This post will focus on my experiences as a young Black gay man. These experiences will include accounts and references to my religious upbringing. This post is, in no way, intended to bash said religion or its associates nor any other religion or faith. This is my story.
Sometimes, you don’t know where to begin. Some might say, “Uh, how about the beginning?” To that, I’d reply: Which beginning? In any case, I’ll start from the age of 7 when I came into the realization that I was a male attracted to other males. The sequence of events may not be chronological, but I’ll try to keep them as close to a linear time line as possible.
I was in the second grade. A male friend of mine, a best friend eventually, and other young men in my second grade class, were in the rest room in elementary school. I recall being at the sinks when that friend, whom I will from this point on refer to as John, suddenly shouts, “Hey, everybody! Look!” I looked. Bear in mind that John was repeating the second grade, he may have been 8 or 9 years old. When I looked, he was holding himself outside of his pants. I quickly looked away, heat rising to my face. His reply was full of laughter and camaraderie, “Eww. You looked. You nasty man.” This way many years ago, so I’m not quite sure if I was the only one who looked. Though, I’m pretty sure with my current insight, that I probably was not. When someone screams, “Look!”, most people will. Out of those who may or may not have looked, I was the one who stood out. (I’ve never wondered why until now). I almost certain that John’s penis may have been the first time I’d seen a penis outside of my own underwear. No one seemed to judge me. Odds are, it was forgotten shortly after by the other young men in that rest room but, I still remember.
Fast-forward to age 11. I’d participated in a few more experiences of show and tell featuring the young men around me. Some of the encounters were completely out of my control, some of them subconsciously orchestrated. Boys will be boys, right? My first year of middle school I finally acknowledged, on some level, that I wasn’t quite like the other guys in my age group. (Though only a fraction of that difference, I’ve come to realize, was due to my sexuality.) This acknowledgment manifested in a request to God, during a prayer service held on Wednesday nights at my Apostolic/Pentecostal church. That night, I reached out to another male friend who attended the same church. I told him to pray for me because a “bisexual spirit was trying to take hold of me.” That particular friend, while beginning his own stint of prayer, simply said, “No problem, man.” His nonchalance about the taboo revelation acted as a prequel to God’s revelation to me in later years. I prayed for change that night. I prayed that this “spirit” would not win. That this battle I was just beginning to fight, would end soon with me as a victor. Earning the title of ‘victor’ to be evidenced by no further stirrings of attraction to those of the same-sex.
In hindsight, I knew more than what I thought and less than what I thought simultaneously. Because of my religious upbringing, and society’s attitudes toward effeminate men (whom I labeled gay at that time) I recognized a problem. I was told, through reactions to how I carried myself and what I did or didn’t do, that I wasn’t a typical young black man. At school, at church, at play time, at family gatherings, and at home watching TV, my differences were made prominent in subtle and overt ways. It was so obvious that the differences were not something to be celebrated.
This one fateful night at prayer service, when I anxiously shared with a male friend that I was having same-sex attraction, induced a relentless pursuit of deliverance. From this point on though, the pursuit was internal. It was silent. It was not something I felt I could share with my mother, or my aunt, or any of the other family members that attended the same church I attended, nor the spiritual leaders. It’s not a question I raised during Sunday School or at home or in public school. At a young age, I knew the desperation of discretion. I could discern that same-sex attraction was something I should keep in journal entries and solitary prayers. Looking back, my thinking was very problematic. Here I was, a young man seeking God. Here I was, a young man dealing with presumed demons and yet I did not feel like I would be openly received if I shared my struggle with my family, neither blood-related or spiritual. There was no one, no adult for sure, that I felt I could go to in order to receive help. I prayed on my own for years. I pursued, bargained, bribed, and solicited God for a change in my physical desires all the way to age 17 when I became resentful.
By age 17, I was a senior in high school preparing to go on to higher education where I’d have more freedom. I’d be able to live out from under the thumbs of teachers or church members or family or even familiarity with the peers around me. I was going to be starting anew. My most insistent prayer, prior to this age, was that by the time I finished high school that I would cease to endure this internal tug of war. I became resentful because I’d had faith that God would not send me out into the real world wrestling this perceived demon. I was very much aware that I would be introduced to an entirely different ball game. It terrified me. It terrified me to the point that, in the years leading up to my 12th grade year, I’d begged God to kill me before graduation me so that Hell could be avoided.
