Tyler, Texas has a population of about 100,000 people and is home to over 90 churches. As part of the Bible Belt, this small town in East Texas isn’t the most welcoming to LGBTI individuals.
Kendall Phillips, Zach Smith, and Thomas Blakeley are three gay men from Tyler. Despite growing up in the same town, they each have different stories about how being gay in such a town affected them.
Kendall Phillips turned to Christianity
Kendall Phillips, 23, is the only one of the three who still lives in Tyler. After coming out in high school, Phillips felt pressured to go back in the closet.
‘A place like Tyler makes you feel subordinate when you share a truth like that,’ he says. ‘The scenario in this town is either you’re heterosexual, or you’re going to hell—and I was preached that scenario too many times to count.’
According to Phillips, religion played a big role in his self-denial. ‘I wanted to please my parents, and most importantly, I thought it would please God if I denied my sexual orientation,’ he says.
This ‘going back into the closet’ caused his mental health to suffer greatly.
‘I was not talking with anyone and shut myself off from the world. I hated myself because I was not straight and I knew that I could not change it. I really just wanted God to love me.’
Phillips began reading the Bible every day and telling people that God changed his life. ‘I think I was trying to convince myself that I was delivered from homosexuality more than I believed it—and I did not believe it at all.’
‘I thought that by going to church every Wednesday and Sunday and praying that God would fix me, finally God would be happy with me—but the more I prayed, the more I knew I was gay.’
Soon, this denial was too much for Phillips, who is open again about his homosexuality and no longer identifies as a Christian.
Zach Smith had to endure conversion therapy
Zach Smith, 23, found a great deal of support from his high school friends upon coming out as gay at age 17. However, knowing his parents wouldn’t be supportive, he didn’t intend on telling them.
‘My parents are Christian, Baptist, Fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationists and very, very Republican,’ he explains.
‘One of my parents looked through my computer without my permission, and they found Skype conversations between myself and one of my friends at school who was also gay,’ Smith says.
‘They did not confront me after their discovery. For about a month my mom would walk up to me and randomly hug me and start crying. Over the next month I began to suspect that they were aware.’
Smith recalls coming out to his mom during an argument and things going downhill from there. Smith was told he would be thrown out of the house if he didn’t agree to have a Skype call with a Florida-based Christian counselor who specialized in conversion therapy.
‘The counselor asked me a lot of questions, most of them were a variation of ‘what happened in your childhood that made you gay?,’’ Smith says. ‘He attempted several times to persuade me that I could never be happy as a gay person, but I had a very strong resolve and I told him repeatedly that I was not only gay, but that I was the happiest I’d ever been since I came out.’
‘Eventually, the counselor told my parents that he couldn’t force me to be straight. They were devastated.’
After this, Smith’s parents tried to get him to fly to Exodus International, the largest gay conversion conference in the United States. As he had just turned 18, he refused, knowing that legally they couldn’t force him to.
While Smith did once identify as Christian, these experiences have caused him to distance himself from religion.
‘I used to be a very devout Christian, I even wanted to be a pastor at one point – but seeing the hate from my parents and Christians in general along with being told repeatedly that I would go to hell for being gay led me to a realization that my faith and sexuality were inherently incompatible.’
Now, Smith lives in Dallas, Texas and has a strained relationship with his parents. ‘Six years after I came out my parents still think I’m ‘living a life of sin’ and they repeatedly threatened to disown me while I was in college,’ he states.
Smith still loves his parents despite their shortcomings, and hopes one day they’ll revise their stance on homosexuality.
Thomas Blakeley kept quiet about his homosexuality
Thomas Blakeley, 22, realized he was in gay in middle school. ‘I never explicitly came out publicly, and I attempted to live under a guise of heterosexuality for the remainder of my time at All Saints Episcopal School as I came out privately, to my friends,’ he recalls.
‘There were countless moments where I was openly accused of being gay, to the point where even the idea of being outed would trigger a panic attack. I lived under this fear for the majority of my youth, and found myself carrying that into my adulthood, even after living as a gay man and being perfectly open about my sexuality,’ he says.
By his senior year of high school, he had come out to about 15 friends.
‘I didn’t come out beyond this quota for two similar, yet equally polarizing reasons,’ Blakeley explains. ‘The first was because I didn’t want word to get back to my parents, whom I had yet to – and still haven’t – come out to. If I had, there was a very real fear for me of disownment, or even getting kicked out of the house.’
‘The second reason was because I had seen how people had been treated who had come out before. There was a moment that I remember distinctly, probably from my Junior year, after [Kendall Phillips] came out.
‘I was riding in a car with a friend who criticized his decision to come out because of all of the torment he received. It was because of that conversation that I deliberately decided to fly under the radar until I could leave town, and ostensibly reinvent myself.’
Blakeley now lives in New York City and is finishing college. Because of his family being regressive conservatives who never even had a conversation with him about sexuality, they are still unaware that he is not only gay, but demisexual as well.
‘There is a saying, which is that if you drive to any street corner of Tyler, you will find either a bank or a church,’ Blakeley says. ‘I think it is easy to vilify a community like Tyler, especially when you so clearly do not fit into its typical “mold”.
‘But, admittedly, for every raging homophobe that I encountered growing up, there was also an open-minded, rather tolerant individual who made me hopeful about humanity.’
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