If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) you’ve probably received an email like this one:
I’ve received emails like this one since I’ve come out. I’ve received them from old friends, strangers and in this case from past fellow church members. People who are reaching out to me in hopes for me to “see the light” and come out of this “lifestyle”—for me to deny my identity.
There was a time when I would have been really hurt by an email like the one from Connie. People don’t realize that we aren’t talking about an abstract theological concept. When you talk about homosexuality—or really same-sex sex—you’re talking about a piece of me. I didn’t choose this anymore than you choose to be straight. This is my road to walk and you can critique from the sidelines on how I should live all you like, it still is my shoes making the journey.
Above anything, I just wish Connie could know the Jesus I know. The one that delivers us from fear, breaks the bondage of ignorance, the one that loves and affirms all people; regardless of their sexual orientation.
I’m not hurt by Connie’s email because I know she means well. She has reached out to me time and time again, she truly cares and wants the best for me. However, Connie is confusing her best with God’s best. Connie has done what countless others have done and continue to do; they have made God nothing more than a mere reflection of themselves.
Faith is a journey, it’s a personal journey. When you stop traveling in your faith, you stop growing and you stop learning. I believe the Divine is knocking on the church’s door and asking, “Will you love my LGBT children as I love them? As I affirm them? Will you choose to know them as I know them?”
To all the Connies out there, here are three important lessons to learn…
– First, When you tell me my life would be better as x,y,z; you’re minimizing my relationship with Christ. I have a different interpretation of a couple verses in the Bible. I have reconciled my faith and sexual orientation. There has to be respect for my personal journey with God.
– Next, ask yourself have you actually done your research on what the bible says or doesn’t say in regards to homosexuality as we understand it today? My friend Eliel Cruz says, “You’ve read six Bible verses, listened to a 45-minute sermon and have deemed yourself well-versed on the multifaceted subject of homosexuality. How quickly you have become an expert on the lives of thousands. An expert on my life.” (Watch Eliel’s moving video with his spoken word, “Where Were You?” HERE) There are many, many interpretations out there from different theological perspectives. A great book is “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” by James Brownson. Wrestle with your beliefs, I have.
– Lastly, just get to know me. Come into genuine fellowship with me. I’d love to have a mutually respectful dialogue about this subject. It is only through genuine fellowship that we can both truly see each other, learn from each other and grow in our faith together.
Samantha emailed me from the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), “Paul Sr. told him to pull your show from the air immediately.” Everything I dreamt of doing since I was a kid was coming to a forced end. Not by just anyone either. It was from Paul Crouch Sr. himself. Someone I grew up watching on TV and idolizing. Most evenings, after dinner, our family would tune in together and watch TBN’s flagship show, Praise The Lord! Hosted by the founders of TBN, Paul and Jan Crouch.
On this show they would showcase the biggest names within the Charismatic Christian movement – Benny Hinn, Karen Wheaton, Jesse
Duplantis and John Hagee were some of the biggest crowd pleasers. Benny Hinn and Karen Wheaton were my personal favorites. My sisters and I even played a game we called, “Benny Hinn”. The rules were simple – if you’re Benny Hinn you get to make the other person fall over by waving your hand over their head. We played as if we possessed the same powers we believed God granted to Benny Hinn. When you live in the middle-of-nowhere and you’re a devote Pentecostal family, these are the games you come up with. Everything else is too worldly.
A separate email from another friend I had at TBN read, “They edited you out of the episode you starred on.” I was a guest on one of JCTV’s original productions called, Cruise With A Cause. This was a reality show that was taped onboard of a one-week Christian cruise to the Bahamas. I was the emcee for the cruise and was also onboard filming for my own show that week. This reality show was as dry as the Christian cruise. It was painfully vanilla. Being edited out of it should have come as a relief.
It didn’t hit me how much the news from that email would hurt until I saw the newly edited episode myself. This wasn’t just a horribly vanilla Christian reality show. For me, it was directly connected to the faith community I grew up believing in and loving. A community I desperately sought acceptance from.
About two years after coming out, I was back living in Indiana. It was the Spring of 2010 and I had just moved into my then boyfriend’s apartment in downtown Indianapolis. I finished setting up my TV in the living room, plugged in the antenna then turned on the TV. As I flipped through the over-the-air channels, JCTV flashed on my screen. I’m not sure if I believe in coincidences. Looking back now, this definitely was not one. Not only was that horrible reality show Cruise With A Cause streaming on my TV that very moment, so was my episode. The episode I was edited out of. My immediate thought was, “No way.” Stunned by this happenstance or perhaps Divine appointment, I decided to make myself comfortable. I sat back into the couch and watched to see if they really did edit me out.
On this episode, they were setting up one of JCTV’s staple on-air female personalities on blind dates with some of the other Christian entertainers on the cruise. I was one of her four blind dates for the episode. Sure enough, they edited me completely out of the entire episode. They wanted to erase my existence from their network. That was painful for me to accept. The leaders of the world I grew up believing in and loving intentionally chose to forget I ever existed since I revealed I am gay.
This wasn’t the last time something I loved tried to erase me. It’s something that has been happening to me since I was a kid who liked playing with Barbie dolls and putting on my sister’s dresses. For me, it was fun to play pretend, but, to the adults around me, it was a threat. A threat to their social status. A threat to their hard earned position in heaven. A threat if anyone else found out this child is queer.
I know I’m not alone in this.
