Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: n. A theory developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf stating the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristics of the culture in which it is spoken.[1]

Beyond my immediate family, Friendship Baptist Church was the first community I ever joined. My membership decided before birth, I wiggled out of the womb quoting the Gospel of John. At the age of four, my twin sister and I each stood in front of our Sunday morning congregation and proudly recited all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, proof of our undying devotion to Jesus Christ. Salvation, damnation, crucifixion, resurrection, hallelujah—these were the building blocks of our language and understanding. Our faith proved our worth in a sinful world—a faith we were taught to defend with our lives. Though martyrdom was a term reserved for Muslims and other groups we knew were going to Hell, our preacher Brother Teddie often praised John the Baptist’s beheading as an admirable act.

One of my favorite features of the Southern Baptist faith was its dichotomy of the world—all decisions, attributes, and actions could be distinguished as right or wrong. Black or white. Heaven or Hell. Perform these acts and believe this way, you’re going to heaven. Don’t, and you’re going to hell. Simple, I thought.

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both have committed an abomination. They shall be put to death. Their blood shall be upon their own heads. Leviticus 20:13

The Southern Baptist church holds an unwavering, unforgiving stance on homosexuality, a term the church often applies to all groups in the LGBTQIA+ community. Although as a child I did not fully understand what a homosexual was, I grew to hate them for two reasons: 1. they ruined Disney (the church held an eight-year boycott in reaction to Disney’s Gay Day), and 2. my Sunday school teacher told me to. It was easy to hate gays when I didn’t know a single one. They were “out there” somewhere in the big, scary world, probably in San Francisco, I imagined. The summer of 2002, all of that changed.

In walked Erin, my very first lesbian friend. She was the newest player of on my travel softball team. I told her on the second day of knowing her that I’d be her friend, but she had to understand that under no circumstance would I ever, ever be gay. By the end of that summer, she proved me wrong. The evening she leaned into the open window of my Chevy S10 Blazer and planted that sinful kiss on my lips, I knew the taste of Eve’s apple. I learned it was only a matter of time before I, too, would be banished from the Garden.

Coming out of the closet was expensive. First, it cost my best friend since first grade. Then, my relationship with my mother for most of my freshman year of college. It cost me the chance to attend my then-girlfriend’s senior prom, a job I wanted, the $20-dollar cover for a club in downtown Mobile in the middle of January. My dignity. My safety. Most of all, it cost me my membership in the church. Years after my mother and I called a tenuous truce on “the gay thing,” she told me how our fellow church members approached her once the truth trickled in. “We heard about Jessica. We’re so sorry,” as if I had died. To them, I had.

Scotty Joe Weaver (March 26, 1986 – July 22, 2004) was an 18-year-old murder victim from Bay Minette, Alabama, whose burned and partially decomposed body was discovered on July 22, 2004, a few miles from the mobile home in which he lived. He had been beaten, strangled and stabbed numerous times, partially decapitated, and his body doused in gasoline and set on fire. The Baldwin County District Attorney, David Whetstone, stated that Weaver’s sexual orientation was a factor in the crime.[2]

I remember hearing about Scotty the summer after high school graduation. He grew up one county over, and he and my friend Deidre used to share a babysitter. As kids, they bathed together, washing away the red Alabama clay that caked the feet of me and my siblings, the same clay that clung to the boots of his attackers as they delivered kick after kick. It gave new meaning to the phrase “beating the Hell out of you.” Southern Baptists always took things too literally.

If I close my eyes, I can still smell the chlorine of the Friendship Baptist baptismal pool. Despite the warmth of the water, my clenched teeth chattered. At the age of five, I had made the decision to be saved from eternal damnation, taking the plunge as a public profession of my faith. This was an act I repeated as a fifteen-year-old, craving a second helping of that holy acceptance. Looking back, I wonder if the two cancelled each other out.

As a thirty-four-year-old human who has lived as long outside of the church as in, I still find myself missing something about it—not the individuals so much as the community, the shared rituals, the collective belief in something sacred. The church gave us structure, music, a framework to understand the world around us. It gave us language, words that have stayed with me long after the church left. Sometimes, I long to reclaim those words—faith, congregation, devotion, testimony. I’m unsure of who broke the covenant first—me or my creator. Is the dissonance I hear of my own making or that of God’s back as he turned away?

Only 20 states and Washington, D.C. include sexual orientation and gender identity in their hate crime laws. Earlier [in 2019], Tennessee became the first southern state to have a hate crime law that protects transgender people. Eleven states address hate crimes based on sexual orientation only. Alabama isn’t in any of those categories.[3]

[1] Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; Dictionary.com; accessed 02 March 2020; https://www.dictionary.com/browse/sapir-whorf-hypothesis.

[2] Jafari, Samira (2004-08-02), “Killing of gay teen raises issue of intolerance in state”, Associated Press, retrieved March 03, 2020.

[3] “Alabama hate crime law doesn’t protect LGBTQ citizens;” al.com; published 17 February 2019; accessed 02 March 2020; https://www.al.com/news/2019/02/alabama-hate-crime-law-doesnt-protect-lgbtq-citizens.html.

 

Joshua Cole is a gender-bending, backslidden Baptist originally from Alabama who has settled their nest far from the family tree. They call Maryland home now while gallivanting through the University of Baltimore’s MFA program. They hope to etch love songs between the stitches of softballs and land that leather in the hands of the next generation’s LGBTQIA+ humans.

Photo by Nicole Wilson on Unsplash

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