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 – Kate

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Kate Surr, 28, Bisexual

What was it like for you to live in a rural community? Some days it’s difficult. The best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who love you as you are. It feels as though there is one in a hundred people who know and understand you. It’s hard to find those people but they are out there. Sometimes it takes you being outwardly honest for other people to be honest with you. As I’ve gotten older I’ve cared less about what other people think in this small rural town. (What is it about these small towns that give individuals the feeling of entitlement to share their opinions as the law 😜)

What do you love best about the area? The people who are here and have open hearts and minds are the best in my opinion. Think about it, you get the southern hospitality mixed with all the love in the world with zero judgment and full acceptance. You couldn’t have better friends in your life.

What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? We are people. Just like you. The same children you are fight for against abortion are the same children and adults that you are badgering now. (And I only give that example because, commonly, if you are against abortion then you are generally against LGBTQ.) You love these children unconditionally? Then accept us for who we are no matter who we turn out to be. We can’t be changed. We’ve been this way our whole lives. Nothing you can do will change that. However, loving us all, even though we are different from you, can make the world more beautiful place. It’s already difficult enough, why make it even harder.

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone?  Be true to yourself. You don’t have to tell anyone until you’re ready. I promise that as you get older it will get easier. There are so so so many people out there just like you and me. If you have access to the internet you can find those people in a matter of minutes. Social media is a great place to find groups and events supporting us. Also, updates on lawmakers fighting for our basic rights as human beings. (If your interested in what’s going on the country… its good to know who’s fighting for you, even though they don’t know you).

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 – Jared

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Jared Hamlin, 35, Gay

What is it like for you to live in a rural community? Some days I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Other days I want to get out of here as fast as I can. It’s hard to be different here, but I can take it. I stay so someone is here that can take it. In my own way I do it to shield the ones that can’t.

What do you love best about the area? I actually love so much about it here. The history, my family, my friends, and the fact that in about 2 hours I can be in one of many larger cities.

 What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community? We are the same as the rest of the community. We work. We live. We love. We really aren’t different from the rest of the world. And for the record I loathe the fact that we have to have a label and can’t exist.

What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone? First off, you aren’t alone. We are here to be with you through whatever you are going through. Take a deep breath and hold on. It gets better. It takes time, but it does happen. We have to deal with the negative parts of life so we can appreciate the positive ones when they happen.

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.

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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.

LGBTQ in Obion County – Eric

LGBTQ in Obion County Project

For the next several weeks, I will be featuring a project that is near and dear to my heart. I recently moved back to my hometown in rural Tennessee for 3 months in order to take care of my grandmother.

 

Honestly, I was fearful to go back. I haven’t stayed in the area for a significant amount of time since I graduated from college in 2003. I’m not bashing the area; the people are beautiful, and the southern hospitality is wonderful. People go out of their way to say hello there. My fear came from the fact that I am publicly out as gay. Not a little out, but ‘I’m engaged to marry a woman this year’ out.

 

As I was growing up in my hometown, I felt alone. I thought I was the only person that was struggling with my sexual orientation. I’ve come to realize that I was never alone. There were others just like me; we even went to school together. I wonder what it would have been like if we all had known that there were others around us struggling with the same thing.

 

This project will highlight people from my hometown who have found the courage to live authentically and want others to know that they are not alone. Allies have also been included to let others know that they are there in the area, supporting the LGBTQ community. Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved to other areas.

 

May this project find its way to those who need to know that they are not alone.

 

You Are Loved

Recently, I cleaned up the files on my computer and came across the manuscript for a talk I gave in a chapel service at a Christian university. I decided to share it here on my blog.

 

I am a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, who happens to be gay (which means I am emotionally, mentally, romantically, and physically attracted to women).
I’m one of those people who can say that I have been a part of the Church for my entire life, even within my mother’s womb. I cannot remember a time when I haven’t known who Jesus is. I publicly accepted Christ as Lord and Savior at a young age and was baptized shortly. I was the kid in kindergarten who took gospel magazines to school with the intent of handing them out at recess. I loved going to church every moment that I could.

 
BUT

 
I understand what it feels like to love Jesus but realize that you are beginning to identify with those ‘types’ of people being preached against on any given Sunday. I understand how it feels when you think (know) there is no one you can talk to about these feelings. You are afraid of being embarrassed or rejected by those you love. So, you struggle silently. I understand how you have to sort through the turmoil all by yourself, wondering if God is disappointed in you because you cannot control your same sex feelings. Every night you beg God before going to sleep to take away your feelings and make you normal so that He will not send you to hell. I understand how it feels to feel hopeless, deficient, and condemned. You always seem to live in fear that your friends, family, and church are going to figure out your secret. This causes you to refuse any type of physical touch as well as leads you to put up walls so that no one truly knows the real you. Sometimes, you wonder if suicide would finally give you some peace.

