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It was a humid Sunday morning in Brewer, Maine, on July 8, 1984. It was the kind of 11 am sticky that made my poly/cotton Kmart dress itch against the fabric and rough boards of the pew, the kind of heat and discomfort that lends itself to a powerful hellfire and brimstone sermon. Pounded from the pulpit on this particular Sunday were words inspired by the murder of Charlie Howard at 10:30 p.m. the night before.
Charlie, an openly gay man, was walking with a friend across a bridge less than a mile from my pew when three adolescent boys pulled up, stopped, and got out of the car. They proceeded to pound the crap out of Charlie and then toss him over the railing into the river. He’d told them he couldn’t swim. They drove away. Charlie was officially pronounced dead shortly after midnight.
Seemingly, the congregation all agreed with the message: Charlie was the spirit of Satan made manifest. He was a local home-grown example of how the devil and secular humanism were alive and well in our land. Our country, culture, and way of life were being destroyed. Vigilance and sometimes vigilante acts were required. The scripture was clear that Charlie had brought this act of God upon himself.
Across town that Sunday morning, Charlie’s Unitarian Church was gasping from the news. In the weeks that followed, I secretly watched the news and aside from his church, I saw no response from the faith community except for sermons like the one I had received.
Three weeks before Charlie’s murder, I had turned 17. Charlie was 23. The three teenage boys who murdered him were 15, 16, and 17 years old. As we drove home from church that Sunday, being sure to go past the bridge, the message was loud and clear in my community: silence doesn’t equal death, silence equals survival.
It wasn’t the first hate-filled sermon that I’d heard in my 17 years and it wouldn’t be my last. It would take another five years before I would be far enough away and feel safe enough to come completely out of the closet. But even then I would check and recheck my doors, knowing what this zealous church was capable of inciting.
Working in the non-profit sector across rural regions of the country, especially in Appalachia and the Deep South, I’m often focusing on youth development issues beside, or in support of, faith-based efforts and community leaders. It has been an immense honor to meet these individuals and witness their liberation theology in action. Considering my childhood roots, I find them extraordinary. Here are people who walk their faith with love and justice instead of power and fear.
Yet, as I’ve moved through these worlds, if I had a dollar for every time a white liberal has pulled me aside with words of caution, I swear I could fund all of our rural youth work. He or she will kindly suggest I “Might want to think about not letting people know” I’m a lesbian (except they always say gay), because “The rural church community is still pretty conservative when it comes to these issues.”
To be fair, I’ve also had plenty of African American colleagues tell me, “You know, we don’t really talk about that stuff.”
Either way, the message has been clear: to be effective and well received in my work–to build the needed trust to work across race, class, gender lines—I had best not bring my whole self to the table. I will not be welcomed and it will be disruptive to the work at hand. .
Yet, according to HRC’s Growing Up LGBT report and the Durso Gates Serving Our Youth National Survey, 63% of LGBTQ youth say they will need to move to another part of the country to feel accepted and an overwhelming 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
These statistics go to the heart of our work to retain and engage youth in their rural communities. The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports, a LGBTQ student hears 26 anti-LGBTQ slurs during their day on average (one-third from a school staff member); 30% of LGBTQ students missed a day of school in the last month due to safety concerns; and 28% drop out of high school altogether. Perhaps most appalling and yet hardly surprising: more than 33% suffer violence as result of families who do not accept them.
Last summer, my colleagues and I led a professional development gathering with local, non-profit staff from across the country. While I was driving the group to lunch, we drove past a rainbow flag and the subject of gay pride came up. One of the group members shared that the mayor of her rural Mississippi town wanted to hold their first-ever pride parade, but when the faith community leaders, locally and in surrounding communities, got wind of it, they shut him down and wanted him out of office. Another participant told us that her congregation in rural Appalachian Ohio had refused to adopt the ratified ruling of the larger Presbyterian Church towards LGBTQ members, making it clear that all who entered their doors were not welcome. She still tells them she wishes they would change their mind.
