Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alan L. Bounville is a full time graduate student studying theater for social change at New York University. He is currently walking across country to highlight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Each day that I walk thousands of steps for gender and sexual orientation equality - I think. That's millions upon millions of steps so far - thinking. Sometimes I think about what's around me - the scenery, the weather above me, the cars whizzing by. 'Am I as far off of the road as possible?' 'What's that new plant I see over there?' 'What smells like death? Oh, that would be a dead animal in the brush.' And a lot of the time I think about my past, my childhood mostly. Growing up I presented myself as open, gregarious, and affable. I tried to make people laugh because it made me feel accepted. And acceptance meant the world to me.
When I was really young my comic nature seemed to be adored by all. At five years old my mother and I went to the rectory for a dinner with one of the fathers at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, which was in my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. The place was more ornate than any I'd ever seen. I thought, 'Being a priest is cool! You get to live in a mansion!' I felt like a privileged guest, like now I was some kind of an insider on the whole church operation.
Taking my photo in the reflection of an office building while walking into Houston. The blur of cars in the background is Interstate 10.
I sat down next to my mother as we began to eat. A few minutes into the meal, at that point where everyone was more interested in filling their stomachs than engaging in trite conversation, I blurted out, "My mommy wears maxi pads!" My mother looked at me, uncomfortably laughed, then apologized to the father for my behavior. I insisted, "But you do. You do wear maxi pads. My mommy wears-" The priest interjected with, "How sweet is he!" This is the only memory I have of my mother not agreeing with a member of the religious hierarchy. I didn't suffer any punishment due to my outburst. I was a cute, innocent child. Maybe my mother said something to me on the way home. I don't remember.
However within a few years things began to change.
Becoming Evangelical: Crime & Punishment
For reasons unknown to me still, we left the Catholic Church and started attending Latter Rain Christian Fellowship in Ashland, Massachusetts. Latter Rain was a giant red, brick, factory-looking building converted into a huge, sleek, and modern Evangelical Christian Church full of God, Ozzy Osborn, and masturbation fearing people bent on traditional family values, which as many of us know is code for a gay-hating church cloaked in a message of 'love for all sinners'.
Between the ages of eight through twelve my family and I attended this church every Sunday and Wednesday. We became engulfed in the Evangelical Christian movement. We attended revival services sponsored by the church, like that of charlatan traveling salesperson for God, Mario Murillo. The church once brought in a special speaker to show us a video of heavy metal groups engaging in what was referred to as devil worship. Graphic images of demons and lies about groups like KISS, Iron Maiden, and many others were interspersed in the video. I remember being scared shitless when the video revealed the lie that Ozzy Osborn knowingly ate a bat's head at one of his concerts.
On Wednesday nights my sister and I would split from our mother when we arrived at Latter Rain and go into the youth area to hear our youth pastor, Peter Bonanno, give his weekly sermon. My stepfather, who served as one of the youth leaders, would sit behind me each week as Peter spewed forth many of the lies that are the foundation of Fundamentalist Christianity. I hated my stepfather being there each week. All I wanted was for him to just go away. I felt trapped and suffocated. I was starting to feel the normal sexual energy that reveals itself during this phase of life. And I started to realize to survive I had to suppress my sexual feelings because this church and my family saw my feelings as sinful. The last thing I wanted was one of my parents hovering around while I was going through this turmoil.
During one sermon, they separated the boys from the girls. Peter talked to us boys about masturbation being sinful. At the end of the sermon, Peter asked us to close our eyes as he prayed. The climax of his prayer came when he asked us to raise our hands if we've ever masturbated. This mind fuck session went on for about five minutes. I desperately wanted to peak around the room to see if any of the other boys were raising their hands so I had something to think about when I went home that night and spilled my seed all over the place!
Out of fear of being found out as a masturbator who thought about guys while I did it, I kept my eyes tightly shut during the whole prayer. I had a very unhealthy sexual development due to crap like this. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the influence of Latter Rain folks, along with my parent's religious radicalism that caused me to bury my gay identity deep down inside of my Born Again Christian identity. I became embittered by what I didn't have - healthy language and a safe environment to express how I felt. I still presented mostly as a happy, goofy child, but the tone in which I expressed myself evolved. It was also during these Latter Rain years that my mouth began to get me into trouble.
