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By Daniel Payne ~

This is the first chapter of my newly published memoir, From Faith to Freedom: A Gay Man's Escape from Christian Fundamentalism.

When all is said and done, geography is key to my journey. We are all products of our specific cultures and regional uniqueness, and even if we choose to leave those locales later in life, they remain a part of our makeup to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously.

I was born and raised the first eighteen years of my life in Pensacola, Florida, located in the northwestern panhandle region of the Sunshine State. When most people think of Florida, they think of beaches and bikinis and sailboats and resorts. Pensacola has its fair share of all those things, but only within a few minutes of the Gulf of Mexico. Once one leaves that little strip of land and travels a bit farther inland, northwest Florida is hardly distinguishable from the Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi. Rebel flags and shotgun holders in the back of pickup trucks with bumper stickers like “Charlton Heston is my President” and “Hillary Clinton for Prison 2016” are par for the course.

The general feeling of this subcultural bubble in which I was born and raised corresponded to another famous bumper sticker slogan: “Jesus is my Co-Pilot.” I always wondered why Jesus was the co-pilot and not the pilot. The slogan betrayed one of the truths about Christian fundamentalism. It’s not primarily about Jesus or the Bible. Fundamentalism is a fiercely individualistic theological paradigm, and it’s probably true that if Jesus, with all his talk of love and peace and “turning the other cheek” were to walk into any fundamentalist church on any given Sunday morning, he’d be promptly booted out. Fundamentalists don’t really care about Jesus. He’s reassigned to the position of co-pilot.

Within this region, fundamentalist Christianity abounds and there’s a church on every corner. It is the home of Pensacola Christian Academy and Pensacola Christian College, along with A Beka Book – the publishing arm for the above-mentioned academy and the curriculum distributor for fundamentalist Christian homeschools and private schools around the world. The Academy is where I attended school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and the College is where I intended to go until a romantic pursuit got me kicked out.

Along with this fundamentalist education, I was also raised in the Free Will Baptist tradition, attending Beulah Free Will Baptist Church from the day I was born until I left home. Dad is still a deacon there. We were there pretty much every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and most special events. My life revolved around church and Pensacola Christian Academy, creating an airtight fundamentalist subculture which shaped my view of self and world as a young child. A traditional hymn we sang, “The Old Rugged Cross,” will give you a better picture of the worldview that was inculcated in this subculture:

On a hill far away stood an old rugged Cross,
The emblem of suff'ring and shame;
And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.


So I'll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown.

Oh, that old rugged Cross so despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction for me,
For the dear Lamb of God left his Glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In the old rugged Cross, stain'd with blood so divine
A wondrous beauty I see,
For the dear Lamb of God left his Glory above
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged Cross, I will ever be true –
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He'll call me some day to my home far away
Where his glory forever I'll share.

I knew the lyrics and tune of this hymn before I was even able to read. The theology of this hymn seeped deep into my mind and spirit before I ever had the capability to critically question it. Suffering, shame, sinners, blood, murder. Trophies, crowns, pardon, heaven. The necessity of misery in order to achieve salvation was drilled into me to the point it became ingrained. The blood of Jesus was the central theme in our understanding of the struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness.

From very early on, I was imbued with an us vs. them mentality: the saved and the unsaved, the redeemed and the damned. The application of Jesus’ blood is the only thing that could rescue sinners from the fires of hell. And unlike many Baptists of the Calvinist persuasion, Free Will Baptists are staunchly Arminian in theology. The very real threat of losing one’s salvation was not lost on me, and one group that was sure to be in the unsaved category were homosexuals.

Perhaps because there was a general ethos of salvific uncertainty deriving from our Arminian theology, I remember first claiming some type of belief in Jesus as my personal Savior around the age of four or five, though my understanding of what that meant would have been very simple. At the end of church services, the preacher would always give an “altar call,” pleading with sinners to come to the altar and repent of their sins to be sure of their salvation. My own family members regularly went up to the front, knelt down at that altar, and begged God for forgiveness for some sin or another. Seeing this, I questioned my salvation on a regular basis, and made many “rededications” to God after my initial naïve conversion.

Church was central to our daily lives. Every Sunday morning, we’d wake up around 7 a.m. to start getting ready for Sunday school. In addition to being a deacon, Dad also drove the church van, so he had to leave home around 8 a.m. in order to pick up people all over town who did not have transportation. My younger brother and I would often go with Dad on these pick-ups. Sunday School would start at 10 a.m., worship at 11 a.m., then we’d go home for a few hours to return at 6 p.m. for the Sunday evening service. There was also a 7 p.m. Wednesday service which we rarely missed.

The sermons were emotional and filled with images of heaven, hell, blood, and long-winded bloviations on right and wrong behavior. Simple infractions could lead to our fragile souls being in danger of damnation. When combined with the red-carpeted décor, the huge cross hanging behind the pulpit, and the imposing altar in front of the pulpit, these verbal tirades had the effect of striking fear in the heart.

In my early years, before adolescence began awakening sexual desire, this fundamentalist subculture in which I lived did not pose much of a problem for me. Of course, I had theological questions most inquisitive young children have, and I sometimes challenged my Sunday School teachers on certain points. Did God really ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son?[1] Did Moses really part the Red Sea?[2] Did Jesus really multiply five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand people?[3] Is it really true that Jesus rose from the dead?[4] But apart from these common questions, I was relatively happy in my early childhood. I actually liked church and had some good friends at school.

