Life

My Childhood Preacher, My Mother’s Funeral, and Me

In the midst of my grief, I had to confront the minister who taught me that gays are repulsive.

A man looking into a casket at a funeral.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by MarcusPhotography/iStock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“This is my husband.”

Standing at the church entrance, wearing a suit I’d purchased days before when it had become clear that such a suit would be needed, the introduction was unavoidable. There was no way I would fail to acknowledge the man who had driven across the country with me and wrangled our four kids on his own so I could spend time at my mother’s bedside over the last days of her life. Unloading those same kids from our minivan together before her funeral, there was nothing to do except introduce him.

“This is my husband.”

Of all the people in all the world I would have chosen to speak those words to, the person extending his hand warmly in my direction at that moment would have come last. I would gladly have skipped a meeting between the man I share my life with and the minister of the fundamentalist church I was raised in.

It was in his church that I heard as a teenager one Sunday morning that gay people were out to deliberately spread AIDS. I don’t recall if he was on the trip personally, but it was with the youth group from his church that I heard a Christian comedian refer to gay people as faggots. There was no mistaking the message that gay people were a category of sinner removed from all others, worthy not so much of compassion and outreach as revulsion and utter contempt.

And there I was, numbering myself among them in the most unambiguous way possible.

I had worried about what it would be like for my family to be back in my Missouri hometown as we had made our way there. I’d been there several times with my husband, and with our ever-expanding number of kids. But our excursions into the community as a family had been limited. Passing as straight wasn’t all that difficult when it was just my husband and me going out to get one of the loose meat sandwiches beloved of people from the town (which my husband dislikes, though I try not to hold that against him), so long as we comported ourselves in the manner of straight people. Two men shepherding four kids with no women alongside are more eyebrow-raising.

On an earlier trip, when our family was smaller, we both recall uncomfortable glances at a local hotel when we checked in with our oldest son and feeling awkward asking for a crib to be delivered to our room. We usually kept to my parents’ house during visits, and when I felt the yen to eat a couple of those sandwiches, I’d go to the restaurant alone and bring the batch with everyone’s order back.

As it happened, on this latest trip, we were in town in early July, right when the local Lions Club holds its annual carnival, complete with rides and a midway and plentiful food options that are absolutely terrible for you. Even in the midst of saying goodbye to my mother, I wanted my kids to have some joy too, and the carnival had been something I’d gone to and loved every year as a kid. But I was afraid to go as an unmistakable gay man with a family, even in 2016.

I asked some people on Facebook I’m still friendly with who live in the area what it would be like for us to go, and was told it would likely be OK. My husband and I decided to bring the kids, but it wasn’t until we arrived that I finally relaxed a bit. It was seeing black families and women in hijabs there that made me feel safe there too. When you’re in an often-despised minority, being around other members of often-despised minorities can be incredibly comforting. My hometown has, it seems, become more diverse than I remember growing up.

We still left before nightfall, however. And my husband and I weren’t such fools as to attempt anything so bold as holding hands.

Yet whatever the shift in attitudes within the town overall, the person standing in front of me at one of the saddest moments of my life was someone inextricably linked in my own personal history with virulent homophobia. The prayers to be straight I’d fervently sent heavenward every single day of my adolescence were directly linked to the things I had learned in the church he led. And that same minister was there, outside a different (notably more gay-friendly) church, to offer his respects for a woman who had played piano for more services, children’s cantatas, and choir concerts than I could possibly hope to count.

“This is my husband.” I spoke the words, then walked past him and into the building. I didn’t look back to see his reaction.

During the homily I went on to deliver a short while later during her funeral, I talked about what was probably the hardest moment in my relationship with my mom. It was when, at age 19, I told her I was gay. (I hadn’t planned to come out, but I’d just gotten my ear pierced, and somehow the conversation spiraled from there.) It was hard for her to hear, and hard for her to accept. It was hard for her in no small part because of what she’d heard in that same church I’d been raised in. But ultimately, she’d loved me more than those teachings, and played the piano at the reception when I married my husband several years ago.

I miss her.

I don’t know if the preacher from that first church of mine heard any of the words I had to say that morning. The last I saw of him was the moment I introduced him to my husband, then hustled my kids inside to talk with the people who would look after them during their grandmother’s funeral. Maybe he stayed, maybe he left. I have no idea. I haven’t heard from him since.

If it had occurred at a different time, under different circumstances, it might have felt exhilarating to present my life unapologetically to the leader of the church where I’d been taught such lives were loathsome. All these years later, though, I’ve moved on from that adolescent desperation to be different, to not be gay. I love that part of me, and there’s a satisfaction in knowing he’s seen the family I’ve built from it.

I may never see that minister again, but even so, I cannot bring myself to stop loving him. I remember him, and so many others, from that church I attended as a child. They were kind to me then, in the manner most grown-ups are kind to children, and I came to love them all long before I knew who I really was myself. They are good people in important ways, and I cannot bring myself to hate them. I disagree with them with all my heart about so many things, yet I love them still.

But having seen me for who I truly am, I wonder if the minister loves me back.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.