Growing Up Black And Gay In The South

I thought there was literally a demon or evil spirit causing me to be gay and I wanted to do everything I could to get rid of it.

12/04/2017 10:50 am ET Updated 1 day ago
Shannon Bray

I remember my first solo in the Sunbeam Children’s Choir at Antioch Baptist Church: a beautiful, southern, predominantly African-American congregation nestled in the countryside outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. “Yes, there is hope,” I belted at the top of my five-year-old lungs, watching as the congregation applauded and shouted words of praise and worship. In that moment, I remember feeling so alive and almost magical, as if the microphone was a wand that caused the audience to get emotional and feel moved. I instantly fell in love with singing, and the stage became a sacred space.

Growing up in Virginia was overall a beautiful experience and is still a big part of who I am. It was good eating, good manners, and a whole lot of love. My community was filled with warmth, hospitality, and spirit. My family always helped and embraced others and instilled those values in me from an early age. My mother worked two, sometimes three jobs simultaneously to provide for me and my sister.

My parents divorced when I was baby, so I did not really have much of a father figure growing up (which, unfortunately, seemed to be a common theme amongst of lot of the black students I knew). Since my dad was not around much, I had no consistent model of “masculinity.” Black men are raised to be tough and vigilant. Many people saw femininity as a sign of weakness. I felt a lot of pressure to be “manly” and I did not want people to see me otherwise. I was intimidated by some of my friends’ fathers, and was never really into a lot of the things that most guys my age liked. I was a confident kid in many ways, but I still made sure I never seemed too effeminate. It was an ever-present burden I carried. I knew I was different.

In school, students knew me as the “nice guy who sang and performed and in church.” I was consistently told that I was blessed—anointed by God. I felt pressured at an early age to be perfect, and to be a young leader in my church, school, and community. On the outside I was seemingly well put together and everyone accepted the person they thought I was; on the inside, however, I struggled with accepting myself. I felt hopeless and confused.

From an early age, I remember feeling ashamed of my attraction to other boys in church and school. The thoughts in my head tormented me at times and I tried to do everything I could to fit in and force myself not to think about it. It wasn’t always easy. I hated when someone would bring anything up about homosexuality. At the mention of the word “gay,” my heart would drop. Sunday school lessons and sermons were often about how God created man to find a wife and for women to submit themselves to their husbands. I tried to date girls in order to force myself to be straight. I convinced myself that I needed to be “delivered” from the “spirit of homosexuality.” I thought there was literally a demon or evil spirit causing me to be gay and I wanted to do everything I could to get rid of it. I felt so much shame for sneakily touching or kissing another boy behind closed doors. I felt dirty and worthless and I would always promise God—and myself—that I wouldn’t do it again.

The stage was, oddly enough, a place to hide in plain sight. Singing was a way to distract myself and others from the internal struggle with which I was dealing. I didn’t want people to know I was gay or that I was even questioning my sexuality. I was raised in a family and community where homosexuality was practically the ultimate sin.

As a kid, I spent many tear-filled nights praying and pleading that God would take my attraction to other boys away. As I got a little older, I became close with two other young black guys who were also struggling with the same thing. We bonded over our similar battles with being gay and even made a pact with one another that we would stop fooling around with other guys by the time we reached 16. Then 16 became 18. It was a failed attempt to suppress something that was natural to us just because we were told by our church, family and society that being gay was wrong. We had no healthy and safe place to learn, grow, and express ourselves. We felt pressured to be people we were not.

It took me many years, and many tears, to learn and accept myself. I loved, honored, and respected my faith and culture so much that it was terrifying to fully accept who I was and share that piece of me with others. For a long time, I thought I could never be a voice of hope again. I thought no one would accept me or listen to me because I was gay; because I was damaged. Little did I know that the person I would grow to be would continue to be the same beam of light as that kid who belted out his first note in church. I have that same voice and same gift, regardless of whom I love.

When I co-wrote “Volume,” I was in a place of feeling let down by myself and feeling strained by the pressures by the music industry. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that there is always hope and you always have a voice to encourage yourself and others. We cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out about things we believe in. You never know who may need to hear “your testimony,” as we called it back in Virginia. Your testimony can have a huge impact on someone else. Life is too short not to be proud of who you are or to learn from and share your past experiences. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from speaking or singing out—loudly and proudly. Keep hope alive, and never let anyone turn your volume down.

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