There are countless other stories, like mine, about LGBTQ people who have been erased from the memories and archives of their faith communities. The deletion of our queer existence doesn’t occur only after we leave our beloved faith communities. It happens while we’re there. It starts with trying to get us to forget who we are. This is done through ex-gay counseling like I went through. It’s also done through what seems like normal correction. For example, I was physically and verbally disciplined every time my dad caught me playing with my sister’s dolls. Playing with my sister’s dolls became an act of defiance and great courage.
From a young age I was taught through physical, emotional and spiritual abuse to hide the most honest and genuine parts of myself. The unhealthy habits this created in my life are still unfolding and I’m learning to identify them. However, as the unhealthy habits reveal themselves through these stories I’m sharing and the book I’m writing, one question keeps emerging: Can you see me now?
Have you ever wanted to hear directly from God? Have you ever asked to receive a sign form above? We’ve all been there. That’s where I was this time last year. As I started the process of writing my memoir, I began to realize, if I wanted to speak my truth, I would have to make life changing decisions. Lacking confidence in the choices I had to make, I often found myself asking my higher power to “just give me a sign.” I think I received my sign on Veteran’s Day weekend in 2017 at The Range in Slab City, California.
In 2008 I saw the film Into the Wild. It immediately became one of my favorite movies and it still is. It’s based on the true life story of Christopher McCandless who was also on a journey to find happiness and answers to his big life questions. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene when Christopher visits a place called “Salvation Mountain” which vibrates with a curious beauty at the entrance of Slab City. In this scene, Chris meets the creator of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight. There’s a moment in the movie when the actor playing Chris asked Leonard what the real life Chris probably hoped to be true. Chris asked, “You really believe in love?” Leonard replied with a sincerity and absolute certainty that exuded through the screen and into my heart, “Totally.”
It was because of that scene I put Salvation Mountain on my bucket list. I had to go there and experience this place for myself. Last November, I drove five hours into the desert to experience it and cross Salvation Mountain off my bucket list.
Slab City is commonly referred to as “the last free place in America” because there is no government presence other than the occasional Border Patrol truck that passes through. The residents of Slab City are made up of veterans, hippies, artists, nomads and drug addicts. People arrive in their RVs, tents or nothing at all to live off the land and be free.
I arrived Saturday evening, just in time for the weekly open-mic night at Builder Bill’s living room known as “The Range”. I called the Slab City Hostel ahead of time and made arrangements to stay with a hippie named, Whitehorse Bob. He goes by Whitehorse for short and has been living in Slab City for a few years now. If there was ever to be a Dumbledore doppelganger, Whitehorse is it. He recently took over the Slab City Hostel which features open-sky rooms and a semi-private outdoor shower. With no ceiling above your head, you’re free to gaze and rediscover the awe of the night sky as you sleep or shower. With the Milky Way clearly visible, you’re able to see every star and constellation twinkling in and all around the Milk Way. It’s absolutely stunning and capable of filling even the most ungrateful person with gratitude.
As I arrived and drove past The Range to settle in at the hostel, I squealed with excitement. I could feel the energy of this special place as much as I could feel the shirt on my back. I knew this was going to be a magical experience. I just didn’t know to what extent.
Under the twinkling stars, The Range stage was sandwiched between two antique blue buses. Christmas lights were strung above our heads giving us the only light to see. To the left of the stage was a food stand. On the menu: hamburgers or hotdogs for $3 each. The chef was a woman in her mid to late 50s. Her cheek bones were accentuated by her sunken in cheeks. You could tell who lived there and who didn’t. I clearly didn’t. Compared to the crowd, I looked like the white, privileged, yuppie gay male that I am.
In front of the food stand was a man in his early thirties, unbathed and sporting a long brown beard with a floral patterned dress on. He calmly watched the talent on stage with a subtle smile on his face as if he was experiencing one of the most content moments in his life. Across the way — a girl with a large cat mask covering her face danced eccentrically to the live music. The crowd looked like they were composed of hipsters from Silverlake, bikers and homeless drug addicts. Probably because that’s exactly who was there.
I took a seat on the second row of wooden benches to enjoy the music. Some of the performers were truly amazing. Everyone was limited to three songs. However, one guy did an amazing blues/rock set that had the crowd shouting for an encore. So, he gave them one. This is a place that respects boundaries not rules. Anything goes at Slab City until it disrespects someone else’s boundary.
It was during that encore I met Bobby.
A stranger to me but an obvious resident of Slab City. He told me he had been living there for about a month now.
Unbathed, wild hair and wrapped in a blanket with the print of a lion’s head, Bobby sat down next to me and introduced himself, “Hey there, I’m Bobby. Well, I go by Bobby but my name is Robert. However, my real name is Ishmael. I’m part of a Messianic Christian group here.” Robert came off not only as a Slab City resident but a drug addict too. I was feeling cautious and uneasy with this encounter.
“Hey, my name is Azariah.” I replied.
“That’s a great name. What does it mean?”
I always get that question. I have several ways in which I answer the question but I wanted to keep it short and sweet with this odd fellow, “Whom God helps.”
“What’d you say?” He asked me to repeat myself due to the loud music.
“It means, whom God helps.” I said louder.
“Oh, wow. You’re definitely getting it tonight. Yeah, someone is watching out for you tonight.”
