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Nashville: Where God and gay collide

Perhaps you’re not expecting a show called GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS to be a hotbed of religious talk, let alone evangelical fervor. But the second season of the Sundance Channel original series is set in Nashville; and with its 700-some churches the city is said to have the highest number of per-capita places of worship of any major U.S. city. So, if you think that the church and gay communities don’t have much effect on one another in a place like this…well, you probably live on a coast.

As songwriter Marcus Hummon says, “I don’t know that faith is part of the day-to-day banter in New York or on everyone’s hearts and minds on an everyday basis like it is in the South. But here, theology is table talk. This is the real stuff, and the hot topics in mainline churches are stuff like gay clergy or affiliations — things that might be non-issues in the Northeast.”

Four of the key participants in GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS have — or had –- strong church affiliations and bonded together in part because of their eagerness to talk about these issues. We gathered Shane Stevens, Sherrié Austin, Tenisha Jackson and Jared Allman together around a table at the Fido coffeehouse in Nashville’s Hillsboro neighborhood to compare experiences.

Says Stevens, a gay evangelical, “Jared is a former Mormon. I guess Sherrié would be a reformed Catholic Unitarian or something. I’m non-denominational. I’m the (biggest) Jesus freak of the bunch, that’s for sure! And then Tenisha (a Baptist) is second.”

Austin’s more liberal church is an everything-goes place, as far as sexual identity. Stevens and Jackson say their socially conservative local congregations fall into the don’t-ask-don’t-tell category. As for Allman, the ex-Mormon, his church was an ask-or-tell-and-get-out kind of place.

“I guess coming up in the church, there were always gay people going to my church,” says Jackson, who came to Nashville from Memphis. In many evangelical African-American churches, being out of the closet is a no-go, but there’s an unspoken tolerance of those known to be quietly staying in. “There was always a choir director where you knew this person was gay!” laughs Jackson. “Or the organist. But they weren’t out. And it’s pretty much still like that.”

Stevens couldn’t be more out nowadays, but it’s something he and his fellow churchgoers in Nashville never discuss.

“I go to a fantastic church here that I love, but we don’t really talk about the whole gay issue,” Stevens says. “I know that they don’t really believe that I was born this way, and they most likely believe that it’s a lifestyle choice. And I know I didn’t choose it. I don’t lose sleep over it any more, though, because once you encounter the real God, and know that he loves you, it doesn’t matter.”

Stevens knows that a lot of evangelical churches take a “hate the sin, love the sinner” tack when it comes to homosexuality, welcoming gays into the pews while hoping they’ll eventually give up acting out their sexuality.

“But I’m not going to let ignorant people keep me away from God,” adds the co-writer of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” and other big country hits. “I want to be in a church and I want to worship, and it’s about a personal relationship to me. I know the presence of God is there…God will get in the box (of organized religion). He hates the box, but he’ll get in the box. But, I do have an issue with (the tacit disapproval) sometimes. I would like to get up on stage and lead worship in my church, but I know that would not be asked or allowed.”

“It would at my church,” says country singer-songwriter Sherrié Austin, still hoping to convert her BFF Shane to Unitarianism.

“But I really do prefer the Bible-beatin’ and pew-jumpin’!” Stevens says. “I mean, I want it full-on. I want to see people be healed, I want to pray, I want to lay on the floor if I have to, I want to cry…. That’s how I experience God in a really real way.”

For Stevens, embracing this effusive brand of evangelicalism is a return to the Christianity of his childhood –- but there was a long interruption. “When you’re raised that way, it kind of makes you run. So I ran from it for 30 years of my life. I hadn’t been in church forever. And I was in a really low place in my life when I had a massive encounter with God and it changed me forever. So I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I don’t care if people think I’m crazy because I love Jesus.”

Austin’s church is less demonstrative. Her Unitarian faith is in part a response to the Catholicism she grew up with in Australia, where she used to get in fights with (and get sent home by) the nuns who taught at her school over the issue of who was going to hell.

“I’m very open-minded. Love Jesus, love Buddha, love ‘em all. Love is all there is. That’s me. Yes, I’m still scarred from the years of growing up Catholic, and the nightmares I used to have about my father being burned in fire because he wasn’t baptized. So I let a lot of that go, and found a nice peaceful place for me and the J-man. We get on great.” Her church is “a Bible-based church, but it’s not taken so literally. I feel like a lot of religion is all coming to the same point: there are many roads to God, there are just different ways to get there. That’s why non-judgment to me is the most important part about religion.”

“Thank you, John Lennon,” interrupts Stevens.

