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1995: Meeting My First Gay Person

christians condemn gays

As a card-carrying-member of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, I often preached sermons condeming homosexuality. According to my infallible interpretation, the Bible condemned homosexual sex. Being the faithful Bible preacher that I was, I thought it important to preach against man-with-man, woman-with-woman sex. Never mind the fact that I did not personally know anyone who was gay. Well, I had my suspicions about several people — Polly’s late uncle comes to mind — but as far as actually knowing someone who was gay? Not one. I would learn years later that several of the students in our Christian school were gay or bisexual. Consider this statistic. I was a raging homophobe who railed against homosexuality and sexual “sin” in general. Yet, one-third of the students in our school were either gay or bisexual. Add to that the students who likely engaged in premarital sex, and I think I can safely say my preaching did little to change hearts and minds on sexual identity and activity.

In March of 1994, I left a church I had pastored for almost twelve years and moved to San Antonio, Texas to co-pastor Community Baptist Church. This move proved to be a disaster, and in the fall that same year, we packed up our belongings and moved to Frazeysburg, Ohio. With the help of Polly’s parents, we bought a newish manufactured home — a $25,000 upgrade from our previous mobile home.

We lived in Frazeysburg for six months. Needing immediate employment, I turned to restaurant management. I was hired by Charley’s Steakery (now called Charleys Philly Steaks) to be the general manager of their franchise at the Colony Square Mall in Zanesville. I continued to work for this restaurant until March 1995, when I assumed the pastorate of Olive Branch Christian Union Church in Fayette.

The restaurant I managed had a drink refill policy for mall employees. If employees stopped at the restaurant with their cups, we refilled them free of charge. Some employees would stop every day they worked to get their large plastic cups refilled. One such employee was a man who worked at a nearby store.

This man was in his twenties. The first time I personally refilled his cup for him, my infallible, never-wrong (I am joking) gaydar went off. I thought, “OMG, this guy is gay. What if he has AIDS?” Quite frankly, I am surprised he didn’t see the disgust on my face. Maybe he did, but ignored it. I dutifully put ice in his cup, filled it with pop, and handed it back to him. After he walked away from the service counter, I would quickly run to the kitchen and thoroughly wash my hands, fearing that I might catch AIDS.

Over time, this man and I struck up casual conversations. He was quite friendly, and truth be told, I liked talking to him. As I got to know him better, I found that I no longer was disgusted or worried about getting AIDS. I even stopped washing my hands after serving him. What changed?

My theology didn’t change. And neither did my irrational fear of gay people. Coming to where I am today, a supporter of LGBTQ rights with numerous gay and transgender friends, took years. What needed washing was my proverbial heart, not my hands.

This story is a reminder of the fact that it is hard to condemn people when you actually know them; when you have actually talked with them or broken bread with them. Countless Evangelical preachers rail against atheists, yet most of them don’t know any atheists personally. I have two Evangelical friends — a married couple. That’s it. I have been friends with the man for almost 55 years. For several years, I was their pastor. I know their children and grandchildren and extended family. Until the pandemic hit, three or four times a year, we would go out to eat, thoroughly enjoying one another’s company. We agreed that we wouldn’t talk about religion. If asked a question, I would answer it, but outside of that, we focused on the things we had in common: family, grandchildren, food, and travel.

Our friendship has survived because we see each other as human beings, people we love and respect. Yes, my friends are deeply disappointed over my loss of faith. They might even pray that I will come back to the Lord. But, my friends have never let my atheism get in the way of our relationship. I thank them for doing what 99.9% of my Evangelical friends couldn’t or refused to do: see me as a person, to see Polly and me as the same people we were back when we followed Jesus. Our character and personalities remain the same. Sure, we don’t believe in God, but does that make us bad people?

A gay customer taught me a valuable lesson years ago, one I am still learning. It is far too easy to sequester yourself with people who only think and act like you. Our nation is overrun with racist, white nationalist people. It’s easy to put the blame all on Donald Trump and the Republican Party, but I suspect that a lot of racists don’t have friends of color. They live in communities and are members of churches and groups where the sign on the door might as well say, WHITES ONLY. So it is in many Evangelical churches — particularly IFB congregations. Such churches are monocultures, places where everyone thinks, acts, and looks the same way. Until they are exposed in a friendly, nonthreatening way to people different from them, it is unlikely they will change their minds.

Were you a homophobe, racist, or bigot? What changed your mind? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Matilda

    I agree, you need to meet real people in the categories you hate. Two men moved next door to us…our first encounter with gay folk….and we were secretly surprised they hadn’t got horns and a tail, they were just nice normal neighbours. Ditto when I was part of a x-tian ‘counselling service’ for women which tried to persuade them not to have abortions,…I met at least two for whom having a child was just one thousand percent impossible. Travelling in poor parts of Africa, several locals tried to scam my husband….he was wise to most attempts. It gave us an understanding that if your family is near starvation, you’ll do anything to survive. So pleased to be out of that arrogant fundy bubble believing my world view was the right one and superior to everyone else’s.