A little over a year ago, the Rural Assembly held a national gathering on “Building Civic Courage.” One of the highlights was a dialogue between the theologians the Reverend Ruby Sayles and the Reverend Jennifer Bailey.They talked with each other and the audience about the sanctuary that the Black church has provided in the onslaught of systemic oppression, annihilation, and genocide from white supremacy. Reverend Sales and Bailey talked deep theology; they talked about the sacredness of love and community for African Americans. They talked revolutionary love and becoming a whole community. They spoke of how it’s like there are two gods, one black and one white. Reverend Sales said, “It’s as if white people don’t believe in redemption.”
Listening, I recognized the white god I was raised with and the racist system of white religion that they were discussing. The god I knew was a hate filled, violent, tyrannical god. He provided the motivational verse for the murdering of Black men or the hatred used to rationalize tossing Charlie off a bridge.
Next, Reverend Bailey stated that in order to move forward, we have to go back. We have to collect the personal stories, histories, lineages that have been left behind, willfully ignored and forgotten. As Americans, we’re too good at forgetting. A forward movement necessitates an acknowledgement and reflection on the past. African Americans, she explained, need to reclaim the stories and narratives that have been hidden for protection, including those locked away out of fear. She went on to say that this is true for white people as well. What are our stories and histories? One of the most insidious things about whiteness, she says, is that it separates us from history, from ourselves, and our lineages too. There has to be a redemptive quality to going back and fetching what we forgot or were never taught. She wrapped the discussion back to this as her closing challenge: we are taught to forget, to separate ourselves from a collective memory and story and to see ourselves as functioning as individuals only. What we know, she said, is that isolation kills. We must go back and fetch what we have left behind.
I listened and my muscles began to tighten. My jaw clenched. From my history, I thought, there is nothing to go back and get. There is only forward.
But I must go back. Not only to examine my role as a white woman and the collective history of that identity, but also, I realize, as a lesbian. I’m out, but what, in the name of protection, have I locked away out of fear and away from danger? I deeply believe Reverend Bailey’s message that without facing our collective histories, we cannot look each other in the eye today and move forward together.
Over the years, each time I’ve been pulled aside with the cautionary stay-in-the-closet warning, I’ve then entered the spaces of these communities. There I take a look around and after a moment, I almost always spot them. The young person who is holding on, trying to blend in, almost always standing at the intersection of poverty, race, gender, and sexual identity. That’s a lethal location when you’re in need of services from faith-based institutions. Here is where the stop light stays on red and reminds you that silence = survival.
More often than not, I eventually find a moment and a way in, for at least a quick conversation. Then I learn of the parent who kicked them out; the cousin who lets them sleep on the couch as long as they don’t tell anyone about who they are; the boyfriend/girlfriend who they create, always a couple of towns away; the stories they tell the program staff so they won’t suspect; the time they got the shit kicked out of them; the straight sex they have every so often; and always there’s a reference to or story about their church.
The script and set are so consistent and seemingly timeless; I swear it could win an Academy Award for enduring, rural, lifetime achievement. It’s a script that really flies in the face of all the positive rural framing that we strive to do.
As I listen to these stories, part of my brain is furtively writing a different version. Look at all the assets in this community. Here’s a story of resilience and revitalization. No, we really do mean all the people and all the places. I chafe that these stories of closeted LGBTQ youth play into rural stereotypes; and that raising them is bringing the counter-narrative down.
Sometimes I get calls from local non-profit staff; these come almost always after hours or in a carefully worded email or text. They’re concerned about one of their young people. You see she/he is gay or queer (never Trans) and well, they’ve never had this at their organization before and, you see, it’s a rural community, so they’re not sure what they should do? They’re worried for the young person and what kind of life, he/she/they will have. Wouldn’t it be best if they were able to move away?
In my head, I remember these words from lesbian author Dorothy Allison, “Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.” As I settle in for the conversation, my respect for them is great. Here they’ve taken the time at the end of a long day, with all that they’re juggling, to call. The sheer love that they have for their young people is amazing.
I’m not going to lie, each time, I’ve told them an awesome tale of rural queer utopia. I talk about how to surround that young person in love. How to help them connect to resources, how their challenges are unique but similar to that of every young person, how they can build their own community. Family is what you create not where you’re born. I talk about how every community has LGBTQ people and families living there. I talk with authority and the great collective “we.” I shred the stereotypes about rural America and queer identity.
