Friday, November 2, 2012

Bernadette Barton's "Pray the Gay Away"

Bernadette C. Barton (Ph.D. University of Kentucky 2000) is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays (2012). Barton writes and lectures on contemporary issues of gender, sexuality, religion, and the sex industry.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Pray the Gay Away and reported the following:
Page 99 in my book Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays features Elena’s tale of negotiating what I call the “toxic closet.” Here, I theorize the toxic closet as a “condition of inarticulation” and explore multiple ways that the climate of the Bible Belt makes discussions of homosexuality and same-sex relationships difficult. Closeted gay people change pronouns, avoid discussions of anything personal, and in general tend to be skilled at either re-directing or rebuffing questions that might out them. Gay people who come out, and want to be out, often find themselves forced to manage homophobic family members. They usually lack role models, like Elena who is Hispanic, 20, from El Paso, Texas and a member of a big Catholic family. Elena came out to her family in stages. At each stage family members tried to manage who she told and how. The only family role model Elena had to use as a gauge for coming out was her cousin Maurice. Elena said, “he’s gay. We think he’s gay. He brings his friend to all the family parties. It was always like, okay, but not really talked about because everybody knew that he was gay, but the older generation didn’t really want to talk about it.” The message Elena received from her cousin’s experience was “We aren’t going to talk about it, but everyone knows.” This “don’t ask, don’t tell” climate permeates homes, workplaces, schools and churches in the Bible Belt.

I am often asked what inspired me to interview Bible Belt gays like Elena and write Pray the Gay Away. While I have lived in Kentucky for the past 20 years, I am originally from Massachusetts and have family in both New England and California. Indeed, I arrived in Kentucky fresh from a year and a half living in San Francisco. I came out in Lexington, Kentucky and quickly found community and support. It was not until my partner and I moved to a small town outside Lexington that I began to notice homophobia. Pray the Gay Away opens with a neighbor calling homosexuality an abomination to me in my own backyard after I shared that I was a lesbian. This incident coupled with the daily homophobic headlines during the 2004 presidential election season piqued my curiosity and dismay. I believe the best research is motivated by a genuine desire to figure something out. In my case, I wanted to understand the very foreign conservative Christian mind frame to better comprehend the lives of Bible Belt gays.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with lesbians and gay men, observation, and content analysis, in Pray the Gay Away I unpack how conservative Christian ideology reproduces homophobic attitudes and show how Bible Belt gays navigate these attitudes in daily life. What I call “Bible Belt Christianity” in Pray the Gay Away is not confined to religious institutions and Sunday worship. Rather, Christian crosses, messages, paraphernalia, music, news and attitudes saturate everyday settings where residents live, work, socialize, and worship. The Bible Belt gays featured in Pray the Gay Away - like Elena who delicately negotiated family land mines as she came out and was blamed when there was an explosion - have insider perspectives on Bible Belt Christianity. On the front lines of the culture wars in the United States, daily interacting with conservative Christians, Bible Belt gays offer readers hard-won insights in Pray the Gay Away. As Terry, a white lesbian who is 29 and from Eastern Kentucky explained, “We speak fundamentalist Christianity. We are interpreters and liaisons. We know that fundamentalists are not crazy. They are wrong. And there is a difference.”
Learn more about the book and author at Bernadette C. Barton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue