Being gay in the bible-belt South isn’t an easy thing to be, especially when you live in a town with a church on every corner where bible verses are thrown at you like rice at a wedding. I remember growing up knowing something about me was different. I had a hunch that I was gay, my parents and a select few members of my local church where I attended summer camp had already figured it out. I’d been going to this camp for a while, and as I grew older, the counselors urged me to start attending Wednesday night services along with the usual Sunday praise and worship with all of the adults. That’s when I had my first encounter with Christians that seemed to know what was better for me than I knew for myself.

I confided in one counselor, a good looking 24-year-old that I admittingly had a crush on. I told him my feelings and that I “loved him.” His reaction was stern as he explained that being gay was a sin and that I’d go to hell because of it. But he threw in this disclaimer: if I asked God for forgiveness and talked to a pastor about it, I would be ridden of this lifestyle that he said I clearly didn’t choose. I agreed that it was something I didn’t choose but I couldn’t figure out just how someone was going to change the feelings I had inside. A week or so later, the counselor introduced me to the church youth director and so began often visits in his office before and after services. The topics always revolved around my sexuality and why I felt the way I did. Not one time during our months and months of meetings did he ever tell me that I was ok the way I was. I took it as a sign that I needed to change and please God in every way imaginable. I mean, could I be forgiven for this sin of being attracted to men? Could I get into heaven even if I still felt the way I did but never acted on it? If I got married and had kids, would that be enough to access my stairway to heaven?

I attended Sunday and Wednesday services along with vacation bible school, a mission trip to Kentucky, and a summer youth trip to the beach. In every waking moment, I lived and breathed the ideals that I thought would make me a better Christian. But still, my thoughts of being attracted to men only grew. Soon I found myself battling inside of my head, angry at myself for feelings towards the same sex, and more determined than ever to outwit my brain.

The turning point for me was when I had my first same-sex encounter. It was a simple kiss with a friend of a friend in the parking lot of my high school late at night. That kiss turned what used to be a terrified teenager afraid of being gay into a determined teenager eager and willing to accept parts of himself that others deemed sinful and unholy. Throughout my entire time at the Baptist church in Spartanburg, I remember the preachings of how Jesus loved everyone as equals and preaching to do unto others as they would do unto you. Why would God love me any less just because I had an attraction to a man? He didn’t care if I was gay. He cared that I loved myself and loved others around me.

While my experience wasn’t anything compared to others who went through conversion therapy, I understand that I was one of the lucky ones with supportive parents that lifted me up when church members tried to tear me down. Because of their love, I’ve been able to accept myself, love myself more, and appreciate the unique soul that God (or a higher being) gave to me when I was created.

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