In the mid-seventies, before the textbook crisis hit Kanawha County, and preachers started Christian schools in church basements all over the valley, I walked down the street to Elkview Elementary School every morning, a new building and an old building on the banks of the muddy Elk River, linked by a breezeway. This was where I had my first encounter with the idea that some men love other men, just as I understood men love women.
The new principal at Elkview Elementary, Mr. Eagle, was somehow too neat, his mustache too crisp, his hair too perfect and feathered. He walked and talked a little bit like a girl. The summer after fourth grade, I saw him at Coonskin swimming pool with another man—and they were both wearing Speedos. The boys along the Elk River made relentless fun of him for being girly.
In my fifth-grade year, the textbook controversy boiled over and my sister, brother and I landed in Elk Valley Christian School. I have no idea how long Mr. Eagle stayed at Elkview Elementary. I do not know if he was gay either, only that people whispered that he was—and if he was, something about him was so irreparably broken and disgusting that it could not be spoken of in polite company. He had damn well better keep it to himself. Maybe the worm was turning in New York, but this was West-by-god-Virginia.
The phrase, the worm has turned popped into my head. The saying is from an old proverb, “trod on a worm and it will turn,” and came to me via Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “The smallest worm will turn being trodden on…” Obviously, a turning worm cannot do much damage to its destroyer, but at the very least, it does not lie still for the crushing heel.
The historical moment that the gay worm began to turn in the United States was probably the Stonewall riots of 1969. That was in New York, a long way from Elkview, West Virginia. I didn’t hear about that moment until I was in college. What I heard about was gays mounting an army to attack my frightened white Fundamentalist Baptist tribe, and Anita Bryant, the woman on the orange juice commercials, who was fighting the good fight for Christians against gay bullies.
A girl named Debbie lived across the street from my dad’s church. I thought she was a bully. She was four or five years older than I was, and she was masculine beyond what people could shrug off as “tomboy.” In high school, she started wearing boy’s jeans and a boy’s haircut. She walked like a boy—not like any boy, but with the glance-around swagger that said, “Fuck with me. I dare you.” She had a wallet on a chain. I steered clear of her.
One Sunday night, Debbie attended Elkview Baptist Church. She drove up in a Jeep with another butch girl, and the two of them walked into the church, and sat through my dad’s nervous sermon, their chins high and defiant. When the service was over, they walked back out without speaking a word to anyone. The church was scandalized. People were astounded at their gall. They were giving notice: The worm has turned, and maybe it has teeth. A better way to describe their gaze around the sanctuary would be, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Tea Party Republicans have adopted “Don’t Tread on Me” as their battle cry. They have bumper stickers of the Gadsden flag—yellow with coiled rattlesnake and the slogan—used during the Revolutionary War to warn away the British. A turning worm is impotent; a rattlesnake is deadly. Tea Partiers today are now using it to give notice to the United States government. They do not like the liberal way things are moving, and they will not submit without a fight—a fight in which at least some of them are willing to inflict literal, physical casualties. Evangelical Christians are among the most militant of these Tea Party radicals. Liberty University, here in my hometown, is a right wing radical stronghold.
*Because our church linked into the Moral Majority movement early, I learned from Jerry Falwell that gays and lesbians were organizing and becoming militaristic, preparing to mount an offensive against Christians. The first time I saw the fat preacher was when I traveled with Elk Valley Christian School down to Charleston to watch a preacher from Elkview do martial arts battle with brute lesbians. Falwell was on the capitol steps in Charleston for the West Virginia leg of his “I Love America” tour. The preacher at Elk Valley Christian School had a pair of nunchakus he’d bought from Mike Crain’s Karate for Christ crusade. He pulled out his suit coat and showed them to me, there in his inside breast pocket. Word was that an army of homosexuals—specifically brute lesbians—were going to be there to disrupt the service and bully Christians.
In his book Falwell Inc., Dirk Smilie shares a 1981 fundraising letter from Falwell warning potential donors, “The homosexuals are on the march in this country. Please remember, homosexuals do not reproduce, they recruit, and many of them are after my children and your children.”
After that, he makes his pitch: “This is one major reason why we must keep The Old Time Gospel Hour alive… So don’t delay. Let me hear from you immediately. P.S. Let me repeat, a massive homosexual revolution can bring the judgment of God upon this nation.”
Why would butch lesbians care about a fat preacher doing a patriotic rally in downtown Charleston? I knew the battle was on elsewhere—like Florida, where the orange-juice woman Anita Bryant was doing battle with the evil hoard of homosexual perverts. But homosexual armies there in West Virginia? I watched the crowd that day for an army of homosexuals, or just some brute lesbians—I might even have seen my neighbor Debbie—but not a single evil pervert showed up. It was a great disappointment. Still just a boy, I lost interest and played with the tame squirrels on the Capital lawn.
