Domestic Violence Awareness Month – Ali’s Story

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  I serve as a Family Advocate at a domestic violence shelter in Lexington, KY. Every day I get the opportunity to work one-to-one with women who are trying to put their lives together after experiencing abuse at the hands of their most intimate partners.

 
To be completely honest, I get overwhelmed with the heartbreaking stories I hear and the trauma I witness. Some days, I feel myself wanting to run away. However, I also am blown away by the incredible strength and resilience I see in these women. To me, they are real life superheroes.

 
I’ve briefly shared that I am a domestic violence survivor, but I have never shared the main driving force of why I daily choose to do the work I do. Two years ago, my brother-in-law’s sister, Ali, lost her life at the hands of her husband in a murder-suicide. It’s not something I talk about because I never felt that it was my story to share. But I often think of her. Her sons call me ‘Aunt Christy,’ so I want to honor her and her sons in the work I do.

 
Her mother, Elaine, has decided to share some of Ali’s story in order to bring awareness to the reality of intimate partner violence.

ALI photo

Ali was a very easy going loving girl. She always had a smile on her face and thought she could save the world. She was very tender hearted and always gave to those in need, even if she did without. This was how she was raised – we are abundant in love and will never go hungry, always give to those in lesser situations. Ali was an honor graduate, Tennessee Scholar. She was very smart and intelligent. However, she used her heart instead of common sense when she hooked up with Chris. They met when she was a high school sophomore. He filled her head with stories of child abuse. He told her that he bounced from place to place and had no home to live in. She cried and threw my words of taking care of those in need in my face. So I allowed him to move into our home and raised him as my own son. I gave him his first birthday cake and Christmas presents; I took him everywhere with us.

 
Red flags—He was jealous of anyone that spoke or looked at her. She was not allowed to have her brother in her bedroom for their private talks unless he was present. I talked to her about that and thought all was well. However, it had gotten worse. She started dressing in ugly large, baggy clothes to hide her body. She could not leave a room without him following her. He would sit outside in his car at her place of employment. He often harassed her male coworkers and caused her to lose her job. They lived with me until she was 20 and then moved into a home of their own. He hardly worked and every job she got he caused her to lose it. She started smiling less. I noticed bruises on her arms.

 
When she became pregnant, he was so jealous of the baby. He would yell and scream and threaten to harm the baby. She left and moved off with us. She took him back three weeks later and they all lived with me again. He would not work or keep a job. He started beating on her and raping her with the baby in the room. This continued until she was pregnant again with their second child. He always accused her of cheating and sleeping around on him. She never had a way to go as he made sure she had no vehicle. Finally, she was not allowed to attend family functions. During Christmas Eve 2014, they were driving home after visiting family. He was so jealous of her cousins that she had not seen in years, and he pulled a knife out going down the road and held it to her throat. He told her he would cut her throat in front of the boys and then while she died, he would do it to them. She was able to get out with 2 cuts to the top of her thigh. People with kids need to know that the little ones are being abused, also.

 
This went on for 6 years. – physical and emotional abuse. No matter what we said or how many times we tried to intervene, she stayed. She stayed because he threatened to kill all of us, and she believed him. He started abusing drugs. There were no red flags the night before she was murdered because he stayed out all night doing drugs. According to her oldest boy, their dad beat their mom with his fist and a metal pipe. He threatened to kill the boys first and then her. He shot her while the boys where behind her chair, and she was able to get them to the front door without him shooting them but her 2 more times. She then ran to the back door to draw him away from them; he shot her 2 more times.

 
How am I dealing with her death? You relive the memory over and over until it gets easier and you can shake it off. My way of dealing was that god allowed me to hold my child when she took her first breath and her last breath. I have not been the same since. The void is so great no matter how hard I try to pretend to be happy. I look into the faces of her sweet boys and see her every day. They have helped some with the pain, but then I carry the burden of knowing how they feel and try to justify what happened to their parents. Life is a daily struggle for all of us and it has been 2 years.

 
My advice to someone who is in a domestic violence situation is to get out. If a person strikes a person they love out of anger once, it will happen again. The verbal abuse does not show marks but cuts deep in the heart. You are so much better and are nothing like what is being said. Get out! They will apologize and beg and tell you how much they love you. It is all a lie. Get out.