Bobby’s comment grew my curiosity. It confirmed what I sensed earlier, I am probably not the most welcomed person here. Slab City is a place for nomads, wanderers, gypsies, hippies — not a gay yuppie like me. I remember as Bobby and I were talking, one of the lyrics sung from the stage stood out to me, “He should have left earlier but he stayed. He didn’t notice the audience changed.” Later that evening one of the performers even went as far as calling out the yuppies (me) in the crowd. I was feeling insecure and a little unsafe but I stayed.
That’s when my conversation with Bobby shifted to where we were from. By doing so, it turned my attention away from observations that were stoking my fears and making me feel uncomfortable. Bobby started the conversation by asking, “Are you Jewish?”
“My mom’s side of the family was Jewish but I wasn’t raised Jewish.” I replied.
He continued, “Where are you from?”
“I grew up in Indiana.”
“I used to go to church in Indiana when I was a kid.” he shared.
Now intrigued, I asked, “Where at?”
He tried recalling, “It was in the Northwestern part. It was called Harvest Kids or something like that.”
Now, I was almost certain it was the same place I frequented as a kid, “Was it in South Bend?”
He replied in an uncertain tone, “I think so, maybe. They spoke in tongues, right?”
Was it possible that Bobby and I went to the same church when we were kids? Were we together in the same room in South Bend, Indiana nearly 25 years ago and now we’re together again but in the middle of the California desert? This wouldn’t have been the first time this happened to me. One month after I moved to Las Vegas in 2013, I discovered one of my co-workers also went to the same church in South Bend. Growing more curious and excited to discover this possible shared experience, I confirmed, “Yeah, they spoke in tongues.” Then I asked, “Was it Lester Sumrall’s church? They would do a puppet show for the kids in the gymnasium. Do you remember that?”
Bobby grew excited and replied, “Yeah! And they had the bunk beds built into the walls of the nursery room.”
I remembered all of it and so did he. Memories in that church rushed back into my mind. The coincidence of this moment was too much. Bobby closed his eyes, threw his head back and gave a long, inaudible laugh. I laughed so hard I began to cry.
As our laughter calmed, we continued to watch the performer on the stage. I wiped the tears from my eyes and Bobby began speaking again, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.”
It felt like Bobby transformed into someone else in that moment. Maybe he did. It felt as if someone or something else was speaking through him. The energy had shifted and it didn’t feel like the Bobby who first sat down next to me. I thought to myself, What did he just say to me? Did I hear him right?
The truth hit me like a ton of bricks.
It’s the truth of what I do — I rely on myself and never ask for help. But why is this homeless, drug addict looking dude telling me this? What does he know about me? How could he know that? Am I that easy to read?
I couldn’t help but ask, “What do you mean by that?” He peaked my curiosity.
“What?” he replied. The loud music was drowning out my voice.
Longing for clarification, I repeated and expanded my questioning, “What did you mean by that? What did you just say?”
“I was just saying, God is all sufficient.”
I looked at Bobby differently now. Who is this person? Why does it feel like he just broke through every wall I put up and saw me? I didn’t know what else to say to him, so, we sat there quietly. A few minutes later, I offered him some of my snack food. Many of the people living in Slab City rely on what people bring so they can eat. Bobby sat next to me for a few more minutes until he got up to play the congas with the band on stage.
I was left with a surreal experience. Was Bobby an angel or a manifestation of the Divine? Was my higher power using this nomad to send me a message? Is the answer I was subconsciously looking for found in what Bobby shared with me?
I spent part of my morning the next day calling that church in South Bend. I was trying to find out the name of the children’s ministry. I wanted to confirm if it was the same one Bobby said it was. A different church and pastor has since taken over, no one there could recall the former children’s ministry name. I was transferred to three different people. All of them were very kind but no one knew. I then text messaged my co-worker who grew up going to that church but she couldn’t recall the name either. Everyone I spoke to agreed “Harvest Kids” sounded like the correct answer.
While I’m extremely skeptical of stories claiming supernatural encounters, I have no other way to explain what happened. What I know is this – much like Christopher McCandless, I showed up to Slab City with a heart full of curiosity and a head full of questions about what the next right step was for my life and God answered with, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.” When I asked for clarification because I struggled to believe what I heard, the message was shortened and more direct, “God is all sufficient.”
It’s almost been a year since I had that experience and I’ve made some major life decisions since. I ended a year long relationship, relocated to Los Angeles and I quit my cushy job of 4.5 years. As I made the jump in each of those decisions, I’ve relied on what my angel named Bobby said to me, “Don’t rely on yourself. God is all sufficient.” This has become my life mantra.
There has been fallout from some of my decisions and I am still experiencing fallout from the choices I’ve made. I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you know what I’m talking about. The shit does and will hit the fan. Things will not go as we anticipate or plan. We’re not able to control every outcome. Yet in the midst of my numerous fallouts and anxiety about the future — I keep returning to the answer I got from my angel in the desert — God is all sufficient.
I left home to go to school later than my sisters. I was still in pre-school. I dreamt of being in real school though. I would watch enviously, from the living room bay window, as my three older sisters boarded the school bus around seven every morning. I dreamt of the day I could join them. I was incredibly curious about the world they were experiencing. I wondered if they were learning how to draw a turkey by tracing their hand too. Did they get scratch and sniff stickers at the end of their day if they were good also? I had so many questions.
I used to rehearse like I was going to catch the bus with them. I would put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. I stood there knowing one day my bus will come and all my questions will be answered.
I was ecstatic the first day of kindergarten. I was FINALLY going to experience the world I was incredibly curious about with my sisters.
