In my southern Baptist family, one message was drilled into our heads: To be a good person, you must avoid the wrong kind of people.

No one ever explained what it meant to be gay, but I’d heard enough about “the homosexual agenda” to know that gay people were our enemies. When there was a gay character on a TV show, my dad changed the channel. “If they can get you to laugh at it today, they’ll convince you to accept it by tomorrow,” he’d say. If we let them get married, who was to stop them from marrying animals, or inanimate objects, like coatracks? My father preached these warnings from the pulpit—he was an elder at our church—and at the dinner table. I was mystified: coatracks? For most of my young life, I believed a gay person wasn’t just an abomination and a threat, but also absurd—a sick joke.

My father had written two books on Christian parenting, and when he was interviewed on TV, I’d swell with pride. A PR man by trade, he was witty and charismatic, but he could be brooding, too. He had an edge. He was the kind of person you hoped liked you; if he didn’t, you knew.

After dinner most evenings, my dad wrote at his computer. When I was 13, I began to notice how quickly he minimized any open windows on his screen when I entered the room. Children are naturally curious, but my inquisitiveness was amplified by constant warnings about the secular world. So one day after school, while Mom was in the garden and Dad was at work, I read his emails. There were hundreds of messages filled with words I’d heard only in the hallway at school: horny, cum. The emails were to and from men. One included a photo of two naked teenage boys lying on a bed, touching each other. I froze. Mom called me to set the table. I closed the browser and did as I was told. I convinced myself this was Dad’s way of preaching the gospel to gay people, that he was trying to infiltrate their world. The idea that he could be involved with something he’d warned my siblings and me about for years was unthinkable. It was easier to mistrust my own eyes than accept what I'd seen.

And yet, as my adolescence unfolded, fear tormented me: What if my family wasn’t what I thought? I worried we’d be found out, exposed. When I was 18, I broke down and told my mom what I’d found. She said she already knew. She and Dad had been to a Christian counselor years prior; she believed Dad had been “cured.” It was the first time I’d ever seen Mom cry. Two days later, I left for college.

When I didn’t come home for a family gathering, Dad became suspicious. Mom called. “We need to talk to you,” she said. “Your father can explain everything.”

I met them at an ice cream parlor, where I watched a chocolate milkshake melt as Dad told me that what I’d seen on his computer was just evidence of a fleeting curiosity. “It never went beyond online conversation,” he said. “And God has already forgiven me.” When I pressed him—there were far too many messages for his curiosity to be “fleeting”—he got angry. “I’m not sure what’s wrong with you that you’re so determined to think poorly of me,” he said.

My parents badgered me into pretending everything was normal, until I discovered something else in my dad’s browser history: a personal ad seeking discreet encounters. I confronted my parents again. Dad went on the offensive, telling the family I was having a mental breakdown. Out of sheer desperation, I told our pastor what I’d seen, and Dad was excommunicated. The congregation was told to “turn him over for the destruction of his flesh.” Everything my father valued—his reputation, influence, community—was destroyed. I was left to question how this could be what God intended.

Despite my father gaslighting me, convincing me I was losing my mind, I was overwhelmed with sympathy. Hadn’t he hidden only out of fear and shame? And wasn’t he right to have been afraid?

His public ruin was what made me turn away from the church. And once I left, I found myself curious about what it was, who it was, I had vilified all these years. I read stories about the experience of coming out. I watched a documentary about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man viciously assaulted by two homophobic men and left to die. I wanted to know what it was like to be bisexual or trans or queer—all new terms to me. I was devastated by what I discovered: a long history of people like me harming and hurting LGBTQ people in the name of “saving” them.

I left my church in 2008, when I was 22. Ten years later, my mother and I barely speak—my father and I, not at all. He still believes being gay is shameful and that he’s overcome his “struggle.” Losing my community, my loved ones, led to some of the loneliest years of my life. But that time was necessary, and worth something. Without the pain, the agonizing shift, I would never have learned that other experiences of love are no less worthy than my own.


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