Thank you, Elaine, for sharing Ali’s story.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Anthony

Anthony C. Jones, 32, Gay

Louisville, KY

Life in a rural community was, in so many ways, alienating and lonely. Trust was something I was always skeptical of. I wasn’t able to come out until I was 22 and had moved to Murray, KY. I was always afraid back home. That fear kept me from ever taking the chance to reach out and find allies, open minded people, or anyone that would embrace who I am, regardless of the culture.

 

When I came out, my mom even remarked about the difficulty of still living in Obion Co and having a gay son. People judged her, as if she was a failure of a parent because her son was gay. She just simply loved me. I was fortunate that I didn’t have a family that would have left me homeless because I was gay; regardless, I still was afraid to live openly. As so many of my fellow youth then, I lived a hidden life. I went to church every time the doors were open. I sat in the pew every Sunday hearing the pastor spew noting but hatred and anger that gay people existed. I heard him proclaim nothing but fire and brimstone and eternal damnation for those that were different. Eventually, I lost faith in Christianity, and became Wiccan. I found a faith that embraced who I was, and where I felt accepted and loved.
My fear of coming out didn’t come from what was supposed to be my church home, though. It came from high school. Ever since my freshman year, I was routinely called “faggot” and “queer” from the kids I went to school with. What kept me in fear, and later inspired my passion for advocacy, was seeing first hand a classmate that was out and proud. To be honest, he couldn’t hide it, and I respected that more than I could express. I knew that he was bullied and threatened, and eventually had to leave school. I still feel guilty to this day that I didn’t stand up for him. He survived, and fortunately also had family members that loved him for who he was.
I do wish I had the chance back then to live my life as the person that I am. So many years later, I’ve learned that I would have had allies, and that there were people there that would have been there for me, had I only had the courage to be open. As a side note, I chose to move to Louisville because it is the first place that I held another man’s hand in public, walking down the street, and was not afraid. To this day, because of that experience and many others, I don’t feel that paralyzing fear anymore.

 

I miss the sense of community from back home, and the slower pace of life. When I do go home to visit my mom, I make a point to sit on her porch at night and watch the fireflies. I look up at the stars, a sky that I don’t see due to light pollution here. I miss the quiet, the lack of sirens and traffic. Above all, I miss the peacefulness.

 

I want the people back home to know the damage they are doing to their own neighbors and friends. LGBTQ folks are like anyone else. Some of us go to church, some don’t. We all are humans, and shouldn’t be treated like enemies. We all want to be happy in life, and to live our dreams. Just because two men or two women want to share their lives, that doesn’t make them evil. They are who they are. They are a part of of the community, and can make the world a better place if given the chance. Just because a preacher says they are evil doesn’t mean that is true. Love one another. Judge people on their character, not who they love.

 

Be brave. Be bold. Maybe you cant change the world, but you can change the hearts and minds of those close to you. Never take for granted those that love you. Don’t be afraid. There are allies out there. Not everyone is against you. Seek out those that will accept and love you, and above all else, do all you can to be happy. You are going to have to make choices that nobody should have to make. You are going to have to have strength to overcome that adversity. That strength and passion is within you. Done give up, don’t let them hold you down, and again, most importantly, be happy.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Bekah

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Bekah Bowlin, age 36, Ally

What do you love best about this area? It’s a safe place to raise children. I also love the scenery. It’s a better view of God’s creation than the concrete streets of the city. (I also love the city for what it has to offer)

What is it like living in this area as LGBTQ or as an ally? It can be challenging to advocate for the LGBTQ community here because people are so driven by their faith. It usually leads to unfriendly debate so there are times I avoid it. Also, I can’t discuss it at times when I really want to. For example, at work – I’m the HR person and shouldn’t participate in any discussions regarding religion or politics.

