Today I read an article that a friend posted on Facebook about Daniel Dobson, the son of a prominent evangelical minister coming out as a gay Christian. The person who posted the article is someone with whom I attended Bible college. Most of you know that I graduated from Bible college, Ozark Christian College, in Joplin, Missouri, to be specific. I entered in the fall of 1986 with a prayer that if I went to Bible college, God might help me not be gay. I spent four years there and even still, I consider that period among the most formative of my lifetime. There were many things I loved about Bible college. I loved my friends, we laughed A LOT. We prayed a lot and the spirit of the campus lent itself naturally to intimate relationships. I myself have been out of the closet now for over 20 years and I still maintain friendships (thank you, Facebook!) with many of these people.
Reading about this Daniel Dobson made me harken back to my time at Ozark Christian College. There was an incident that occured in my junior year that I will never forget. There was a non-traditional student whom I’ll call Paul Fielding who was in his 30’s. We were not close friends, but I liked him and I thought he was a funny guy. One day, mid-semester, there was a rumor floating around campus that Paul had cancer and that he’d left immediately to go home to a state that was 1500 miles away from Missouri. The next day, in several classes, teachers mentioned Paul’s illness and prayers were made. In chapel (we had chapel services every Tuesday and Thursday) either the president or the dean of students made a special announcement about Paul’s cancer and again, a long prayer was made. There was much talk of Paul’s illness, asking God for healing. We never saw Paul again.
A few months later, I asked my friend whom I’ll call Matthew if he had spoken to Paul and if he knew how his cancer treatment was going. Matthew and Paul had been good friends. Matthew told me that Paul was doing well. Then he asked me if I could keep a secret and I said, “Of course, I can keep a secret!” He then proceeded to tell me that Paul did not have cancer at all and he’d been expelled from Ozark for going to a gay bar. (This is a gay bar??? I’m leaving just as soon as I finish my LEMON DROP!!) He continued to tell me, and I must admit to the details being a little fuzzy, that he got caught by another student who was a prominent figure on campus, a performer in the college’s premier singing group who walked into the bar, saw Paul, got scared, went to school authorities, and ratted Paul out. This other character, I’ll call him Luke, did not get expelled, although he was removed from the college’s premier singing group.
When I meet people, I always assume that they assume that I’m gay. I wear pink, I gesture a lot with my hands, I’m not above belting a Whitney tune. I am a Chardonnay drinking, VW driving, bruschetta eating, 2(x)ist underwear wearing, Rupaul’s Drag Race watching gay stereotype. It’s hard to remember a time when my biggest fear was someone finding out that I liked guys. There were guys on campus that I suspected of being gay and I always kept my distance from them. I remember the dean of students was a little mean to me and I thought it was because he knew what I knew and what I was afraid everyone knew. So much torment over something I had no control over.
I still have so many questions about the entire Paul Fielding incident. Were they cruel or compassionate when they asked him to leave? Who came up with the idea that the entire college faculty replace the word cancer for homosexuality every time they referred to Paul? Isn’t that lying? Did any faculty member consider going rogue with a “Guys, we should just tell the student body the truth!”? Did the school ever reach out to Paul in the aftermath? Did Luke ever feel like an asshole for ratting Paul out? Did Paul ever come to terms with his sexuality? Does Luke still wrestle with his sexuality? Would the event play out the same way if it happened today? And most importantly, why do I still care about this incident so much, 25 years after the fact?
I do think I know the answer to the last one. When I learned about about Paul’s eviction, my first thought was a fear that if anyone ever found out the truth about me, I would have not a place. I would have been shipped off, written off with a cursory prayer. In the matter of days, there was no more room for Paul at Ozark. The thought of being kicked out terrified me. Apparently it still terrifies the subconscious me because about every six months I have a dream that I’m in college and the administration has found out I’m gay and they’re expelling me. So, well, make of that what you will.
I do have a few things I wish I could say to that 20 year old me who was sitting in his friend’s dorm room finding out the truth about Paul while struggling with his own sexuality. Chiefly, it’s going to be okay. You will become the person you feared becoming and you will be okay, better than okay. Your life will be full of joy. Your life will be full of love. There will be a place for you. You will have friends that will always be there for you. And you will no longer wear that Coca-Cola shirt that you think you look so cute in.