Can You See Me Now? How Trinity Broadcasting Tried To Erase Me

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Paul & Jan Crouch pictured on the set for TBN’s flagship show, “Praise the Lord!”

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

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Left to Right: Jesse Duplantis, Benny Hinn, John Hagee

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.

 

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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?

I Know Who I Am

Riding the school bus was a very formative experience for me. I’m sure it was for some of you also. So much happens on a school bus. Secrets get told, people make-out, friends protect one another. For me, it was a place that took a boy who knew who he was and taught him to fear it.

When I was in pre-school, I remember watching my three older sisters board the school bus around 7:00 every morning. I dreamt of the day I could join them. I wanted to experience the world they were experiencing. I wanted to be grown up like them.IMG_3208

I used to rehearse like I was going to catch the bus. I would put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. So imagine how I felt my first day actually riding the bus.

I was ecstatic.

The bus doors opened, I stretched my right leg to step up the first tall step. As I reached 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 closed and our 40-minute journey down the dirt roads and through the cornfields to school began.

IMG_4387It 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 I don’t recall my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. 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 one 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 as a kid. Every time it came on Thunder Country, I would sit up on my knees and belt the song out: “Aaaand IiiiiiiiiIIIIIIiiii wiiill always looooove youuuuu.” I would 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. The sense I got from Carl, even as a kid, was that he was from a poor, uneducated and abusive family. If you’ve seen the Showtime series, Shameless, that’s the sort of chaotic family Carl was from. The latest I know of him is that he was recently released from a correction facility.

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. Me, however, 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 couldn’t help but stand up 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 false masculinity than a defiant queer.

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 IMG_3198wearing 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?” I felt forced to abandon my queer self. It was then I learned that I had to perform 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.

It was in moments like these I discovered how to navigate my way to my closet and hide. My life became committed to hiding every socially unacceptable part of me.

At home. At school. At church.

I will dive into this more in my book, My Gay Agenda. For now, this #SpiritDay, embrace your queerness and celebrate the queerness of others.

Be love,

Azariah Southworth