“But at the church I go to, they would have no issue at all with Shane being gay and Jared being gay,” Austin continues. “They wouldn’t question it.”

So isn’t Stevens ever tempted to switch over to Austin’s much more gay-friendly church?

Nope. “His church is so his personality, and my church is so my personality,” Austin says – gay issues aside. “My church is a little quieter and a little more thinking it through.”

Neither style of worship is an option for Allman, who’s taken a Mormon-or-nothing attitude toward churchgoing.

“Obviously I can’t be Mormon and be a professed homosexual,” Allman says. He tried to deny his sexual identity for years. “I didn’t kiss boys, I didn’t do anything. But I can’t change what I am through praying and doing all this. I couldn’t change who I am. So I came to terms with my sexuality. If I went to church and told them, they’d probably excommunicate me on the spot. I haven’t been to church in seven, eight, nine years, ever since I left my parents’ house.”

So why not switch to a more liberal church? It’s not that easy, Allman says.

“When you grow up Mormon, it’s definitely part of your identity. You can’t escape it. All your friends are Mormon, and you go to other Mormon kids’ houses…. I would have to change my whole identity. I couldn’t be Mormon anymore. Maybe I could go to church with Shane, but Sherrié’s sounds more like me.”

“They would love you there!” enthuses Austin.

“I don’t think it’s really a priority in my life right now,” demurs Allman, quietly backing off the idea, again. “Maybe it should be.”

Stevens, on the other hand, finds the balance he needs by attending more than one church. He gets his fix in a more openly inclusive church community up North.

“I actually go to a church in Philadelphia, which is a normal, non-denominational church. And my pastor, Pastor Dan, has become my spiritual dad. It’s the only place in the world where I’ve ever been allowed to lead worship. The older people in the congregation in their 70s are like, ‘Please don’t leave! We love you so much!’ I’m up there in my nail polish. There’s no judgment. I’ve never felt free like that in my life.

“I was raised in the hellfire condemnation and shame and guilt where your dad can abuse you and your mom and be an alcoholic/drug addict, but if he’s saved and you’re gay, you’re going to hell, not him,” he says. “But, I think in Nashville a lot of the churches are trying to figure out what the language is to not chase gay people out of the church. They’re just not there yet, and it’s going to take a little more time. That’s why I did this show, to be like, ‘Hey, God really loves us–period. That’s it.’ It’s not complicated. Jesus either came to show grace and mercy and love us, or he didn’t.”

Hummon, the Nashville hitmaker who’s collaborated on songs with both Austin and Stevens, is married to a (female) Episcopal priest who presides over one of the more inclusive congregations in town. And he remembers a time when Stevens was not quite so comfortable with who he was, as a fellow Christian.

“Shane is a fascinating guy, and when I heard he was doing this reality show, I thought, that makes sense,” says Hummon (who counts Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road” among his many hits). “When I first met Shane, I had a funny experience around this issue, and I think he was testing me. He had just gotten to Nashville” –- way back in the mid-‘90s, when Stevens was a writing prodigy who wasn’t even yet out of his teens.

“It just happened that we were writing with an urban dude from Louisiana who was a black Muslim! Shane came in, and I’d never met this guy before, but his mind was spinning at a really fast level and he was very upset. Finally, instead of trying to write, I said ‘Dude, what’s up?’ He said he was having this feeling about how much he loved Jesus! Then he got right into the real issue, which was that he said that the people in his congregation didn’t approve of the gay lifestyle and he was really, really hoping and praying that he could be healed of his sexual orientation. He actually said this to strangers, at a writing camp! The black guy was sitting there with a puzzled look on his face.

“I listened for a while and I was fascinated that he was just throwing it out there,” Hummon continues. “It was really kind of powerful. I listened to what he was saying about his church community and how they were helping him. I said, ‘I’m a Christian too, and I really don’t agree with your church. I think love is far more radical than we’ve ever understood. Contrary to what your community thinks, I actually hope that you grow to have a real sense of peace about your relationship and that you not waste time with all of this and find people who support it.’ There was silence, and I could just tell that he and I were gonna be pals after that, in the way you feel that.

“Then the other guy says ‘Myself, as a black Muslim…’ and he started in about sharia. He said, ‘I get a lot of pressure from my black Islamic community on this, and I say they’re full of shit. You gotta love who you love.’ Then we wrote a wonderful song in about 30 minutes and spent the rest of the day laughing and none of that came up again. It ended up being like a wonderful flushing, almost, where everything flowed after that.”

Only in Nashville, kids. Only in Nashville.

Catch new episodes of GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS on Fridays at 9 PM et/pt. Can’t wait? Watch the full episodes RIGHT NOW!