As a young adult, I spent my summers at a Christian youth camp in East Texas. The camp, founded and run by members of the Church of Christ denomination, is an hour’s drive north of Tyler. Established in 1958 as a summer camp, the acreage is thick with pine trees, creeks, and deer, dotted by rustic cabins. 

I got in trouble twice during my affiliation with the camp. An elder of the church who was also a camp board member was sent to “talk to me” about my behavior on both occasions.

The first talk ensued at the start of staff orientation. I made it known that, while in college, I attended a not-Church-of-Christ denomination with my friends. Would this be a deal-breaker? 

After some discussion and much more talk, I was deemed passable to stay. This was after I assured the elder I would not lead any campers to believe they could be saved sans immersion baptism. His condition satisfied, I was allowed to participate as camp staff, though I was watched closely.

The second talk happened years later when I decided it would be a good idea to have a nose piercing. The one-millimeter stud above my left nostril created a stir. This time, the church elder did not question my teachings about salvation. Rather, he told me no daughter of his would be allowed to have her nose pierced. I kept the stud but became the subject of head shaking and furtive glances thereafter.

I was in hot water, and I knew it.

I also knew I had yet another item in my back pocket, a deal-breaker topping all my earlier offenses. This time, the culprit wasn’t where I worshiped or my jewelry choices. It ran much deeper. 

It was my family. It was my dad.

An ex-Church of Christ preacher and married father of five children, my dad came out as gay. He promptly lost any chance of ministering again and his marriage to my mom.

When I received the news at age 13 in the late 80s, my only reference for homosexuality was the AIDS crisis. 

Gay meant scary. Gay meant sinful.

In the years that followed, I kept the details of my family’s rift mostly secret. In the rare event I disclosed my dad’s gay status, I assured pitying listeners he was wrong and lost; that our job was to pray for him after shaking our heads, clucking our tongues.

To be clear, I knew my final rupture with the youth camp was not “my dad is gay.” Rather, “my dad is gay and that’s okay.” Therein lay the offense.

Decades later, the Church of Christ youth camp is thriving and growing.

I fondly remember the beautiful a capella singing under the trees; the wholesome fun; the stories around campfires on cookouts.

It was also with fondness that I said goodbye. Goodbye to assuming guilt and shame over my dad’s gayness. Goodbye to condemning people to hell. Goodbye to calculating how much of myself would need to hide away to remain palatable, permissible.

And goodbye allowed a few hellos.

Hello to attending a house of worship of your choice — or the absence thereof. Hello to wearing the clothes and jewelry you feel great in. And a hearty, proud hello at last to my dad, family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay. 

Feeling pride for being fully who you are can be hard-won in East Texas, so I do not say it lightly: Happy Pride Month, y’all. 

By Jane Neal

Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history and demographics in Tyler, Texas. Jane also serves as storytelling director of Out of the Loop. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and Tyler Public Library. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She was a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former French teacher at the newly-named Tyler Legacy High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories.