Coming out in the Christian South: Ole Miss students on their journey to acceptance

Posted on Dec 2 2016 - 6:22pm by Payton Green

Lost pictures, notes and other irreplaceable personal items that were left behind. Those are the things Ole Miss senior Dylan Lewis remembers when he was kicked out of his home his junior year of high school.

“I remember the day like it was yesterday,” Lewis said. “I came home one day — Oct. 21 to be exact. And my mother and I had a confrontation and I was asked to leave my home.”

Earlier that day, Lewis was outed to his mother and stepfather as gay by a friend at school. Lewis’ negative experience is not uncommon for members of the LGBTQ community — particularly here in the South.

Zack Breeding, a recent Ole Miss graduate from Columbus, Georgia, remembers the day his family found out he was bisexual.

“I walked into the house and I got thrown to the ground,” Breeding said. “That’s when [my older brother] started to kick and punch and say some really mean and hurtful things. ‘Do you know what you’ve done? How can you disgrace the family? You’re disgusting.’ It got to the end of it where I was so physically and emotionally torn down that I just went and laid in my bed.”

Violence is actually quite common for queer youth. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are twice as likely to be victims of violence in school than their straight peers.screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-5-12-56-pm

While the LGBTQ community is full of many different types of people, many of the experiences are remarkably similar. One common shared experience is family members who attempt to change or convert their relative’s sexuality.

“After [I told my mom I was gay], I got sent to a quote, unquote Christian therapist,” said Ryan Nolen, a gay Ole Miss senior from Roanoke, Virginia. “If you can guess, it had something to do with gay conversion.”

Lewis and Breeding also remember being placed in Christian counseling after their families discovered their sexualities. Both had weekly meetings with a Christian counselor who told them their sexualities were sinful and they needed to work hard to change them.

“They told me that this was a deep-rooted sin,” Lewis said. “It was unlike any other sin. It wasn’t like killing someone or lusting after someone. It was super deep within me and I really had to dig deep to let go of that.”

“It got to the point that it was taking so much out of my day, so much out of my week, that I just started telling the therapist what he wanted to hear,” Breeding said. “You know — ‘I made these bad choices; I was acting out; of course I’m not that type of person.’”

“It was just terrible,” Lewis said. “I don’t wish that on anyone.”

All three used the word “conversion” to describe their experiences. Conversion or reparative therapy has been shown to be particularly harmful to young LGBTQ individuals. Those who went through these types of counseling were more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide and nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression.

Five states and Washington, D.C., now have laws banning conversion therapy. The American Psychological Association finds that there is no evidence that a person’s sexuality can be changed by conversion or reparative therapy.

Despite this, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has been criticized for his history with gay rights and his apparent support for conversion therapy. Using an internet archiving device, the following statement was captured from Pence’s website back when he was a congressman in 2000:

“Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Since that time, Pence and the incoming Republican administration have been silent on the issue and the newly elected vice president has not taken back those statements. When asked whether the Republican Party supported conversion therapy, newly designated White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus simply stated, “It’s not in the platform.”

With the team of Donald Trump and Mike Pence entering the White House next year, Nolen said he is both disappointed in the result and scared for the future. screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-5-12-32-pm

“It’s scary to me because a lot of people don’t think the vice president can have that much influence, but you’ve seen our president-elect say ‘Actually, my vice president is going to have a lot of influence on what type of legislation we put in,’” he said.

“I probably cried about five times [on Election Day],” Lewis said. “It was hard for me to know that there were people that chose to put someone in office like that. But I hurt the most because I knew that there were a bunch of other people who were like me that were hurting and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Since coming out, Nolen has reconciled with his mother and the two now have a close relationship. Lewis’ relationship with his mother has improved but is very different from how it used to be. Breeding said that, as far as his parents know, the therapy worked.

“At any point I probably could tell them because I’m no longer at a stage where, like others, I would have to be fearful or I would have to worry that this rug’s just going to be pulled out from under me,” he said. “But, on the other hand, there’s still that fear factor. While I know they love me unconditionally, do I want to cause these huge waves?”

In Rolling Stone’s article “The 5 Worst States for LGBT People”, the top four states were all in the South. Mississippi took first place. When the Daily Beast ranked the most and least tolerant states for LGBT residents, the state rated -1 out of 100. Despite this, Oxford unanimously passed an LGBT equality ordinance in 2014 and held its first gay pride parade in 2016.

Danica McOmber (center) with her wife Ladene and stepson Tobi.

Danica McOmber is a transgender woman and former Ole Miss student. Originally from Washington state, she said she believed a lot of the stereotypes about the South but was surprised when she found that people at Ole Miss were mostly supportive of her.

“I’ve gained support here,” McOmber said. “It’s an amazing thing that there’s so much love in this community.”

McOmber gained some fame on campus before she transitioned and was still known as Derek, or the “Singing Guy.” She believes that because people knew her before she transitioned, they were more accepting.

“If I had not been popular, I don’t think it would have been as accepting,” she said. “Because people knew my personality — they knew me as a kind soul — it didn’t sway them in the least. I lost some friends, but I gained far more.”

Lewis, Breeding, Nolen and McOmber all wanted to share advice to young people who might be going through similar circumstances to those they faced.

“Just be yourself,” Lewis said. “You can’t love other people unless you love yourself.”

“Self-love is the most important thing on Earth by far,” Nolen said. “All the time I tell myself how important self-love is, because if you don’t love yourself, how could you love anybody else?”

“You’re not alone, and it gets better,” Breeding said.

“Never let any negativity bring you down,” McOmber said. “Be who you want to be. Be where you want to be, what you want to be. And have the confidence in yourself to just let all these negative statements about who you are and what you want to be flood away like water. Because when it comes down to it, it is your happiness, not their happiness.”