 
Although I was a Christian, I realized that I was not experiencing sexual and affectional attraction like my female peers. I became desperate for answers (this was before Ellen, the Internet, and Will and Grace) but did not feel safe talking about it with anyone. Instead, I found the answers from watching talk shows. One these shows people who had the same attractions as me said that they were gay. I finally had the answer… I’m gay. This answer briefly silenced the inner confusion; however, the peace I felt soon dissolved into terror. I had often heard the verbal slurs coming from the church. I knew what Christians thought about homosexuals.

 
I did not want these feelings. I thought there was no hope for me. So, I was afraid to come near God. I loved and wanted to serve Jesus, but I couldn’t stop my thoughts and feelings. I read my Bible and prayed fervently, thinking that trying harder could help me stop being gay. But it didn’t work.

 
I thought God was disappointed in me. I continued going to church but thought I could only serve him from a distance. I tried to do good things with the intention that maybe God would see that I wanted to be a good Christian. I did not dare to tell anyone.
All of this burden took a heavy toll on me. I wanted to die so that I could feel peace. I could not think about my future because I did not want to live to see adulthood. I felt alone and afraid.

 
I kept my secret to myself until I finally told someone else at age 19.
I am now in my thirties, and this journey of reconciling my faith and sexual orientation has been difficult. I spent a few years in ex-gay ministry. I was fortunate to attend a group whose leaders were healthy and unconditionally loving. My years in that group were positive and I was able to work on areas of my life that has made me a better person today. Things like setting healthy boundaries, forgiveness, and becoming closer to God. I’m fortunate that I had a positive experience because there are many out there who had horrible ones and are still trying to heal from the damage inflicted upon them.
However, although my experience was positive, my sexual orientation wasn’t changing. After realizing I was still the same, I became frustrated and angry. I was angry with myself and angry with God.

 
But, I couldn’t walk away from my faith. My beliefs concerning Jesus Christ were secure, but I began questioning what I had been told concerning homosexuality. I was tired of hearing what everyone’s opinions were on this topic. I only wanted to hear what God thought of it. I immersed myself in learning Greek and Hebrew so that I could read for myself what Scriptures says about it.
During those years of questioning, there were moments of darkness where I felt I couldn’t see any glimpse of light. I lost loved ones who couldn’t handle my questioning. I felt rejected.

 

BUT

 

There were also moments of great joy, peace, and comfort. I learned that God isn’t angry with my questions. The depth of my relationship with God is deeper than it has ever been in my life thus far. I’m no longer afraid to express my love to God, and I know without a doubt that he loves me

 

To those reading this who:

  •  Find yourselves attracted to the same sex and feel alone, afraid to tell anyone for fear of rejection.
  •  Find yourselves attracted to the same sex and open about it. Maybe you have embraced celibacy. You feel frustrated when the straight people around you callously tell you that Jesus is all you need after you had just shared that you are lonely and long for companionship. They tell you this right before they go to a movie with their significant other and don’t think twice about holding his/her hand.
  • Find yourselves frustrated when you hear people say that they love you but they don’t support your ‘lifestyle,’ as if gay people have one lifestyle that we share or that out whole life is structured around sex.
  • Find yourselves deeply hurt when you hear your Christina friends share gay jokes and call each other ‘fags’ or say things like ‘that’s gay.’
  • Find yourselves feeling like you have been kicked in the stomach after seeing your social media feeds with hurtful posts from those you love
  • Find yourselves feeling that God couldn’t possibly love you because you’re ‘different.’
  • Find yourselves believing that suicide is the best option.

 

 

I want to tell you that you are the beloved of God. Let that truth sink in. God loves you. God loves you.
You are not broken. You are not the nasty slurs. You are not what some members of the church have called you.

 

You are beautiful!
You are deeply and unconditionally loved!

Am I choosing sex over God?

Since starting this blog about my journey of reconciling my Christian faith and sexual orientation, I have received my fair share of praise and criticism. I had expected it, and it really doesn’t bother me.

The most common question asked and comment posed relates to the commenter’s  assumption that I’ve have chosen sex over my relationship with God. This usually comes from a straight person who has never even had to think about these things. I received one of these comments again this week.

I know this may come as a shock to people, but sexual orientation means more than just having sex. When I say I’m gay, it means that I am emotionally, mentally, and physically drawn to women. It tells you NOTHING of my sexual practices or behavior.

LGBTQ people are often accused of always thinking about sex, but it often seems that straight Christians are the ones reducing us LGBTQ folks to sexual acts.

So, am I choosing sex over God?

Absolutely not! As a Christian, I strive  to place my life under the lordship of Christ, even my sexuality. So, what does this mean for me? At this moment in my life, I am trying to discern whether or not I am called to the vocation of celibacy. Please, please don’t run with that last line and say that I think that all LGB people must either marry someone from the opposite sex or live a life of celibacy. I don’t believe that at all! I affirm monogamous, committed same sex relationships.

But for me, I am trying to figure out whether I’m called to celibacy. Is God truly calling me or am I scared of intimacy due to my rape?

