More Trials of a Liberal Gay Christian

It is very early on a rainy morning, so I thought I’d visit my blog and air a few thoughts.  There probably isn’t much here that I haven’t already said, but perhaps my experiences will help someone else.

Twenty-seven years ago, while a junior in college studying theatre and music, I managed to land a teaching position at a local music school on Staten Island.  I would spend the next six years there teaching voice, piano, and music theory, and it was a great anchor job for an aspiring actor because it left me a good deal of free time to go on auditions.

But there was what you might call a dark side to the place that I was quite unprepared for.  The majority of the clientele were born-again Christians of one form or another:  Pentecostals, Charismatics, and the like.  The truth is that it was a rather cynical move on the part of the school’s owner to go trolling for business in their churches, but to give the bastard credit, it worked.

Now, I have been a Christian since the age of five.  I was brought up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA for short), a denomination that in my childhood was beginning to lead the pack in the direction of liberalism, which was what attracted my parents to it (they had previously been Missouri Synod Lutherans, a much more conservative sect).  By the time I took the job at the music school, it must be admitted that I was no longer a regular churchgoer, though I still considered myself a Christian; I prayed, I still held to my beliefs, and I got to church when I could get my lazy ass out of bed.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the brand of Christianity that I encountered at my new job.  The first time a student asked me if I was a Christian, I answered “yes” readily enough even though I was shocked to the core by the question.  After all, my ability to teach her music would have been the same had I been Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, Pagan, or a Druid.  But my “yes” apparently satisfied her, so at first I did not smell danger.

That came a bit later, and it struck one of my co-workers, not me.  Unlike the students, the staff was a mixed bag.  Most of us were professional musicians, and some of us professed no faith at all, but this being Staten Island NY in the late Eighties, a good many of my colleagues were Roman Catholic, and one day when one of them was asked if she were a Christian and she responded that she was a Catholic, she suddenly found herself pounced upon by a good half a dozen of these lunatics, “laying hands” on her and praying for her to “come out” of the Catholic Church.  At the time I had no experience of these people, so I was unaware of their rabid hatred of Roman Catholics, which was all the more pronounced on Staten Island because that borough has a very large RC population.

Needless to say, the young woman was furious.  And with good reason.  For myself, I was so shocked at what I had seen that I could only lend a sympathetic ear.  I hardly knew what to say, having had no experience with these people.

But at the end of the day, I was a musician who needed to put bread on the table, so I adapted.  Contemporary Christian music was really coming into its own back then, with major stars like Amy Grant, Sandy Patti, Michael Card, Michael W Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Steve Green, Michele Pillar, and many others getting tons of airplay on the local AM Christian station, a station that bore the rather ironic call letters WWDJ.

I even found myself getting into the music.  In terms of the idiom, it was as good as any of the secular stuff that was out there, and even the mainstream churches had begun to hold contemporary worship services, no doubt to draw more young people.  But then came the dark side, and when it hit, it hit hard and fast.

The boss hired a new teacher who happened to be one of “them.”  I use the term advisedly, because frankly, from the day she set foot in the door, her presence in the school was upsetting at best and downright disruptive at worst.  For starters, she wasted no time in telling us all that unless we were “born again” we were all going to burn in hell forever and ever.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, she always had her son in tow, a seven-or eight-year old spoiled brat that she was home schooling and whom nobody dared to so much as say “no” to because if we did we got a ration of shit from Camille.

Worst of all, part of the deal she had worked out with the boss included voice lessons for her, and out of the three voice teachers on staff, I found myself saddled with her.  Not that she couldn’t sing; in fact, she really wasn’t all that bad.  But she was unteachable.  Any time I tried to correct her phrasing, help her with her breathing, or stop her from singing off pitch, she either insisted that it was her style or deliberately took offense and the lesson usually ground to a screeching halt.

I had a lot of students like her over the next six years, both men and women, though the men tended to be somewhat less neurotic than the women (which in the circumstances is not saying much).  And some of them were really talented, so I couldn’t have cared less whether they sang Gospel or show tunes; they were a pleasure to teach despite our differing views (and in all fairness, I must admit that most did not try to evangelize me; they were paying to learn music and they were as determined as anyone to get their money’s worth).

Camille stayed around, though, and her presence continued to be a massive thorn in everyone’s side.  I really thought it was going to be the end of her when one of my other colleagues’s stepfather passed away.  The family was Catholic, and when Joanne came back from her bereavement leave, Camille, without so much as batting an eye, started carrying on about how her stepfather was in hell and that demons were clawing his eyes out, etc etc etc.

Now Joanne, whom I have not seen in many years, was one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever known, and when Camille started spewing her vitriol, Joanne’s first reaction, naturally, was tears.  Then, rage.  And none of us blamed her.  In fact, I told Camille to her face that day that, Christian or no Christian, she was a woman without compassion.  That was the end of our lessons.  And good riddance.

