Growing Up Gay in the Bible Belt

This week, I want to write a little bit more serious blog than I normally do. The recent suicides of gay youth in the U.S. have been covered extensively in the media lately, and each time I hear a new story I get a little more upset that this is the way people, kids, in our society are being treated for something that they really have no control over. And that things can get so bad for them that they think their only option is to take their own lives.

If you’ve been following the story even a little bit, you’ve probably seen some of the “It Gets Better” videos people have been making to let GLBTQ youth know that suicide isn’t the answer, and that it does get better.

Above is a speech made by a Texas city councilman, Joel Burns,  who tells his story of discrimination for his sexuality, along with how things have improved in his life. It’s an extraordinarily heartwrenching video, and I strongly encourage you to watch all of it. Some of my other favorite “It Gets Better” videos are the ones created by Adam Lambert, Tim Gunn, Zachary Quinto and the employees of Google.

After seeing and reading about all of this, I decided I wanted to talk to some of my gay and lesbian friends to find out just how much their sexuality affected them growing up.

Two of my very best friends are Paige McFarlane and Joe Sangirardi, and they very kindly agreed to participate in  an interview I sent to them. However, before we get into their responses, I want to give thorough introductions. Because honestly, their sexualities are not the most interesting things about them.

Paige is a fellow sophomore at OSU in Stillwater. She was my roommate last year, and has been one of my closest friends for years. We first met at Edison Middle School in Tulsa, and got closer as we started high school. I can still remember Paige asking us in 8th grade to walk out with her after the bell rang so she wouldn’t have to kiss her then-boyfriend goodbye. We probably should have figured it out from there. As we began high school, we became much closer friends. Paige has a very magnetic-quality, and brought a large group of people who didn’t know each other very well together, into a real group of friends. Paige’s ID in my cell phone is “Paige the Confident,” and I truly think that’s the best descriptor for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin, and she is never afraid to let you know exactly that’s on her mind. She’s also fiercely loyal, and  she can rip into someone that’s pissing her off in about 10 seconds flat.

Joe is a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman. We also first met in middle school. Joe is one of the most polite, kind and charismatic people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s also incredibly active in a variety of activities. He’s an Eagle Scout, Student Government Representative at OU, has helped to re-launch the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at OU this year, is a Resident Adviser and has a ridiculous amount of other credentials I’m not even going to get into. If you go anywhere in Oklahoma with Joe, chances are he’s going to know someone there. Hell, once we were out of state visiting a friend in Missouri and just happened to run into someone he knew when walking across Mizzou’s campus. All that charisma’s going to come in handy, because Joe has political ambitions, and has stuck by them for pretty much as long as I’ve known him. Joe is someone that it’s just not possible for me to be unhappy around. He’s extremely genuine and considerate, and even though I’ve teased him relentlessly over the years, I love him to death.

Now that you know a little about them, let’s see what Joe and Paige had to say about growing up gay in Oklahoma.

1. When did you first realize you were gay? Who was the first person you had a crush on?
Paige: I don’t think I realized I was a lesbian until the 8th grade. I always had feelings toward women, I just didn’t realize that it was uncommon to, and the terminology never clicked until around then. The first person I had a crush on was one of my father’s girlfriends, I believe, when I was….8. That’s the earliest one I can remember.

Joe: I cannot remember ever having a moment where I thought to myself, “I’m gay.” However, I had feared being gay for years- since about 8th grade. When I came to terms with the possibility around Junior year of high school, I decided on a day-to-day basis what mindset I should live with through the day. Of course it wasn’t effective – I couldn’t become comfortable with the thought of being gay through choosing who and how I would look at others. My first crush was my junior year of high school, after eventually accepting myself as being bisexual. His name was Elliot and at this point he had already been pursuing me for a good deal of time.

