The following is an adapted excerpt from my memoir, And God Save Judy Garland: A Gay Christian's Journey. The memoir tells the story of a young gay man coming to terms with his sexual orientation and his love for Jesus. It is also a love story that spans 40 years.
Growing up in the small Southern town of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, I had a lot of things going against my being accepted by the "in" crowd around the neighborhood or at school. I did not want to play sports but instead liked to cook and loved singing show tunes. And I was determined to stay close to God and learn as much about Jesus as I could. That set me apart from the other boys in my neighborhood, until my uncle gave me two Shetland ponies. All the guys wanted to ride my ponies.
I loved playing cowboys with Paul, who was two years older and a hunk even in the sixth grade. I knew him from church. One day I said, "Paul, why don't we pretend that I am your partner back in the days of the wild, wild West? I get ambushed by a band of robbers, and you come along and find me. You give me a drink from your canteen. When you see that my arm is broken, you take your shirt off and make a sling for my arm. Then you pick me up and put me on your horse and take me into town to the doctor's office." As you can see, I really had an active imagination.
Paul thought for a moment. "OK, but don't tell anybody about this."
I will never forget the butterflies in my stomach when he took off his shirt and made a makeshift sling for me. When he picked me up in his already-muscular arms and carried me to the horse, I was in heaven! Then, riding with him behind me, his arm reaching around to steady me on our ride through the fields behind my house, I experienced feelings that felt so natural and right to my fourth-grade mind.
I now understand that those feelings I had for Paul were a natural and healthy part of the maturing process of a young gay boy. I understand too that if our society were educated and honest about sexual orientations, gay and lesbian kids would not have to go through the kind of hell that I did when I began to understand my own natural attractions.
When a little heterosexual boy starts noticing little girls, his mom and dad say to each other, "Isn't that sweet? Joey has a crush on Gretchen. Pretty soon he will be old enough to date." The parents are proud of their red-blooded American boy. They see it as a rite of passage. Joey also has many programs on television and tales in books to assure him that this is a natural part of growing up.
But when a young gay boy starts feeling attraction to other boys, he has had no teaching to prepare him for this experience. He cannot name a song about boys liking boys or girls liking girls. No gay love stories on television or fairy tales explain this as a natural progression for him. Even if he never says anything about these feelings, he still internalizes the homophobia that surrounds him, especially when he hears other boys use words like "faggot," "queer," and "sick" to describe this kind of attraction. The gay adolescent, in his most private moments, lying awake in bed, all alone in the dark, dares to ask himself, "Are they talking about me? Am I like those men they make fun of and joke about?"
The emotional pain is almost unbearable, and for many gay teens it becomes too great a burden. That is why gay teen suicides are so prevalent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.
I wonder what life would have been like if I had been born into a world that was knowledgeable on issues of sexual orientation and was able to see my attractions as healthy and normal. What if I had had gay role models to show me how to deal responsibly with my sexuality? What if Christian authors had written books to teach me the importance of respecting other boys to whom I was attracted and give me pointers on how to ask a boy out on a date? I hope and pray that one day this world will be that kind of place.
As I reflect on that innocent horseback ride with Paul, I see it now as a time when my natural, God-given sexuality was beginning to take shape. I cherish the memory of that time with my young friend. Unfortunately I was robbed of the joy of being able to celebrate my coming of age.