Coming out at the best of times is hard, but when you’re growing up in a strict religious family that doesn’t embrace the LGBT community it can be even harder. But once you’ve bravely managed to do that, just imagine how hard it would be for that someone who has embarked on a life as a priest to have to come out all over again…. Here, Jarel Robinson-Brown shares his moving but uplifting story about looking for and finding acceptance….
So you’re a Methodist priest….
Weirdly, I started preaching at 14 (yeah, I know, young, eh?) back in London where I grew up in the Methodist Churches in Ealing. I went to train for ordination at Wesley House in Cambridge, and I was ordained as a Presbyter last June, when I was 23. So I am pretty young really for this generation and I’ve been in Cardiff since July 2013.
So what led you to this role?
Looking back I think it was coming from such a place of despair and abandonment as a child that brought me here. It’s true but also sad that when God is all you have, you realise that God is all you need, and I think I was in that place…. I knew at a really young age that I had a call to priesthood, I just didn’t know which denomination, or how to go about it. God’s existence always seemed obvious to me, so I can’t really put myself in a place of knowing what it’s like to not believe in Him…I almost wish I could know what that was like to understand atheists a little better really.
Tell us about your experience growing up…
I was brought up by various people such as my sister, my aunt and my nan… This was because my mother has had Bipolar disorder for years and was unable to bring me up on her own while my father was not really committed to to the family. So I was brought up by other family members from about the age of five. But I was so blown away as a child by the kindness, love and support shown to us as a family by the Methodist people, particularly to my nan who brought my sister and I up, and also cared for our granddad and our mother all herself.
Becoming a Methodist Minister – what life rules do you have to abide by?
Well, I think it’s more a way of being, and an outlook rather than rules in the simplest sense. Fundamentally, I think we’ve always tried to not demand a different standard of living for those in positions of leadership, than those that we would ask of any of our church folk. But for those who are ordained, as Presbyters in my case, we do have a certain set of emphases in how we order our lives. So, for example, when a presbyter is ordained, we receive Holy Orders – literally commands about how we must order our lives and so in Chester Cathedral last year, in floods of tears I and many others heard the commands to: Remember my call. Declare the Good News. Celebrate the Sacraments. Serve the needy. Minister to the sick. Welcome the stranger. Seek the lost. To pray without ceasing, work with joy, and let no one suffer hurt through my neglect.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
Now if that wasn’t a tall order all by itself, we’re also told to exercise mercy without forgetting justice, and to minister discipline without forgetting mercy so that when Christ comes in glory, he may count us among his faithful servants.
Are you allowed to date guys without anyone frowning?
We are, but I still haven’t worked out how to date and live out my vocation properly. That’s not to do with Church rules, it’s just to do with me. The time that my work takes up, the energy, the commitment – at 24, it’s a lot to ask someone else to be willing to sign up to that, or to realise that your life will nine times out of ten revolve around your calling. It’s not a 9-5 job, and I have a lot of people in my flock who I love and care for deeply, and when they need me: I’m here. I just trust that if and when I do fall in love again and I’ve dated quite a bit already, it will all work itself out somehow and the person will be supportive too.
So the church approves?
Yes, relationships are fine – so long as they don’t get in the way of my primary calling but complement it. And if they are to be intimate, naturally the church would affirm that they need to be committed through marriage, or a civil partnership because that is the best context for them.
So being gay isn’t an issue?
We allow our clergy to enter into same-sex marriages, though we can’t (yet!) conduct them, and of course that brings its own challenges, particularly when dating people who are not Christian, or who can’t understand why things are the way they are, particularly in today’s world.
Take us back. When did you know you were attracted to guys?
I should have known when I learnt all the words to Sister Act by heart, and badly wanted to be Whoopi Goldberg…! But I didn’t. By 12 or 13 I had a pretty good idea….High School is a funny place, and I fell in love with someone who started off just as a friend, I came out to him before anyone else. We got really close but it was never sexual – probably the only time I’ve truly felt that way for another guy. We still talk now. I was completely surprised by the feelings I had for him, and wrestled with them for years before I even had words to describe what was going on inside me. A tough time, but I love that I could feel that for someone…pretty magical. I remember walking with my mum one day in Hyde Park, and just saying out loud ‘I’m in love with…’ She knew him, knew his mum and knew exactly what I said, but she just laughed and we kept walking.
Did you have to stifle the feelings?
Sadly, I did. The biggest issue was that I knew I had deeply rooted homophobic impulses in me because of how I was brought up, so I had to get over not being disgusted at other LGBT people, and then learning to love and accept myself for something I knew I couldn’t change. I also knew that there was no way I could come out fully whilst still living at home, because I knew things would be so tense it would make it impossible. Luckily, I had a circle of friends who were musicians, because I studied classical music as an pianist and organist and in that circle I had teachers and other musicians who were very out and proud, or who could see that I wasn’t completely comfortable with my sexuality and who taught me to accept who I was.
When was your first gay experience?
Again at fifteen, but not with guy I mentioned earlier. I’ll save you the details, but let’s just say at that age I knew for sure that what I was feeling wasn’t just temporary, or mental, but physical too. Definitely more lust than love. Maybe I’ll finish writing my memoirs this year, and a NSFW version of this story might appear….!
Were you ever bullied at school for being gay?
