The gift of religious freedom In the summer of “Afternoon Delight” and the 1976 bicentennial, my sister, brother and I spent a week at my aunt’s magnificent house in the country. Piety would be the order: no television; the only music allowed was gospel; prayers before eating; church on Wednesday night and Sunday — twice — where the congregation’s “talking in tongues” frightened us and made us cry. The Starland Vocal Band was put to rest for an entire week. I was 11. A gospel album was our parting gift. When I returned home I listened to songs about Jesus and God and even though it didn’t feel right, I hoped that those two men would come to realize that my family was also deserving of a nice house and a car that would not need a push start. Somewhere over the highly articulated lyrics and soft music, my mother muttered the words “brainwashed” and “religious fanatics” and fought the urge to pull the album from the turntable.
My mother was not an atheist or a hippie or an anarchist or even ignorant of the Bible and its Scriptures. When her sisters pushed us, she would allow us to attend the occasional Sunday school session, and we even attended vacation Bible school — once.
God, Jesus and anything relative to the Bible were, in our lives, only one tint in a multicolored, woven rug. “Why,” I asked my mother after the week in the country, “don’t we have a religion or go to church?”
Her response resonates with me to this day: “I never wanted to force religion on you; I want you to believe what you want to believe.”
In the years that followed skyrockets in flight and cracked replicas of liberty bells, I came to see my parents’ resistance to force-fed religion as a gift. As I began to meet people whose struggles with their sexual orientation were exacerbated by a Southern Baptist or Catholic upbringing, I realized the negative impact that religion had on their lives. Coming out declarations ended in estranged familial relationships. Then there were those who did not come out until they had been married and had children because the religion they were brought up with and their parents’ ongoing belief systems wouldn’t “allow” it.
Many gay and lesbian high school classmates of mine were caught between their fears of persecution and trying to find a semblance of acceptance in a fairly stealthy fashion. I was different. I carried a confidence that I like to think was firmly rooted in my sense of religious freedom. I maintain that my ability to be confident in my sexual orientation led to a lack of peer and adult maltreatment. But several of my classmates were not that lucky.
Parental disappointment and rage, forced visits to psychiatrists, talks with ministers and teachers were part of a lot of my friends’ lives when they were growing up. Today, they say these experiences left indelible, far-reaching scars. “How,” they ask me, “did you manage to escape this stuff?”
Our government and our society still use the Bible as the basis for discrimination. In too many households there are children who are afraid to be open about their sexual orientation. They attend school with other children who have heard that the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, and that gays and lesbians are essentially second-class citizens undeserving of the same civil rights as heterosexuals. And since our government promotes this belief, they believe it must be so — despite what they also learn in school: that the Constitution mandates the separation of church and state and that all people are created equal.
As I round the corner toward my 39th birthday, I think about my parents’ gift and how it has impacted my life. Every time I hear an angst-ridden coming out story that includes statements such as “but you have to understand — my parents were very religious,” I am thankful for my inability to relate.
Pepper Partin is a freelance writer and activist living in Irvington.