Regardless, I believe sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage relationship. So, if I do not pursue celibacy, I won’t be having sex until I marry a spouse. Guess what? There are many other LGB Christians who are waiting to have sex within marriage.

As you can see, I’m not having sex. Coming out as lesbian had nothing to do with my wanting to choose sex over God. It had to do with wanting to live an authentic life and not hiding significant parts of myself.

Straight Christian, please stop assuming that we are choosing sex over God when we tell you we are LGBTQ. Honestly, look around you. Our televisions, radios,magazines,and computers are saturated with heterosexual sex.

Maybe, us LGBTQ Christians should be asking you, “Are you choosing sex over God?”

 

 

How a Transgender Lady Helped Me Not Walk Away from my Christian Faith

Six years ago I entered seminary, pursuing  a Master’s of Divinity with the hope of ministering within the United Methodist Church. Attending theological school was a dream come true. When  asked, “what would you do if money wasn’t an issue,” I answered with ‘attend seminary.’ I loved attending classes and reading the many, many books required for each of those classes. Sitting in lectures and soaking up the knowledge from my professors was my idea of a great time.

I was a conservative, evangelical who specifically chose to attend a seminary that taught homosexuality as sin. I  chose this school over another one only because the latter gave benefits to same sex couples. I viewed myself as ex-gay and usually spouted the jargon (lifestyle, gay agenda, etc.) when asked my views of this topic. Additionally, I refused to read other books or listen to scholars who didn’t share my same views. I did not want my thoughts challenged. (Deep down, I think I was afraid to have them challenged).

Two years into my program, I found myself depressed and broken. Aware of the numerous questions bubbling up within me concerning everything I had been taught about homosexuality, I tried to dismiss them and plunged myself further into my studies. But, you can hold a beach ball under water only for so long before it blasts its way to the surface. Although I still maintained the public facade of being ex-gay, my inner world was engulfed with turmoil and cognitive dissonance.

And I was afraid to tell anyone.

I couldn’t share my many questions at school; I didn’t want to be branded an outcast or even worse, a heretic. I still believed in the Trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus will return one day. I still believed everything that is in the Apostles’ Creed. My belief in those foundational Christian doctrines were solid. However, I didn’t know what to believe about the sinfulness of homosexuality anymore. Contrary to what others may think, my questioning wasn’t the result of my wanting to enter into a same sex relationship. That has never been my reasoning.

Those days were lonely and frightening.

Even after 10 years of therapy, conferences, and support groups, I knew I was still gay. My worldview and environment couldn’t support the notion that one could be gay and Christian. So, I began to believe that I had no choice but to walk away from Christianity. Heartbroken over this decision, I begged God to forgive me and to know that I truly loved and wanted to live for Him. I told Him how sorry I was that I failed to overcome homosexuality. I stopped allowing myself to take Holy Communion and slowly stopped attending church. The only prayer I could utter was “please have mercy on me, a sinner.” I stopped my ordination process and decided that I was going to withdraw from my theological studies.

I found myself lost and afraid.

You know, I think God uses shocking and interesting ways to show His radical love for us. A couple of months after thinking that I had no choice but to leave my Christian faith, I found myself serving as a Fellow at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. While  there, I heard a presentation on being transgender from a woman named Allyson Robinson who worked at HRC.

I must admit I was prejudiced against the transgender community. I didn’t understand and assumed they were were all just confused. I had bought into the rhetoric spoken by Focus on the Family concerning this topic. Instead of compassion or even wanting to understand, I treated them with judgement and disdain.

During Allyson’s presentation, I found myself intrigued when she mentioned her Christian faith. I noticed that she spoke of her faith in the present tense. How could a transgender person still claim to be a Christian? I knew right then I had to talk more with her. Since I was too afraid to approach her in person, I emailed asking if we could have lunch together.

I’m so thankful she agreed.

For an hour, I listened as she shared her story of coming to terms with her faith and gender identity. I was amazed she went to seminary at Baylor and had served as a Baptist preacher. She listened as I shared my journey and how I was struggling. I learned we shared the same belief that the Bible was more than a book of literature. She told me I didn’t have to disregard Scripture. It was obvious she was a woman of vibrant, deep Christian faith.

Hope entered my life again. I was overwhelmed with God’s presence and tangibly felt His love wash over me. My life changed that day, and I began my journey of reconciling my faith and sexual orientation, whatever that would look like.

Because of the seed of hope Allyson planted in my heart, I went back to church, began taking Holy Communion and prayed again. I went on to finish seminary with my Master’s of Divinity.

I didn’t walk away from my faith.

To my transgender brothers and sisters: I’m sorry for being a prejudiced A@#hole. I have a tender spot in my heart for this community, and you have an ally for life! God passionately loves you, period! There is nothing wrong with you, and you are NOT broken!

To Allyson: Thank you!

 

Note: Allyson is now the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

To hear more of her story, check out http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/is-this-the-most-radical-preacher-in-america-335687235881#