How Stripping in Gay Bars Brought Me Back to God
When I came out, I rejected the church before it could reject me. But an unlikely friendship formed over cash-stuffed briefs showed me a new way to have faith.
I stopped gyrating my hips and looked down at the tall, portly man before me. Pushed back in a boyish smirk, his apple cheeks seemed incongruent with the mop of gray hair matted against his forehead. He dangled a greenback in one hand.
“Nice beads,” he shouted, pointing to a string of giant purple and gold faux pearls swinging around my neck. I’d collected the prized baubles earlier that day while walking around the French Quarter during Mardi Gras festivities. “What’d you do to get ’em?” he asked with a wink. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” I replied. The man pulled my waistband, popped in the bill and let the elastic on my briefs snap back against my hip. I felt no shame.
Stripping down to my underwear in seedy gay bars would’ve been unthinkable a few years earlier, when I was still sick with internalized homophobia. I’d hated myself since early childhood, when I first felt embarrassed for being different. “Look at the way he walks,” Coach said to the other students in gym class. I was new to the school, a shy first-grader from another city who moved to Austin, Texas, just before the end of the year. Coach flopped his hand on his hip as he pranced. The other kids laughed. My face burned. I ran, struggling to hold in the tears. “Faggot!” another kid called out on the kickball field when I was 9. He elbowed me in the stomach. “God hates fags!” I’d heard the phrase many times, but never hurled at me.
Uncertain of its meaning, I looked up the “F” word in the dictionary. “An offensive term for a male homosexual,” it stated. I kept reading. My fingers started trembling. In England, the term could refer to a cigarette, a bundle of firewood sticks or a heretic burned at the stake. I closed the book. Heretic? It must be true. God really did hate fags, and boys like me were once roasted alive. I felt sick.