For 10 years, Marc Adams has been on a “rescue mission” across America to support religious-school students dealing with their identity and struggles as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered persons.
The executive director of Seattle-based HeartStrong says his group has directly assisted nearly 1,000 students from grade school through graduate school and has stepped up educating the public about “the persecution of GLBTs and others at religious educational institutions.”
There’s the account of Diane, a 16-year-old girl at a Catholic school, whose unladylike behavior and butch haircut got her expelled. She killed herself by ingesting drain cleaner. Or the Christian college student discovered in a gay bar and ordered to reveal all other students he thought were gay or to call his parents and tell them he was gay. The student opted to “out” other students, yet school officials still made him call his parents and tell them he was homosexual and was being expelled, Adams said.
The estranged son of a fundamentalist independent Baptist pastor in Pennsylvania, Adams, 38, recently told a Chandler church how his parents and four sisters turned their backs on him when he was 23 after he revealed, in a nine-page letter to each of them, that he was gay. He become aware of his homosexuality at 7, but kept it to himself and later contemplated suicide. In one of the earliest of his seven books, “The Preacher’s Son,” Adams recounted how he followed prescribed steps to try to become heterosexually oriented, including reading the Bible, deep prayer and enrolling at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who headed the once-powerful Moral Majority.
At 15, Adams watched Falwell’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour” TV ministry in which the pastor said homosexuality was a sin and a choice, but “it was something that God could change.” Adams said it gave him hope. “I could change a part of my life and become like everyone else. So I thought then and there to do everything I could to be as close to Jerry Falwell and his organization as I could. … Suddenly I thought my life was worthwhile because I could change.”
However, his parents believed that Falwell “was going to hell with the Jews, the Mormons, the Presbyterians and pretty much everybody.” So, Adams would have to pay his own way through college. He enrolled in 1984 when he was 16 and stayed for 3 1/2 years. He dropped out and moved to Los Angeles when he began questioning what he had always been taught about the treatment of women and minorities “and people who believe differently.”
During college, “I saw so many students get expelled for the issue of being gay just the first six months that I was there,” he said. Determined not to suffer the same fate, he redoubled his efforts to draw from his fundamentalist teachings to change him. But his homosexuality was part of a “huge list of stuff I was supposed to fight every day,” he said.
Oddly, it was his paternal grandmother — ostracized by the family for being divorced, having boyfriends, and wearing earrings, lipstick and pants — who called him out of the blue, then flew to Los Angeles to meet with him in 1992. Later, in a letter, she told him she had known that he was gay as a little boy. He described his grandmother as “a woman who had been waiting my entire life for the opportunity to show me what real love and real family were all about.” Until then, no one in the family had been allowed to spend more than 10 minutes with her, he said.
When she died in 2004, Adams grieved deeply and witnessed ugly family behavior to get her buried without fanfare. “She gave me the greatest gift possible, the gift of love,” he wrote. “By loving me, she gave me the courage to love myself, and, in turn, others.”
In his book, “(lost) Found,” published in 2005, Adams noted, “I never even thought about loving myself when I was 23 years old. My former religion pretty much stole my selfesteem and freedom to think for myself. Most of my childhood and young adulthood was scorched by the fire of my selfcensuring beliefs.” He called his formative years of fundamentalist Baptist immersion “more an absorption than selfdiscovery,” and he had thoroughly accepted it. He thought he alone hated himself for being secretly gay. In 1987, when Adams began his coming-out process, he first discarded his fear of being hurt.
Adams, who has given more than 2,000 talks about his journey and work, decided to forgo a comfortable, decent-paying job in Los Angeles to move to Seattle to start HeartStrong. He has four volunteers. Since 1996, Adams has traveled 329,000 miles doing outreach to GLBT people. He also works through Web sites, including www.heartstrong.org or www. meetmarcadams.com.
HeartStrong has 14 outreach programs, makes visits to campuses, promotes four Web sites and mails materials to religious schools, “which forces them to warn students about us, hence educating students about us,” Adams said.
Now a Unitarian Universalist, Adams told several recent weekend gatherings at Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Chandler that it was while reading an old notebook and looking through a high school yearbook that he realized that his experiences could help affirm GLBT people in conflict with theological teaching. “What is it like for millions of kids who grow up in fundamentalist homes all over the world?” he said.
Adams believe that, through his books, poetry, presentations and counseling, he speaks the language of people enrolled in religious schools who are not heterosexual. He likens himself to “someone who has made it out of a burning building alive and turns around and goes back to try to rescue as many people as I can.”
He estimates that 11 million students in the U.S. are enrolled in some form of religion-related school, including home-schooled children, but that about 35 percent of young people come from nonreligious homes where they probably heard no theological condemnation of homosexuality.
Adams said his group counters the “sin-equals-death” talk of conservative churches about gay identity because it has led to depression and suicide.
“Our work is a rescue mission,” he said. “We can’t go far enough fast enough. There is a clock ticking on the emotional and physical bodies of the students.”