Bernadette Barton Talks About “Pray the Gay Away”

Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists For Choice. Today we have the pleasure of talking to Bernadette Barton, author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays (2012). Today we are focusing on Pray the Gay Away and homosexuality in the Bible Belt area.

1. What inspired you to write Pray the Gay Away?
I write about what I call the “abomination incident” in the introduction to Pray the Gay Away. A neighbor told me being gay was an abomination after I came out to him. Although this kind of testifying is relatively commonplace in the Bible Belt, I had never before encountered a stranger who felt entitled to judge me as sinful, and tell me so, based on my sexual orientation. I grew up in Massachusetts in a politically progressive family and was unaccustomed to this kind of interaction. So, even though I had lived in Kentucky for 11 years by this point, I had not experienced much homophobia. My experience as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, surrounded largely by lesbians, led me to believe that this sort of homophobia had ended.

I was both surprised and troubled by this encounter – the abomination incident – in 2003. Shortly thereafter began the 2004 presidential election season with an anti-gay marriage amendment on the Kentucky ballot. At this point, the homophobic discourse in the public sphere amped up considerably. Marrying a same-sex partner was compared to marrying a dog, horse, child and cousin. Homosexuality was constructed as polluting and contagious. And yard sign and bumper stickers displayed people’s public attitudes about gay people, many of which were in opposition to gay rights.

It became forcefully clear to me that homophobic attitudes and actions were alive, and integral to many people’s understanding of their social worlds. Since I had found my relatively small encounters with stranger homophobia so disturbing, I began to wonder how such attitudes affected gay people who grew up in the region. I was relatively lucky not to negotiate bigoted beliefs directed against my person-ness until I was in my mid-20s. What would it be like, I imagined, to process this kind of condemnation while one’s identity was still forming? Thus, Pray the Gay Away was conceived, and I formally interviewed 59 people from the Bible Belt and have had informal conversations with over 200 others.

2. Why did you focus on the Bible Belt area specifically?
I focused on the Bible Belt because this region has a number of unique features that affect the lives of gay people. The Bible Belt is, first of all, dominated by people who either actively espouse conservative Christian attitudes about social issues, or defer to those who do. In other words, as I describe in Pray the Gay Away, the Bible Belt is a place of “compulsory Christianity” and those who are not Christian, or not a practicing Christian, or who are socially progressive Christians rarely say so, generally preferring instead to present the appearance of agreeing when they do not (an action called personalism) in order not to offend anyone.

This personalism, a façade of agreeability, is another unique feature of the Bible Belt, compared, for example, to the Northeast. Composed mostly of southern states, the Bible Belt fosters a culture of politeness and direct contradictions of statements of facts or opinions is considered rude. This means that when someone makes bigoted comments about gay people, those present are generally reluctant to challenge such statements for fear of conflict. This sequence of events then supports an overall negative impression of homosexuality, and strongly affects any gay people who might be present.

Finally, though I am originally from the Northeast, and have roots on both the east and west coasts, I have lived in Kentucky for the past 20 years though graduate school and a faculty position. Social norms about religion in the region confused me, so different were they from my own Catholic upbringing. From this seed of confusion, and distress over many homophobic public displays during election seasons (bumper stickers, political ads, and candidate debates) was born a desire to understand the lives of Bible Belt gays. I further believe that the Bible Belt is little understood by those who live in other regions of the United States, and is a place subjected to much stereotyping. I was thus interested in dispelling such myths, and giving voice to a group of people many perceive as simply victims.

3. You mention something you call compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory Christianity. Can you give a few examples of how compulsory heterosexuality and Christianity is encouraged?
My partner and I recently moved from a small town outside of Lexington that I call “Thomasville” in Pray the Gay Away back to Lexington. While our boxes were being unloaded, I noticed one set of neighbors sitting on the front porch with their dogs. They are a heterosexual couple in their late 50s, early 60s. After I introduced myself, the man asked if the other woman (he pointed to my partner Anna) was my daughter. I said, “No, she is my partner. We’ve been together 15 years.” This couple also has much Tea Party signage on their vehicles which itself functions as a kind of policing I describe in Pray the Gay Away in the theoretical framework of the “Bible Belt panopticon.” In this case, their signage is more political than religious, but most Bible Belt gays would likely expect those displaying “Sarah Palin” bumper stickers to be homophobic.