Although I was a strong and athletic boy, I was small for my age. In addition to that, during my time at Elk Valley Christian School, I’d run with boys from downtown Charleston, boys who bought their clothes at Chess King, clothes I discovered the redneck boys up the river called faggot clothes.
I had left the Christian school after much trouble and much fighting with my parents, but I was unprepared for the world of Herbert Hoover High School. Being that I was the new kid, a number of girls were interested; being that I was dressing in my Chess King fag clothes, dull, angry boys tormented me. As I always had along the Elk River, I fought when I felt I could manage it, and I ran when outsized and outnumbered, which was all but once my senior year. The favorite term bullies used was fag. For about six months during my senior year of high school, the torment was relentless—that was my small taste of what it must have been like to be gay. No way in hell could a boy come out as gay up that river without fearing for his welfare, his very life.
You would think, having experienced bullying by boys who called me fag and queer, I would have empathized with the plight of gay men, but that would be giving me too much credit. In high school, my friends and I made sport of driving around Charleston shooting small darts into crowds. We had an air pistol that shot little silver darts with blue, red, and yellow plastic feathers. We didn’t target any group for shooting—sometimes we shot BBs at each other from air rifles—but the crowded places where we shot people was a gay bar called The Grand Palace.
Several times in a night, while we rode around Charleston drinking beer, swinging over through Kanawha City to cruise the strip to meet girls from Charleston High and Stonewall, we would pass by the movie theater between movies, the Kanawha Mall parking lot, and the Grand Palace and shoot darts at people. Someone must have called the police. We were never caught.
When we bragged of the drive-by shootings to a youth leader at church, we only told of riding by the gay bar. This man was not a paid youth pastor, only a church member who volunteered with the high school class. He gave us the obligatory lecture—what we were doing was wrong and dangerous, and we should stop—but the smirk playing at the edges of his mouth betrayed that he saw the fun in watching fags scramble and yell as you shot them with darts. We understood perfectly what that almost-smirk meant: some people were fair game, deserved what they got.
Cartoon books circulated among Baptist churches when I was young, and stocked the tract displays—no Spider Man, or Archie, or Richie Rich; our comics had titles like, Are Roman Catholics Christians?, Going Down?, and A Demon’s Nightmare. The one that frightened me most when I was a kid was This Was Your Life! A man dies after living for himself instead of God, and before an angel throws him into the lake of fire, he has to stand naked while the whole world watches a huge movie of all the shameful things he’s ever done. “No,” he shouts as his secret lust is exposed to all. “Not that!”
In 1984, the year I graduated from high school, a comic called The Gay Blade hit church tract stands. It describes “Satan’s shadowy world of homosexuality,” which is characterized by “filth and brutality.” The comic depicts “the homosexuals” as demon-possessed and dangerous predators. “Only Christ can overcome this demonic power that controls them,” the comic reads, under a drawing of a gay man trying to force another man into sex. The straight man is trying to struggle free of the fiend. He is pleading, “Let go!”
In January of 1993, after coming back from the elder Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf, graduating from college, and marrying J., I enrolled in seminary at Liberty University. J. and I found an apartment in Lynchburg. We bought an English springer spaniel and named him Zeke. I took a job in a juvenile lockup, and J. landed a job in the human resources department at Liberty. We labored away at school and work, and we had a date night every Friday, ate pizza and watched a new TV show called “Cops.”
One weekend J. and I attended Falwell’s church, and LU campus cops were in the parking lot warning churchgoers that a gang of homosexual activists was going to picket the church, clog up the sidewalks and parking lot, bully the congregation.
Unlike the no-show brute lesbians at the state Capital when I was a kid, these activists showed up, a scraggly bunch of young women—called fag hags when I was in school—and a smattering of young men who might or might not have been gay. Maybe thirty kids in all. I imagined these girls the previous Friday, sitting at circled desks in some dark high school classroom. It was club period at school and they were all talking at once, excitedly planning this very protest. They carried signs and called out to churchgoers after the morning service. The campus cops stood in their dark blue uniforms, black pistols on their hips, keeping guard over the fat preacher’s flock as they made their way to the parking lot. They watched the protesters with blank, expressionless stares from behind sunglasses. The day was bright and cold.
“Jesus taught love,” a girl said to J. and me as we made their way along the sidewalk. The girl was frail, a Vietnam-era army coat hung over a flowery peasant dress on her thin frame. Her hair was parted in the middle, stringy and straight. She could have been a hippie from twenty years earlier. “Jesus did not teach hate,” she said.
We did not respond, but walked on.