I remember being punished when I was eight. For what, I don't remember. When I think back to times in my childhood when I was penalized for something I said or did, I mostly remember the punishment, which I think says a lot about failed behavior modification that comes through negative reinforcement. This specific punishment: I could not watch television for a week. 'A WEEK!' That killed me!
I sat in the dining room one day after school at my grandparent's house. To save money my mother didn't have in the first place, my grandparents took care of my sister and me before and after school for a few years after our mother and fathered divorced. I sat there in front of the early 1980s color TV set, with the volume barely above mute. Grandma was around the corner in the living room, so trusting as she called out to me, "You're not watching TV in there are you?"
"Of course not," I said as I turned the TV off, trying not to let the power knob make its clicking sound. A minute later and with more stealth than MacGyver (who was one of my childhood heroes), I turned the TV on again. Then off, listening to make sure she wasn't going to come and check to see if I was telling the truth. Then on again. Then off. Then on...
You can't tell an eight year old they can't watch TV the week The Wizard of Oz is on! But if the sound of the show oozed around the corner to the couch where she was sitting watching Guiding Light I knew she'd take the TV away for good. "How dare my mom punish me the week my movie - MY movie was on," I mumbled. Didn't my mom know that I was Dorothy? Dorothy escaped her suffocating and muted world and entered a Technicolor extravaganza. I was starting to yearn to do the same.
Do You Have Feelings for Other Boys?
Around this same time my mom's friend, also a single mom, her son, and I had a sleepover at this friend's house. Her son and I slept in sleeping bags in the living room while our mothers slept in his mother's bedroom. Before we went to bed, he and I stealthily made an agreement. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours. When our moms go to bed, of course." He agreed. The excitement of that night remains with me to this day. Sure enough, when our moms went to bed we laid in our sleeping bags quietly pulling the bags open to reveal our penises to each other. Seeing another male's penis was exciting! It made me feel something I hadn't felt before. And I liked that feeling very much.
The good feelings turned into deeper-seated internalized homophobia the longer our family attended Latter Rain. After one of the Wednesday night sermons by Pastor Peter, I was the last to get up and leave my seat. The sermon was about family - what the church saw as God's ideal family. The whole time Peter was talking, all I could think about was how I didn't have the family I wanted. The 'traditional' family he talked about - mother, father, and kids was the privileged unit at Latter Rain. The people in the church, who dressed the nicest, drove the best cars and were part of the inner circles of deaconship, those people were married and had seemingly better families than my own. Here I was, a kid who doesn't fit this mold at all. I'm not interested in females. My parents had been divorced. How was I going to be one of God's chosen children?
Pastor Peter noticed me sitting there, alone after his sermon on family. Most everyone had gone outside to play basketball, hang out, run around, just be kids as they all waited for the adult sermon to finish. Peter came over to me and asked if he could talk with me for a few minutes. Confused, I agreed and followed him up a narrow set of stairs that led to only a few rooms, one of which was his office. I sat down next to him as he said, "I noticed you seemed upset tonight. Do you want to talk with me about it?" I shared that I was upset about my family not being the ideal family talked about in his sermon. He assured me that my family is a good family and he wasn't trying to say that 'broken homes' were bad, just not God's plan.
There was a moment of silence before he asked: "You can be honest with me on this next question. Do you ever have feelings for other boys?" "What do you mean," I asked. Instantly, I was in a panic. But I knew I had to maintain my composure. With a dismissive scowl I asserted, "No. Never." "When I was your age, I had feelings for other boys, unnatural feelings. And the Lord helped me. It's OK if you do. I'm here for you if so." I reassured him, "That's not me. I don't have that going on." Another awkward moment passed, which at this point felt infinite. "OK, well, if you ever want to talk, I'm here for you." I escaped whatever would have happened next by swiftly walking down the narrow stairs and outside where I put on my affable persona as I played with the other kids.
The dominionism of my mother and stepfather continued to become more intense. As soon as they married they started spanking us. At ten years old they started physically abusing my ass with an old, wooden cutting board. They also instituted a militaristic inspired demerit system to try and correct our 'worldly' behavior. And during the final couple of years we were at Latter Rain, my sexual desires got harder to suppress.
