Sex & Relationships

Young and Gay in the Bible Belt: 'My Mom Came at Me With a Butcher Knife!'

For many Bible Belt gays, "home" is not a haven from the outside world. Home may be more dangerous than the streets.

The crisis gay youth face in the Bible Belt struck home particularly hard for me this week while dining with members of a gay/straight alliance in a small Southern town.

After asking the conversation-opener of the group -- "So, would you like to all share your coming out stories with me?" -- a young woman on my right named Angie* immediately burst out, "My mother came at me with a butcher knife!"

Stunned, I was trying to process this when a young woman to my left whispered, "You don't want to hear my story, it's too violent." More violent than your mother attacking you with a butcher knife? How is that possible? What does that mean?

I usually visit with the gay/straight alliance students during my campus visits. At this particular tiny university town in a remote corner of the South, we had a room to ourselves at a not-very-fancy Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. The students were adorable -- sweet, eager to please, charming.

Sipping hot oolong tea, I tried to wrap my mind around the image of my mother, the person who is supposed to love me the most, coming at me with a big knife. Blood-soaked footage from the movie Carrie filled my head. I thought, "Your mother is the one who's supposed to protect you from the person holding the butcher knife, not be the person wielding it. What kind of psychological damage does this do?"

It emerged that Angie's 14-year-old younger sister had outed her to their mother. How scary for the younger sister to witness such a dire reaction to a petty act of tattling. This mother's violent, homophobic response to Angie psychologically abused both girls.

Meanwhile, the alliance students, although attentive and respectful to Angie and one another, did not act disturbed or even very surprised by the butcher-knife story or the ones that followed. Their general demeanor suggested that these kinds of horror stories were simply business as usual in their lives.

We all got up, filled our plates and upon our return to the table, they continued to share.

"My mother didn't speak to me for three months."

"My partner and I had to fake a breakup so I could keep my car."

"My father called me an abomination and quoted Scripture."

"My parents disowned me."

"I haven't come out to my parents because they couldn't handle it."

No one's opinion is more important, no one's rejection more painful, and no one's support more sought than the families -- and especially the mothers -- of the gay men and lesbians I have interviewed.

History and culture instruct us that relationships with family members mean something special and different than those with the rest of the world. We learn that "family is always there for you" and "you can't divorce your family." We are told to "take care of family" and that "a mother's love is unconditional." Family "takes you in when no one else will have you." Home is a "haven."

Regardless of the validity of these cultural narratives in any particular family, they function as an ideological backdrop against which most of us measure our family relationships.

Home is not a haven for many Bible Belt gays. Home may be more dangerous than the streets. A 2006 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study found that of homeless teens, 42 percent identify as gay. If one considers that the most generous estimates of the percentage of gay people in the general population is 10 percent, such a statistic illustrates an alarming over-representation of gay kids among the homeless.

After traveling around parts of the Bible Belt collecting the stories of lesbians and gay men, I believe that gay children and adolescents are the victims of institutionally sanctioned child abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control, with the Department of Health and Human Services, distinguishes between "acts of commission and omission" in defining child abuse. Acts of commission include physical, psychological (emotional and mental) and sexual abuse, specifically language and actions that cause harm, potential harm or the threat of harm to a child. Acts of omission refer to all forms of child neglect: a "failure to provide" for the physical, emotional, medical and educational well-being of a child.

Some gay children and adolescents suffer these dimensions of abuse not simply because their individual families are dysfunctional and violent, but because cultural institutions -- like schools and churches -- support the abuse of gay kids for being gay.

People in the Bible Belt, gay and heterosexual, learn that homosexuals are bad, diseased, perverse, other and inferior within a number of social institutions. Like a creepy, mirrored fun house, abusive language about and threatening actions toward homosexuals on the playground, from the pulpit, in the bar, at work and during family dinner amplify and reinforce one another.

Thus, parents who exclude gay youth and family members who ostracize gay relatives are only mimicking behaviors modeled in churches, schools and the military. Not only then do local officials and local institutions fail to protect gay children and adolescents from maltreatment, in their worst manifestations they teach homophobic families how to abuse their gay children.

As a nation, we need institutional support for gay relationships to serve as models for both the gay youth among us and the heterosexual family members steeped in toxic homophobic attitudes about homosexuality. Bible Belt families need some tools to help them support their gay children, not more ways to hurt them.

Legal recognition of same-sex civil union or marriage is one such powerful tool -- "If the general assembly supports same-sex unions, maybe I can learn to live with the fact that Tommy is gay."

Maybe not. But at least it's a step in the direction of reducing needless suffering, not increasing it. Kudos to Iowa and Vermont this week! Your gay youth are a little safer.

I too am a Bible Belt gay -- I've lived in Kentucky for 17 years. Yes, I care deeply about gay rights. Yes, I am personally invested. But I've been cushioned from the worst manifestations of homophobia.

Originally from Massachusetts, I've been spared the destructive, spirit-crushing upbringing most Bible Belt gays endure. To me, it's just common sense: Of course gay people are OK and good and wonderful. Of course we should be treated well, loved and appreciated. Of course we are not monsters.

I didn't realize that standing up and saying this publicly would be such a radical act.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Bernadette Barton (Ph.D. University of Kentucky 2000) is associate professor of sociology and women’s studies at Morehead State University. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (2006, New York University Press), and numerous articles on sexuality studies. Barton’s current research project examines the experiences of gay men and lesbians, and is the focus of an upcoming book, Pray the Gay Away: Religion and Homosexuality in the Bible Belt.