Harding University Queer Press Series: A Tactile Illustration

This post is one in a continuing series for the month of March that aims to examine the American Church’s response to homosexuals in their midst, whether they be believers, agnostics, or atheists. This month’s series was spawned by the Harding University Queer Press publishing a zine on March 2 featuring the voices and stories of past and present LGBTQ students at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, my alma mater. The zine can be downloaded in its digital entirety at http://www.huqueerpress.com.

The great thing about writing is you can twist anything you want to. Sometimes it’s done for the sake of creativity, sometimes for the sake of placing heavier emphasis on a point, or sometimes it’s done purely for the fun of it. But then there are times when it has to be done out of necessity; you have to alter certain facts so as to make the true-life situation unrecognizable to those who were originally part of it.

And such is the case with this illustration. I don’t want to embarrass anyone who was there when it happened, and the environment of this vignette is so specific that the participants would recognize themselves instantly, even if all I did was change some names. I just want to give a quick example of what I briefly mentioned at the beginning of my last post—the fact that people are watching you to see how you conduct yourself. So . . . an illustration that has very little truth to it, except for the parts that get the point across.

While a student at Harding University, about three other friends and I started this tradition of sorts where we would go out east to a random field owned by someone one of the guys knew, and we would set fire to things and throw things and take off our shirts, and sometimes there was beer involved, but never enough to get drunk because we knew we wanted to remember the crazy fun we’d had when we woke up the next morning. We were children of the night, children of freedom, children of smoke and wind and pine trees and everything God’s green earth mandates as being intoxicatingly euphoric and essential to cardiopulmonary transcendence. We did this every two weeks or so, and before long there were about nine of us going out east to basically just have fun being crazy so as to release some of the pressures collegiate academia can build up.

It’s interesting how things can take on their own religious devotion after a while. At first we would always ask each other, “Hey, you going Saturday night?” but soon we stopped doing that because it was just assumed (and rightfully so) all the guys would be there every other week. And they were. If ever a man wasn’t there it had to be only because he was sick as a dog who’d just eaten a chocolate-covered poinsettia; never would school be the staunch, rigid buzzkill keeping him home, no matter how big the exam or paper might be.

To say these eight guys and I bonded would not even begin to explain how close we all were. Yet even so, I came to find there were things about all the guys not everyone knew, deeper parts of us to which you couldn’t affix the label “common knowledge.” One such secret was that Austin was gay.

For whatever reason Austin told me and nobody else, and it wasn’t even really a big “coming out” explanation or anything; he just sort of offhandedly referred to it during a completely unrelated conversation, as if I already knew. Perhaps he assumed I did—I still don’t really know. Regardless, I came to soon realize he was very guarded with this secret and that I was the only one of his eight friends in the group who knew.

One Saturday night when we went east we decided to bring food to cook over one of the many fires we would inevitably create. After about four seconds of consideration we determined hot dogs would be the best choice.

That night while we were waiting for the food to get done over the fire, two of the other guys began to make fun of gays a little bit. Nothing too outright and blatant; just the typical putting on of an effeminate voice and the girly hand flips were there. I don’t even remember who started it that night or how it got started; how does any of that ever start, really? While Austin’s and my two friends were imitating the stereotypical gay man, I just sat there awkwardly, not really knowing what to do. So instead I just watched Austin to see what his reaction was.

He quietly walked away from the fire over to the cooler full of hot dogs to put one on a metal skewer. I looked over at his plate; it already had two hot dogs on it. I looked back at Austin. He wasn’t putting anything on his skewer; he was just kind of rummaging around in the cooler, saying nothing, but I could tell he was listening. Once the conversation of our two friends had moved to something else, Austin came back over to where we were all sitting. I love my two other friends, but in that moment I wanted to skewer them and hold them over the fire for making Austin feel that distant. I later realized I was just as much to blame, though.

I told my younger brother about that story, and he said, “What, you didn’t say anything?” And it wasn’t until my brother asked me that that I began to realize how my silence equates to participation. Sure, in some situations silence is the appropriate response, but not that one. Even a simple, “Hey, guys, come on. Cut it out,” would’ve sufficed. But instead I saw it fit to sit there like a mime.

