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He’s a Woman Now!

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Seven years ago, I wrote a post titled The Jonathan Nichols Story: Growing Up Gay in the IFB Church about a young gay man who was a member of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) in Newark, Ohio pastored, at the time, by my wife’s uncle, James Dennis (please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis). Jonathan’s parents, along with Polly’s mother, are active members of the Newark Baptist Temple. Polly and I attended the Baptist Temple for a year or so in the early 1980s.

Jonathan wrote a two-part story about his life on BJ [Bob Jones University]Unity website. Here’s an excerpt from what he had to say:

I grew up in Newark, Ohio and attended an independent fundamental Baptist church since I was born. That church was more conservative than Bob Jones, and my parents were more conservative than the church. My mom, the church pianist and school music teacher, was forever busy taking the “sensual” triplets out of songs like “Some Trust in Chariots” and campaigning against songs like “As The Deer” and “Bow the Knee.” As you can probably deduce from that, practically no modern music was allowed in our household either. I grew up on classical music and only classical music and quickly learned that there was no such thing as likes and dislikes when it came to music. There was just good and bad. You are to listen to good music and not to listen to bad music. What music you “like” has nothing to do with anything.

That mentality was carried into every area of life.

I suppose being the music teacher’s son allowed me to be a little gay boy without thinking anything of it or being called out about it. I was totally into music and art and pretty things, and nothing was weird. I would play with scarves without feeling odd. Well, without feeling too odd. I knew that none of the other guys my age were playing with scarves. Fortunately, I didn’t think about it too much.

Ok, so I can’t really credit my discretion for keeping me in the closet for eighteen years… Like I said, I played with scarves and wasn’t careful about making it known that I was a musician and not like those “other” guys. The atmosphere was so anti-gay that no one even bothered to think that there could be a gay kid growing up there, regardless of how obvious I made it. Besides, I was still a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant to be gay. Heck, I didn’t even know that it meant anything besides “happy.” So in the minds of the church and my parents, there was no way I could have chosen to be gay yet. And since being gay is a choice, that meant that I was a good, straight little boy. Just like God intended. Right? Totally.

When I said I didn’t know what “gay” meant, I wasn’t exaggerating. It wasn’t until I was in 7th or 8th grade that I figured out that the word referred to two men or two women together in a romantic or sexual relationship. Of course, I still didn’t know about the romantic side of it. Gay relationships were all about sex. They weren’t meaningful.

Sometime in my junior-high or early high-school years, I had a direct brush with a self-proclaimed gay person. A former classmate visited my youth group at church one Wednesday night and brought her friend. Her friend made no qualms about the fact that he was gay. He was totally fine with it and evidently was from an accepting family. Looking back on that, my heart goes out to that boy. He would have been my age: a young teenager just starting to figure life out—just starting to find himself and truly live his life. I couldn’t help but stare at him. I thought he was beautiful. Of course, I would never have admitted that to myself. I was too busy judging him for his sin. I don’t remember much about that sermon, but I remember enough to know what it must have been like for him. Pastor Overton made direct references several times to the “abomination of homosexuality,” even though it had really nothing to do with his chosen topic. It was obvious even to me that he was going out of his way to make the poor boy uncomfortable—to “draw him to Christ” by any means necessary. In this case, the “necessary means” was to rant about how all gays are going to hell because they’ve chosen an abomination over the love and grace of God. It’s sad, but I believed every word of it. I painfully remember the time after the meeting. Pastor Overton talked with the boy alone, no doubt reinforcing in his young mind that the theoretical “he” was loved incredibly much by God, but as a person, God hated everything about him. I don’t know how things worked out with him. I do remember, though, my former classmate sobbing and repeating “I’m scared _________ will go to hell because he’s gay. . . .” I’m ashamed to say it, but in my mind I was replying “Well, yes. He will. Because if he were a Christian, he wouldn’t be gay. And non-Christians go straight to hell.”

The boy never came back to the Newark Baptist Temple. I’m glad. I hope he found real love away from judgment. I hope he’s now going to college as a proud gay man, trying to make the world a better place. I hope he has found happiness instead of hate.

