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In Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays Bernadette Barton explores Christianity, homosexuality and homophobia in the Bible Belt area. Barton discusses her own personal experiences, the experiences of her interviewees and incorporates information from articles and different studies into the mix. Barton argues that: "...Bible Belt Christian attitudes create and maintain a homophobic status quo" (p. 4) and states that: "Pray the Gay Away explores what it means to be gay in the context of multiple and overlapping hegemonic Christian environments, which are largely hostile to homosexuals..." (p. 19).
Barton focuses heavily on the psychological wellbeing of gay men and women in the Bible Belt and discusses the suffering and ostracism that "compulsory Christianity" and homophobia has on the individuals who are actively out and the ones who are in the "toxic closet". Barton also highlights the fact that Christian beliefs are often inconsistent with homosexuality and therefore Bible Belt gays are extremely vulnerable in the community. It is also often believed that a person can choose homosexuality or heterosexuality and that one can "pray the gay away". Bible Belt gays are therefore often accused of ruining families and dishonoring their parents and other relatives.
Barton is, however, careful to also mention that being gay in the Bible Belt does not only negatively affect psychological wellbeing but can also lead to violence, harassment and social ostracism. Her interviewees mention being physically attacked, often by parents or other family members, being forced to undergo exorcisms or having to attend "ex-gay programs" and counseling. As homophobia is a huge part of Bible Belt Christian beliefs a "do not talk about it" attitude is often employed in order to deal with the fact that a friend or family member is gay.
Barton courageously argues that it is not gay people who ruin families and break up communities. Instead, Barton claims that it is homophobic parents, siblings, and other relatives that mistreat homosexual individuals and thereby ruin families. Barton also states that by being homophobic and ostracizing, homophobic parents are guilty of neglecting their children's development and their emotional and physical wellbeing. Barton backs her claims with academic information. For example, studies have found that gay teens are overrepresented among the homeless, probably a result of many of them being kicked out of their homes after they come out.
But, Barton also asked the individuals she interviewed about the positives of being gay. A number of people mentioned the emotional connection they shared with same-sex partners, a bond that they highly valued. Many other also mentioned that being part of a minority, and receiving minority treatment, made them better, more open and tolerant people. They further stated that they were proud of their identity and their ability to stand up for themselves and be "who they were". Others also mentioned that they appreciated gay culture and the opportunities it gave them to mix stereotypically male and female behaviors. They meant that there was less pressure on a gay person to have to live up to the stereotypes that accompany their gender.
Pray the Gay Away is a truly great book for anyone interested in the topic. It is easy to read and follow and is therefore a great read for a large number of people. Personally I believe that it would be a beneficial tool to use in the classroom, both for younger students and those at college level. It would also be useful for individuals struggling to come out, or for parents, friends and relatives of gay men and women.
Barton's arguments are refreshing and provide a "talk back" to homophobic statements. Barton, and many of her interviewees, claims that homosexuality is not incompatible with Christianity and she truly provides great counter arguments in an intelligent and knowledgeable manner. The information and stories Barton received trough interviews are at times very upsetting and will anger the reader because the treatment of the men and women she interviewed is despicable and saddening. Still, the stories and interviews are touching, informative and makes the reader want to keep reading. Therefore, it is difficult to criticize the book. Pray the Gay Away is informative but does not resemble a textbook.
© 2013 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.