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The crisis gay youth face in the Bible Belt struck home particularly hard for me this week while dining with members of a gay/straight alliance in a small Southern town.
After asking the conversation-opener of the group -- "So, would you like to all share your coming out stories with me?" -- a young woman on my right named Angie* immediately burst out, "My mother came at me with a butcher knife!"
Stunned, I was trying to process this when a young woman to my left whispered, "You don't want to hear my story, it's too violent." More violent than your mother attacking you with a butcher knife? How is that possible? What does that mean?
I usually visit with the gay/straight alliance students during my campus visits. At this particular tiny university town in a remote corner of the South, we had a room to ourselves at a not-very-fancy Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. The students were adorable -- sweet, eager to please, charming.
Sipping hot oolong tea, I tried to wrap my mind around the image of my mother, the person who is supposed to love me the most, coming at me with a big knife. Blood-soaked footage from the movie Carrie filled my head. I thought, "Your mother is the one who's supposed to protect you from the person holding the butcher knife, not be the person wielding it. What kind of psychological damage does this do?"
It emerged that Angie's 14-year-old younger sister had outed her to their mother. How scary for the younger sister to witness such a dire reaction to a petty act of tattling. This mother's violent, homophobic response to Angie psychologically abused both girls.
Meanwhile, the alliance students, although attentive and respectful to Angie and one another, did not act disturbed or even very surprised by the butcher-knife story or the ones that followed. Their general demeanor suggested that these kinds of horror stories were simply business as usual in their lives.
We all got up, filled our plates and upon our return to the table, they continued to share.
"My mother didn't speak to me for three months."
"My partner and I had to fake a breakup so I could keep my car."
"My father called me an abomination and quoted Scripture."
"My parents disowned me."
"I haven't come out to my parents because they couldn't handle it."
No one's opinion is more important, no one's rejection more painful, and no one's support more sought than the families -- and especially the mothers -- of the gay men and lesbians I have interviewed.
History and culture instruct us that relationships with family members mean something special and different than those with the rest of the world. We learn that "family is always there for you" and "you can't divorce your family." We are told to "take care of family" and that "a mother's love is unconditional." Family "takes you in when no one else will have you." Home is a "haven."
Regardless of the validity of these cultural narratives in any particular family, they function as an ideological backdrop against which most of us measure our family relationships.
Home is not a haven for many Bible Belt gays. Home may be more dangerous than the streets. A 2006 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study found that of homeless teens, 42 percent identify as gay. If one considers that the most generous estimates of the percentage of gay people in the general population is 10 percent, such a statistic illustrates an alarming over-representation of gay kids among the homeless.
Bernadette Barton (Ph.D. University of Kentucky 2000) is associate professor of sociology and women’s studies at Morehead State University. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (2006, New York University Press), and numerous articles on sexuality studies. Barton’s current research project examines the experiences of gay men and lesbians, and is the focus of an upcoming book, Pray the Gay Away: Religion and Homosexuality in the Bible Belt.