The bus doors opened, I stretched my little right leg up to reach the first tall step. As I hiked my way to the third and final step, I heard the radio sweeper for “Thuuuunder Country 105.5” echo through this yellow, hollow, metal tube. Bus number 24. It was the only radio station we were allowed to listen to. I sat in the seat directly behind the bus driver – next to the person who would become my childhood best friend, Larry.
This was my first day of being in the real world.
The bus doors slammed shut and our 40-minute journey through the backroads of rural Indiana to school began.
It felt like there should have been a band playing a celebratory song in our driveway as the bus drove off, along with my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. But there was no band and my mom and dad weren’t there to give me an enthusiastic send off. My dad worked third shift as a forklift driver and my mom worked first shift in a welding factory. So, by this time, dad was in the shower getting ready for bed and mom had already been at work for about an hour.
One of my earliest memories on bus number 24 was when Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You” played over the radio. I absolutely loved that song. Every time it came on the bus radio, I would come alive, sit up on my knees and belt the song out: “Aaaand IiiiiiiiiIIIIIIiiii wiiill always looooove youuuuu.” I would forget and not care where I was. I would always become enraptured with the song. I was doing what just felt natural – serenading the entire bus. What I realize now is that my queerness was showing and it made others uncomfortable.
It made Carl, in particular, uncomfortable.
Carl was my childhood bully.
I’ve only seen Carl’s house once, I think. Carl was picked up before me every morning and dropped off after me on the days he made it to school or wasn’t suspended. The sense I got from Carl, even as a kid, was that he was from a family that was depleted in every way – emotionally, spiritually, financially.
Carl didn’t like my singing. He didn’t like anything about me. However, Carl and his brother, Seth, did like to pick on Larry and me. Larry was smart. He kept to himself and Carl would end up leaving him alone. I was the opposite of Larry. I couldn’t stand how mean and abusive Carl was and I didn’t want him to get away with it. No matter how many times my mom told me, “Let the Lord fight your battles for you, Azariah.” I rarely missed an opportunity to stand up to him. When he would come for me, I would serve it right back to him. Often to the point that Carl would beat me up while reminding me I am nothing more than a faggot. The defiant queer in me was showing and that had to be beaten into submission. There’s nothing more threatening to the false masculinity he was learning at home than a naturally defiant queer like me.
The last time I worked up the courage to be me, was the day I wore mascara to school. I loved how the mascara accentuated my eyes. As I got out of my seat that morning to exit the bus and begin the school day, I started to feel overwhelmingly nervous. Fear ran wild with thoughts in my mind, “Everyone is going to notice. Carl’s going to beat you up again. Tell the bus driver you’re sick and you need to go home. If I talk to the bus driver, he’ll know I’m wearing mascara and tell my parents.” My blood felt cold. It was quickly making its way from my arms and legs to the center of my chest causing me to physically shiver in fear. I kept asking myself, “Why did I do this?” It was in that moment I accepted the lie that I had to butch it up and bottle up my queer curiosity if I wanted to survive.
I kept my head down as I exited the bus. Once I made it into the school, I quickly made my way to the least busy restroom and washed the mascara off the best I could. I was learning there was no place for my queerness in this world.
I also learned, mascara does not wash off easily.
I found my closet. I abandoned my queer self. My life became committed to hiding every socially unacceptable part of me.
In honor of National Coming Out Day, I would like to share a part of my coming out story I’ve never shared publicly, “The Night I Betrayed My Best Friend”. I will share this story in greater depth in my memoir.
The Night of the Betrayal
It was around 9:30PM on April 15, 2008 when I sent an instant message to my friend Hunter on AOL. I didn’t know it then but the conclusion from this conversation would change the course of my life
Azariahtn: I don’t think I can live like this anymore.
Hunter87: What do you mean?
Azariahtn: I think I’m ready to come out. I’m tired of living a double life. I have nothing to lose. The show hasn’t been renewed for another season. Also, Logan doesn’t talk to me anymore since I told him I “struggle” with my sexuality. Maybe that’s why they haven’t renewed the show?
Hunter87: What are you going to do?
Azariahtn: I think I’m going to come out. I know I’ll lose the show and some friends but I can’t live this lie any longer.
Hunter87: They were never your friends to begin with if they abandon you now. I support you.
Azariahtn: Thank you. 🙂
After my conversation with Hunter, I drafted a press release which I sent out the same night. “Christian TV Host Announces He’s Gay” was the headline for the release. I didn’t think anyone would care enough to publish the story. I was wrong.
When I woke up the next morning, I had one Google alert.
The Google alert was for Out & About Nashville. The largest LGBT publication in Tennessee carried the story on their website. I could feel the anxiety set in. I started to doubt my decision to make this announcement. I dismissed the growing lump in my throat by telling myself, “Not too many people will read this, so, I’m probably fine.”
After seeing the story published, I realized my train to living honestly had arrived. I could board the train or I could miss it by back peddling my way out of this. I began to feel the fear of everything I was jeopardizing. Everything I dreamt of doing since I was young. I was booked to emcee Cruise With A Cause for the second year that Fall. I was guest starring on other TV shows. I was being invited to emcee events for EMI records. I was starting to make a name for myself. Sending out the press release was easy but getting on board with the train of truth – and realizing I would have to leave these things I worked hard for behind – was my challenge.
Within two hours of the story being published, I received phone calls and emails from around the country congratulating me. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) called to help me form talking points for the media. CBS Morning show called and wanted to have me on the next day. A producer for Fox News called to book me on the Alan Colmes show. Larry King’s producers were interested having me on the show. A friend told me even Lance Bass was asking about me.