2. When and how did you come out? Were your parents supportive? What do they think about it now?
Paige: I came out in the 8th grade, first as bisexual, then in 9th/10th that I was a lesbian. I told all my friends who already suspected with ease. It’s not something I could change about myself and I had the utmost faith that my friends would still feel the same way toward me, and they did. I told my mother that I was a lesbian when I was forced to tell her that I was caught smoking pot at a concert. I figured I’d get it all out of the way at one time. She more or less didnt care, she just questioned all my female friends’ sexuality. My father is the type of man that thinks it is okay for women to be gay, but not men. So I got his acceptance by default. It was easy, more or less, for me to tell my parents because I knew that this was who I am and if they didnt accept it, then that was that. I’ve never felt like I’ve needed either of their opinions for anything in my entire life.
Now they’re more used to the idea of seeing me dress the way I dress, which some would categorize as “dyke-y”. I think my parents were worried how I would interact with adults and still be out. But since they now realize that almost every adult figure likes me, their minds are more at ease.

Joe: I came out the week before my senior year of high school. I started with telling my mother. At this point, I hadn’t really come to terms with it myself, but I viewed it as inevitable and I assumed it would be more difficult to come out during the middle of a school year. I also came out because, though I didn’t think I was ready, I recognized that there were fewer than 5 people at my high school who were openly gay. It hurt me to think about all the closeted people who didn’t have anyone else to look to. That said, I had been told over the summer that, “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem – especially if you’re in a position to help others.” Clearly, I took it literally.

My mother was somewhat receptive. She cried a lot, asked me some very uncomfortable questions that I attempted to answer humorously for her sake, and then headed back up to the school she taught at. A week later she came to me and said, “I want you to know, this had been the hardest week of my life,” her eyes tearing up, and I said, “I know.” Then she told me in the most loving and reassuring words she could ever say to me, “and I want you to know, I love you, and I will be the proudest senator’s mother there ever was.” Knowing my deep passion for public service, there was no better way for her to show her acceptance.

I came out to my father 3 months later. My parents are together though, and seeing as my mother knew, and he would be enraged if he were to find out that she had known for so long, I came out to my mother again, and my father for the first time. He stared at the wall in our den for the majority of it, my mother asking questions of me with hints of acceptance in an attempt to curb his response. He was very angry and I imagine much of it was simply displaced feelings; nevertheless, it was very trying and not nearly the same experience I had with my mother. It was two months before he and I really spoke again and six months before we had a real conversation about life. This contrasted to nearly two years later, now, when he has said to one of his friends, “you know, yeah, it’s been tough and really difficult. But at the end of the day, blood is love. Blood is love and I love him.”

My mother, as far as I can tell, fully accepts me now. My father is on his way. We still haven’t spoken about that facet of my life, but he is becoming increasingly aware and open to and of it.

3. Were you ever bullied and/or threatened because of your sexuality? Did you ever have thoughts about harming yourself because of your sexuality and the way you were treated because of it?
Paige: I have actually never been bullied or harassed because of my sexuality. I’m sometimes told that I have such a strong personality that it intimidates people and they therefore do not pick on me. But I think it is because of the way that I carry myself, this is me, I am who I am, and I am proud. As far as wanting to harm myself as a result of my sexuality, no, I have never wanted to or thought to.

Joe:  I don’t recall ever being explicitly bullied for my sexuality. I do remember once being at a park after a football game one Friday night in high school when some guy yelled across the parking lot from behind his car, “_____ sucks _____’s dick!” where he was without a doubt drinking. But is the cowardice of a drunkard really bullying? I think not – it takes direct confrontation in that situation. Still then – it’s the liquor that gave him the ability. I also remember and still experience people citing scripture to me, condemning me to hell. I would sooner consider that bullying – though still ill-fated attempts. It tells me more about their ignorance of the document they cite and supposedly live by. And of course the self-mutilation question. I have never, nor have I ever thought, of hurting myself due to anything that has ever been said to me nor any way that I have ever been treated. I knew a long time ago I wanted to help others, and I can’t help them if I’m dead, or have slits on my wrist.


