By Sydney Leibfritz
The Mary Sue Cushman filled with students and community members alike for the University Wellness Center’s November Wellness Colloquium. Themed “Life After Fundamentalism,” Meredith Jade Garrett spoke about her evolution of balancing religion and sexuality throughout her life.
Though she now works as a content specialist for the University’s Office of Marketing and Communication and is publicly “out” as a queer woman, Garrett spent the majority of her life in the small town of Gadsden, Alabama, forced to hide who she was. Most of her social life throughout her childhood took place at the Southern Baptist Church, a notably Fundamentalist community unsupportive of the LGBT community.
In her memoir Unseen: Intersecting Faith and Sexuality in the Bible Belt, she explains her coming out story and how she continues to explore how her views on Christianity are influenced by her sexuality.
Garrett never had an interest in dating throughout her middle and high school years, but looking back she noted, “What I took as piety or an interest in maintaining my purity status was just intense repression. Being a queer person was not an option, because I was a Christian and believed God wouldn’t make someone that he hated.”
Every Sunday was spent listening to 45-minute sermons in an anti-LGBT space, and even when she began to realize she was different than everyone around her, she could not find a way to express herself and her sexuality without putting herself in danger.
This internal conflict of trying to balance her sexuality with her faith tormented her, and her repression was only heightened by the intensity of the rhetoric surrounding her. She remembers how every year, her youth group went on a retreat to Gatlinburg. On the last day of this youth retreat, her pastor always gathered everyone into a conference room, turned off the lights, and played an audio file of the Crucifixion.
“We’d hear everything,” Garrett said, “from the sentencing to the cross being dragged to the nails to the wailing and screaming and dying of Christ. At the end, I could hear all my peers weeping and everyone was slumped over in their chairs, and my youth minister would turn on the lights and say, ‘That was your fault.’”
This emotional abuse forced Garrett further into repression and even today challenges her ability to reconcile with her faith and sexuality due to the painful memories from her childhood.
While Garrett studied abroad, her parents wound up transferring to the Episcopal church, which she could not understand. Though her parents did not remain in this branch of the church long, Garrett found some comfort in the new style of preaching she found there. “The sermon focused on nature, poetry, inclusion, love, and all of these things that sounded more like English class than church. I knew at that point that I could be accepted in that space.”
In addition to finding more liberation in this space, Garrett also met and fell in love with the church’s youth minister Allison Kendrick (C’10). After they had been dating for about a month, the reality began to sink in that it was time for her to come out to her parents. Fearing the reaction she would receive, Garrett decided to write a letter to her parents and deliver it via “a very brave cousin.” On the day it was delivered, both left town.
“We found out after the fact that my mother did wind up coming over to our apartment, and the harassment continued for almost three and a half years. I won’t detail a lot of the things she did, because there was a lot of mental illness involved, and I know a lot of her inability to cope with this came from that.”
Eventually, Garrett and Kendrick left Gadsden. “A lot of people probably viewed that as me running off to go be gay, like I was leaving behind a small town because it wasn’t good enough for me. In actuality, it was a necessity, because it was out of fear. We needed somewhere to start over and be us and not be afraid we’d turn the corner at a grocery store and be assaulted.”
In this dark time, Garrett tried to cope the best way she knew how: writing. What began as a series of journal entries eventually became the foundations for her book. However, in transitioning from the privacy of a journal to the publicity of book, Garrett had to reach a conclusion of some kind.
Unsure where a proper reconciliation with her mother would ever occur, Garrett attempted to settle her uneasiness with her faith by embracing the ambiguity of the religion and ultimately backing away from the church for a while.
“I’m not afraid to say that in some way me and Christianity are on a break. It’s really hard coming from the hypocrisy-filled faith tradition I was raised in to embrace it fully now. I can’t get up here today and say that I am fully reconciled and okay, but I can say that I’ve found a Christian community that has helped me heal.”
Another issue Garrett faced in writing her book was how to address the tension with her mother. “[My original editor] suggested that I include every horrible thing that my mom has ever said to me; she wanted me to put in transcripts of texts, letters, and everything else. There were times when I was so angry and upset that I would go into the documents and write those things.”
She continued, “Later, I’d go back and delete them. I thought, ‘What if ten years down the road, my mom picks up this book. I don’t want her to think she’d been completely thrown under the bus. Even if she doesn’t read it, I just want to offer her more grace than she ever offered me.’”
Fortunately, in September, Garrett’s mother finally reached out to make amends. Though she still is not fully supportive of her daughter’s lifestyle, she has begun to think differently. Her mother told her, “If you hear one thing I say, first hear me when I say that for three and a half years, I’ve prayed you’d change. I changed my prayer recently and asked God to change me. I think he is doing that now.”
Years of tension have been difficult for the pair to overcome, but Garrett appreciates the growth she’s had in her journey since her book was published. With every new development, her talks have shifted and that’s what she finds beautiful in her work.
“I think it helps for people to say, ‘I’m in the middle of a really shitty situation and here I am, talking about it.’ That’s why I’m always so grateful for these talks, it’s a volatile topic and you never know what your life is going to look like. So here I am, just trying to figure this out,” Garrett explained.
Virginia McClatchey (C’21) remarked, “I think this talk was very important, because not many queer people talk about their faith. There’s a misconception that you can either be queer or religious but not both. I really appreciated her vulnerability and honesty about her ongoing struggle with her faith and family.”