I was beside myself.
I was excited, overwhelmed, and nervous. Maybe this would open doors for me that I couldn’t have imagined?
Even though people around the country were congratulating me, the news didn’t reach people within my immediate circle… yet.
Around six o’clock that evening, I received a phone call from a producer in Los Angeles. At the end of the call he said something I will never forget, “By the way, did you see yourself on the front page of Perez Hilton?”
That’s when I knew there was no going back.
Emails and text messages started to pour in by the hundreds. One text message read, “Father, I pray for Azariah. Be with him Lord and show him your will. Take away any confusion. Make yourself TRULY known to him Jesus. Amen.”
Then, after not speaking to me for nearly three months, I received a message from my best friend – Logan. His message simply read, “I just feel like you totally betrayed my trust. It’s making me sick.”
After reading his message I felt guilt begin to set in. Had I betrayed his trust? After all, he did ask me to let him know first if I was going to come out.
Logan was my best friend while I hosted my TV show. We became friends after I did some camera work for his show. The only reason I had a TV show was because of Logan and his dad, Jay Sekulow. Logan helped me create my pilot and his dad, Jay, got my show funded by the NRB Network.
Logan and I hung out almost everyday. That all stopped in January of 2008.
While I was visiting my parents for Christmas that year, Logan messaged me on AOL Instant Messenger…
Lunarpunk: When are you back in town?
Azariahtn: I get back at the end of this week. Why? What’s up?
Lunarpunk: I think we need to talk about something.
I immediately knew what he wanted to talk about. It wasn’t the first time someone wanted to have a scheduled and serious talk with me. My pastor wanted to have this same talk when I was 13-years-old. That talk with my pastor was immediately followed by weekly exorcisms to expel the demons of homosexuality out of me. Once again I believed my sexuality was an affliction that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t capable of seeing it as a gift yet. I was used to living life as if my queerness didn’t exist. My true self worth had not yet been realized.
My best friend, Amanda, comforted me that night as I cried and told her about the conversation I knew Logan wanted to have with me.
When that week ended, I made the drive from wintry Indiana back to Nashville. I drove straight to Logan’s office. I was nervous but hopeful that maybe this was my chance to come clean and God would finally fix me. The only thing that needed fixed was my ignorance to the depth of my own worth and value as a gay man.
Logan had his own TV show titled, The Logan Show. He was the Christian version of Jay Leno except he wasn’t funny. I don’t say that to be mean. I honestly didn’t think his show was funny. I don’t think my show was good either but I digress. Logan had a large budget for his show. Somehow his dad was able take some of the $14 million he receives annually in donations to his Christian law firm, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and funnel a fraction of it to Logan for his TV show. Logan’s budget allowed him to have his own TV set at NorthStar Studios and a beautiful, large office suite in the very wealthy town of Franklin.
After eight hours of driving, I parked my small, white Suzuki car in front of his two-story office building. When I opened the door to his building, I could still smell that newness of the building. I made my way up the stairs. A total of twenty steps. Logan’s office was in the very back.
He was already prepared for our meeting. I walked into his office and he was sitting behind his desk. On the wall behind him hung a painting of Alfred Hitchcock – one of Logan’s favorite filmmakers.
After a few minutes of small talk, Logan stated that an anonymous source told him I was seen going to some of the gay bars in Nashville. He then asked the question I was dreading but knew was coming, “Azariah, it’s okay if you are but I need to know. Are you gay?”
Isn’t that how it’s usually prefaced, “It’s okay if you are.” The truth is, it wasn’t okay and I was about to get exiled from his world.
My mind quickly raced for an answer. An answer that would allow me to keep my friend and my TV show. This is the reality we queer people often face – lie and deny who you are to keep your seemingly good world intact or tell the truth and lose everything. At the time, I didn’t value myself enough to tell the truth and live it out, so, I told him as much of the truth I could bear to tell, “It’s something I struggle with, yes.” I replied.
That’s when he gave me the ultimatum.
The young 20-something-year-old Logan continued, “If you choose to get help, you can keep the show. If not, you will need to go behind the scenes or we will have to find someone else to do the show. Since my name and my dad’s name are attached to your show, I need you to tell me first if you choose to come out.”
He didn’t want to be the first to know for my best interest or safety – it was for his. What Logan didn’t understand that night in his office – or the night I came out and he text messaged me his disappointment – is that this was never about him or his dad. My decision to come out had everything to do with redeeming the boy who was forced to forget how to express himself freely. Redeeming the little boy who loved to play with Barbie dolls, makeup and prance around in his sister’s dresses. There was no strategy to betray anyone. I just couldn’t betray myself – that little boy – anymore.
The truth train has come a few times in my life. That night in his office was one of those times. Although I missed it that night I did jump on it the next chance I had. I’m forever glad I did because owning my truth has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.
First, I want to thank you for taking this journey with me over the past decade.
Today, I’m incredibly excited to announce an ambitious new project. Let me start by giving you a little background.
In January of 2007, I was pulled into an emergency meeting and given an ultimatum: You can go behind the scenes and keep your job, or you can remain on-camera by undergoing conversion therapy. The producers of my TV show, The Remix, discovered that I visited gay bars on the weekends. For those invested in my career – like Jay Sekulow, now a lawyer for President Donald Trump – the possibility of my coming out was viewed as a threat to their business interests.
