Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays
reviewed by Lisa M. Stulberg - June 16, 2014
Title: Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays
Author(s): Bernadette C. Barton
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814786375, Pages: 284, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com
Iowa. Kentucky. Nebraska. These are the names of the places in the middle of the country that are featured in sentences about how tough it still is to be a gay, lesbian, or bisexual kid in this country. We have heard these sentences over and over again in the research weve done on pop culture and LGBTQ social change. They go like this: Well, yes, in places like New York City and Los Angeles theres a lot more acceptance, a lot more LGBTQ visibility. But what about the kids in Iowa, in Kentucky, in Nebraska? Those kids especially need social media, the Internet, and television to learn and feel that they are not alone. We have come to call this the coastal exceptionalism claim: the argument that people on the coasts, especially its urban centers, live in places that are relatively open to difference and diversity, while those in the fly-over states are still, for the most part, alone, invisible, and suffering.
Bernadette Barton, a sociologist at Morehead State University in Kentucky, is an out lesbian who has lived in one of these fly over states for more than 20 years. She starts her book with her own experience of homophobia, which literally occurred in her back yard, while she was gardening. It is with this experience and the sociological questions it raised for her about region, religion, gender, and sexuality, that Barton begins her study of what, to many, is a largely unseen world: that of the lives of Bible Belt gays (p. 226).
Barton trained her eyes and ears on the culture that was already all around her, focusing particularly on the expressions of and symbolic representations of Bible Belt Christianity (p. 15) that were woven into the fabric of every day life in small town Kentucky. She conducted some formal ethnographic observations, e.g., at an Exodus International conference to study the ex-gay movement. She also formally interviewed 36 lesbians and 23 gay men, for a total of 59 participants, many of whom were from Kentucky or had otherwise grown up in the Bible Belt, often in rural areas. Barton was particularly interested in speaking with people who had strong religious backgrounds (p. 18). Most also retained some degree of religiosity in their adult lives
For its many strengths, Pray the Gay Away does three things particularly well. First, it is one of the very few empirical examinations of the coastal exceptionalism claim. Bartons book joins another excellent book, Mary L. Grays Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, as one of the few studies that focuses explicitly on the experience of non-coastal, non-urban gay men and lesbians. Like Grays book, Bartons examination provides empirical evidence that both strongly substantiates and complicates the popular narrative that it is at least a bit easier to be gay on the U.S. coasts and its urban centers.
Many of the stories that Bartons participants share about the things their families did to them in the name of Christianity are just truly grisly (Ill admit to reading most of this book with a lump in my throat and my stomach in knots). Many of these stories confirm the stereotypes of virulently homophobic midwesterners and southerners who believe their gay child is a condemned sinner, an affront to the family, and not worthy of their love and support. Also, Barton argues that the Bible Belt is exceptional in the United States for the extent of the institutional and cultural influence of the Religious Right in the region. This, Barton argues, results in a widespread absence of institutional support for homosexuality that leaves gay Bible Belt residents with fewer resources to draw on when managing sexual orientation issues (p. 229).
On the other hand, Barton includes examples, like that of one of her participants, Katie, who grew up in New York and fled to Texas for college to provide some distance between herself and her homophobic family, who she feared would cut her off completely if they knew she was a lesbian (pp. 9193). This reminds us that the Bible Belt does not have a monopoly on homophobia. Barton writes, too, that the culture of family and community is strong in the region, and that this provides some complexity to the story. When I look at the Bible Belt through my interview subjects eyes, Barton writes, I see a place defined by homophobia but also a place complicated by family and community ties with a uniquely caring culture (pp. 235).
Barton provides an example from popular culture to make this point about regional social norms, as well. She writes that an episode of the television show What Would You Do? which ran in May of 2011, featured actors creating a public incident of homophobia: a waitress confronting and then refusing to serve a lesbian couple and their children as they tried to order breakfast. The show then filmed public reaction to the scene, the reactions of those who did not know that what they were witnessing was scripted and acted. When the actors performed this incident in Texas, almost half of the diners at Normas Café confronted the waitress and stood up for the family. The same scenario repeated by actors in New York provoked much less of a reaction, with most diners responding that it was not their business to get involved. Barton finds some hope in this strong culture of manners in the Bible Belt (pp. 225226).
Bartons argument about inarticulation and the dynamics of the closet is especially astute. Barton writes that the toxic closet is primarily . . . a condition of inarticulation about the gay self. The closet encourages secrecy and shame but also inhibits effective communication with others about oneself and prevents the building of a foundation for even the most routine and casual of social exchanges (p. 88). This toxic-closet condition of inarticulation (p. 93) is many things: it is silence around young peoples budding same-sex relationships and LGBTQ identities; it is a dont ask, dont tell policy within families (p. 90); and it is a complete lack of practice with linguistically normalizing same-sex identities and relationships in a way that makes them easy to talk about and integrate into families, churches, and communities.
Finally, Pray the Gay Away makes a contribution to theory that is incredibly valuable. Barton invokes Michel Foucault in a number of ways throughout her work. What I find most helpful, and what will land Pray the Gay Away on my fall semester social theory syllabus, is that Barton is able to illustrate so well a concept that is so difficult to grasp in Foucault: that what is most important to understand about modern power is that it works in such small yet complete ways. When my students read Foucault, they cannot quite get over that he does not theorize a strong state that we can blame for modern domination and inequality. Rather, as Foucault writes about in Discipline and Punish and elsewhere, modern disciplinary power primarily operates through micro-physics: through the kind of relentless surveillance, stifling narrow norms, aggressive and ubiquitous symbols and speech, and reigns of silences that we see in Bartons narrative. These mechanisms of modern power, as Barton explains Foucault, discipline individuals to self-regulate: Christian signs, symbols, and social interactions, like the prolific messages on billboards and bumper stickers that confront Bartons participants, discipline gay and lesbian Bible Belt residents to stay in the closet. I liken this effect to living in a panoptic prison, Barton writes (p. 23). With this mechanism, Barton laments, gay people . . . participate in their own oppression while protecting the comfort levels of their oppressors (p. 109).
There is a lot in Pray the Gay Away that is dismal and heartbreaking. Yet, Barton ends on a hopeful note, with the joys in the lives of the people she interviewed, and with the political analysis that times are changing relatively quickly, as younger generations have come to see the closet as a rickety relic of the past (p. 230). I am inspired by Bartons optimism, and I pray that she is right: that these toxic closetswherever they structure peoples livesare not eternal.
Gray, M. L. (2009). Out in the country: Youth, media, and queer visibility in rural America. New York: NYU Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.