Losing My Religion: Asheville Queer Community and Religious Trauma
Written by Cailey McGinn; Edited by Elizabeth DeVido
Sarah Bradley sits in a large armchair in the Highsmith Student Union, takes a sip from a soda can, and adjusts their cane. “I identify as gay,” said Bradley, cracking a smile.
A bright and charming, 21-year-old student, studying computer science at the University of North Carolina Asheville, has a complex relationship with religion.
Sarah Bradley, a junior at UNCA, studies computer science. Bradly has a complex relationship with religion due to their sexuality.
Bradley says they grew up in the foster care system. Coming and going. This was Bradley’s life before coming to Asheville. They say they never had a hometown or knew what that felt like.
“I don't really feel like I'm from anywhere,” says Bradley.
They were homeless for some time during their childhood. A tumultuous family situation put them out of the house. When Bradley came out as gay to their mother they were thrown out of the house. Bradley was twelve at the time.
“I sat down on her bed and was like ‘mom I think I like girls’ and she called me perverted and disgusting. She told me to get out of her house,” Bradley said.
Bradley’s mother, a Catholic, has strong opinions about homosexuality. Their mother considers homosexuality to be a sin and unacceptable.
They tell us at some point their family felt bad for kicking them out. The family did not file a missing person report until Bradley was sixteen, four years later. Bradley says when they arrived home they were sent to conversion therapy.
Bradley describes their experience at conversion therapy as an incredibly traumatic experience, one of child abuse.
“I won't go into what happened there but it was awful. It was terrible, it was just some random place in the woods. I had no clue where I was, just in the woods somewhere in Oregon,” says Bradley.
Conversion therapy, a wildly controversial practice, allegedly targets LGBTQIA+ youth in order to change their sexual orientation.
Bradley has a different opinion on their experience in conversion therapy than the rest of their family. Their family believes that sending them to conversion therapy changed their sexual orientation.
“To this day my family thinks I'm straight. They think it worked. It doesn't work, let me tell you. It just hurts people a lot. It doesn't change anything about that person,” Bradley says.
North Carolina does not regulate conversion therapy. Gov. Roy Cooper put forth an executive order in 2019 to stop state funding for treatment programs and churches that allegedly perform the practice on minors. This means that private treatment or private entities could continue to put minors through conversion therapy.
Bradley says conversion therapy is detrimental to children and incredibly harmful to a growing child. They say that there are these types of camps, or ‘disciplinary’ schools, all around us.
“These conversion camps still exist and they do terrible things. Terrible, awful things. It is child abuse and neglect and it’s somehow still legal. People are sending their children there to basically have their spirit broken and be brainwashed,” Bradley says.
Solstice East, a “residential treatment center for teens 14-17.” The school, located near Weaverville, specializes in gender-specific treatment for female adolescents who struggle with a variety of presenting problems. The school declined to comment.
“I think something that a lot of people overlook is that these crimes are still happening. When I was growing up a game called ‘smear the queer’ still existed. The game’s when people just beat the shit out of you for no other reason than you being queer,” says Bradley.
Bradley says after they left conversion therapy they moved in with their sister. They did not return home to the family that forced them to go to conversion therapy.
After they left conversion therapy they moved in with their sister. They did not return home to their family that forced them to go to conversion therapy. They say they felt animosity toward organized religion for a long time because of the hate toward the queer community, mixed with their own experiences, including conversion therapy.
“Asheville itself is very queer. I would say the views are very similar because here you have Asheville, which is a little liberal pocket, surrounded by very conservative towns. It’s much like the story of a gay kid or a queer kid growing up in a conservative family. Everyone and everything around you is rejecting you so why wouldn't you reject it back?” Bradley says.
During their sophomore year, Bradley was on the quad on campus and noticed a catholic group tabling on the quad. They wanted to confront them.
“I was so confrontational and angry and I walked up there with my split dyed hair and my gayness and asked ‘So how do you feel about gay people?’ expecting to get into a very heated altercation with these people,” Bradley says.
Except, Bradley says they did not get the response they expected. David Mayeux, the Catholic Campus Minister at UNCA, responded with love.
Mayeux told Bradley he loved them. He explained that Catholic Campus Ministries does not discriminate and everyone is welcome.
“He didn't say things like, ‘we hate them or that it's wrong,’ he said ‘we love them.’ At that moment that just shattered what I was going to say next and I was like ‘What? What do you mean? What do you mean you love them?” Bradley says.
Bradley waves their hands around in confusion. They look just as surprised at Mayeux’s response at this moment as they did that day.
“I just remember telling them how my mom was Catholic and she had kicked me out and they told me that that was terrible and that she should not have done that. That's kind of how I got roped back into it,” Bradley says.
They tell us they had a strange experience with a different religious group on campus before getting involved with CCM. Bradley says this group was very visible on the quad on campus one day.
They say they spoke to the leader of the group about the religious trauma they have. Bradley says the leader of the group basically told them that their mother was right and that being gay is wrong. “They then spoke gibberish over me. They called it speaking in tongues but it was just gibberish. They touched me, which I was not comfortable with, and asked me if I was straight now. I just said I was and said ‘bye,’” Bradley says.
Bradley sighs and pauses, giving the impression they are done telling the story. They continue after some silence.
They say in addition to the homophobic comments made by the group, the group also made comments about Bradley’s disabilities.
“They told me if I prayed hard enough my degenerative genetic disease would go away. It's tough when you meet these types of groups and it was surprising to see this kind of group on campus,” says Bradley, laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
Bradley says these groups have good intentions that are hidden behind the hate. ”It's so hard to see that these people literally think that your soul is at risk. It's kind of what has helped me, I guess, forgive my mom a little bit. They think so much is at stake. To them, it's like burning your soul. So I kind of understand it but it doesn't make it right. It doesn't make that view okay with me at all,” says Bradley.