I couldn’t deny the truth. I confessed that I “struggled” with being gay and agreed to undergo the fraudulent therapy. My desperate need for acceptance overrode common sense. In the end, I realized I couldn’t live a lie. I came out and faced an enormous public backlash
Shortly after, I was offered a book deal by a LGBT publishing house. I turned it down because I wasn’t ready. Now, I want to share the full behind-the-scenes story, along with the internal struggles I faced unlearning the self-hatred I was taught.
My hope is that struggling LGBT people in faith communities, especially young people, will see themselves in my story and feel less alone as they work to find strength.
I’ve partnered with journalist and author Chris Sosa to bring this project to life. Like me, Chris is a gay man who grew up in a repressive faith community. He understands my story, because we have a lifetime of shared experiences. We will be working hand-in-hand to deliver “My Gay Agenda”.
Over the past decade, I have stumbled and deeply struggled with my identity and direction in life. I am ready and able to write this book now because that struggle is over. I know who I am. I’ve always known. However, years of spiritual abuse and emotional manipulation taught me early on how to be everyone but Azariah.
With this book, I not only want to show you who I am, I want to remind you of the beauty, opportunity, and greatness which surrounds you and lives in you – every moment of every day.
I’m looking forward to introducing you to Azariah.
In a recent post titled, “I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha”, I wrote about the experience which inspired me to write this poem at the most recent Wake Up retreat. I hope you enjoy. Feel free to share, if you’d like.
Yes, the source of my pain has a name.
I thought she saw something special in me.
I thought she saw me.
Thick green carpet lined your office.
I remember because all I could look at was the floor.
You showed me the flowers on your desk and said they were from someone like me.
“But now they’re free. Just follow my lead.”
So, I did.
You told me about a man you saw on the news.
He was a child molester.
You warned me I would become like him if I didn’t repent of my sin.
I thought you wanted to talk because you saw something special in me.
THIS is not in me.
Tears streamed down my face as I gasped for air.
“I’m gay!” I confessed for the first time in my life.
“There, there. Follow my lead if you wish to have a wife.”
Every Sunday we met.
One year passed.
You promised me freedom.
Two years passed.
You promised me freedom.
Three years passed.
You promised me freedom.
Four years passed.
You promised me freedom.
Five years passed.
Is this freedom?
I didn’t know how to love but I did know how to settle.
For any man.
Tell me, pastor, what’s it like to be sure of who you are?
What’s it like to be taught that the one who created the stars loves you for who you are?
What’s it like to know your family and friends won’t reject you because of who you are?
What’s it like to see your life reflected everywhere you go?
You see, while you were casting the “demons of homosexuality” out of me, at school, they were beating it out of me.
Tell me, pastor, what’s it like to know who you are is good?
My eyes began to open.
After all, a castle built on sand will not last. Right, pastor?
And the waves of truth are hitting fast.
Each wave carving room for truth, “God loves you for who you are!”
But, what about…
“God loves you for who you are!”
If a man lies with another man…
“God loves you for who you are!”
My sand castle fell.
Now I knew what is true, so, I summoned you.
I forgive you for all the pain, I said.
Your eyes were dead.
“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”, you replied.
Forget the cliches. What about me?
You still can’t acknowledge your evil deeds.
I ascended to the great hidden mountain.
Seeking healing from my pain.
There, I found a fountain.
The water pure.
I drank from their well.
Freely they gave, expecting nothing in return.
I felt thirteen again.
Scared but now scarred.
Can I trust you?
Are you another Rosene?
Fear aside, I showed them who I am.
They sat in silence listening to my suffering.
Then, from the silence, “Brother, may I heal your pain?”
This teacher has a name but she doesn’t seek fame.
“Not only does the one who created the stars love you for who you are. You are the stars. Nothing is far. It’s all in you.” She proclaimed.
That’s when the movie began to play in my head…
“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”
“Love the sinner, hate the sin!”
“Turn or burn!”
“Repent or perish!”
The movie screamed.
My sister touched the earth to heal our pain.
Rosene, that’s when I realized the freedom song you sang was all in vain.
Your violent words became mute.
The painful images faded to black and white.
That’s when I took flight.
For the first time in my life, I saw clearly who I am.
I am an unrepentant queer.
I am not afraid to love.
I am not afraid to explore my worth.
I am not afraid to say, I know that I know, who I am is good.
Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, shares that with each step we take we can say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” This is a way to practice mindfulness and gratitude. This past weekend, I took more than 10,000 steps in the San Diego Pride Parade with Deer Park Monastery and each step was taken with gratitude and love. In this post, I would like to share about that day with you.
For the first time in the Plum Village tradition, the monastics of Deer Park Monastery marched in the San Diego Pride Parade. This historical moment by the monastics sent a message of love, compassion, and acceptance to their LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The path that led us all here was not an easy one though. It came about through an unpleasant moment.
This past April, during the Wake Up! Retreat’s Q&A session, one practitioner asked if there was a place for gay and transgender people within the practice. The answer that was given by one of the monastics was very difficult to hear but it created the space to where we are now. It created an opportunity to “go home” as we say, look deep within, then share and grow as a community.
After the Q&A Session, many of us were hurting from the answer given. Seeing the hurt, Sister Mai Nghiem and Brother Phap Hai organized a LGBTQ breakout group. Many of us participated and gathered together in the Circle Garden at Deer Park to share our pain. It was in the Circle Garden where we had a sacred and holy moment. Under the tall beautiful trees, years of my own pain and anger were erased due to a simple and humbling act by Sister Mai Nghiem.