4. Has anyone ever tried to “save” you, or condemned you because you’re gay? Tried to convince you you were choosing to be gay, or that it was “just a phase,” and that you could “change”?
Paige: I am sure comments have been made to me abut how it’s “just a phase” or that “I need to be saved” but my entire life I  have never cared what other people have thought. I knew I was a lesbian, they didn’t, so their comments just went in one ear and out the other, which is probably why I cannot recall any certain one.

Joe: Yes! Oh so many times! To all of it! And it doesn’t get old. I just cite scripture back and talk about Jesus. It usually gets them – unless they aren’t listening, which happens quite often. I talk about all the usual facets of Christianity taught in church on Sundays that people check at the door when leaving. I talk about love, acceptance, and how all sins are as bad as one another (I recently found out about that one, Jesus made this clear when he talked about everything in the Bible before him was  now null and void).

5. What frustrates you most about how gay people are discriminated against in your city/state/nation?
Paige: It frustrates me that Will & Grace depicts how gay men are treated, and their general lives. And even though I love The L Word,” there are sometimes outrageous stereotypes in it. But The Real L Word is an even worse representation of how lesbians are in general. Media makes us all a joke. Anyone that identifies with the LGBT community is just like anyone else, except for who they love. End.

Joe: What frustrates me most is the lack of a good argument. It frustrates me, being one who relies on logic, to have to constrain my arguments to those pertaining to the Bible. How ridiculous is it that the arguments accepting it and against it all rely on one book? I’d love to talk about some scientific articles with some irrefutable facts; in fact, I plead for it. Alas, I don’t expect any to come around any time soon. Until those anti-gay extremists start investing in science and prove that gay is a choice, or that it is caused habitually. In which case I still say: freedom of expression. It’s in the First Amendment, folks.

6. Would you call yourself an activist? Do you think people in your situation should be?
Paige: I would call myself an activist. I am a member of OSU’s Reproductive Justice Team, a member of SODA and President of OSU’s Women’s Resource Center. I feel that women’s issues and LGBT issues go hand-in-hand and I am active in both. It is hard in Oklahoma to fight for either one, since opposition is everywhere and vastly outnumbers allies. I think if you’re out, then you’re an activist whether you want to be or not. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to be an activist and help obtain equal rights for yourself and your peers.

Joe: I am, at heart, an advocate and activist. That isn’t to be misconstrued as a champion of gays though. I am for individual freedom and equality. I happen to be gay, so that one issue in particular hits home. I am an activist by nature though – being involved and politically driven, whether I have a gay agenda or not, makes me an activist for gays and equality.

7. Has going to college affected how open you are about your sexuality, or has it altered the way you behave in any way?
Paige: If anything, I am more free in college than I was in my high school. In college, there are more people that stare because of my appearance, but that’s just another thing that I let slide off my shoulders. I am as open and proud as I always have been; I’m not boisterous about it, I am just myself.

Joe: It has not – this is due to my coming out a full year before attending college. I do see around me every day though, gay men suffocating in the ever-so-small closets that college campuses allow. In fact, having started a fraternity this past year, and having recently discovered that over half of my fraternity of now sixty men didn’t know I was gay, I have been observing many of them with whom I see a struggle. I have had friends who are gay come up to me and tell me they have seen one of my fraternity brothers, or another friend on “Adam4Adam”, a gay hook-up site, or “Grindr”, a gay app for the iPhone. So for me, college has had nearly no effect, but I see the great effect it has had on so many people close to me.

8. What are you looking for in a girlfriend/boyfriend?
Paige: I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not shallow, because I am, and I think to an extent everyone is. But beyond catching my fancy physically, which I don’t have a set type, I look for confidence, life experience and maturity, outgoingness and a person with a good story.