Ironically, here’s a fact check. I’ve only experienced about 40% of what I say. And, I left my home town and moved to the land of Bernie.
The fact is, regardless of the federal or state or local legislation, religion in rural America dictates lived reality.
My experience in these communities is this: one preacher tells us that “we have sinned and come short of the glory of god,” while another offers us redemption. But the dominant message in the world of rural development is that the woman at the well is limited to only certain identities and regardless of our god’s race/ethnicity, not all of us are children of god with a birthright of unconditional love.
After facilitating a national training on LGBTQ youth issues a couple of years ago, I had three youth development professionals from around the country come up and let me know that they can’t be out of the closet in their work, but how much they appreciated what I had to say. They asked me how I did it. “To be out would be disruptive, would distract from the larger social justice work,” they explained. “Maybe one day…” each said (and two cried). All explained that they have to work closely with the faith community.
Indeed, before conducting this training, I quietly expressed my own fears to a straight friend/colleague. She told me, “We have gay marriage for crying out loud. Get over it. This is not a big deal.”
“If it’s not a big deal,” I asked, “why are we offering this training?”
Unequivocally, gay marriage has brought an enormous level of constitutional and legal security to my family. But it has also ushered in an era of liberal, politically-correct, gestures from the self-proclaimed heathen and the faithful. We are told that either it just isn’t a big deal anymore or we are bestowed with people thinking that they’re earning extra stars in their crown by offering us slogans and the piety-pity message of salvation. Telling us, Hey! It turns out you’re worthy of being washed of your sins (sub-text: you were born sinful and need forgiveness, but at least you made the list of worthy of saving). Whichever message you hear depends on which god you’re referring to and which region of the country you live in. As a white woman, I experience these messages as dismissive and they make me feel invisible. But for young people who sit on the fault lines of identity, that message is inherently filled with white supremacy and annihilation.
Throughout the past year, I’ve deeply wrestled with Reverend Bailey’s instructions, “Go back and fetch what you left behind.” I’ve struggled to push through my grief and rage, to go back to my 17-year-old self in the pew, to reflect on what I know Reverend Bailey means, to make this essay not just my own triggered reaction but a step back in order to move forward. How do I own what she told us to do?
I’m not there yet. Going back and fetching means ALL our young people: those filled with hate and those filled with fear on the fault lines. It means fundamental systems change like making reparations. But here’s where I’m starting, recognizing this is only a small slice of her intent. Now with each of these communities, when I show up, I look to go back and get those who have been left behind.
I’ve got miles and miles to go but to these beautiful souls, I want you to know that I believe you were born perfect. When I see you, I see the divine.
- Charlie Howard
- The young woman in Hazard, KY
- The young man in Hammond, LA
- The young man in River City, NC
- The young woman in Espanola, NM
- The young man in Plainview, TX
- The young woman of Red Lake Nation, Red Lake, MN
- The young woman in Convent, LA
- The young man in Tallulah, LA
- The young woman in Lake Providence, LA
- The young man in Brownsville, TX
- The young woman in Kincaid, WV
- The young man in Elkins, WV
- The young woman in Homestead, FL
- The young woman in Bemidji, MN
- The young man in Gretna, FL
- The young man in Lewiston, ME
- The young woman in Barre, VT
- The young man in OK
- The young woman in Greensboro, AL
- The young man in Vidalia, GA
- The young man in Kingstree, SC
- The young woman in Athens, OH
- The young woman on the Kenai Peninsula, AK
- The young man in Missoula, MT
- The young man in IN
- The young woman of the Pascua Yaqui Nation, Guadalupe, AZ
- My childhood companions that are still in the church in Maine, to leave would mean losing all they’ve known.
- My colleagues who live two lives in their fight for social justice even when they don’t see themselves represented in that fight.
October is LGBTQ History Month. As we celebrate, I ask the rural faith-based community, when will you go back and fetch who you’ve left behind?
Kim Phinney is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. She lives in northern Vermont with her family.