As I’ve stated in my post, I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha, whenever I have come out to my past spiritual communities I was always met with rejection. However, when I shared my story in the Circle Garden, Sister Mai Nghiem took on our pain and suffering rather than negating it. Sister Mai Nghiem asked if she could “touch the earth” for us. I was not sure what that meant but I nodded in agreement with everyone else. At that point, Sister Mai Nghiem removed her sandals, stood up from her chair and walked to the center of the circle. Sister Mai knelt down to her knees, placed her face on the ground, and stretched out her arms before her.
This is when the healing began.
This simple, beautiful, and humble act erased the pain and anger from five years of ex-gay exorcisms, rejection by friends, rejection by family, and rejection by my past spiritual communities. It healed years of spiritual and emotional abuse. Lastly, it gave me a path out of a very dark time in my life through the practice of mindfulness.
So, my decision to drive from Las Vegas to San Diego for the Pride Parade had nothing to with anything more than wanting to be with my spiritual community for a historical moment and express my gratitude with each step I took.
Right before we entered the main street to march in the parade Sister Mai Nghiem turned to me and said, “This is a happy moment.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I was exactly where I wanted to be, filled with happiness and gratitude.
Surrounded by people with painted faces, shirtless men, large parade floats and thousands of people, I paused. A happy moment indeed.
It was not only a happy moment but a sacred moment as well. I was standing next to one of my greatest teachers, Sister Mai Nghiem, and surrounded by my community.
For me, it was a moment of victory. It was a healing moment. It was a moment filled with gratitude for her, the other monastics, for our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our community, and our practice. In that moment, I found peace in these understandings and chose to make that my focus as I walked.
As we stepped out onto the main street to begin our march I observed everyone around me. I heard the laughter. I saw the smiles. I felt the energy of love and kindness.
With each step I said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
With each step I felt peace.
With each step I felt togetherness.
With each step I felt forgiveness.
With each step I felt whole.
Each step was not only a step of gratitude but it was also a step towards ending the pain and suffering of others. We didn’t just march in the San Diego Pride Parade. We were walking to end the pain and suffering for all beings.
As we marched passed the angry street preachers, understanding and compassion for them grew within me. We were walking to end their pain and suffering too. Their angry shouting and cruel words are the manifestation of their pain. What they really want to say is, “I am hurting and I don’t know how to love you.” Our response simply needs to be said lovingly, “It’s okay. I am here for you.”
There is a way out of our pain and suffering.
We can all begin our journey out of it by walking mindfully.
This past weekend was the most amazing weekend of my life. No exaggeration.
Let me tell you why…
One year ago, I was feeling dead inside. My spirit was dry as the desert. My brokenness was growing like an intrusive ivy beyond myself and started to overtake those around me. My shortcomings were casting a shadow over the person I was once proud to be.
A year ago, I was deep in the dark forest of unhappiness which was caused by no one else but myself. However, while watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, I was inspired to search for a nearby Buddhist monastery. I was hoping my results would yield a solution to my suffering. My Google search listed Deer Park Monastery in the top results. I clicked the link to learn all about Deer Park and its practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was roaming around the website, I learned they were going to have a young adults retreat the following month called, “Wake Up!” I was immediately intrigued and booked my spot for the retreat that same week. That was in April of 2015. I had an incredible time but that weekend was a mere introduction to the practice and healing which I desperately needed.
I chose to return to the same retreat this year. A year later my situation is a little different because I’m no longer in a relationship but I was still trapped in the same dark forest of unhappiness; feeling alone, broken, hurt, useless and lost.
Twenty minutes before I arrived to the retreat last week, I ended an argument with a family member saying I didn’t want to speak or visit for a long time. The conversation brought up a lot of pain and I arrived to the monastery feeling very angry. When I arrived I didn’t want to speak with anyone or really even be there at that point. Shortly after arriving and setting up my tent it was dinner time. I was thankful for the required “Noble Silence” during dinner as I was still fuming from the conversation just a few hours before. That night I went to bed still feeling livid. I couldn’t stop thinking that I will probably not talk to this family member for a very long time.
The next day, after morning meditation, breakfast, and working mediation; I made my way to the monastery’s bookstore. I wanted to buy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ (partly because Oprah said she has it on her nightstand). As I was searching for the book, one of the nuns approached me and pointed to a book on the very top shelf and recommended it for me. When I raised my eyes to read the cover of the book it was titled Anger. Part of me felt caught, embarrassed, offended, but also relieved. Will this book contain a path out of my darkness? I don’t know if it’s a book that she recommends to everyone or if my anger was just that evident. I sheepishly and discreetly purchased the book but secretly couldn’t wait to begin reading it.
I made my way back to my tent and began reading the book right away. Once I started, I wanted to consume the entire book and every line which felt like a healing ointment on a fresh burn. The book was opening my eyes to how my anger is a part of me, it’s my inner child which I need to embrace. My anger is the inner child that I need to invite to sit down and eat with me, climb the mountain with me, invite to watch TV with me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in this book that we need to care for this child because it is a part of us. While reading this book I started to feel resolve with the anger I arrived with that weekend and I began to come out of my shell and socialize with others attending the retreat. Over the next few days I started to make connections with others. I made myself vulnerable and I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging once again.