Joe: I look for an ambitious, competent, charismatic, moral person. I look for someone with the drive to succeed, the tools with which to make it happen, someone who understands even those who believe he’s a demon. And someone who is monogamous when in a relationship, and careful when not. I look for someone who understands my desires and goals and supports me in them. In all honesty, I’m looking for a comparable advocate to myself who has different strengths.

9. Who’s your major, can’t believe how attractive they are, oh my god, celebrity crush?
Paige: Her name is Alexandra Hedison. She is a photographer/actress popularized by The L Word,” and for dating Ellen DeGeneres. Close second is Stevie Nicks. And yes, I’m a cougar hunter, what can I say?

Joe: Good question – although this question is simply based on one part of attraction which happens to be on the lower end of my scale – physical attractiveness. Truthfully, I discovered quite a while ago that I cannot be attracted to someone until their sexuality is either known, or very possibly known. To the advantage of my heart, as I see it, I am only attracted to out gay men. I’ll have to go with Neil Patrick Harris.

 

10. Do you have any advice for younger people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality?

Paige: I’m kind of a stoic individual, so what I would say might sound rough, but I would say that there are bigger obstacles in life than coming to terms with your sexuality. It’s not a death sentence to come out; be strong, speak true.

Joe: Of course! I could write a score of books on it! Really just a novella. But yes – I would, and do, tell them that it is the most courageous and transformative decision of their lives. That it isn’t easy, it’s really fucking hard, but nothing that was easy ever made anyone stronger, or a better person. And no person who ever got anywhere easily is respected, nor are they happy, because they didn’t built their life, it was built for them. I tell them that people have been fighting for hundreds of years, simply for them to feel comfortable enough to talk about maybe being gay. And that the movement is still going on, and we can’t let them die in vain.

I just want to say thank you again to Joe and Paige for being so willing to help me on this blog. Their responses were very open and honest, and I really appreciate that they took time out of their crazy, hectic weeks to participate in this. I would also love to hear from people about their opinions and perspectives on this topic in the comments!

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14 comments
  1. Brogan said:

    Emily, that was wonderful. Completely.
    I can’t lie, I got a little teary eyed reading Joe’s coming out story.
    Love it. A+

      • karen said:

        Really good Em. I’m proud of all three of you!

  2. Jackie said:

    I am so glad that Paige posted this on her facebook. Since I moved from Tulsa the summer before 8th grade, the Paige and Joe I knew weren’t “out” yet. Ask Paige, the first time I saw her on facebook I was shocked! Not because she was gay, but because she had buzzed off like 3 feet of hair since I had seen her last! And Joe, I don’t know if you know this, but to this day if someone asked my dad who my favorite boyfriend has been he will say, “Joe Sangirardi. He had a firm handshake and called me sir. Even at 10 years old” Haha. I Swear! Kudos to both of you for having grown into who you trully are. I am so glad you are both confident and free to be yourselves and I can only hope and pray that one day, the ignorant people of the world will see you as you are: completely normal and competely wonderful people.

  3. Hannah Aiken said:

    This is really amazing Emily, it was unbelievably inspiring and you should be very proud of what you have done here. Joe and Paige, you both are miraculous people and your stories and advise will change the world. Awesome job Emily!

  4. jessi said:

    emily… this is so great. very powerful; their interviews were stellar, too.

    thanks for putting it on the open web for all to see!

    • I know, they totally supplied answers that went above and beyond. I have amazing, strong friends.

  5. Gena said:

    great blog, keep it up!!

  6. This post is truly touching! I teared up with that video too! The bullying is ridiculous and people don’t realize, especially at that age, that their words can affect someone so deeply. Our school systems definitely need to get involved and stop it within the schools. Online bullying seems to be the worst. Wonderful post!

    • Thank you very much. This is definitely the post I am proudest of this semester.

  7. Sara said:

    This project about growing up LGBT in the Bible Belt may be of interest! Check it out!

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