I came out to my neighbor anyway – for many reasons – but mostly because I refuse to participate in my own oppression and protect the comfort level of people who hold bigoted belief systems. Compulsory heterosexuality operated in this instance in several possible ways. It could be my neighbor “Mike” looked at me and saw a femme woman and assumed I am heterosexual. This happens all the time. It also might be that Mike considered we were a lesbian couple (Anna is gender non-normative and thus looks more visibly gay to people than I do), but he lacked any appropriate language to inquire inclusively about our relationship status. What I theorize in the Pray the Gay Away as the toxic closet condition of inarticulation inhibits open communications about being gay, gay people and same-sex relationships all over the Bible Belt. Even heterosexuals who are well-meaning are reluctant to ask about potential gay peoples’ relationship statuses because homosexuality still carries such a stigma. Additionally, compulsory heterosexuality operates every time someone inquires about one’s “wife” or “husband.”

Coming out to Mike was much less disturbing than the abomination incident I describe in the introduction of Pray the Gay Away. After I watched him digest the fact that his new neighbors were lesbians, I followed this by cheerfully saying, “and I am troubled that you think I look old enough to be Anna’s mother.” Then he looked concerned that he had accidentally offended me about my appearance – another big no-no in the Bible Belt – and we were on to other topics.

I write much more about compulsory Christianity in Pray the Gay Away than I do about compulsory heterosexuality. As I described in my answer about why I focused on the Bible Belt, the region fosters an expectation that “everyone,” or “all good people” are, of course and naturally, Christians. And, while not everyone expresses or experiences their Christianity in the same way, people typically defer to the belief systems of conservative or “Bible-believing” Christians who usually adhere to homophobic interpretations of scriptures and hold negative attitudes about gay people. Christian signs and symbols are everywhere – on vehicles, in workplaces, in schools, and of course, there are many churches. Conversationally, people often ask others, “What church do you attend?” This question is loaded with assumptions, the first being that “of course one attends church,” the second that “of course it is a Christian church.” The answer to this question conveys a wealth of information about the individual’s religious and political attitudes and is a clever way people size one another up in the Bible Belt. A savvy non-attending resident might respond with something like, “I’ve tried a few and I have my own relationship with the Lord.”

4. You also mention that homosexual teenagers are overrepresented among the homeless and you give a few examples of why. Can you tell our readers more about this?
There is a 2006 NGLTF study that estimates 20-40% of homeless youth are gay. Although most institutions and organizations do not collect good data on the percentage of gay people in the general population, estimates range from 3-10%. Thus, gay youth are over-represented among homeless youth. The quick answer why this is the case, and one which I explore in detail in Pray the Gay Away, is because homophobic parents abuse and disown their gay children. Some parents physically and emotionally abuse gay children and teens until they run away. Some parents tell the gay child they are disowned when they find out, and refuse contact with them. It is extremely difficult for minors to survive on their own. Legal and financial issues inhibit homeless youth from finding work, renting an apartment, and buying a vehicle. Runaway youth face the dangers of the street and are thus vulnerable to many forms of exploitation and abuse.

5. You talk about homophobia as abuse. Can you explain this to our readers?
I draw on the legal definition of child abuse conceived by the Center for Disease Control with the Department of Health and Human Services. This organization defines child maltreatment as “Any act, or series of acts, of commission or omission that result in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.” Gay children and youth experience both acts of commission (physical, psychological and emotional) abuse, and acts of omission (all forms of child neglect). Acts of commission are brutal and horrifying, and I share many harrowing stories of these in Pray the Gay Away.

However, acts of omission are much more common. In a homophobic culture, even well-meaning parents may fail to provide an environment that allows a gay child to thrive. This is because the culture discourages open communications about homosexuality, and many institutions in the Bible Belt that serve children and youth – schools and churches – also condemn homosexuality. For example, rather than encouraging the 15-year old gay boy to attend the school prom with his new boyfriend, there are likely formal and informal policies in place that disallow a gay youth from participating in this rite of passage shared by his peers. Even worse, instead of protecting gay children, institutional policies and figure heads may literally teach parents how to abuse their gay children. Church literature may urge parents “to hold firm” and to not accept, talk about, or condone homosexuality. Such a child is “out of touch with the Lord and needs a strong guiding hand to return to a place of righteousness.”

In the Bible Belt, church and school authorities may coach concerned parents using this kind of language with an aura of utter certainty about their stance. For many parents, this homophobic discourse from the mouths of authority figures is extremely persuasive. I believe this constitutes child abuse.

To find out more about the resources available for queer youth, visit the NGLTF website.

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