I must continue with my story, though, since I don’t know his. My parents were of the opinion that dating was to be used only for finding a wife or husband, so they strongly discouraged it in my life. I resented that. While I was never sexually attracted to women, I was an incurable romantic and longed for a lady to be chivalrous to. There was one time, however, that I went behind my parents’ backs and “dated” a girl at church. We saw each other twice a week, at the most, and always with many other people around. We kissed once, and I remember thinking after that that kissing is terribly overrated. That was it. A little later, there was a girl at school that had a crush on me, and I had a crush on her. We never were officially “together,” though.

I guess I should clarify something here. . . When I say I had a “crush” on someone, which I did fairly regularly, I don’t mean in the typical high-school want-to-get-together type way. I was a reader, and I could simply imagine myself as their knight in shining armor. Just like I was supposed to be. My personal desires didn’t come into play. . . They were girls that I wanted to see happy, and I was nice and would try to make them happy. The end. Until my senior year.

Every year, my school would send groups to BJU for two weeks, once in November for the BJU Fine Arts Festival, and the other in April for the AACS National Competition, the national tier competition for winners of their state fine arts competitions. I went to Festival every year I was in high school and made it to AACS my first three years. Thursday night at Festival my senior year, I met someone that I had seen from afar years before. Let’s call him Ryan. I had seen him some years before at a BJU summer music camp. I thought he was beautiful. Just absolutely gorgeous. Not that I admitted it or anything, but still. Here he was, talking to a friend of mine right after the final concert. She introduced us officially, and we started talking. He was now a freshman at BJU. We all were going to grab coffee and our friend had to get ready, so Ryan and I waited outside her dorm for her. We got to talking. I felt so free around him– like I could be totally myself and not have to try to make him like me or be scared of saying the wrong thing. We all got coffee, then headed back to our rooms. His turned out to be on the same hall that I was staying on, just a few doors down. We talked until midnight, when we were both shooed into our rooms. Right before he went into his room, he turned around and hugged me. That was the most electrifying moment of my life up to that point. I can’t begin to describe the mental sensation of that second. I wasn’t any closer to admitting anything to myself, but I couldn’t sleep for awhile – the only thought running through my head was “He hugged me!” I now had my first real crush.


I wanted so much to be able to be honest with someone that I was actually in contact with. I hinted to my closest friend that my friendship with Ryan wasn’t just a friendship. She was, naturally for someone in our atmosphere, worried for me. So, despite her promises that she would trust me to do what I felt was right, she went to my youth pastor for help. He promptly told the senior pastor, who is superintendent of the school. The next day, I was called into Pastor Dennis’s office for questioning. Pastor Overton was also in the room, sitting to my left with a legal pad and a pen, taking notes. Dennis tried to start off nice enough, but it was obvious that they found out. I decided that a clean breast of the issue would be best, and went into my research on the matter, hoping at least to get an opposing rebuttal and at best to convince them. How naive I was. . . I don’t remember much of that conversation, but one thing rings vividly in my mind. I mentioned that the Greek word malakoi in I Cor. 6:9 was never elsewhere, in the whole of Greek literary writings, translated “effeminate.” It carried a whole different connotation. His response? He turned around, pulled his Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance off the shelf, looked up the word, and pointed to the definition. He never for one second imagined that Dr. James Strong was not infallible and that his concordance was not holy writ. In those several hours, my pastor beat me down. Hard. I was totally conquered, save in one regard. I would not tell him who I was “dating.” I did not see that it was my place to get someone else, especially someone I loved, in trouble like this. Dennis found out anyways. He had me break up with Ryan. I cried all night.

The next day, I woke up to the realization that Ryan blocked me on Facebook and wasn’t responding to texts. I was devastated. Then I was called into the church office again. Pastor Dennis, Pastor Overton, the principal, vice-principal, and my mom were there. I was curtly informed that I was being expelled. I was to call Ryan and tell him that he had an hour to turn himself in or Dennis would call BJU administration and get him expelled. After that, I wasn’t to have any contact with him. My mom was placed on paid leave to homeschool me for the remaining two and a half months.

