LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bernadette Barton spent years seeking the stories of Bible Belt gays and how their lives changed as they came out to their families.
In some cases documented in her new book, “Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays,” the results were terrifying.
The mother of one gay man took a bottle of Valium pills and tried to drown herself. One young woman said her mother came at her with a butcher knife. Another young woman found herself smothered in a bear hug with her parents as her father prayed for the “devil” in his daughter to come into him instead.
One man’s parents stripped his dorm room of all his possessions, including his computer, desk lamp and toaster, as other horrified students watched. A drive was organized on campus to replace his clothes, bed linens and car.
The man later graduated with highest honors from the University of Georgia.
For Barton, above, who is a lesbian in a long-term relationship, telling others about her partner has yielded some alarming reactions. A visitor helping with yard work told Barton that her relationship was “an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” A bagger with whom she used to exchange friendly chit-chat at her grocery store was offended when she came out to him.
Barton, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Morehead State University uses pseudonyms for the people and town in her book, but her small town of “Thomasville” sounds much like Winchester, Ky., where she lives.
The question she tries to answer in the book is one that splits many families when gay children announce their sexuality: “Why not make the way easier for your child as opposed to making it harder?”
Despite much of the initial bitterness between parents and a gay child, Barton said, “most people found that their relationships with their parents got better over time.”
Still, she said, her experiences with gays and lesbians in the Bible Belt showed her there are some cultural differences in how the announcement of sexual orientation is handled.
“The rural stuff has its own unique flair,” Barton said. “The isolation accentuates the homophobia.”
She advises students who come out to her to be very careful about how much information they divulge to their parents, especially if they are still financially dependent on them. Barton also urges gay students “to be self-affirming, to find community.”
Social media are helping to propel acceptance of gay rights, Barton said. In the book, she notes that being opposed to an idea in principle is one thing, but meeting gay people in daily life tends to weaken that opposition.
Toward the end of the book, she quotes Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone about the declining prospects for the future of homophobia: “I have this concept of homophobia as one of those giant ice sculptures that you see at functions just slowly melting away. Sometimes we turn up the heat in the room, and it melts faster. Sometimes it gets cold and it doesn’t melt as fast, but essentially, the ice sculpture is not going to be there. It’s going away, and I feel that it’s going to keep going fast.”
Said Ric Caric, a Morehead professor of interdisciplinary studies: “Having Bernadette on campus has just really always been exciting. What she does is galvanize interest in women’s issues, gay issues.”
Clarenda Phillips, Morehead’s interim associate vice president of academic affairs, praised Barton for “making her research come alive.”
“She’s not just doing research,” Phillips said. “She finds ways to help students engage in experiential learning.”
Barton thinks that despite the tipping point of public opinion heading toward increased tolerance of and recognition for gay relationships, a core percentage of conservative Christians is unlikely to change their beliefs no matter how convincing the argument.
But some do.
“Chris,” a young woman whose parents tried to exorcise her of lesbianism, told Barton her parents are now able to calmly discuss how she and her partner think of themselves as married. Chris’s parents even offered help when the two went through rough patches to urge them to stay together.
“I would venture to say that a majority of conservative Christians are capable of change,” Barton said.