I was bullied, but not for that reason – I think it was more that I was a boy who was more interested in playing the piano, and dealing Pokemon cards than playing football, or really getting into PE. Bullying was serious in my first few years of High School, I was that typical skinny kid with a rucksack the size of a suitcase with tonnes of stuff in it that I didn’t need….one day, it all got so out of a hand, that one of the older students decided it would be funny to throw me in front of a moving bus…it all got so serious, police got involved and all sorts – I laugh at it now, but it was really awful at the time.
What did your family think?
That usual thing…that it’s a ‘phase that will pass’! I don’t think they would have believed me to be honest. I tend to be quite distant with some, particularly my father’s side of the family, just because I know there’s no point even trying to get the message across that I might actually just still be a normal human being. I think a lot of them think that it would have been better for me to just get married and have kids, and pretend as though I was ‘normal’. But life’s too short!
Where is your family from? Were they very strict?
We are a Jamaican family. Although my mother, sister and I were born here in the UK – our father and grandparents and other family members are all Jamaican, and the culture with all its pros and cons have stuck with us. I’m very proud of my heritage, and wouldn’t change it for the world. But having someone hunt for the TV remote everytime a gay couple kissed on TV so the channel could be changed didn’t help my upbrining…neither did the lyrics in some of the songs that were often played in our house for those long all-night parties we used to have. The other side is that because of our heritage, Christian values are at the centre of our lives, and I know that despite the homophobia in my family, when it really comes down to it they don’t hold hatred in their hearts for people like me – it’s just going to take a generation to change. I was allowed to go out clubbing as a teenager, and to go to Pride and my Mum knew and actually wanted to come with me (she’s the free-thinking one in the family!). I had a strict upbringing, but I was always brought up to respect people, even those with whom I might have differences. Oddly I still notice when I see two men or two women holding hands in public, and maybe I shouldn’t notice really….but my body registers it as unusual even though If I was in a relationship I’d hold my partners hand and be perfectly fine.
When you entered into the church did you think it would help you stifle the feelings more?
No, I’ve always felt that it’s been more of a burden for me to be open and honest. You can’t stand up in the pulpit week by week, or celebrate the Eucharist and be comfortable doing that with no integrity. For my words and actions to have meaning and power, I have to be honest about who I am so that people can trust me if nothing else. I’ve also written about the way in which sex, spirituality and sacrament are actually three things that go hand in hand, and so I feel like a need to model an openness within the Church and also show in my own theology how these things are two sides of the same coin. We’ve had an unhealthy culture of silence around sex and sexuality in the Church for too long, and it’s not done us any favours.
As time went on did the power of your sexuality mean you could no longer live a lie?
It was complex, because I have had to come out more than once. The first time in High School, then in my first year in Seminary, then again this year – but the first time I did I suppose yes, I did it because I couldn’t live a life that wasn’t true. When silence kills, it’s time to speak…..and I’m sure some will read this who might not have known either.
A lot of people who hide their feelings and sexuality suffer from mental issues or thoughts of suicide. Did you experience anything like that?
I’ve been there myself. It’s the worst feeling in the world, when you literally cannot think of one person you can just pour your heart out to, and be completely real with. Depression seems to be catchphrase for lots of different things now, but as someone who lives with clinical depression I can tell you, there’s absolutely nothing romantic about sleepless nights and colourless days – or waking up feeling completely knackered, and crawling into bed at midday not giving a damn about eating, or getting dressed because the darkness feels better than the light. Depression is grim and most people who try to sugar-coat it, have no idea what they’re doing.
Who did you first open up to about your sexuality?
This will sounds very soppy….but at the same time as the guy I had strong feelings for, I told my best friend. I can actually remember it all right now. She was frying bacon in her kitchen, and I had rang her that morning, we were talking for ages about absolutely everything else under the sun, and then I just said, ‘Mel, I have to tell you something man. Seriously. But you’ll probably be angry, and I completely understand.’ I laugh about it now, but it was a journey for both of us, particularly as back then she was firmly rooted in the Pentecostal Church as a proud Nigerian. She was so supportive though, and infact the first Christmas after I came out, I spent it with her and her family because things were so difficult at home. I’ll never forget that Christmas when I was basically a refugee… – special and raw all at the same time.
How has your church accepted you?
I haven’t had any major issues – I did have a very odd conversation with one of my superiors who just didn’t get the fact that I was bisexual, and so I tried to explain that some people in the world today are trans, it’s not all so clear cut as straight/gay….but they just didn’t want to know. I think having a conversation shut down like that, almost makes you feel like a complicated creature, when actually all you seek is mutual understanding. God gets it though, and that’s what matters to me!
Have your parishioners been supportive?
They haven’t been surprised I think, partly, because being bisexual, my language doesn’t always make it clear that I’m LGBT but also, because I’ve always been rather outspoken on the fact that ALL people are made in God’s image and likeness, and loved by God no matter who they are or what they have done, and I have often challenged them by naming the sorts of folk they might not put in that category. That’s the thing I think people misunderstand most about God – that there’s nothing we can do to stop Him loving us, or anything we can do to make Him love us more….the Church hasn’t always been great at getting that across, but it is at the heart of what we believe, particularly in the Methodist Church.
It has since high school. I think lots of people would be surprised by just how many people I correspond with – mostly via e-mail, or by letter, or over the phone. People who don’t come to church, or who used to, but who trust me enough to bare some of the most intimate parts of themselves to me. I have no idea why people choose me to do that, but it happens a lot – particularly other trans friends, and gay or bisexual men from the BME community. I just don’t want anyone to ever think that they are better of dead than alive….and if I can help people to realize that life is worth living – I’ll always make the time for them. It’s what Jesus would do.
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