When I reflect on that memory I now don’t hold my two friends in as much contempt as I did when we were at the fire that night. I now realize there wasn’t anything malicious in their teasing. They didn’t even see it as teasing; to them there wasn’t a target present, and they were safe to just say whatever they wanted to without really putting thought behind it. And yet one of their own close friends received all the mocking full force, was physically pushed to the outer rim, and nobody except Austin and I was aware it was taking place. While their intentions may have been playful, the results were extremely detrimental.

Because Austin was listening all too intently, more so than perhaps even I can really understand, and as far as I know, he hasn’t come out of the closet to those two friends of ours. I haven’t asked Austin about it, nor do I really feel the need to, but I wonder what was going through his head around that fire. I wonder if he was crossing two names off a list of people he could potentially trust, people he had hoped would exhibit grace and understanding in their everyday conversations.

It’s not that my two friends are bad people; they just exhibit what is so easily apparent in our culture—this idea that joking around isn’t really even that big of a deal since it’s just joking around. But words carry a searing branding power, the likes of which we can never truly begin to understand with our limited mental capacity.

And this is when the other side may ask the question, “Are we blowing this out of proportion? Everybody gets teased at some point or another. Are gays and lesbians going through anything so unique compared to what we’ve all experienced at different times in our lives?” I’ve been asked that several times of late, and my answer stays the same: the teasing directed at them is much different than anything you and I have experienced.

When I was about nine years old I got made fun of for having big ears. I remember the scenario to this day; it took place at a water park in Dallas during the hot summer months, and I was in the lazy river that circles the entire park. Two kids—probably a couple years older than me—made highly intelligent connective references between me and a Disney pachyderm. I just kind of shrugged it off, but it stung. That was almost fifteen years ago, and I’m not scarred for life, but I still remember it. And it’s ears. Ears. That’s nothing.

Now imagine people tease you, bully you, punish you, and estrange you for your sexual orientation. Your sexuality is incredibly personal to you and something that should only be brought to the light by the possessor; for anyone else to do that creates a violation akin to a lesser form of rape. To have your worth as an individual, your ability to contribute to society, your value in the eyes of God, and your legitimacy as a human being who matters all called into question because of something so intimate and potentially embarrassing as your sexuality would be a form of suffering very few of us have experienced. At least, that’s what I would argue.

And I don’t pretend to understand how personally hurtful that is, but I can at least acknowledge that it would be tortuous in a way I can not imagine. I have no point of personal reference for how painful it is to be black and called a “nigger,” but I don’t dare belittle that experience. Likewise, I don’t have any point of personal reference for how shaming it is to be gay and called a “faggot,” but that doesn’t change the fact that such teasing and bullying slices scars into the hearts and souls of gays and lesbians, young and old, and it’s been enough to cause many members of the LGBTQ community to commit suicide of late.

We’re better than this, you know. We’re better than this because we do know the pain of this somewhat. All of our experiences are unique and encompass varying degrees of pain, but there’s not a man or woman out there who hasn’t had something hurtful said to them. Whether you can exactly identify with a gay or lesbian isn’t the issue; the fact is you know what it’s like to be called out and made fun of . . . all of us do. If we can take that, call forth those repressed feelings of embarrassment and pain, and then try to at least fill a gay’s or lesbian’s shoes in some miniscule way, the doors of reparation will begin to creak and crack their way to a sliver of an opening.

But these are tactile examples. Christ knew what he was saying during the Sermon on the Mount when he focused on the hearts of people, for so much of this goes far beyond our physical actions in terms of where the root cause exists. The next post will bring a less tangible illustration forward so as to show there is something deeper that has to experience reparation first in order for our actions to ameliorate. In the playground that is the internet, our hearts and minds are too often uninhibited, whether hidden behind the veil of anonymity or not. But that’s next time. I hope your weekend is full of shalom.

Much love.

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2 comments
  1. Courtland Hemphill said:

    I just stumbled across this article. I just want to say your writing is incredible. Your diction and the voice you pour out onto paper is amazing. Also, I’m a student at Harding so I could relate very well to this particular topic, and I completely agree with everything you said. Outstanding job on every piece of this.

    • Since these articles are in the ever-growing past, it’s always a small surprise when someone chooses to comment on them now. And it never ceases to be incredibly uplifting to receive such kind words. You humble me, Courtland; I can’t thank you enough for reading. Blessings to you, my friend.

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