‘I tried to pray the gay away’: My experience growing up gay in the South
When I was seven years old, my teacher told me girls could only marry boys
Before you read this, know that this is my personal experience of being a part of the LGBT in the South. This is my experience and my opinion, not everyone’s.
When I was in kindergarten, I remember getting into my first real fight with my best friend at school. The teacher took us outside the classroom and asked us what we were arguing about. We had been yelling at each other over whether or not girls could marry other girls.
I was around seven years old and I didn’t even know what the word “gay” meant. I assumed that you simply married your favorite person. So I was arguing that girls could marry other girls, but my friends said that was ridiculous. My teacher promptly corrected me – she said girls had to marry boys.
In the seventh or eighth grade, I had a friend who I told everything. We had been through the same struggles and were very close. I remember being over at someone’s house with a bunch of our friends watching movies when she grabbed my hand. We held hands until the movie was over. While this seems trivial now, as an insecure seventh grader, it was strange. Friends didn’t hold hands, so that was weird.
After lots of overthinking, I came to the conclusion she had a crush on me. We held hands at the movies once more and continued to spend time together, but we never talked about it. I began to develop feelings for her. I had never even thought about having feelings for girls. This was something I learned wasn’t right.
To this day, I don’t know if she had feelings for me, but that doesn’t matter. I found out all that I needed to know. I knew I had feelings for girls, and that confused me so much that I put the thought in the very back of my mind and tried my best to ignore it.
I didn’t give these moments much thought again until I was in my senior year of high school. My best friend at the time told me she had feelings for me. I was in shock. I didn’t want to allow myself to have feelings for another girl. It had been ingrained in my mind that it was immoral. I thought it would make me a failure and an outcast. So I told her it was too weird for me and we should just be friends. I said I didn’t want to ruin our friendship.
I spent the next few days with pain in my heart. I knew I was lying to myself. The next time we hung out, I realized I couldn’t hide it any longer. When we kissed, it was unlike any of the things I had done with boys. At that moment, I knew.
The hardest thing was not being able to tell anyone. I danced around the subject with my mom. I asked her what she thought about gay people. She told me she thought they were gross and she hated seeing them kissing in all the TV shows these days. She said lesbians were just “girls who hadn’t had sex with the right guy.” She said these things but claimed she didn’t have a problem with gay people. After this conversation, though, she told me she wouldn’t be OK with me being gay. She said being gay made people’s lives too hard. So to this day, I still have not come out to her. At this point, it’s more for her sake than my own.
My dad and stepmother are very Southern, very religious people. We would go to church every Sunday with no excuses and pray before every meal. I was scared to come out to them. I can be a very impulsive person and on a whim, I wrote them a long email coming out to them (my therapist suggested I write them a letter). They weren’t happy, to say the least. They didn’t disown me or kick me out or even yell at me. I made them uncomfortable and they didn’t want to face the problem – me.
For a few months, my dad would periodically ask me if I had “gotten over that liking girls thing.” It hurt that I had the courage to come out to him and he thought it was just some joke. I got annoyed he kept asking about it, so one day I gave him the answer he had been looking for – that I had gotten over “the whole liking girls thing.” He stopped asking about it and I was once again back in the closet.
I was in such a bad place and I wanted the approval of my family back, so I went to my university’s church camp the summer before I started college. Even before I enrolled, I knew going to a college in the South and being gay didn’t go hand in hand. I essentially tried to “pray the gay away.” Which, being who I am today, seems fucking hilarious, but at the time it was anything but.
I was so scared to talk to anyone about it – I felt I would be judged. At the end of the church camp, they let people submit anonymous questions on little pieces of paper and they would read and answer them out loud. I can’t remember what exactly I wrote on mine, but it was along the lines of, “Is being gay a sin?” They were picking and choosing questions to answer and finally they got to mine. They hesitated at first, but decided to answer it. The woman reading said being gay was a sin and that we should pray for gay people, but she said it in a “nice” way.
After church camp, I was more confused than ever. Panic started to set in and I was afraid I wouldn’t find any friends in college who would accept me for who I was. I wanted to join clubs and get involved so I could meet people. I signed up for Spectrum (my college’s gay-straight alliance), but I never went because I was too scared. I even unsubscribed from their email list because I was so afraid people would see.
I joined a sorority and a few other organizations. I put my “gayness” behind me and tried to “act straight.” I made friends, but they were superficial. I knew I was missing something. I knew I wasn’t being my true self. At the end of second semester of my freshman year, I started realizing I couldn’t pretend anymore. I won’t bore you with the classic “falling for a straight girl” story because you already know how it ends.
When gay marriage was legalized shortly after the end of my freshman year, I posted on Instagram to support and celebrate. I got a slew of hateful comments on my post with Bible verses along with them. A girl from my high school said, “Alexa, you are a nice girl, but you will not try and convince me that LGBT is acceptable in the eyes of God. I will stand up for what my Father says is right and this just isn’t it.” She followed this with a verse from Leviticus, to which I replied, “Putting hateful Bible verses on my Insta isn’t going to turn me straight, but thanks!”
And that’s how my family found out I was still gay. I read countless Facebook posts talking about “ungodly queers,” and one even said, “they all need to go to the Middle East in a dark corner.” As you can see, Southerners aren’t always charming.
Sophomore year of college, I met my best friends. I stopped hanging out with people in my sorority and trying to fit into the “sorority life,” which gave me time to meet people who actually cared about me. I began feeling more comfortable being my true self. I started posting to social media about gay rights. But, when I started posting stuff like this, girls in my sorority started acting differently towards me.
To make a long story short, my sorority tried to force me out for being a lesbian. This was the last straw for me. I was tired of hiding who I was. Now, I tell everyone I’m gay and I’m not afraid to say it. Not everyone “approves” of it, but I don’t give a shit. And it’s pretty damn funny to make gay jokes about myself all the time.
My family members who know I’m gay avoid the topic at all costs. It hurts, but I can’t do anything to change their minds. But what hurt so much recently was the fact that they wouldn’t talk to me about the shooting at Pulse. Multiple friends and even some acquaintances texted me to ask if I needed someone to talk with. My family won’t even mention it.
Family is an important part of Southern life and I still love them, but I also consider my friends a special part of my family. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and I don’t know what I would do without them. They do a lot for me that I will never be able to thank them for.
I write this because it’s a hard concept to grasp if you don’t experience it first hand. Without context and a personal story, people sometimes assume I’m making all of my opinions up. The South can pretend not to be homophobic, but the reality is a lot of Southerners are. Whether it’s because of religion or personal beliefs, that still doesn’t excuse blatant hatred. It’s hard enough for us out there without all of the hate from others.
The next time you tell someone they’re faking their sexuality for attention, or that they brought this on themselves, please think about all the hardships they go through. They didn’t ask for this and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But, it’s the world we live in – at least it’s my experience in the South.