Gay in the Bluegrass: Recovering from Evangelical Kentucky, internal homophobia

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Derek Miller

Queer is a way to deconstruct the boxes within which I’ve been placed over the course of my life prior to coming out. It can be a tool for unpacking words and actions, analyzing behaviors, or simply making a statement. I often look around and find my queer peers and colleagues living with such rich color. I am happy to see it. I find myself more on the monochromatic end of the spectrum in terms of presentation. Nonetheless, I maintain a deep undercurrent of queer thought, exploration, and reflection. I have a past with religious fundamentalism. As I move further away from my old life towards embracing my queerness, I hope to uncover more creative and healing ways to allow that undercurrent to crest into powerful waves of expression and confidence. I have to remind myself in an age of rapid information and immediacy that human development takes just as much time today as it always has. Forgiving myself for needing time and extending myself grace is a constant struggle. No more boxes. 

I was born at the University of Louisville hospital to two nervous, twenty-somethings. They worked as hard as they could despite their own limitations, and I am forever grateful for their sacrifices. Our first few years together were spent in a tiny house on Hillview Avenue in Shively as I attended Gutermuth Elementary School in Cloverleaf. While we didn’t attend church regularly, my years in elementary school were sandwiched by a school shuttle program provided by Shively Baptist Church. The same church offered summer programs where I would spend the majority of the season. I began learning about the Evangelical Christian idea of “sin” after being asked to memorize Romans 3:23 from a King James Bible. Now everything that seemed wrong or bad had a name. The first big box began to form. It was a “sin box”.

I knew I liked boys when I was seven years old. I learned, as quickly, that the whole world, it seemed, only favored little boys who liked little girls. “This is obviously wrong, so this must be sin”. Before my eighth birthday, I became aware of my own closet. I had these feelings that were clearly not in alignment with my friends and family. I got the idea that I was somehow different, which meant wrong, which I knew to be sinful. That’s the earliest I remember associating myself with inherent depravity. The sin box was now my home. These concerns mostly lay dormant in my childhood. I was mostly distracted with the decline in my parents’ marriage and the subsequent separation. Broken homes are never easy. 

My parents’ divorce would eventually lead my father to remarry, introducing my stepmother, stepsister, and stepbrother. The five of us moved to Pleasure Ridge Park when I was about eleven years old. We started attending church regularly and the kids were enrolled at a small, private, Christian school in southwest Louisville. I was surrounded by protestant Evangelical Christian values all of my formative years. I was socialized to shun or otherwise curb away from cursing, smoking, drinking, drugs, secular music, television, movies, sex and sexuality, and my views on gender and race were problematic at the least. What’s more is that I didn’t just avoid these things in my actions, I was terrified of an omniscient and omnipotent deity who could strike me down at any given moment just for thinking them. I believed every bit of it. Embracing any ounce of sexual exploration was completely out of the question. This began my descent into a life of devout asceticism. 

I went on to graduate from high school in 2005 with what I ultimately learned was an insultingly poor education. But my dramatic recitation of Romans 12 from the Christian bible was truly Shakespearean, and I could identify prominent geographical landmarks from biblical history. It was no secret that I was not ready for a four-year institution. I commuted from home to the Jefferson Community and Technical College Southwest Campus for a couple years. This provided a decent buffer for me to make mistakes, flounder, and pick myself back up for the low cost of a community college education. During those few years, I started getting some new and exciting peeks at the “real world”. I had friends who smoked, drank, partied, and even engaged in premarital sex! I dabbled in theater and fell in love with shows like Vagina Monologues and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Even still, the religious damage was done and before long, I was back in the church attending Passion Conferences, pursuing ministry, and shunning non-believers.

By my twenty-second birthday, I had made the decision to get out of Louisville and go to college for my bachelor’s degree. I had friends who had made their way to Murray State University the year before. I visited and fell in love. I started in the Fall of 2009 towards my Veterinary Science degree. I decided this would be my career to carry me while I pursued part-time ministry in the church and worked to start my own family. I had come to know and love many other friends and role models in the church who had continually encouraged me to pursue ministry. I sought out organizations on campus and churches in the community that mostly used Southern Baptist theology. I began to dive very deep. My goal was to establish a coherent worldview whereby I could justify this “thorn in my side” and ensure my eternal salvation from the innate depravity that marked my soul. 

It wasn’t long before my consumption of religious fundamentalist ideology overtook me. It resulted in ultimately seeking out only those individuals who would continually reward me for my piety and zealousness.  I had moved away from some mild Nazarene and Apostolic influences, to converting to Southern Baptism, until finally flirting with five-point Calvinism by the age of twenty-three. I’m ashamed to admit that I compared my sexual proclivities to a cancer. I prayed and begged for the evisceration of whatever disease inflicted me. To this day I have no first-hand experience with cancer, and I reject the idea that anything compares.

My solace finally came around the Spring of 2012 and by way of a very unexpected chapter. I had started looking into a run-off ministry started by a prominent sort of “backwoods” Christian leader in Marshall County, Kentucky. This person owned and operated a retreat on their own acreage. Their mission was to encourage fellow Christians to drop denominational debates, throw everything out, and start over anew with the idea that the truth would assert itself if you did your homework. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me to throw away 20 years of religious socialization and try to start over, but perhaps it was hearing it from a fellow Christian that made it more palatable. Somehow, it was exactly the right amount of agency I needed. I threw out everything I thought I knew and started over. At nearly twenty-four years old and for the first time in my life, I started listening to my heart.

