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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Patricia Long, November 14, 1996. Interview G-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Coming to terms with sexuality and reconciling with religious faith

Long talks about the role of Pullen Baptist Church and its minister, Mahan Siler, in her coming to terms with her sexuality during the late 1980s. Although Long had always known she was a lesbian and had come out to her family years earlier, she explains here that it was not until she was in her late thirties when she joined Pullen that she began to be able to reconcile her sexuality and her faith. Through that process she became more actively involved in the gay community and Pullen's efforts to reach out more to that community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Patricia Long, November 14, 1996. Interview G-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SHERRY HONEYCUTT:
When did you come out to your parents?
PATRICIA LONG:
I came out to my mother when I was, I guess I was twenty-one or twenty-two. She didn't think I was really gay, she thought it was just a reaction to a difficult relationship with my father, and as long as I wasn't doing anything about it was easy for her simply to deny that it was a reality. So it was some years down the road before she began to take seriously that this is who I am.
SHERRY HONEYCUTT:
You said before you were horrified when you realized that you are a lesbian. How did you come to terms with it?
PATRICIA LONG:
I didn't for a very long time. I didn't until I was thirty-seven. And my life was changed by a Southern Baptist preacher down the street. There were things that happened along the way that made it possible for me to hear what he said when he did, but I was very much in the closet and mostly lived alone most of my adult life. I had been in a relationship with a Pullen member who was well-known and well-loved and we were out to absolutely no one. And when she died, neither her family nor mine nor our mutual friends knew what I'd lost. And that was a kind of—it didn't make sense to me at that point, because my caring for her had made me a more generous, loving human being and it didn't make sense to somehow, that what had made me a better person was something that I had to confess to God as a sin, as a prerequisite to being accepted, or to being Christian. So there was that sort of cognitive dissonance already in my life. I had moved away from here twice for job transfers and then come back. Mahan Siler had become Pullen's pastor in the interim. When I came back to Pullen, I very quickly came to respect him a great deal but I had no idea what his position was on gay issues. As it turns out, he had already preached a couple of sermons on gay issues at Pullen of which I was unaware. But in June of '88 he was preaching a series of sermons on human sexuality, and the first was on how marriage roles and expectations have changed from the fifties to the eighties, and he and his wife Janice did that together, the service. And the next one was one divorce, and how differently the church—how the church fails to respond to that crisis, that tragedy in a family. Whereas to death or illness, we know what to do, we know what to say; we bring casseroles, we take care of folks. And how difficult that is for the people involved, and the kids involved. I figured by the third sermon he'd get around to us. So I wrote him an anonymous letter, and left it in his box in the office, and swatted out the next week. And he not only got the letter but he read it in the sermon. And his response was to acknowledge what I think those of us who are gay and lesbian know, somewhere in our bones—that we are who we are because God created us this way. We didn't just wake up one morning and decide it would be fun to be an outcast or rebel against society. And he acknowledged—here's a white heterosexual male Baptist preacher acknowledging from the pulpit—that we are created as we are. That this is not a whim or rebellion but a given. And that it would be cruel of God to create people with this capacity for loving and then to deny any possibility of fulfilling it in a responsible way. So that was the catalyst, that sermon, for my beginning to accept myself as a lesbian. I have some friends who tease me about how far in the closet I was for so many years and how far out I have come since. But to me, the central issue is religious. The central issue is that a lot of people are hearing all of their lives that they, or their children, or their spouse, or their brother, is condemned by God for being gay. And the kind of pain and suffering that creates in human lives is just incalculable. And for me the reason for doing what I do and being who I am is to tell people, "It ain't so." I'm aware of the political ramifications and the legal ramifications and the disadvantage that we face in terms of things like tax law, and insurance, and inheritance, and all that sort of thing. But to me the central issue is that God loves you, and don't let anybody tell you different, and then we work from there. I have digressed from your questions [Laughter]
SHERRY HONEYCUTT:
That's okay, that's fine. So what motivated you to come out to the members of your church?
PATRICIA LONG:
Well, after Mahan's sermon, I for the first time, got in touch with the gay community. I had always been too terrified to show up at anything. I was peripherally aware that there were groups and there were activities, but I wouldn't have dared. After that sermon, I actually went to my first lesbian pot-luck. That's kind of a cliché, but that's what women do. They get together and they eat and get to know each other. I'm glad it's that and not bars. It's much more my hours and my style. [Laughter] And met some folks there who were Christian and who were involved with Integrity, the Episcopal gay-lesbian group. And the chapter in this area at that time was in Durham. So I started going to Integrity. It was kind of a challenge walking in for the first time, knowing that you're out of yourself just by walking through the door. But you also know there's a priest there who knows who you are and who accepts you. We did really outrageous scandalous things like evening prayer and taking communion together. And from that I got involved in the Raleigh Religious Network. Actually, Mahan had marched in the Gay Pride parade the day before the sermon he preached. And the next year he was going to be away so I decided that I was going to be in the march for him because he'd been in it for me. I was on crutches at the time. The Raleigh Religious Network had a news conference at Pullen just before the march started next door at NC State. And that's where I met Jimmy Creech and Sally Zumbach and a lot of other folks that became very important to me; but that's when I was invited to join RRNGLE. But that involvement, I had in common with Mahan and with a lot of other West Raleigh ministers. And in 1990, Mahan was wondering if Pullen was at a point of beginning a process, of beginning to be explicit about its welcome to gay people. Because it had been a safe place for gay folks for a while. And there had been enough sermons, and he had been clear enough in the community, that there was a sort of tacit understanding, that this was a safe place to be. But the church had never taken a stand, and the model upon which we based the proposal was the Reconciling Congregations program, which was the United Methodist network of gay affirming congregations. It's not an official part of the Methodist church, as few of these networks are of their denominations, but they had a fairly well-developed plan for allowing a congregation to go through education and dialogue, leading to a decision about being explicit in their welcome. And so Mahan talked to Pat Levi, the woman who was chair of the Board of Deacons at this time, and to me, about whether we might begin this process. So I went to the Board of Deacons having already mailed out literature about the Reconciling Congregations Program. And I was taking to the Board the proposal that Pullen begins such a process.
SHERRY HONEYCUTT:
Such a process to allow—?
PATRICIA LONG:
Of study and education and dialogue, and dealing with the issue.