There is a new book out titled, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, by Bernadette Barton. Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University. The book is the result of a six year ethnographic study of 59 sexual minorities in the Bible belt. This alone had me quite interested in what she would learn about their experiences with conservative Christianity, as I think there is much the church could do differently in this area. At the same time, Barton acknowledges that she may have oversampled activists in conducting her research, which may be a concern. I think studies of more mainstream (is that the right word?) sexual minorities might have “thickened the plot” a little more.
“…most of the people I interviewed attended conservative Christian churches–i.e., Baptist, Pentecostal, and Church of Christ–and grew up in families in which homosexuality was frequently denounced. Consequently, participants’ identity struggles more often took place under the shadow of a preacher’s voice thundering floridly about ‘homosexuals’ and parents proclaiming that ‘any child of mind that is gay is dead to me’ at the dinner table than in an LGBT center.”
In the Introduction Barton opens the book by recounting an exchange with a neighbor who introduced her to some of the regional flavor by referring to homosexuality as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. This after just learning that Barton was in a lesbian relationship. This sets the context for the lived experiences of those she interviewed.
Some of the most fascinating observations of the region come early on in the book and rely heavily on Foucault and what are “theories of domination and oppression” (p. 20). For example, Barton’s introduces and develops the image of the Bible Belt panopticon, which refers to the late 18th c. design of an institution in which a central office would allow for the constant observation of inmates in the surrounding (circular) structure.
“…The Bible Belt panopticon, an important element of Bible Belt Christianity, manifests through tight social networks of family, neighbors, church, and community members, and a plethora of Christian signs and symbols sprinkled throughout the region.” (p. 24)
Barton argues that the panopticon is supported by personalism, the willingness to appear to concur with others, to give the impression one agrees even when one does not. In Barton’s view of the Bible Belt, even if a person disagreed with a more conservative sexual ethic, such disagreement is likely to go unspoken, further giving the impression of regional consensus.
It is an interesting take on the experience of sexual minorities in the Bible belt, and one I think is important for people to understand. I disagree with the lens through which Barton conducts her analysis, but I do appreciate how upfront she is about it. I have a fair amount of exposure to scholars who use essentially the same lens but want me and others to believe that they are offering an objective, dispassionate analysis of a topic.
There are painful stories recounted throughout the book. Some of the most painful were experiences with family and with the local church. So while some readers may disagree with many aspects of the book, I think it is important to identify what can be understood from the data, what might help shape how Christians respond to the experiences of sexual minorities.
In discussing some of the consequences of sharing her gay identity with her mother, one woman shared: “I am cut off. I am disowned. My family wants nothing to do with me. I’m dead to them” (p. 54). Another mother broke dishes, “locked herself in the bathroom, and left [her son] to sweep up the racked plates and explain” to their Thanksgiving guests that dinner was off (p. 57). Still another parent reportedly shouted, “had you walked in here and told us you’d murdered someone we would have handled that better than we can do with this!” This is so beyond the experience of most readers, and it offers an important look into the lives of some sexual minorities.
In the church context the stories were also painful. One woman recalled: “The preacher would preach on homosexuality. He would always group us in with the so-called perverts, like child molesters and just awful people” (p. 66).
Can you imagine how it would be for a young teen – say 13 or 14 – who finds himself experiencing same-sex attraction to hear someone in leadership talk about what this teen has questions about in a way that associates it with these other concerns? I doubt most of us can imagine that. So it is important to glean lessons from these stories that will help Christians respond in better ways when they learn that their teen or young adult is either questioning their sexual identity or is disclosing or announcing a sexual identity. Christians could certainly respond in more constructive and compassionate ways.
The challenges that arise in reading books like this have to do with what to do with this information. Solutions offered are often simplistic: have parents affirm their loved one. In some ways, this is absolutely right. Affirm and love without conditions. Speak life into young people. Pour into them.
At the same time, what are parents to do with their conventionally religious beliefs and values about sexual morality? The more simple suggestions often fail to appreciate the importance of those beliefs and how they hang together with worldview considerations. If recommendations are not offered with those worldview and value considerations in view, constructive solutions will often be dismissed out of hand. Nothing changes.
I experienced this awhile ago when I was consulting with a group on how to help religious corrections officers work with sexual minorities in corrections facilities. Many people felt strongly that they should have corrections officers change their religious beliefs/values about moral issues. This is one strategy. However, I think that what happens when those beliefs/values are directly challenged is that people reject out of hand any recommendations from the source that challenged their values. Another option is to demonstrate cognitive complexity and perspective-taking, to understand the experiences of conventionally religious people, why they believe as they do, to value what you can in it, and to draw forward elements of those beliefs that will improve the atmosphere for sexual minorities in corrections. So, for example, things like valuing the worth of all people is inherent in Christian theology (the idea that people bear the image of God). Draw this forward in a way that helps a staff member respond to issues in a better, more professional manner. In any case, there is a lot I could say about that, but you get the idea.
I think it could be helpful to find language for parents who want to demonstrate love and support but who do not believe they can or should change their values as they pertain to sexual morality. In other words, are there resources that meet conventionally religious parents where they are and help them parent better in those moments (rather than materials that are more readily dismissed because the recommendations seem incompatible with their worldview)?
That question may go unanswered for now. Back to the book: there were a couple of missed opportunities in Barton’s approach to the topic, and this may be due to her overall commitment to Foucault et al. For example, early in the book she shares that she attended a large church that holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic. In an exchange with someone there, she asks if sexual minorities would be welcomed. She is told that the would be, and the church member references another woman who had attended a small group and announced herself to be a lesbian. That same woman apparently had some kind of experience in which “Jesus worked on her heart” (the language of the church member). I thought Barton would have tracked that woman (the self-identified lesbian) down and asked to hear more about her story, where she was today, and so on. Perhaps she did and it’s just not in the book, but I thought that would have been irresistible to a researcher.
In that sense there is not the kind of balance that I was expecting to see in a research study. It is true that Barton recounts her time visiting a faith-based, ex-gay ministry conference in the Chicago suburbs, but that was less about the Bible belt and more about the ex-gay movement, which she then discusses as a part of the fabric of the region. I thought it would have been helpful to reflect more on the theological position that informs the decision by those who attend such ministries–for example, what is a traditional Christian sexual ethic? Why is does that sexual ethic matter in the lives of people who identify themselves as followers of Christ? Why is that sense of morality subscribed to by many Christians across the globe and throughout history? I think that was where I was hoping for more cognitive complexity and perspective-taking.
There is a lot more than can be said. Let’s bring this to a close by calling it Part I. I will continue a discussion of Pray Away the Gay in another post.