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? They’re harmless! Homosexuality and trans is not contagious. My LGBTQ friends will not try to coax you to be gay nor will they molest your child. They’re just people who are different than most, and they’re looking for acceptance like anyone else in this world. Your devotion to your faith will not be compromised by befriending or accepting an LGBTQ person. In fact, it will bring you closer to God as you will be more Christ-like in doing so. Isn’t it Jesus who shows compassion, acceptance, and loves everyone? EVERYONE.

And anything else you would like us to know…. It is not required to understand ones lifestyle in order to show them compassion or accept them.

One last thing: Teach your children the same principles about acceptance and compassion. It will serve them well and it will make the world a better place.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – BJ

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BJ Cook, 33, Gay

Where do you live now? Memphis, TN

What was it like for you to live in a rural community? Living in obion county while gay and in the closet was hard, especially with the uber religious vibe the entire area gives off, but I’ve realized that most of the people I went to high school with wouldn’t have cared if I was out.

What do you love best about the area? I do miss the small town feel. Running into people you know, and knowing someone who knows someone who can fix that, or help with this.

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone? There are places you can go, irl and on the Internet, to talk to people like you that have been through what you’re going through.

Be you, but be safe. Don’t come out if it may get you thrown out of your house or hurt. Connect with someone you can vent to.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Joey

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Joey Glover, 35, Gay

What is it like for you to live in a rural community? Not easy because when I came out in 1998 my family and I were ridiculed over me. And I was threatened and beat up to point we had to move into the country. I could go on for days about what all people have done to me and every so often still do. As time has passed and the ages progressed things have gotten easier

What do you love best about the area? I’ve lived in Chicago, Nashville, south Bend, Indiana and several other big cities, but my roots are here and I just love my home. All people here aren’t bigots. And I love the country  as my partner of 9 years Amos loves also……….

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? All I can say what I want people to know is that we are people just like them and their kids. We aren’t child molesters and bad people, but people who just want to be treated normal and with respect like everyone else is. We are normal. We didn’t choose to be Gay. I would have never picked the hardest lifestyle to live. I’ve known  from the time of a little child even though I confused people because I lived a lie to appease my parents and classmates and friends til I couldn’t do anymore. Coming out to my family was the best thing I ever did even though I know several who were abandoned by family because of it. When people ask me how did I know I was Gay, I tell them how did you know you liked a guy or a girl. They say I just do. That’s the way it is. Well, that’s same answer I have ……..

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone? You are never alone. There are people out here who love and care. Even at your darkest points you just have to trust in yourself and live your authentic self no matter what. Life is too short and we really are in the last days of man and you need to live life to the fullest. Material things and stature doesn’t matter in this fictitious world we live in. You, be you and as long as you are happy, sorry for the language “FUCK THEM”

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Callye

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Callye Norsworthy, age 35, Ally

    I was brought up as a southern Baptist Christian. I was taught that homosexuality is not only a choice…but a sin. For many years of my early life, I believed it. As I got older, I began questioning this…and eventually my faith. This attitude toward same sex love and relationships seemed so contradictory to the love of Jesus.

   The catalyst for my disengaging completely from this line of belief was when my best friend, a proud gay man who loves Jesus, was asked to leave our church. He wasn’t welcome. I looked around at men who were knowingly having affairs (among other things) who refused to worship with my friend simply because he is gay. For me, it was the final straw.

   From that point on, I took it upon myself to educate myself…to read, watch documentaries, engage, hear and listen to my LGBTQ friends and family. I am a straight, white woman. I recognize the privilege that comes with that. I have spent much of the last two years of my life learning and searching. Trying to find ways that I can help my fellow humans. To make this world a better place.

  I have three children. Raising them as a single mother is a difficult task. Add to that the fact that I am raising them in the close-minded, often racist, bigoted, and homophobic rural south. I can’t move. I can’t take them to a bigger city where there is more diversity…more culture. But what I can do is make HERE better. Or try anyway. I look at my children and I wonder….what if one or more or all of them are gay? So how could I NOT work to make this world a better, more loving and accepting place for them?? Any mother should. And if your mother won’t….this mother will.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Tasha

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Jillian and Tasha Bowman with Riley and Justice Bell.