This all happened the day before my state fine arts competition. All of my prepared speeches and music entries were now worthless, and my mom, who, by the way, fully supported the school’s decision, needed to carry on for two stressful days as if nothing had happened. Dennis told me to tell no one about why I had been expelled. He said it was for my own good. Like a fool, I believed him. If I had gone looking for help or support then, I might have been better off. It would have exposed some of the underhandedness, at least. At the time, though, I was far too scared to do anything like that. I was totally beat down, and reverted back to being as much of a non-person as I could. That worked for about a month. At that point, I realized that they had never provided refutations to any of my points. They had simply refused to consider them. They had used their position of power to crush me. I had never been on the wrong side of any authority figures before then, and I was quickly cowed. I also realized that I had been more fulfilled in my time with Ryan than any other time in my life, especially that month. I decided then that I would go with what I had researched rather than blindly follow the men that cared only to see me bent to their will. I decided, furthermore, that even if I was wrong, any god sadistic enough to make me who I am and then hate every ounce of it did not deserve my worship. I would rather live in eternal torment knowing that I lived by love towards all than spend paradise with the being of hatred who is infuriated by my just being me.

I messaged Ryan and asked him if he would have me back. He said yes. By now, attending BJU was out of the question for me. I had no idea when I would see Ryan next. He mentioned, though, that he would be staying on campus over the summer to work. I immediately determined that I would be there for the two summer music camps, as no one else knew that he would be there. I managed to convince my parents to let me drive myself there, so we would have a car at our disposal. All that was soon to change. Two events left me devastated. Late at night on July 3rd, Ryan ended our relationship. He needed someone who could actually be there with him, and I couldn’t do that. July 4th, 2011, was probably the worst day of my life. Everything was closed and everyone was doing something. I had no distractions from the fact that the one person in the whole world that I most wanted to be with didn’t want to be with me anymore. I made it through, though. I was still going to go down to the camps, though. He still had, and still has, a special place in my heart. If it weren’t for him, I would not yet have come to grips with reality. He helped find me, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Well, camp time came. I drove down from Ohio to South Carolina, and things were going wonderfully. Despite the emotional wounds, I was happy to be with him. Then, on Tuesday night, my mom called. She had decided to do me a favor and clean my room for me, which evidently included rifling through the papers in the bottom of my desk. There, she found a note I had written to myself shortly after July 4th as a way to get some of my feelings somewhere, anywhere, outside of my head. She now knew that Ryan was on campus and I was seeing him. She called the camp director, and he had us separated with the threat that I would be sent home if I tried to contact him again. At the end of the week, my mom flew down to Greenville to accompany me back. After this, though, I wasn’t having any more. I knew that I couldn’t change again. I tried it, and it didn’t work. I had spent sleepless nights crying to God for help. No change. Either God was (1) fine with me being me, (2) powerless to change anything, or (3) sadistically watching me flounder in my sin. Under none of those possibilities did I feel obligated to try to change this second time.

The above story was excerpted from Part One and Part Two of Jonathan’s story (links no longer active).

Years later, I still weep as I read Jonathan’s story. No one should have to go through the abuse Jonathan did at the hands of Jim Dennis, Jamie Overton (Polly’s cousin), and his parents. Jonathan’s story is a reminder that Fundamentalism harms everything it touches.

Polly talks to her mother every Sunday evening at exactly 10:00 pm for one hour, unless providentially hindered. 🙂 Yesterday, Mom mentioned that Jonathan’s dad is seriously ill, in the hospital, and possibly dying. And then, out of the blue, she mentioned Jonathan, saying, He’s a woman now! That’s it, he’s a woman now! Evidently, Jonathan has transitioned since the publishing of the story mentioned above. I chuckled a bit when I heard Mom say this, thinking she likely finds it impossible to wrap her mind around the fact that a boy who was raised in her church is now a woman. This does not compute in her world. 🙂

In IFB churches, there’s no such thing as LGBTQ people. Oh, they exist, but such people are never free to be themselves, never free to be at peace with who and what they are. Imagine going to church on Sundays, knowing you are going to be the target of homophobic sermons from your pastor, youth pastor, and guest preachers; and that if the “truth” ever got out you would be immediately excommunicated from not only your church, but your family. I can only imagine the pain men and women such as Jonathan have suffered in their lives, all because they are “different.”

