By Christopher Matthews
Growing up I heard repeatedly that every person would reach several milestones in their life where they would make important decisions. These included choosing a college, starting a career and getting married. But most importantly, a person would decide whether or not to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. My parents, Sunday school teachers, and pastors showed me that these milestone decisions would shape the broad course of my life, and every small choice later would be affected by these bigger decisions. This information intimidated me a great deal, and since college, career and marriage had to wait until I was older, the first obvious milestone was my salvation.
Both my parents come from liberal families in the South and Midwest, but after leaving their homes they chose lifestyles of submission to God. My parents completed their collegiate studies at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where they stayed to begin their careers, my mother as an inventory clerk, and my father as a textbook writer. As it turns out, Bob Jones has built quite the reputation for itself of late. President George W. Bush campaigned at the college in 2000, after which he received a lot of criticism from across the political spectrum. At the time, Bob Jones had a No Interracial Dating policy, which was enforced on a daily basis. Though the university dropped the policy after the national attention, Bob Jones doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. They’re even too conservative for the conservatives.
When I tell people I hail from Bob Jones, they often find it surprising. But Bob Jones was the little bubble I called home, where I had been born and raised. The people there were very real to me, and I was very much one of them: I was the goody-two-shoes type of kid who wanted to please everybody. In elementary school I was the teacher’s pet, and was all the girls’ best friend. In sixth grade I broached my first milestone and decided to devote my life to God. My family’s bi-weekly excursions to church, daily chapel services, daily family devotions (where we got together to talk theology and pray together), and my personal daily devotions (where I studied the Bible for myself and prayed) all had a more-than-slight effect on this milestone decision. I was determined to do the right thing and live my life according to the principles of the Bible. This book was the most driving force in my life, because my parents encouraged me to look to the Bible for my beliefs and not to trust their own word for the principles they engrained in me. They assured me that all the rules in our home were straight from the Bible, if only I would look thereto for guidance.
Though, as a young kid, I could never distinguish between the Biblical rules and Bob Jone’s policies. My parents were cautious about the rules Bob Jones placed on us that were not directly from the Bible. For example, I remember being very confused about whether or not I could date a black person once I became of age. My parents never led me to believe it was a sin, but they made it clear that I really oughtn’t. Another oddity that didn’t become apparent to me until later was that I wasn’t allowed to see movies in a theatre. My family saw plenty of movies (G and PG ratings of course) at home, but I never saw a movie in a theatre until I was 19 years old. Obviously this rule is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but Bob Jones stuck their fingers deep into their subjects’ lives to keep the environment as godly and holy as possible on the surface. We couldn’t wear shorts, we had to wear collared shirts whenever we were on campus (unless playing sports), our bangs had to be an inch above our eyebrows, our sideburns couldn’t extend past the middle of our ears, our music had to be checked by the administration (most genres were excluded if sensual electric guitars and sexual drumbeats were present) and so forth. While these conditions seem strict and overbearing, I knew no other lifestyle. I had been reared to love Christ with my whole heart and forsake the world for the pleasures to come in the next life. I was set on committing my whole being to the unknown path God had for me, and I was in the right place to respond when he revealed it to me.
But then puberty hit. I changed drastically from the vivacious go-getter to an introverted sulk. As a kid, I had always been just a bit off. I was the excitable, effeminate child who was into art, classical music, friend-girls, dress-up and all things shiny. Once I got into middle school, the peer torment commenced and I started to realize I didn’t act the same way as other guys. It began with my best friend in fourth grade. He and I played imaginative stories together all the time, including doctor, sailors lost at sea, and ancient Roman master and slave. I realized how much I liked him, and soon thereafter began to comprehend that these feelings (and physical actions) were intense enough to be considered sinful. I remember the day it fully dawned on me, somewhere in 6th grade, that playing with my friend’s body was hell-worthy. I went to my Dad that evening and sobbed out what I had been doing. My parents lovingly held me and explained that every human has predestined sinful tendencies, and that my feelings were simply a test from God to prove I loved Him enough to give up certain things. They called my best friend’s parents and I never saw him again.
Thus began the 10 year process of finding victory over this sinful tendency. Because I trusted my parents and wanted to do what pleased God, I tried everything in books that would help me restrain my wicked bent. An essential part of this fight was to keep accountable to my Dad. He wanted to know every time I masturbated, what I was thinking about, and he scanned the computers weekly for traces of my faltering. My father’s investigations led me to simplify my struggles into failures or victories. I became a very dual person: one part of me wanted to live my life such that I would experience the joys of living for Christ, after all, my parents chose this life, and they seemed happy. The other part of me emerged gradually and ominously throughout middle school and high school, but I threw myself into music for distraction. I fooled everyone, especially myself, into thinking that because of my dedication to musical endeavors I was quelling the sinful desires within.