“If being gay was such a problem to Jesus, why did he forget to mention it?” she called out.
J. turned and smiled nervously at the girl. J. had been raised liberal United Methodist, had not been taught as I had that being gay was a sin—she probably still did not believe it was a sin, her employment at LU notwithstanding. She was only at the school because I was there.
These were the radicals who bullied Christians? What exactly was the nature of their bullying? In Jerry Falwell: An Unauthorized Profile, published in 1981, William R., and Price, James J. H. Goodman, two Lynchburg College professors, quote this gem from the fat preacher: “In my age, we laughed at queers, fairies and anyone who was thought to be homosexual. It was a hideous thing and no one talked about it, much less ever confessed to being a homosexual.” Falwell goes on to lament, “Now they’re coming out of the closet.”
I could no longer ignore something I had always known: I was not standing against bullies on the side of persecuted people; I was standing with the bullies, bullies who were whining because they were being called out for their bad behavior. I put my head down in shame and walked on to the car.
Twenty-three years after that encounter in the Thomas Road Baptist Church parking lot, I have struggled free of cult of Fundamentalist Christianity. I count members of the LGBTQ community among my closest family and friends—they are among of the kindest and best people I know, human beings of the highest quality.
In 2014, I saw on social media that the Southern Baptists had held a conference they called “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage,” during which the Baptists met for dialogue with members of the LGBTQ community. I read about the conference to see if anything had really changed.
It had, and it had not.
The most striking change was that the Southern Baptists were backing off their insistence that sexuality is a lifestyle choice. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a grudging nod to science, admitted publically at the conference that he was “wrong years ago when [I] said same-sex attraction could be changed.” This admission has huge implications for practices such as the cruel and damaging gay reparative therapy.
Because of this shift, the Southern Baptists were sounding the call to deal more charitably with the LGBTQ community. This was a significant change. Even Glenn Stanton, the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, had written a book titled Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth. However, they still view homosexuality as, in Mr. Stanton’s words, “a particularly evil lie of Satan.” While the more honest Baptists have finally conceded is that homosexuality is not something one just chooses willy-nilly, but they still insist that, natural as the inclination is, failing to resist it places one in a state of perverse rebellion against the creator of the universe.
What this gives LGBTQ people within the Evangelical church is a keen awareness that they are considered ontologically lacking in ways everyone else is not—the line “we’re all sinners here” notwithstanding. LGBTQ people who remain in their Evangelical churches have to admit that an essential aspect of their existence in the world, something written into their genetic code, renders them vile and disgusting to the almighty creator of the universe—and there’s not one goddamn thing they can do to change it.
Ridiculous as it might seem to judge a person’s sexuality, which is a result of his particular DNA code—which is 99.9% identical to every other human, and only a little less than 99% identical to a chimpanzee—by the sexual rules penned by men in a Near Eastern tribe during the Iron Age, but alas, here we are still. Though their biblical literalism is hopelessly inconsistent, Fundamentalists are dead serious about the passages they choose to keep on the literal side of the tally sheet.Fine, we could say. Believe what you want but keep it in your church. We could say live and let live, as we do with so many other issues, but there are those who will not allow that—those who refuse to give up their right to scapegoat and bully marginalized populations, to insist that their interpretation of Scripture on morality is the one everyone must follow. In an address to Liberty University Law School students in 2015, interim dean Rena Lindevaldsen makes it clear that this is what they believe: “Civil government only has the authority that which God has established, so civil government, if it’s acting rightfully within its authority, just like individuals, should be acting consistent with Scripture.”
Mat Staver, former Dean of Liberty University’s Law School, and Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Liberty Council—and more recently a performer in the Kentucky clerk circus—takes this contempt for civil government into his crusade against LGBTQ rights. He does it with an astounding blend of zeal and ignorance. When discussing why same-sex marriage should be illegal with Jim Schneider of “Crosstalk,” he said, “we know male-male sexual relationships are notoriously harmful, physically as well as mentally, and also female-female, same kinds of things… It’s harmful to the individuals and those harms ultimately affect those around because they’re communicable and other kinds of serious and deadly diseases.”
During his tenure at Liberty University Law School, Staver trained Falwell’s “pit bulls,” to take the Culture Wars into the courtrooms and government buildings. He currently defends the missionary Scott Lively, whose ten-year missionary campaign in Uganda was not to win souls, but to fight “genocidal” and “pedophilic” gays.Scott Lively likens gay rights activities to “the Nazis and Rwandan murderers,” and complains in “The Death of Human Rights” that the movement is trying to crush Christians’ religious liberty “under the heels of its pink jackboots.” Lively does not just cross the line of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies with his pink jackboots reference, he blitzkriegs it, penning the book The Pink Swastika in which he argues that the Nazi high command was a gang of militant homosexuals, all the way up to the Führer. In an open letter to Vladimir Putin, Lively offers his “heartfelt gratitude that your nation has take [sic] a firm and unequivocal stand against this scourge by banning homosexualist propaganda in Russia.”
