I’ve done a good bit of work around self-image, owning my voice, combatting imposter syndrome, and restricting the sources of criticism that I take into my heart. If you don’t know, I’m a queer white person who grew up in a religious culture that said God is love but also told me that, as long as I chose to honor what was inherent in me, I could never fully experience that love or the support of those around me.
To be entirely transparent, that was the most polite and understanding message I got. More frequently, I was told that I’d burn in Hell, that I was an abomination, that my life would never be anything but misery and debauchery, that I could never know love, and that I’d spend eternity separated from those I loved. I feel, too, that I must add that I received these messages from family members.
If you belong to a marginalized group other than queer folk, I’d like you to take a moment to absorb that. The very people that many oppressed people rely on to give them strength in the face of injustice are, for most queer people, those who offer the most heinous wounds. We don’t generally receive support from our families—not at first if we ever do. Our first messages of hate and ostracism come from homes we grew up and developed our first models of self-image in. I suspect women will understand this more easily because women often get a flavor of this from the men that they grow up loving. Fellas, I hope you’ll give this a moment of reflection because where I’m going is important.
A few years ago, two unrelated things happened that eventually led to me sitting down to write this. The first is that I got a big faceful of my own privilege. Yes, I’m queer. To be as specific as I currently have language for, I’m pansexual and non-binary. Though most anyone looking at me would rationally assume that I’m male, I don’t feel entirely male. I don’t disavow my maleness, but neither am I able to entirely disregard my femaleness. It’s something that growing discourse on the subject has helped me to identify, but it isn’t something that seems easily digestible yet for the masses. I’m ok with that. As I said, I have the privilege in this regard: to the bulk of the world, I present as male. Also, despite presenting as male, I’m almost exclusively both romantically and sexually attracted to other men. Almost exclusively. So, despite identifying publicly as gay for most of my life, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s just been much simpler than trying to explain that to people who frequently don’t entirely grasp even homosexuality.
Despite all of that, I present as male in a patriarchal society. I am palely of northern European descent (almost translucently white) in a white supremacist society. I have full use of my body in an ableist society. And I was born into a heterosexually-parented intact nuclear family of Christians in The United States in a profoundly xenophobic society. My privileges are numerous, and it’s the air that I’ve breathed since birth. Recognizing that was both painful and central to the person I choose to be: an ally to every group but most especially to the marginalized.
Second, I realized that a new rising star from my home state of Georgia, Lil Nas X, was born on my thirtieth birthday. He had garnered attention for dominating the charts with a country rap song which interested me but not enough to seek out the song. My recollection of that initial introduction was frankly indifference. I wasn’t turned off, but neither was I particularly interested. I’d largely pulled away from country music because of its profoundly right-wing listener- and performer-base, and what rap I was listening to didn’t generally feature Billy Ray Cyrus.
Fast forward to February 2021 and Lil Nas X’s release of the video for MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name). The video, if you haven’t seen it, follows a storyline that sees the singer (named at birth Montero Lamar Hill and now very openly out and proud) in sexually provocative clothing (read club gear) dancing (read grinding) with lots of other hard-bodied scantily clad men and eventually seducing and murdering Satan to take over Hell. Needless to say, it was inciting for many.
As someone who’s lived through controversy over religious imagery in art for my entire adult life, I was curious, so I checked it out. Ok. Yeah. I get why it was inciting. Still, given Christianity’s beef with Madonna when the Like a Prayer video was released and with John Mapplethorpe when… well always, I was more impressed than offended. I identified strongly with the theme and found the tune catchy; the storyline original, poignant, and more than a little humorous; and the imagery both captivating and profoundly evocative. I felt seen. I got it. In doing a little research, I found that Lil Nas X’s background wasn’t terribly dissimilar to mine. He’d grown up in the same region I had under many of the same constraints—more, in some ways, despite being born thirty years to the day after I was. I identified with this brash young artist, and despite—maybe in part because of—the overt invitation of controversy, I respected him.
Among my closest friends, I suspect I’m largely alone in that. In truth, I know I am. They’ve told me so. He, his art, and his choices to attack the constraints Christianity continues to impose on those of us who don’t fit its mold ring true for me and offend them. His owning of his full experience and willingness to call out bad behavior among those who profess sole authority on what is right and wrong rankles for them and makes me feel seen. I get it. I’ve had to. Understanding that viewpoint has been critical to my ability to survive in this society, but I cannot share it. Let me repeat that. Understanding that viewpoint… the viewpoint that attacking Christianity in any way is somehow an attack on all that’s good and right… that owning my humanity and goodness and right to a whole life full of love and joy and positive self-image despite Christianity’s chokehold on sexual freedom and gender identity is inherently wrong… has been critical to my ability to survive in this society. In short, fuck him and fuck me. We should take what we’re allowed to have by this society and shut the fuck up about the damage the so-called good people have inflicted upon us.
I know. That’s really not how anyone wants to see themselves. It hurts. It sucks to have one’s foibles held up to the light. I get that. I’ve lived through it. And no, I don’t suddenly hate all my closest friends or family or colleagues or anyone else who disagrees with me. Hell, unless I’m prepared to jettison myself into space, I can’t survive in this world without the support of people who disagree with me on a great many things.
I can’t not say this, though. I won’t live my life bottling up the hurt and rage that these attitudes engender in me. I get that spirituality and Christianity specifically have been, if you’ll forgive the term, salvation for many. For many others, it’s been a bane. Contemplating the connection and joy I once felt in my religious practice is a knife in my heart. The tunes of the gospel music that I once performed have the ability to bring me to tears not of joy but of separation and sorrow.
I don’t hate Christians. I don’t hate Christianity. I’m actually grateful for some of the lessons that I haven’t chosen to abandon for the sake of my sanity. Being kind to others. Loving my fellow humans. Generosity of spirit and dedication to doing good in the world. Those things have meaning for me. Those things are my church. Those things are my worship.
In the religious tradition of my youth, we had what we named religious callings. Calls to serve. Calls to sing. And me? I felt called to preach. I’ve felt called to preach since before I started elementary school. But early on, I also felt that there would always be parts of me that had to remain hidden. I turned fifty-two a few months back, and my days of hiding are over.
I vehemently support the artist Lil Nas X, and I’m deeply compassionate toward Montero Lamar Hill. I see him. I hear him. And whether he knows me personally or not, he sees me. He hears me. The very reasons I respect him are precisely the reasons so many despise or dismiss him. I get that. I’ve owned it for fifty years, and I’ve learned how to live with that. I can’t forget it, though. I can’t just decide not to recognize that he and I aren’t allowed to be angry. We’re not allowed to lash out at our oppressors. They’re the good ones, and that’s just not right.
But I’ll continue to speak… to preach. And some will hear me. Some may just silently know that someone else understands them, where they are, and some little part of what they’ve been through. That’s the reason I’ve chosen to be ruthlessly out and outspoken since I was twenty-two years old and came closest to ending my own life… the same age today as Lil Nas X. It’s the reason I’ve chosen repeatedly to speak unpleasant truths for the last thirty years and the reason I’ll continue to do so. If it offends you, I am genuinely sad about that. It hurts me to know that my truth is painful for people I care about. It isn’t going to stop me, though. Because I know that sometimes, being heard… being seen is the only thing keeping some of us alive.