That all changed around the age of eleven. The budding awareness of two things began to create a crisis of faith in my heart and in my mind. First, the realization that I was attracted to boys rather than girls created within me a sense of both excitement and dread. The very strong attraction I felt towards one of my best friends in fifth grade saturated my every waking thought. Second, perhaps from my own agonizing struggle between my natural sexual desire and the teachings on homosexuality with which I had been inundated, my sense of emotional anguish and mental suffering increased equally and simultaneously along with the ongoing discovery of my sexual orientation. It opened my eyes to others’ suffering as well, presenting a newer theological problem with the picture of God presented to me up to this point. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why would He allow (or create) circumstances which caused so much pain and suffering?

Alex was his name. We had been friends for a few years already by fifth grade, growing up together through the elementary grades at Pensacola Christian Academy. We always stuck together at lunch and recess, and always sat together on the bus rides to and from school. One day, my feelings of deep friendship towards him turned into feelings of physical attraction and young love. I had always enjoyed his company, but now I longed for a more intimate connection with him.

In retrospect, it all seems so awkward. My passes at him were so subtle that I wonder to this day if he really knows about the feelings I then had for him. One instance remains vivid in my memory, and it makes me guess he probably knew as much as a straight fifth-grader could.

Most people, queer or straight, have a certain affinity for individual parts of the human anatomy. Some people are drawn to legs, some are drawn to lips, some to the chest or stomach. I suppose I’ve always been an “ass man,” and I think my fondness for that particular body part began with Alex. He had the most perfect, roundest, firmest butt in the whole class. I would do my best to cop an unnoticeable feel whenever the chance presented itself.

One day near the end of the fifth-grade school year, we were sitting beside one another on the bus ride home. We both lived about an hour from school, so sometimes one or both of us would doze off and fall asleep. On this certain day, I had a plan. I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was hot, being late May in Florida. The bus was full of kids of all ages, and it was loud. The heat made the faux-leather seats stick to our skin.

I waited for him to doze off, which he did about halfway through the bus ride. As usual, his head tilted towards my shoulder until it finally found a cozy place to rest. After a few minutes, ensuring he was asleep, my right hand gently and slowly moved towards his muscular left thigh. At first, it was only my pinky that lightly rubbed up and down the side of his leg. Two fingers, then three, four, and then my whole hand.

His breathing changed and he repositioned his head in a different position on my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if he was awake or not, but since he didn’t swat my hand away, I figured he was still asleep or didn’t mind my touch. My hand rested on top of his thigh, and every once in a while, I would move it slightly backwards and forwards, or give his leg a faint squeeze. My penis had already become rock hard from his smell and the tautness of his thigh. I repositioned myself with my left hand and enjoyed every second I could touch him before he had to get off the bus. As we neared his stop, I gave his leg a little squeeze, and he awoke, but did not remove my hand. I asked him if it was ok, and he nodded.

When his stop came, I wondered if I should stand up to let him out from the inside of the seat where he was sitting. Would my hard-on be obvious? But I wanted so badly to brush my hand against his buttocks as he moved pass, I decided to take the chance. I stood, and as he slid by me, I allowed the back of my hand to meet his buttocks. The thrill! My heart was racing faster than it ever had before, and my penis reacted by getting harder – which I thought impossible. As if nothing had happened, we said our regular “see you later” farewell. I stared at him – well, at his butt – out of the bus window as he walked down his street towards his home. He turned and waved. I was infatuated.

It was as if electricity was coursing through my body. Even thinking about it now, my face is flush and warm. The sunlight shone through the bus window, hitting my already hot face with its warmth. I wanted to rush off the bus and run after him. The blood rushed back and forth between my face and my penis, each feeling as if they were on fire.

I was also scared out of my mind. Had anyone else on the bus noticed? Would my parents be able to tell something was different when I got home? What if someone did notice and told the teachers at school or their parents? It was not only at home and church that homosexuality was regularly condemned and homosexuals assigned to the fires of hell. Our school also had a strict policy on what they called “homosexual activity.”

I loved the feeling Alex gave me, but I also feared I was displeasing God, and knew that if my parents ever found out, I would also be displeasing them. The sexual desire was welcome. The fear of hellfire not so much. When I got home, I went straight to the bathroom and masturbated. I had to do something to get rid of my raging boner. When I came, I was both elated and ashamed. This was the first time I had ever jerked off, and the feeling was electric. But I felt like God was watching and judging me. I was reminded of that song, “The Old Rugged Cross.” Was I defaming Jesus’ precious blood? Was I causing Him shame by my attraction towards Alex? Was I forfeiting my place in heaven and securing my place in hell?

It was these two simultaneous feelings of pleasure and shame that would remain with me throughout my adolescent years. Little did I know that this was only the beginning, and that my feelings of excitement and shame would increase in equal and exponential measure. Along with these feelings were two distant memories from early childhood, memories both painful and pleasurable. They are also memories loaded with meaning, not necessarily from the events themselves, but more so with the baggage of fundamentalist misinformation around the causes and roots of homosexuality in boys. Before the telling of my story continues, I must go back to when I was four and seven years old.

[1] Genesis 22.

[2] Exodus 14.

[3] Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:41; John 6:1-14.

[4] Matthew 28; Luke 24