My name is Tasha Bowman. I’m 37 years old. This is our family on our wedding day! 2/12/16. My children are very supportive of our relationship. Jillian has been “out” since she was 13 and I came out in 2013. My children have had to face the judgment of some adults and friends. I have had to face judgement by several of my church members. Yes, I’m a Christian. I’m a Christian without a church home because of judgement. My family and friends have all stood by my side. I’m very proud of them for that. I want people to know that regardless of who I love, I am the same person. Actually, I may be more compassionate than I was before. That’s not only because of my situation but because of my amazing wife with her huge heart and my very compassionate children.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Craig

Craig R. Lewis, 35, Gay

(Pictured with husband, David and children, Knox & Kruz)

Where do you live now? Gardner, Kansas

What was it like for you to live in a rural community? I really enjoyed living in the country, five miles outside of Hornbeak, Tennessee. I came from a very large family that fulfilled me with love, guidance, and most of all God’s word. Challenges started for me at the age of 6 that something was different about me.

What do you love best about the area? I am country… I am a man and I still at the age of 35 now like to wake up and go take a piss outside with no worry of getting a ticket for indecency exposure….lol

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? This is a powerful questions…. kinda like the layers of an onion…. the more you pull the layers of skin away the more I cry… ummm but I guess the adult answer would be, being apart of this organization save me because more than I care to say wanted to end the battle that I had inside of me.

People of the community that I do love very much needs to understand that God’s love is ALWAYS UNCONDITIONAL. So unless you have walked in my shoes, have been disowned by your family, or any negatively what so ever about who you are and how you live your life to be happy…. my suggestion is to just shut the fuck up…. because today I have the family I dreamed of for a very long time. David and I are great people and have 2 beautiful children that will never have to go through what I had to… my love for everyone is unconditional. .. just like my Heavenly Father…

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone? We are all made in the image of God. You have a purpose in this life, you may not see it at the moment but everyone does. Be patient and lesson to that still voice inside of you for leadership and guidance. I’m not saying it going to be easy…. but my friend you are not alone… and you have purpose.

Never give up on your dreams… because God is alive and well and knows all things with each of us…. even the numbers of hairs on your head…

Hold your head high! Because you too are a blank canvass that needs colorful stokes to paint your future… it is there for you as long as you stay true to yourself.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Jae

Jae (Jessica) Kennedy, 35

 I identify as Jae – the silly, fun, determined and driven gal who longs to make a difference and loves to help people. As for sexuality, I’m a woman who’s married to a woman (who happens to be my soul mate). I’ve never been a fan of labels, but if one must categorize me, I’d be considered, what they call “lesbian” 😜

Where do you live now? I live in Las Vegas, Nevada – the home of diversity.

What was it like for you to live in a rural community? There were pros and cons living in small town Tennessee. The subtle discrimination (what they call “concerned” or “loving” nudges) was and is my least favorite part of a rural community. That being said, I loved living in a town that had a big sense of community that was mostly loving and always there for the neighbors.

What do you love best about the area? Being away now for several years, it’s funny how some of the things I disliked most are now some of the things that I miss most about living in Obion County. I love that I would run into someone I know no matter where I went in town. I loved the southern hospitality. I loved the parades, church events and Christmas tree lighting events at the courthouse (do they still do that?). I loved that friends were TRUE friends in small town Tennessee and not just acquaintances who like to get together only for parties. I loved the bonfires and the accountability a small town gives you.

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? We are not different. We shop at the same places, eat the same foods, worship the same god and care about the same needy people and animals that most of you do. The majority of the LGBTQ community doesn’t even like saying or typing all of those letters to “identify” ourselves. We have no interest or motive in harming your way of life – or your core beliefs. We are very happy that your families are growing, happy and healthy. Please practice what is preached… and let God be the judge.

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone? You’re not alone. You are not sinful. You are not wrong. And you are loved. And you’ll see more and more of this truth as time goes on. In Christian rural areas where generation after generation are born and raised, it’s “natural” for some to see the LGBTQ community as “different” or “sinful”. Evolution of mind and heart, however, is happening. You can be ahead of the game in your area!