During this time, I’d had an experience with a childhood friend who shared my struggle, or at least seemed to share it. That experience was purely physical. It wasn’t sex, not to me, because it did not involve penetration of any kind. But it was an episode in my life where I did not feel odd. I did not feel like I was on the verge of winning an Oscar for portraying a young heterosexual male. In this specific episode, I was more free to be myself than I had ever been. I experienced a taste of liberty.
My first real kiss was from a childhood friend who was just like me. He had the same equipment as me. And it felt more natural with him than with any girl I took a liking to. The experience felt more organic than the longest romantic relationship shared with a young woman (and I’d had just a few). This childhood friend (I’ll call him Juan), afforded me an opportunity to explore the man I’d been fighting not to be for so many years. Juan was curious as to who he was as well. Our encounter spoke to us differently. For me, it confirmed what I’d wondered since age 7 when John told me to “Look!” and I did and wasn’t repulsed. For Juan, though, it confirmed that he was more content with the opposite sex. At least, that’s what he said but I did not believe him. Needless to say, we went our separate ways.
The encounter with Juan took something from me. It took away my illusions. My attraction was no longer some fantastical thing I merely wondered about. I, just like other young men my age, knew what I liked–at least superficially. My resent fully manifested after this event because the guilt and shame fully manifested as well once I stepped foot in church. I wondered, “What the hell am I suppose to do now?” Was I to just dig a hole straight to the Hell I was told I would go to if I were one of the unfortunates who had same-sex feelings?
Here, I am going to take a moment to share a bit about my religious upbringing. Around age 6, if memory serves me accurately, my mother started attending church regularly and of course, I had to come along. The only objection I really had at the time was missing cartoons that came on Sunday mornings and the TV shows that came on during the two weekly services: Bible Study and Prayer Service.
The church we attended was proudly Apostolic. Essentially, the doctrine was built upon the Acts of the Apostles when the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost. The doctrine focused on water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ as opposed to baptizing “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”. Furthermore, we believed in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit by speaking in unknown tongues. Sunday services consisted of Sunday school classes based on age, marital status, and the duration of membership. After Sunday school, we engaged in morning worship where devotional leaders (usually adults of various ages but could also be youth depending on which Sunday in the month service was being held). Following morning worship, a minister would lead a morning prayer at the altar. Finally, the choir would sing once the pastor was escorted by the clergymen to the pulpit. After the choir, the pastor or a predetermined minister, would preach. In the midst of all this; tithes and offering were collected, church announcements were made, and praise dances were danced. The services were very lively like many churches of the Apostolic faith.
My church, in particular, believed that a preacher was speaking under the anointing of God, or the Holy Spirit. Sometimes prophecies came forth where God spoke directly though a specific person. These instances consisted of a tingle in the air, subsiding praise and worship, and well-deserved reverence for the presence of God. The congregation consisted of elders, ministers, deacons, missionaries (female members who were usually older and married), ushers, musicians, singers, and those brothers and sisters who showed up and showed out when the Spirit fell or simply listened to the sermon and offered an ‘Amen!’ when compelled.
To be a preacher, one had to saved (baptized in the name of Jesus and filled with the Holy Ghost as evidenced by speaking in tongues), male (based on select scriptures in the New Testament). Men, preachers or not, were also to not have long hair, no tattoos or piercings (once saved), heterosexual of course, wearing clothing made for men and so forth. I can’t tell you how many sermons focused on being “separate from the world”, primarily in appearance but also in behavior. The members who were women were not exempt from this. Women were expected be modest, to not have piercings, to wear clothing made for women that covered the female form, to avoid wearing make up, to be submissive to their husbands and attentive to the young women growing up in the church. Please keep in mind, I am reflecting on one specific church in the Apostolic faith and I am also referencing what stood out to me the most about the ideologies and behaviors in said faith. I accepted these ideals and this multi-faceted doctrine in those younger years almost without question.