She didn’t last much longer after that little fiasco, anyway.  One day, another co-worker, Jeff, was doing some of the housekeeping tasks that we all pitched in on:  he was cleaning all the glass surfaces in the place with Windex and paper towels.

I was not present for what happened, but as I understood it later, Camille’s brat wandered into the room and wanted to play with the bottle of Windex, a request that Jeff quite properly denied.  The kid was quick, however, and grabbed the bottle and managed to squeeze off a couple of squirts of the ammonia-based cleaner in the general direction of Jeff’s face.

Jeff lost his temper completely, wrenched the bottle out of the kid’s hands, and squirted him right between the eyes.  Twice.  I couldn’t blame him; none of us liked that spoiled brat, and most of us would probably have done the same thing in his shoes.

Well, naturally the brat went running to Mommy, who proceeded to throw a temper tantrum that made me realize where the kid learned it from, and she stormed out of the building.  And that, thank God, was the last we ever saw of Camille.

I can’t recall what happened to Jeff, but I don’t think he lost his job that day.  He did, however, move on not too long afterwards.

My days with the “born-agains” were far from over, however.  My boss called me into his office one day and told me that a Charismatic church not far from the school was looking for a Director of Music Ministry, and would I be interested in the job?  Well, I never said no to work back in those days, so I went to the church, was interviewed, and played one Sunday service as a sort of audition, which is customary.  I got the job, and would be there for the next three years, during which time my tenure at the music school would come to an end.

Now, perhaps I need to make one thing clear:  I came out at nineteen when I was a sophomore in college, and during this entire period I was engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with a man I met the summer I turned twenty.  I was out to my family.  I was even what you might call “three-quarters out” at the music school, since the clientele was not exclusively of the Fundamentalist breed and my colleagues had all figured me out long before I said anything.

One more thing about Camille.  When I was offered the job at the church, she had not yet left the music school.  When she got wind of it, she went to the boss (of the school) and told him I had no business taking such a job because I was “a homosexual.”

Now, I have never denied that I am not exactly the most masculine creature God ever put on this green earth, but there was no way she could have known such a thing unless I had told her, and I would have cut out my tongue first.

So I confronted her.  I literally dragged her into my teaching studio and demanded to know why she was spreading rumors about me and who had told her what she had just told my boss.  She denied the charge of rumor-spreading on the grounds that she thought the allegation was true, and she flatly refused to say who had told her.  I had my suspicions about that one, but I was never able to confirm them (and at any rate, if the person I suspected was indeed the culprit, she probably let it slip without realizing the full implications; there was no malice in her).

So I told Camille that the next time she opened her big fat mouth she could expect to hear from my lawyer, and left it at that.  She wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I think even she knew she was wading in treacherous waters, and if she turned out to be wrong, the consequences for her could be disastrous.

Anyway, the music school job came to an end not all that long after this.  No need to dwell on the reasons:  there was a salary dispute and the four highest-paid teachers (myself included) were forced out by a drastic cut in both pay and hours.  Frankly, I think we were all relieved.

Which brings me to the church job.  With the music school gone, I needed that money more than ever, so there was no question of quitting.  And I am no organist, so employment at another church was unlikely (this church had no organ and the music was provided by a piano-based band).

I realized before too much time had passed that I had been cast into a nightmare.  I did a choir rehearsal on Wednesday nights, and two services, one on Friday night and the other on Sunday morning.  No service was ever less than two hours long, and I soon discovered that one of Pastor’s favorite whipping boys (along with Catholics and politicians) was “homosexuals.”  And once he got started, the sermon alone could go on for an hour.

An hour of gay-bashing, twice a week, for three years, all because I needed the paycheck.

Long story short, by the end of the three years I was so sick of hearing his hateful rhetoric that just going into the building made me physically ill.  So one Thursday I scribbled a letter of resignation, left my music and my keys on the office desk, and went home.  The pastor called me twice and left messages, which I never returned.

And that was only two hours a week, and I was a self-sufficient adult who in the end could make the necessary choices to get myself out of there.  Imagine what it must be like for a kid in his or her first or second year of high school.  The bullying goes on all day long, and with the Internet in practically every home, it now has the ability to follow these kids to the one place that used to be safe.  And trust me, at that age, college and an independent life seem as far away as the moon, no matter how many times your parents may tell you that you are growing up.

I don’t know why I woke up this morning thinking of all this.  I haven’t thought of Camille in years, and while I am still in touch with a few of my former colleagues from the school, none of them are still working there (and good for them, I say).  As for the church, aside from those two phone messages I never heard a word from anyone from that place ever again.

I can only surmise that God put this on my heart to post, because there are still a lot of hurting LGBT kids out there, and the “It Gets Better” campaign is great but it can only go so far.

So here is my story, for what it is worth.  Navigating your way through the straight world isn’t always easy, but I learned a long time ago that, in most cases at least, it is much harder to live a lie than to live in truth.

The old Scripture is true:  “And the truth shall set you free.”

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