There’s nothing that kills negative thoughts and actions more than Love. Find that peace within YOU. Find the peaceful center. We’ve found, in our lives (both coming from small Tennessee towns), that when we walk into a room of straight “normal” people with full confidence and peace within ourselves… everyone wants to learn more about this light we shine. Be the light. Don’t even think about your sexuality and how others may perceive you. Just perceive them. See them. Don’t see them see you. It’ll change you and it’ll change them.

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Eric

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Eric (right) and Mike (left) reside in Kansas City, MO with their rambunctious guinea pig, Clyde.

Who Claps for You?

Finding yourself, at any age, is a process. This was certainly the case for me as a gay teen in a small town. For me, it was a long painful process that lasted into my twenties. To be frank, the transition to adulthood sucked. I grew up in Troy, TN and like many, I struggled with my identity in high school. Early on, I felt different but could not articulate why. As I matured, I began to appreciate the things that made me unique. That happened over time and with a support system. While I didn’t come out until my twenties, those that came out in high school faced challenges. The ones that were happier had a support system in place. They included a combination of family, close friends, and involvement in extra-curricular activities. My involvement in the arts changed my life. When I came out, my strongest advocates were fellow musicians, people I met through music, and my brother. To paraphrase one of my mentors, look for those who clap for you. Those were the ones that clapped for me.

Brene Brown once said, “vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” It takes a lot of courage to live an authentic life, regardless of orientation or identity. I remained in the closet for part of my college life and was fearful of rejection, loss, and being alone. I learned quickly that coming out strengthened the relationships that mattered, so I began investing in the people who accepted me for me. In my ten years teaching public school, I’ve seen students struggle with self identity. I will say that our the youth of today is much more accepting of diversity than it was when I began teaching and certainly when I was in high school. I believe the next few years will produce more accepting and caring people. You can help carry that torch to make sure that happens.

Over five years ago, I began conducting a church choir at East End United Methodist Church. The experience there changed my life in many ways. I’m not overtly religious, but it was the first time I’ve ever been involved in a church community that welcomed members with the creed “Come as You Are.” The pastor went out of her way to welcome me and my partner at the time. Through East End I met some wonderful people, including two of my best friends, Carl and Leo. Carl collects antiques and sings bass in the choir. Leo makes an awesome meal best served with a side of sarcasm. They’ve been together for over thirty years. In 2014, Carl invited me on a rafting trip with several gay and straight men. I was single at the time. Carl used the rafting trip to set me up with the love of my life, Mike Valentine. We went on an official date two days later and have been together ever since. Our relationship has had several ups and downs, but like every healthy relationship, we’ve worked our way through it together.

My message to my eighteen year-old self is that self identity is a fluid concept. I have embraced the fact that I will continue to evolve and change as long as I live. In fact I don’t think I’ll ever completely figure it out and I’m ok with that. I have chosen to surround myself with those who enrich my life. My advice to you is find a place that you’re happy, grow roots, and make a difference. BUT, before you can clap for others, you have to find out who claps for you.

 

What was it like for you to live in a rural community?

It was difficult for me, but I was still figuring myself out at that point. I felt different but could not articulate why. As I matured, I began to appreciate the things that made me unique. That happened over time with a support system and my involvement in the arts.

What do you love best about the area?

I liked being in a place where people knew your name. There’s a sense of security in that. Its harder to find that in Nashville or Kansas City.

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community?

I would like to let local residents know that it is very difficult to be LGBTQ, especially in smaller communities. Simple things like public affection, displaying pictures of significant others on a work desk, social media, or simply being themselves could have been followed with fear or shame. Some of the most intelligent, creative, and resourceful people in the world come from the LGBTQ community. They deserve acceptance and equal rights.

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone?

I’ve taught public schools for ten years and am currently going to graduate school in a music conservatory. One thing to keep in mind regarding high school or college is that you’re never alone and you should always feel that you are valued. It takes a lot of courage to live an authentic life, regardless of orientation or identity. My message to my eighteen year-old self is that self identity is a fluid concept. I have embraced the fact that I will continue to evolve and change as long as I live. In fact I don’t think I’ll ever completely figure it out and I’m ok with that. I have chosen to surround myself with those who enrich my life. My advice to you is find a place that you’re happy, grow roots, and make a difference.

 

 

Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.