultant/executive coach.
Will, of course, is still dead.
When I learned about all this, I felt both angry and guilty. Angry not only that people took Don’s incredibly implausible word over Will’s, but that they so willfully turned a blind eye for two or three years after (while kicking out a few more people on considerably less evidence). Guilty because I hadn’t made more of an effort to find out why Will had left, but also because for a few years after he was expelled/shunned I continued working with the group, eventually rising to the post of Assistant Director.
Even though, during my last year with them, my faith was… well, not stamped out, but what beliefs remained would not have met with approval if I’d revealed them. Not wanting to be a hypocrite (and not wanting to endure another round of elders pressuring me to start studying for the ministry), I moved on.
I wish I had a better conclusion to this rambling account. I had some great friendships and learned some valuable, positive lessons. But I also spent a lot of time living in dread, denying my true feelings, and learning new ways to loathe myself.
I survived to live well. And maybe that’s all anyone can hope for.