Bradly says they continue to stay involved with Catholic Campus Ministry. They say they still have some questions and for now, identify as a “spiritual person.”
“It is so confusing. I definitely identify as a spiritual person because I think there's a lot to be said about the spiritual nature of the world. I used to identify as a Catholic and then kind of came back to that identification,” says Bradley.
They say that they still have questions and that the best thing about Mayeux and Catholic Campus Ministry, at this moment, is that they are not pressuring them.
“They don't shame me for having doubts, they just want to talk about it and get into it,” says Bradley.
Mayeux says the sense of community is very important to him. He says he wants to make a space where students can ask questions about theology and the faith. He says non-Catholics can ask questions as well and that skeptics are welcome.
“Sometimes there's just not an opportunity to talk about spiritual matters with someone. People are either worried about talking about those things or feel uncomfortable talking about spiritual issues. I think that's something that catholic ministry can offer to everyone,” Mayeux says.
They say this campus should be an accepting and peaceful place. Especially for the queer community. They say they will continue to question and figure out where to go from here.
Bradley says, “It's important for people our age to realize we are at the point in our lives where we are being bombarded with these ideas and you know we are kind of questioning everything. That includes religious beliefs.” They say that's why they think a lot of people in our age range group, especially our generation, have stepped back from organized religion and examined it a little closer.
They say people look past the flaws and see the benefits as well, that's why these religions are still carrying on and it's part of the questioning phase.
“I have been calling my faith ‘floppy’ because I have been reading the Bible and it seems to me the more I read the less it makes sense. I’m talking to David and I’m talking to other people and seeing if I can make it make sense for me. If I can't, that's just something I can't do,” says Bradley.
Alex Poteet, Asheville resident and barista at Odds Caffe, identifies as a gay man. He says he feels differently than Bradley about religion. He says he does not trust organized religion in any capacity. He says as a gay man he experiences discrimination from church members and staff.
“I think it's a shame that has been shoved down our throats. Younger people are more educated about the church and more specifically the church in America. It's all just kind of sketchy,” Poteet says.
Leona Wrenn is an Asheville resident, pharmacy tech, and former Christian. Wrenn identifies as queer. They grew up in the church but as they got older they stopped considering themselves religious. They say the church is very opportunistic and can profit off of exploitation.
“I liked service trips when growing up in church. Later in life, I realized mission trips were a white savior. They were basically tourism under the guise of helping communities, but the community wasn’t involved, and I don’t think any of the things we did helped anyone. I want to get involved in my community without the influence of religion and just help my fellow people,” Wrenn says.
They say one of the churches they were a part of growing up made them extremely uncomfortable. At the time they were staying with an aunt and that everyone in the youth group had already known each other from school. They said they felt like an outcast.
“I went to church camp and felt so alone, nobody talked to me except to talk about the schedule or what we were eating,” they say.
They say the sermons were bland and no one seemed like they wanted to be there. They say they never really felt connected to God in the way that other churchgoers felt they were.
They say they had one good experience in another church. This church was a small Baptist congregation.
“It was a primarily black church and they talked about God guiding their path in life and it was really beautiful and inspiring. I still don't really feel connected to god but if I were to pick a time I felt closest it was in that church among such a close community, everyone in that church genuinely cared about me and my family,” Wrenn says.
They say they felt secure in that space and that the sense of community was a very positive experience.
“I knew they would do anything to help in times of need because that’s how they connected with God. They taught me how much community means,” Wrenn says.
Pastor Clark Henderson has been the senior pastor at New Bridge Church for twenty years. He says he has strong opinions about people in the church loving one another and being created equal.
Henderson speaks with a southern drawl and smiles often. He's a very warm person eager to talk about the word of God.
He says seeing things through the lens of the word of God helps guide his church on the right path. He says that every human is precious to God, up or down, left or right, good or bad.
“I'm going to try to not give any of ‘Clark’s opinions,’ I'm going to share from a biblical worldview because that determines our church's attitude, we try to aim to do what the lord says. Now, God made a few broad statements, one of those being that we are all created in his image. So every single human on the face of this earth has value,” says Henderson.
Henderson tells a story of Jesus from the Bible. In the story, Jesus defends a woman from being stoned, because she has been accused of adultery. He says Jesus asks the crowd of people to throw a stone if they are without sin. In this group of people, there's not a member without sin and they put the stones down.
Henderson uses this story from the bible to emphasize the stance of Newbridge Church in terms of homosexuality. He says the biggest part of his church is to love other people and to not stand in the judgment of others.
“Someone like Sarah Bradley may very well say this is the way God made me and so forth. In scripture, I see issues with that, but once again if Sarah were to come here to Newbridge I’d love them and care for them. They would never hear me say that homosexuality is a sin, that God’s okay with any more than a sin that I myself commit,” says Henderson.
He says as a Christan he tries to approach everything through a biblical worldview. One of those viewpoints is that God made everyone equal and in his image.
The University of North Carolina Asheville often has evangelical Christians occupy its free speech spaces. The queer community on and around the campus is apprehensive about that message.
“A broad view of God is that he died for the whole world so he loves the whole world. As a church, we are supposed to do the same. We are supposed to see everyone has value whether they are on our political spectrum, whether they agree on what we think is right or wrong. If Jesus died on the cross for those that agreed with him he would have died for very few people,” says Henderson.
He says we have to look through the lens of what the bible says about people. He says the Bible says to love people, so Newbridge Baptist Church loves people. No matter where they come from or what they do.
“You can love people and you can edify and uplift without agreeing,” says Henderson.