Polly’s mom, nor her fellow church members at the Baptist Temple, will ever accept Jonathan for who he is (I don’t know if he has changed his name and pronouns, so I continue to say “he”). As the Jonathans of the world learn, they must go outside of the church to find love and acceptance.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar

    Wow. That was not easy to read. I am glad this person found their way at an early age. I am glad the young people today have options and have resources that allow them to learn and grow into the person they really are, and escape the dystopian, soul crushing, toxic world of fundamental Christianity.

    This was not an option in the past, and many people suffered greatly under the fear and disgust that a fear mongering church and family placed on them….. out of love of course. I avoid thoughts of younger days, because they are filled with the toxicity of ignorant, hateful Christian’s who tell you how terrible you are, and exhibit their disdain in how they treat you.

    I no longer allow such toxic belief to exist around me. I guess maybe that is a little bit obvious…

  2. Avatar

    I am deeply moved by Jonathan’s story, partly because I could see my reflection in it. What a sad predicament indeed, being constantly condemned and ridiculed for things you have never chosen to do or be. I wish Jonathan peace and happiness.

    Thanks for the story Bruce.

  3. Avatar
    Ben Berwick

    I find myself thinking of your earlier post about God’s unconditional love (which I haven’t read in as much detail as this post), where you mentioned that God’s love is indeed conditional – and Jonathan’s story confirms that. How anyone can argue God loves everyone when they’d put someone into eternal torment over something like this is beyond my understanding.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    After reading this post, I followed the links to read both parts of Jonathan’s original story. It, and this post, left me in tears but I wanted even more: I am eager to know how things are going for Jonathan. (I will not use pronouns until I learn which ones Jonathan uses, and I will refer to Jonathan as Jonathan or J until I hear of a new name.)

    I am so happy that Jonathan is doing in J’s 20’s what I could not do until I was in my mid-40s. It shows that while there is far to go, we have come far in the nearly two decades since I started my gender-affirmation process.

    J’s account illustrates something that I have tried to explain in talks I’ve given and workshops I’ve facilitated: For every young LGBTQ person who sequesters themself in the closet, there is at least one other who is so confined through bullying, whether overt or covert, by secular force or the power of religious figures and institutions. Young people in the latter category also are shamed by the belief that their sexual attraction or gender identity is something they can choose not to honor even if, according to the teachings of their clerics or institutions, God made them the way they are.

    So what Jonathan experienced is every bit as terrifying, and potentially as damaging, as the experiences of some of the young people in a youth group I co-facilitated. They were physically beaten by schoolmates, neighborhood kids and in some cases, brothers, cousins, uncles and parents (who may have kicked them out of their homes); kids like Jonathan are reined in by fear: Do what your family, pastor and church (which, for someone like Jonathan, is the community) want and the “Big Guy” will take care of you. Displease them, and you will incur their scorn, and his wrath. Perhaps the worst thing is that a kid like Jonathan who does what God, pastor, family and community want is still perpetually under suspicion: If you’re a boy/man and you are sexually exploited (or otherwise exploited), God is punishing you for not being more masculine; if you’re a girl/woman, you are incurring God’s wrath for being promiscuous—even if you’re draped from your neck to your feet.

    I’m sorry that this was such a long comment, but as you can see, Jonathan’s story brought so much to the forefront of my mind.

  5. Avatar

    While I cannot truly compare our experience to Jonathan’s, I can understand what he went through in some sense. My husband and I, not homosexual or transgender, had the temerity to suggest that homosexuality is not a sin and that gay people are just like the rest of us — husbands, mothers, teachers, etc. The full wrath of the church came down on us. There were 5 sermons about the “sin” of homosexuality, parents took their children out of our classes. There were closed-door meetings behind our backs, a couple of meetings with us present, and finally, we were told we had to resign our positions teaching children in the church. We left the church instead. Nowhere was evident the love of Christ in any of the church’s dealings with us. We were told we were the “devil creeping into the church” and my husband was told he was “prideful” for not agreeing to resign as deacon. There was no listening to any of our arguments — the bible says it’s a sin, so that’s it. Period. My “brothers and sisters in Christ” turned their backs on us without hesitation.