On Saturday, the last full day of the retreat, there was a Q&A planned. This was our opportunity to ask any question(s) we were dying to ask a monk or nun concerning the practice. It was held in the main meditation hall. More than 100 of us gathered to sit on the floor to ask our questions and hopefully gain answers to our suffering. Some questions inquired about life after death, celibacy, but the question that stood out was about gender roles and is there a place for transgender people in this practice. All the questions were echoes from our caves of pain and suffering. This question, although I didn’t ask it, was one I was wondering about also.
The monk who was tasked with answering the question of gender roles and the place of transgender people within the practice gave an answer which raised some eyebrows, unintentionally evoked the pain which we too often ignore and cover up, yet, at the same time created an opportunity of healing I personally did not expect.
While he gave his answer you could feel the energy of the room shift. Several people got up and walked out feeling rejected again by another spiritual community. It was obvious that his answer did not sit well with the majority of the people in the room. Little did I know, this mishap was going to bring about a healing that me and many of my LGBTQ siblings desperately needed.
Personally, as I sat in the big and open mediation hall listening to his answer, I felt the pain from the messages of my past, “We love you but…”, “You’re welcome here but…”, “You can practice with us but…”. The mediation hall which once felt full of love and joy was suddenly becoming hollow. Having been rejected in the past by my faith community for being gay, I couldn’t help but feel the same despair again. It felt like the spiritual community I was willing to trust again and become vulnerable with was going to keep me locked outside. However, in the midst of all these feelings I invited the children (anger, sadness, despair, and rejection) to sit and breathe with me. Together we breathed and I put the children to bed. I chose to understand that this brother answering the question is not originally from America, English is his fourth language, and comes from a culture that has long ignored confronting LGBTQ issues. Within that context, the answer was a little easier to hear but still not easy. More than likely, it was nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding and poor choice of words. However, the familiar pain it raised was real.
After the Q&A, our day continued as planned.
After lunch, one of my new friends asked if I was going to go to the LGBTQ breakout group. “There’s a LGBTQ breakout group?” I asked. One of the nuns had planned this breakout for those who wanted to express their feelings and thoughts concerning the answer the monk gave about LGBTQ people within the practice. Without hesitation I agreed that I would be there.
Dear god. Am I glad I went.
There we were. A good number of us gathered in the circle garden sharing our stories, pain, and concerns. I shared with the group about how I went through five years of ex-gay exorcisms and am still hurting from the blunt force of rejection from my past faith community and leaders. I expressed that I wanted to trust a spiritual community again but was scared and now I wasn’t sure if I could.
As we approached the end of our sharing, the nun who organized the event shared a story with us.
The sister shared about the time she visited a Christian monastery. While she was there, a priest shared with her the story of how a woman came to him and told him about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Catholic priest. Moved by the story, and wanting to help relieve her suffering, this priest she was confessing to knelt down on his knees and kissed her feet. An act of humility and kindness which helped the woman heal from her pain. After sharing this story, the nun asked if we would allow her to touch the earth for us. Not entirely sure of what that meant or how much it would mean, I nodded in agreement with the group.
The sister, with a shaved head, wearing a long brown robe, took her sandals off, stood up from her chair, walked to the center of the circle and knelt to her knees. She slowly put her face on the ground covered in pine needles and mulch, stretched her arms out before her and she stayed there. Then, the healing began.
As she touched the earth for us, like a film, all the past rejection I received and felt from my faith leaders played in my head. All the hateful messages. The exorcisms. The manipulation. The lies. The spiritual abuse. While she remained faced down on the ground before us, the images I was seeing turned from color and faded to black and white. The messages I was hearing in my head started to become mute. The anger I didn’t even realize was there matured to forgiveness and resolve. The pain faded away. The power of the past died.
She touched the earth for us.
A leader within my new spiritual community chose to humble herself and care for us instead of ignoring and rejecting us. She chose to be the doctor who saw our suffering and offered a cure, unconditional love and kindness.
Others in the circle began to weep and cry.
This was a holy moment.
As I replay it in my head, it remains a holy moment and one I keep revisiting since it happened.
It gives me hope.
It brings me healing.
It has given me a path out of my dark forest of unhappiness.
This was, hands down, the best weekend of my life. I arrived angry, empty, and dry but I left feeling healed and full.
This is the reason I love Jesus but I follow Buddha.
In case you’ve missed “Rev.” Jerry Falwell’s repulsive comments, watch this video first before reading…
Like your hero, Donald Trump, I’m going to speak my mind…
Jerry, like your father, you’rethe real sodomite and the Bible agrees with me. Ezekiel 16:49 reads, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
I realize calling you and your late father a sodomite isn’t kind or compassionate but frankly, I don’t give a damn. I highly doubt my little blog and uninfluential voice will change your heart but remaining silent when confronted with your unconcerned comments about other humans is not a luxury I’m willing to partake in.
Jerry, when did encouraging your students and your broader audience to shoot Muslims become a part of Christ’s mission? Did I miss something after Matthew 22:39 when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”???
Your arrogance, indulgence in fear, and unconcerned attitude towards people of another faith has revealed the condition of your heart. Like your father, it is full of pride and fear.
I would say that I will pray for you Jerry but I don’t pray. I will hope for you though. I hope the same for me as I hope for you… that we will continuously let go of our fears, lay down our pride, unlearn our ignorance, recognize our selfishness and embrace love for others and ourselves as the cure to our suffering.
I hope that you will be less of a sodomite and more Christ like because that’s something our world could really use, more love.