My family moved away from Bob Jones to Cincinnati when I was in 9th grade so my Dad could begin working in a ministry defending creationism. At the same time, my Mom began homeschooling me and my four younger siblings. On one hand, this allowed me the freedom to delve deeper into music because the scene in Cincinnati was more competitive and vibrant. I entered a national music competition every year, and always placed or won. I practiced four or five hours every day, and spent the rest of my time in youth orchestra, at church, work or at home doing schoolwork with my family. But on the other hand, my inner turmoil became more and more pronounced amidst my distracting activities. I had developed a highly involved relationship with God in my mind. He was the only ‘person’ who knew of my dark secrets and still loved me. In high school I couldn’t have friends because I knew my homosexual inclinations would somehow surface, and that would compromise my fight to rid myself thereof. I had become such a loner, which I excused on the fact that I was busy with music, but truthfully I was trying to handle my spiritual battle without involving anyone other than my parents. I became exceedingly torn between wanting the ‘right’ thing and wanting something intangible and taboo.
The day came to choose a college, and though my parents were cautious about letting me run off to the land of sinners, I assured them that I intended to live my life for God in heathen California. My parents and I came up with a battle plan to keep me from sinners and continue my isolation for Christ in lieu of romantic encounters. My first semester at USC I immediately formed all my friendships in the most conservative Bible study group on campus and made the practice rooms my home. But the alluring pull of sin around me in Los Angeles was singeing.
In my first couple of weeks I started working in the School of Theatre. I told myself I was safe from distraction because my boss was also a member of my new church in Los Angeles. This epitomized my duality: on the surface I walled myself from anything gay, but at the same time I got as close to the line as possible. I knew going away to California would allow me freedom from the inquisitions of my parents, and I would be closer to the most active hub of gays in the US. In the end, working at the School of Theatre proved to be my downfall, as some of the students befriended me and I began to open up to them about my struggles. I’m sure I sounded completely bipolar to them, since out of one side of my mouth I condemned their gay lifestyle, and out of the other I asked about it and admitted crushes I had on guys who frequented the theatre. I told them I was on the fence about how I was going to conduct my life. While I went to a few parties with them, went on a date or two with guys, and tried alcohol for the first time, I still maintained my exterior with my unaware church friends.
When I got home to my parents for the first winter break, I broke down and told them of my failures while in California. It was clear that this was a milestone in my life no one mentioned to me as a kid. My parents warned that I had to make a decision by the time I left again for USC: whether my life was to be lived for God, rescinding anything I had dabbled in, or whether I would live in sin with the gays, which would surely send me straight to hell. Though I didn’t want to remove myself from my parents after all they had invested in me, I knew there was no way I could completely give up my gay thoughts; I had tried that for the past 10 years. Nevertheless, at the end of the break, I told them that while I wasn’t ready to jump from off the fence to one side or the other, they were forcing me to make a decision. I chose to be gay.
They told me my actions would have grave consequences, but they also assured me they still loved me. They threatened that if I got on the plane back to California, I no longer had their support. Fortunately this was a somewhat empty threat, since they had always told me they couldn’t help pay for college tuition. This meant the only support they were withdrawing was emotional and spiritual. I was deeply saddened that my relationship with the two most important people in my life was to be annulled. I had become incredibly close to my parents after years of revealing to them my deepest secrets, not to mention the intimate quarters of homeschooling. In typical fashion, they told me their door was still open as long as I did not come back home living in sin. This intrinsically placed the ball in my court, but the guilt they intended to inspire was overridden by nervous excitement for my newfound freedom. The rug was pulled out from under my feet as I waved a sad goodbye and headed to my second semester.
Back at USC I lived life as bad as I could since I no longer had the restraints of childhood. I drank too much, I slept around too much, and I experimented with drugs a little more. But several things kept me from trashing myself that semester due to the strain with my parents. For starters, I entered counseling, which quickly became less about coming out and more about my social circles. The very people who initially reached out to me in the gay community quickly ditched me as I launched headfirst into their partying scene. My counselor kindly helped me understand my place in the world, which ironically was not in the gay community. A secondary support came in the form of my non-music classes. They bolstered my confidence by providing outlets that weren’t strained the way music had become by association.
I grew up very quickly that second semester. I had to straighten up my priorities in my new skin, which wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. The next year I fell in love with music again and was able to rededicate myself without the guilt of having to play music for God. My spiritual confusion may never be resolved, but as an individual I’ve become satisfied with my growth and potential after departing from my religious upbringing.
My relationship with my parents evolves daily, and though they’ll never fully agree with the direction I chose at my milestone, we have gradually begun to figure out how to agree to disagree. You see, my mother’s father is also gay, and my Mom swore him off long before she had kids. When I came around, she recognized the folly of such a decision, and hopes not to make the same mistake with me. It has been a rough process, but I’ve already seen a change in how my parents are raising my younger siblings; they have more freedoms than I did growing up (partially due to the fact that they no longer live at Bob Jones). I know this is because they realized there comes a day as parents when the apron strings must be cut, and no matter how well one parents their children, they will ultimately live their own lives and make milestone decisions for themselves.