    In the years since, we have wondered about and sympathized with the unknown thousands out there who are gay or transgender and members of a church like the one we attended (Southern Baptist). I can’t imagine how they are treated by these followers of Jesus who don’t act like Jesus at all. I know the hurt and pain we suffered at their hands; I shudder to think of how gay people are treated by their “church families”. I hope Jonathan is well and living a happy life. I know that, while it didn’t seem so at the time, leaving that church (by force or otherwise) was the best thing that ever happened to us. Hopefully it is the same for Jonathan.

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    I have a young friend who I call my adopted daughter, because she’s been friends with my sons for a decade and became a friend of all of us. She came over to our house to participate in gaming, presented she as a teenage boy. Coincidentally, Caitlyn Jenner had come out before my friend began to experiment with her feminine side. I had read all about Jenner and the one good thing about her story is, that I was much more mentally prepared when my friend changed her style of dressing to be feminine, wearing skirts and high heels etc, and then after about a year told us what her changes were about, that she was a woman.

    Anyway, my family isn’t special, but we believe in loving people for who they are. And (sadly) I’m a better mom to my friend than her own mom. Sad that her mom is awful, but happy to love my friend. Her dad’s family members are super conservative Christian and are not accepting or kind. Fundamentalist religion has sure made it so that people have to be cold and cruel to those who are different from them. I hope for Jonathan to have a better life and truly hope J has found loved ones who are supportive.

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    Name Withheld

    Wow. This dredges up a lot of feelings. I graduated from BJU 30+ years ago and know exactly what that environment was like. Shortly before I attended, Bob Jones III made his statement that homosexuals should be stoned. While that wasn’t a constant refrain, the majority of people there at that time would not have disagreed.

    I was gay at BJU but not out at all. I believed everything that was preached and taught there which caused a great deal of inward conflict on this topic. All those dating rules and restrictions that most people complained about were a breeze, though! There were a few events (once or twice a school year) when it was ok and expected to hold a girl’s hand. That made me extremely uncomfortable. All these years later that still makes me cringe.

    There were a couple guys who, in retrospect, I believe were also gay and trying to make a connection with me. They must have sensed in me what I thought was hidden, but I pushed them away out of fear. They both disappeared without warning. Anyone discovered to be gay was immediately expelled, and that’s what probably happened to them. I have no idea what became of them. Over the years I’ve often thought about them sadly and wished I had been more open to their friendship instead of pushing them away.

    For years – decades – after graduating I tried to live like a good little fundamentalist. Then Trump came along, and fundamentalists and evangelicals showed that they don’t really care about morality when they started to worship him. It’s not morality, it’s hatred that motivates them. My eyes are now open, and I feel like I’ve wasted most of my life living by their rules. Now I find myself old, gay, and alone thanks to their hatred.

    Sorry for the rant. This is the first time I’ve expressed this to anyone. It’s cathartic, but later I’ll probably be embarrassed.

    • Avatar

      Thank you very much for your courage and your story.

      I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for you to endure all that hostility alone. I’m also gay and grew up Evangelical in a conservative country. But at least I have access to the internet and (nowadays) more accepting friends. I don’t know if I would have survived had I been in your position (that statement about stoning is horrendous).

      Like you, I also found, to my severe disappointment, that those Christians who constantly pontificate on the supposed immorality of LGBT people often fail to keep their own rules. Even prominent Christians leaders apparently can’t keep the fly of their pants shut when required. “Do as I say, not as I do”.

      I’m grieved that you had to endure all that hatred. I wish you peace and a better future.

  8. Avatar

    I attended the AACS competitions at BJU for 2 years in the late 80s. I was already firmly determined to escape evangelical education, and visiting the school certainly solidified that decision. The fundamentalist Christian school I attended strongly pushed for students to go to BJU, Pensacola Christian College, Tennessee Temple, and the like.

    I feel for J and his (I don’t want to assume pronouns or name so will stay with these until informed otherwise) experience with evangelicalism. Evangelicals want each person to reside in a specific box, just as Bruce describes. Those of us who don’t fit the box are abused until we force ourselves to fit, or we leave. It is good to hear J has found his authentic self.

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Bruce Gerencser