I was baptized around the age of 10 but I, myself, did not speak in tongues until I was approximately 12 years old. It was something I hungered for constantly. I expected it to be the answer to the prayers I’d prayed since that night at Prayer Service when I recognized that I was in a spiritual and mental warfare with sexuality. To be baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost was to be saved from damnation by God’s love and power. You were God’s chosen. You were as the saints of antiquity on the Day of Pentecost. Once you were saved, you were filled with God’s power. Demons were supposed to flee. Your prayers were charged by something divine and not merely human anymore. You were truly one of God’s children and that came with responsibility. That came with a certain esteem. Or so I hoped.
Now, to resume to my 17 year old state of being, I became resentful because I’d just had an experience that proved to me beyond the shadow of doubt that I was attracted to the same sex. This encounter happened after years of prayer, after years of being baptized and speaking in tongues and feeling like one of God’s children. It occurred despite all the scriptures I meditated on and the Gospel songs I blared on my stereo. I was appalled, to say the least. I was SAVED, for God’s sake! Why was I going through this after all those years of persistent prayer? Didn’t my prayers have any reach? Didn’t my angst matter? Didn’t my continuous struggle warrant some divine intervention? Didn’t my fear of Hell deserve some attention? Didn’t it make more sense to be free of a terrible sin before going off on my own than to go off on my own with the elusive gay demon sashaying in front of me?
Allow me to shed further light on what homosexuality was in the Apostolic faith. It was a demon. It was sin. It was a crime against God. It was sexual perversion. Homosexuality was Adam and Steve instead of Adam and Eve. It was being labeled a sissy from the pulpit. It was a reason to seek God for deliverance. It was guilt, shame, etc. Conversely, homosexuality was not a relationship. It was never seen as love between two individuals. It was never biological or psychological or physiological, The sermons never really addressed the attraction, instead it harped on the results of the attraction: mannerisms and sex. The reason this tactic is problematic is because I hadn’t had sex. My mannerisms, when being at my norm, weren’t flamboyant or womanly. The sermons were not ministering to my confusion or my innate attraction, only behaviors that I hadn’t quite embraced.
Unfortunately, the resentment boiling through leaked out in odd ways. My moods became changeable, I lashed out at loved ones, stopped engaging in church activities, and simply allowed myself to self-destruct. I remember stocking the shelves at my part-time Job and bursting in tears erratically. I remember attending church services rolling my eyes when a preacher or church member sharing a testimony would talk about how powerful God is and how God delivered them from this or that. Some of those testimonies resulted in my storming out of services and all the while demanding through prayer that God hear me and help me. God did hear me. God did help me.
One fateful Sunday, during an altar call, my pastor started testifying to the glory and power of God. He eventually said, “God can fix anything that is broken.” In my mind, I basically scoffed and asked of no one in particular, “Oh yeah, well why didn’t God fix me?” Please note that this was after that episode with Juan. This was after I’d all but come out to my loved ones. This was at a time where I’d grudgingly accepted that I was still in a place sexually that I never desired to be in. A place that I’d prayed and fasted and worshiped and studied to finally cease the mental and spiritual unrest. So when I asked this question, I did not expect an answer but an answer is exactly what I got. A voice replied back, “I cannot fix what is not broken.” Yeah, I know how this sounds. Sounds like I was talking to myself, right? If you believe in a living God, though, you know that God still speaks. Sometimes its an audible voice, sometimes its a feeling in your gut, sometimes it’s that voice which sounds like your own assuring you that you’re on the right path. But the voice I heard was not mine. It was inside of me yet outside of me at the same time. And the answer to my question confused me. I didn’t know if God was telling me that I wasn’t broken because I was not going to be gay forever or if God was saying I wasn’t broken because there was nothing wrong with being gay. The confusion came because of what I was taught growing up in church. It came because of what society said about the “homosexual” and his eternal dwelling place. The confusion actually overshadowed the calming voice of God but I pretended that the confusion dissipated. I pretended to accept that those words meant I was accepted, as I was and had always been, by God. I feigned peace with the answer but it was an answer I wasn’t ready to believe.
It is here, that I will pause again. I suppose this is as good a beginning as any other. Please continue to follow my journey in Part II.