Staver wholeheartedly agrees. In the radio broadcast, “Faith and Freedom,” he praised anti-homosexuality laws in Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria, and at a “Celebrate America” rally, he proclaimed that the growing tolerance for members of the LGBTQ community is, “moving into a direct attack on who God is.” Staver maintains that marriage equality will be the “end of Western Civilization.”
In defending Lively, who is standing trial Staver shrugs off the bludgeoning murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato by asserting that “Kato tried to force [the man] to have sex.” Staver’s homophobic, victim-blaming glasses transform a proposition—if indeed anything occurred at all, which is not a given—into attempted rape, one that apparently ended as it should have: another sodomite with his skull bashed in. They claim they are being bullied by gays, while they tacitly condone the imprisonment, beating, and murder of gays.
Staver said on Moody Radio that the legalization of same-sex marriage “is the thing that revolutions literally are made of.” He said allowing same-sex couples to marry, “would be more devastating to our freedom, to our religious freedom… than anything that the revolutionaries during the American Revolution even dreamed of facing. This would be the thing that revolutions are made of.”
These sentiments are not the ravings of a few nuts on the fringes of the far right. Eric Ericson, whom Molly Ball, writing for Atlantic Monthly in February, 2015, called the most powerful conservative in America, repeatedly refers to LGBTQ activists as terrorists. This from his RedState.com blog:
Gay rights activists… have not turned physically violent. But they are intent on destroying any who disagree with them. They will take the homes, businesses, and life savings of any who defy them. They will use the tools of the state and mob action through boycotts, fear, and intimidation to make it happen. They will not kill but they will threaten and scare… The divide between Islamic extremists and gay rights extremists is at death. They meet on the line at destruction.
In November of 2015, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal were all running for president, and they attended The National Religious Liberties Conference, an event hosted by a preacher who repeatedly reminds his followers that God’s punishment for homosexuality is death. Preaching at that conference, Swanson proclaimed, “Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes,” he continues, “Romans chapter one, verse thirty two, the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death.” Swanson they cried out, with his Bible in the air, “His words not mine,” and to the applause of his audience at this political rally, he said, “And I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
When asked about Swanson’s words, Ted Cruz, the most serious presidential contender at the conference—who has himself lamented the “gay jihad” against Christians—could only muster in response that the call to execute gays was “not explicit.” In a previous interview with activist Peter Labarbrera, he lamented that the president was more concerned with “rare mass shootings that take place in this country from time to time than he is with the fact that the majority of Americans are under constant threat from gay rights terrorism.”
These men claim the moral high ground while human beings are dying because of there scapegoating. They are moral bullies. What happens when the scapegoat rejects the moral bullies’ categories? What happens when the worm turns? Thrown off guard, they lash out. For all their talk of loving the sinner, they give you a glimpse of what they truly believe, let slip their real opinions. For instance, Falwell could meet his enemies with a friendly smile, but he could not help letting his bully burst forth in unguarded moments. After the attacks of 9-11, he went on Pat Robertson’s television show and blamed the attacks on, along with secularists, abortionists and the ACLU, “the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle.” Ignoring the historical realities of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Falwell proclaimed to all of those rising up to reject his moral categories, “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” When called out publically, he said that wasn’t what he meant at all.
Of course, it was what he meant. He was feeling the sting of the bite on his heel. Mat Staver feels it too, as does Bryan Fischer, Scott Lively, Peter Labarbera, James Dobson, Kevin Swanson, and Ted Cruz. They no longer get a pass on laughing at “queers and fairies,” and they no longer have the power to keep those queers and fairies in the closet. This is the persecution those men suffer: the ones they are used to marginalizing and maligning, the scapegoats, are turning and saying to them, “no more.” When these men look around for those who will chuckle when they recommence their bullying, they find themselves in the minority. The gay worm is turning.
Not only is the gay worm turning, it is now armed with the teeth of federal law. Do not think that because they feel the sting on their heel, the bullies will give up. Just as the racial equality laws of Reconstruction were systematically dismantled, shackling freed slaves in the South back into de facto slavery, these bullies are already hacking away at LGBTQ rights on the state and local level. They will not lie down either.
The Southern Baptists might feel that sitting down and talking to members of the LGBTQ community was some magnanimous act. If they want it to be anything more than an empty gesture, they must call off the gay-bashing pit bulls within their ranks. Before you can start dressing wounds, you have to remove the cause of injury.