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    Well, it took having gay family members to change my beliefs. And even then, it took time. But I remember finally saying, “X and Y love each other, take care of each other, and are good people. There is nothing evil about this.” Which led me to realize that my interpretation of the Bible was wrong, or the Bible itself was just wrong. At which point there is no point in picking a Christian denomination based on the Bible, if the Bible is wrong.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I understand sensuality to be a sliding scale, somatic music. Not one of us, including you, John Wayne, is one note and only one. Sexual preference is no doubt informed by myriad factors, both genetic and environmental. Many of us, perhaps most, played with touching a friend in private places when we were kids. Some of us developed sensual relationships with the same gender and even consummated those affections. Let’s be clear: A manly pat on the back from a good friend is a form of love when viewed in this way and it is not a threat or even a misdemeanor in most places! Women strolling down the street arm in arm is a shared sensual experience. Teens hanging out together, bumping off each other as they walk and talk, arm in arm, whatever; it’s all body music, heart-sharing, amazing natural behaviour called ‘social life’.
    The religious texts totally fuck this up and assign black and white, shallow perspectives on what is naturally a symphony of life! Narrow beliefs constrict and condemn what they do not even come close to understanding. God, when quoted by man, is a raving idiot. Bulbous perpetrators of ignorant hatred cry the name of God from pulpits and actively injure others with their stupidity, their dumbed-down version of scriptures that are flat-out wrong to begin with! Brain-addled Stupids used to church me in these matters and say such things as ‘Certain parts fit together because they were made that way, praise God! A penis doesn’t belong with a penis, no, no, oh holy Father! These same fuckwits were sticking it into any orifice they could garner while becoming dumber by the church calendar day! Remember this one? ‘If you leave the world to homosexuals, pretty soon mankind will go the way of the dinosaurs!’
    Sorry dumbfuck, I hear music. Go fuck yourself and by-Jeez leave me out of it.

  4. Avatar
    mary

    this is so true. i was raised to believe gays were sad, terrible and on the way to hell. then i met a gay co worker years later. this man went out of his way to be kind and helpful to everyone. even those he knew looked down on him. he became a great help when i was having a hard time balancing work and being a new mom. i’d say he started me on the path of questioning it all just by his everyday life and kindness.

  5. Avatar
    Sage

    Bruce, it’s great to see your journey to accepting LGBTQ people. It gives a perspective that I don’t often see and helps me understand that people can learn and grow even it it takes a long time.

    As a non-binary bisexual person my journey with Christianity was very different. I have spent decades overcoming the mind fuck I was given by my minister father, conservative Christian family, and a large part of society in general. When it became clear in my teen years that I was not on the right path for my assigned “gender”, it was made very clear to me that I was choosing depravity and a lifestyle that is deplorable. Many scriptures, stories, prayers, and much guilt, were used help me overcome this evil. It didn’t work, it only lead to a lifetime of guilt, struggle, and pain.

    This means I have a very low threshold for Christian views on LGBTQ issues. From my view, Christians who have “gay friends” are probably have these “friends” because they want to show they are loving and accepting, but see them as in need of god. It is doubtful there is a true friendship. It is not likely the Christian would be seen out in the company of the gay person or develop a close relationship. After all, close association with sinners may cause the Christian to backslide.

    It is doubtful there has been any deep discussion on the challenges the LGBTQ community faces, or the particular individual struggles of their friend, or how the narrow views of christianity have negative impact on their friends lives. In my experience, the LGBTQ community treads very lightly with the straight world – especially the straight Christian world – by not sharing much and taking time to feel out and understand the views of the straight person. We have no desire to associate with people who are homophobic, not just because it is uncomfortable, but it can also lead to verbal or physical assault.

    I personally avoid interacting with Christians, and in the times I do interact I keep it very superficial and on the topic at hand. I have no desire to associate with a person who may see me as “less than” and hope to see me “fixed” by their god.

  6. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    The first time I ever sought counseling, I went to one of these Christian counselors who was in private practice. She was a Christian Fundamentalist. When the 50 minute session was finished, I went home thinking that the woman I had just encountered was some sort of bonafide religious nutjob. After going to well-educated. secular psychotherapists off and on for 21 years——and getting really great help——I knew for sure that my first fundie counselor was indeed a bonafide religious nutjob. These Christian counselors that Bruce wrote about (above) pose a real danger to any person who has serious psychological problems such as clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. From my personal experience with the “ins” and “outs” of mental health treatment, I must say that Bruce’s blog article hits the nail squarely on the head.

  7. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Hi Bruce. Something is wrong—–I think maybe. This is either my second or third post that shows up in a location other than the Bruce article it was actually written under. I wrote this one under your post about Christian counselors. On one or two other of my posts, I thought you had disowned me because I would go back to where I left the post, and the post was not there. I do not think I am imagining this. Do you have any idea what is going on with this? Is it something electronic, or am I just going crazy? Thanks for listening!!!

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Charles,

      I am not sure what is happening. The problem is on WordPress’s end. I’ll see if I can find any further info on this problem. Doesn’t happen very often, but it is annoying when it does.

      Bruce

  8. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Meeting LGBTQ people in college, befriending them, hearing their stories, was the best thing that happened to me. It also helped that in one of my college psychology courses I learned the science behind sexuality and gender – and it ain’t all binary. I work in an industry in which there are a high percentage of LGBTQ people, so I am glad that I didn’t hold biases against them. Now I know to ask people what they want to be called – and that’s up to them, not me.

  9. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I’m late to this party because I had a hard time writing this response. You see, I was a homophobe. And a transphobe. At least, I expressed my aversion to people like myself. In fact, one of the things I hoped by becoming an evangelical christian (after being raised as Catholic) was that I, and fellow Christians, could “pray the gay (actually, bisexual transgender woman) away.”

    What I am ashamed of now is the ways in which I expressed and rationalized those hatreds: When I was in high school, I participated in a gay-bashing. That’s a story unto itself. And, long before I talked or wrote about it, the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest was one of my rationales for my rage.

    At least I’ve learned, over the past few years, that I am not alone: Some people sublimate their erotic impulses into loving God, and others have gone to all manner of extremes to subjugate their true selves.

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