I finally began to entertain the idea that maybe I could very cautiously and strategically explore my sexuality. In all the years I’d spent evangelizing to strangers, preaching to my friends, and prescribing holy solutions to worldly problems, I had never really listened to the other side. I shut my mouth and opened my heart and mind. Unable to reconcile with them, I made the decision to not only leave religion, but also abandon my faith. Religion was easy. Faith was a different story. I had spent all my formative years putting all my faith into the same dogma. Each question about life was like a little patch cable that I’d plug in to this Evangelical switchboard. But now, that switchboard could no longer offer the same connections for this new path. Leaving my faith was like bear-hugging a big bundle of cables and ripping them all out of that switchboard at the same time. Everything went dark. I spent ages twenty-five and twenty-six working towards my Master of Science in Higher Education. At the same time, I was self-medicating with alcohol, blacking out, and leaving hateful recordings on my phone for my sober self to discover the next day. I lost all morality, purpose, hope, direction… everything. It was gone. I was a shell of a person. But I had friends. 

I had beautiful and wonderful friends who supported me and loved me and told me it was going to be ok. They didn’t have answers for me, but they believed that things would work out. And that really goes a long way. I started reading books, researching sexuality, and coming to terms with my beautiful and complicated humanity. I learned to love my truth and started working to identify and align my values and standards. It was a slow progression, but I believed I could do it because others had done it. After graduating with my master’s degree, I found a job that ultimately took me out of Kentucky all the way to Massachusetts. I continued to learn valuable lessons with my new identity. When I least expected it, I met my partner on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on October 26th, 2017.

I have a sordid past with religious fundamentalism, homophobia, and self-loathing. I was closeted until the age of twenty-four. I didn’t experience real love until I was twenty-six. I am still learning about my queerness today. But through all of that, I am so proud of the work I have done to liberate my heart and find my truth. Today, I am happily partnered and in love, I have wonderful friends all over the country, and I continue to learn from queer role models. I have attended multiple queer events and festivals in the Bay Area. Most recently, I was unanimously elected to chair a Queer Faculty and Staff Association for Sonoma State University. There is hope for everyone even when things seem so dark and colorless. I look forward to pursuing more ways to help others like me find their truth and live their values. One day soon, I hope to return to do this work in my own backyard in Louisville. 

To those who are struggling, I believe that one of the most beautiful and mysterious aspects of being human is that our whole identity is never revealed to us completely. We are never finished. We reach various milestones in our development that sometimes feel validating and other times leave us confused and frustrated. Through it all, what’s more beautiful is that we need each other to get even a glimpse of who we are outside of ourselves. I think it’s a very natural response to fear evaluation and feedback. But it can help. I think that’s why community is important. We need friends, role models, heroes… doing great and small things. We need relatable, attainable hope. If you’re struggling with your identity, find your people, study their joy, invest in their vulnerability. Don’t forget to give yourself time, patience, and grace. My biggest downfall was that I stuck close to what I inherited without questioning it’s validity or compatibility with the truth of who I am. I didn’t take the time early enough to invest in people who didn’t look like me, sound like me, or want the same things. Diversity is crucial. We need to be willing to cross the comfort zone barrier. There is where you will find growth. 

The issues that I see in the queer community are, at their core, all the same issues that we see in any other community. There is classism, internalized phobias of each other, settling for ignorance over education (privilege), refusing to honor experiences, and the overall problematic amalgamation of gender and sexuality issues into one movement (convenient but harmful). Of course, the list goes on with alcohol and drug abuse, home and food insecurity, self-harm, and deaths by suicide. We know statistically that those at the intersection of marginalized and targeted identities are more susceptible.

I believe that resolution is best practiced via three things: Exposure, education, and action. These can go a long way, but they take time. Although it can be challenging, I think part of healing in a community is avoiding the tendency to reject what is strange or uncomfortable. Consider the aforementioned list of issues we know are plaguing our community. Many of them, if you have not experienced them first-hand, can be uncomfortable to face, acknowledge, or even begin to discuss. At one time, I failed to see many of these issues. I was simply lacking full exposure. Exposure to someone else’s story helps generate empathy and works to cultivate a more intimate understanding of what someone is going through. The exposure to these issues tends to insight a deeply connected response that can contribute to education.

There is an overwhelming need for those with privilege to educate themselves on the harsh conditions of the intersections of marginalization and poverty. The world perceives that I am a straight, cisgender, white, male. I am, in fact, three of those things and I have the privilege of choosing whether to disclose that I am not straight. The intersection of my perceived identities award me privilege and power in spaces where I don’t even ask for it or expect it. It took me a long time to realize that I hold these privileges. It was exposure to the realities of those who do not share my identities that moved me to a place of pursuing education. Realizing this imbalance will change your perspective. It is enough to move you to action. 

When it comes to action, I think sometimes we get in over our heads. Passion can be difficult to regulate and it’s tempting to want to cure all the world’s problems in one night. Knowing, intimately, your own limitations and finding what you do well can go a long way in spreading the work more evenly and ensuring less burn out. Some of us are great talkers, writers, and fundraisers. Some of us are great accountability partners, listeners, and supporters. Others are skilled with their hands, can build things, and deliver resources. Sadly, there are often more distractions than there is accountability to keep us connected. Remember those boxes I mentioned? Let us not continue to put each other in those boxes when so many of us have worked so hard to tear down the walls. Choose to reach through and across difference for a better understanding. Embrace exposure, seek education, and never forget to celebrate the smallest victories.

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