This was the time when I developed my lightning glance technique. Before and after sermons were the worst! Worse than at school or anywhere else I practiced this technique because it was at Latter Rain where I was being told the most that the feelings I had for the same sex were bad. I would see a guy sitting across the sanctuary, not looking at me. When others as well weren't looking in his direction I'd move just my eyes to see for a fraction of a second what his crotch looked like. I would go home and fantasize. 'What would it be like to see under his clothes and to touch him and be accepted by him,' I would think. Over and over and over and over and over I repeated this behavior.
They say parents always know about their child's sexual orientation. I don't know who 'They' are, but if parents always know, mine surely never made me aware of their inner thoughts and feelings on the subject. They just got wrapped up deeper and deeper into this world of fear and called it their relationship with Jesus Christ. I tried for several years to do the same. Just believe! Believe in Jesus. Believe in the Evangelical Christian lifestyle.
But at age 19, as soon as I moved out of my parent's home, the albatross I carried for so many years finally began to rot away. Most of the skeleton remains, but through experiences like taking time each day to think, the skeleton is finally starting to fall away too. And the more I talk to people about my truth and encourage them to share their stories, the more human I feel. Just writing some of these memories down for you to read has aided in this humanizing process.
While writing all of this, I found images and video footage of Latter Rain Christian Fellowship (now called Connect Community Church). And I realized, Latter Rain wasn't and still isn't the larger than life, scary place of my memories, but rather an average, old, two-story brick building in an average New England neighborhood. The interior of the church is outfitted to look like a concert venue, replete with flat screen monitors, night club-style lighting and a hip-sounding pastor. But the people there have no more authority than I do to tell me what a just and God-like life is like.
I think about all of this while walking across the continent. I think about how I hid a gorilla-sized part of myself from everyone for years. I think about how what I feared for so long has undoubtedly shaped who I am, but is something I can continue to overcome. Today, I deconstruct the hate-inspired messages of my Christian upbringing and reconstruct my sense of self through an open and accepting walking praxis.
It is fascinating to me that so much of what I think about while walking pertains to my childhood - to identifying the traumas I experienced as yet another closeted queer youth growing up in a democracy frighteningly evolving into a theocracy. I thought I was over all of this. It has been sixteen years since I started coming out as a gay person. But at age 35 I'm just now figuring out what it's like to live a contented, fulfilled, and authentically engaged life. I'm learning that I don't need to present as anyone but who I am. I don't need to make people laugh. I don't need to hold grudges towards those in my past who shaped me into a ball of fear. Little by little or all at once I can let. it. go. I am experiencing genuine open, gregarious, and affable expressions. Today, when I show I am happy it is because I feel happy inside. That's what taking a long walk has given to me.
Where the Path Takes Me
At 2,700 miles into this 6,000-mile journey, I will keep walking down the road only to look inward some more. I will think of more memories like the Wizard of Oz story or about what Pastor Peter would have done if I said, "Yes, I love cock! Especially around here!" And when thinking gets to be too much, I'll do what I've done many times already on this trek. I will let out an explosive "AHHHHHHHHH!" Fortunately, this has only happened when I'm alone on a long stretch of country road.
I still don't know what comes next. What I think I want - to teach at a university and work with community groups developing theater for social change and community organizing projects - that is still my core desire. But the world is opening up each day. I meet people from all walks while I walk. And the world is getting smaller the more I walk across it. Maybe I'll explore opportunities beyond the USA. Maybe I'll spend time working in social movements on the strategic planning side of things. Maybe I'll try to get my PhD abroad.
What I do know is, I want to write more of these reflections down and share them with whoever will listen. Storytelling is liberating. We all have thousands of stories we can tell. That's thousands or millions or billions of lives we can touch by our truths. And the more we share our stories, the more our truth trumps mainstream messages telling us who we should be. And the more our history can be remembered, the more future generations will see that we said, "I was here. I lived this experience. I believe it impacted me like this. And I am more human because I shared part of myself with the world."
Find what works to liberate your truth. Then share your truth. Then hold on, because the world will start to transform.