August 21, 2015 at 11:39 am EST | by Kevin Majoros
Gay athletes talk religion and faith
religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Tanner Williams (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma University Athletics)

There have been a vast number of coming out stories told recently that share a common thread that it isn’t easy to accept your sexual identity when it is not considered “normal.”

The self-acceptance process is generally filled with shame, insecurities, fear and often depression. Homophobia is exactly what you don’t want to experience when you are dealing with finding your true self.

There are other identities that you are not born with, those that are chosen, that also come with homophobia. Religion and sports can be extremely homophobic environments that can add even more emotion to the inner struggle of growing up gay.

It seems like an impossible bridge to gap. Why not just walk away from the two you can choose to walk away from, religion and sports?

Meet three men who are gay, played sports and grew up with religion. All three of them say it is not religion that bridged the three struggles, but rather their individual faith.

When you speak to Josh Sanders, there is a sense of calm that emanates from him. He describes his relationship with religion as being vertical and horizontal and more of a personal journey.

“The vertical is the relationship between me and God and the horizontal is me and the eyes of other people,” says Sanders. “I should never look at myself through the eyes of others.”

religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Josh Sanders (Photo courtesy of Charyln)

Sanders grew up playing basketball and intended to walk onto the team at Virginia Wesleyan but ended up dropping out to address his inner struggles. He began coaching a local high school team and enrolled at James Madison University. His path led to him to work with various Christian sports ministries and he became the athletic director at a Christian sports camp. After surviving six months of conversion therapy, he came out to his employer only to be told he couldn’t return to the sports camp position that he had held for six years because of his sexuality.

“There is an exclusive tone to the intersection between religion and sexuality. It is the church versus the gay community,” Sanders says. “I don’t separate those two parts of myself. I can be both and there is nothing exclusive about that. If you can’t acknowledge that I can be both, then you are not seeing all of me.”

Sanders, who is living in the Virginia Beach area, has been getting involved again with sports as director of external engagement for GO! Athletes. He is also involved in its extension project, GO! Faith, which provides an inclusive space for young LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators of faith to come together for fellowship and encouragement.

“Biblical literalism is alive today but I think context is everything. It makes no sense to apply those writings to life today,” says Sanders. “The Bible leads the direction of my faith, but it is my own personal interpretation.”

Sanders attends a large evangelical church on occasion that is not LGBT friendly. He says he goes there because of the loving friendships he has made with some of its members.

“We [the LGBT community] are the ones that need to take the initiative to get people from the church to step outside their own experience and actually get to know us,” Sanders says. “Once that happens, there can be change.”

Tanner Williams was so shy as a kid that he was afraid to speak to people. He would wait outside after track practice in hopes of getting through a day without being called a fag. Because of his Southern Baptist upbringing in Ardmore, Okla., he spent a lot of time in those isolated moments wondering why he was gay.

In the sixth grade, his coach got him into pole vaulting and within two years, he won a national championship and followed that up with two state championships in high school.

“I was a really religious kid and I put all my trust in God and pole vaulting,” says Williams. “I had no friends and my time was spent praying and talking to God.”

During his freshman year at Oklahoma University, the mother of a girl he had been formerly promised to for marriage, began stalking Williams through a fake Twitter and Facebook account, threatening to out him, he says. A police report was filed and security was increased at the Big 12 Championships in Waco, Texas, where Williams was competing in the pole vault for the Sooners.

“I grew up with people telling me it’s a choice to be gay and I fell for it,” Williams says. “When things like harassment happen, it just reinforces the feeling that there is something wrong with you.”

Williams began coming out to friends two years ago at age 19 and is now only occasionally attending church. He says he feels sorry for members of organized religion who propagate homophobia because they pick and choose what they believe in the Bible.

“They don’t study the bible like I do and they don’t look at it like I do.” says Williams. “I study it and find the content for me, what God wants for me.”

Williams is coming up on his senior year at Oklahoma University and will be graduating with a degree in business management and nursing. Last year at age 20 he married his partner, Scott Williams and he is looking forward to what the future has to offer.

“I love competing but I am ready to move on,” Williams says. “I will be the only senior on the Sooners track team this year so I will be stepping forward as more of a leader. I guess that’s my management side coming out.”

When Akil Patterson was playing football for the University of Maryland, his mom was commuting from Frederick, Md., to get her master’s degree and used to pick her son up for church. He always felt he wasn’t being honest because the black church he attended was adamantly opposed to homosexuality. He sometimes brought his teammates along so he would feel more comfortable. It was during one of those rides to church that Patterson came out to his mom.

religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Akil Patterson pictured with Washington Blade guest editor Hudson Taylor. (Photo by Kevin Majoros)

“I was struggling during my coming out process and I turned to my faith,” says Patterson. “God doesn’t get you out of things; he just helps you get through them.”

After his football career ended, Patterson returned to the University of Maryland campus and became involved with coaching for their wrestling programs. The Terrapin Wrestling Club is also a regional Olympic training center for USA Wrestling and Patterson began competing in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Recently retired from sports, Patterson still attends church and says that everything a person needs is in the Bible and subject to one’s own interpretation. He likes going to church because of the sense of camaraderie and fellowship and is attending a more affirming church now.

“When that black pastor says that being gay is wrong, everyone starts screaming and it creates a wolf pack mentality,” Patterson says. “If the pastors would stop talking about it, people in the black community would follow. They will defend you and look out for you, but they don’t want to hear about that part of you.”

Patterson said that organized religion is directed at a certain type of people, those who are not secure in their faith.

“Those people are not rooted and don’t understand how the book is translated. Too many of them think that faith is what you learned in church,” Patterson says. “The church is religion but faith is beyond that. I am a man of faith.”

  • slowe11

    It puzzles me why any gay or LGBT person would still be a Christian. After All, religion, Christianity, the Christian church, and the Bible has been THE Main justifacation and motivation for killing us, rejecting us, condemning us, etc. Christianity is truely anti-gay, anti-homosexual. So, why would someone still want to be a Christian? On the other hand. Humanism welcomes all and provides a community and philosophy to replace church and gods. Humanists have ALWAYS welcomed gay people.

    • I’m a Christian and I’m not anti-gay, anti-homosexual … and I’m not anti-humanist either. That also doesn’t mean I’m pro-gay, pro-homosexual or pro-humanist. I’ll also not go out of my way to assault other people’s beliefs or use one issue to take shots at a group on another issue.

      But that’s just me.

      • slowe11

        Religions, religious beliefs, religious texts, and the actions of religious people are not out of bounds or off limits for criticism. It is not going out of my way to observe and say these things. In fact, they need to be said more often and louder. Religion must own the actions it spawns. Religion – Christianity, Islam, Mromonism – is THE MAIN enemy of gay people and positively harms us. It must be held responsible and accountable. Religious Beliefs are not immune from or protected from analysis, criticism, and blame.

        • Didn’t say they were immune, just using this as a crutch to push a humanist agenda … which I totally get. Because to push one agenda, you must try to destroy another belief system, right?

          • slowe11

            In a pluralistic country like ours, both (theism and atheism; Christianity and Humanism) can exist side by side but philosophically they are opposed to each other and cannot , I think co-exist. One makes a claim that the other rejects. Only in that way a Humanist is opposed to Christianity. But I still assert that the Christian religion, churches, sacred texts are the greatest and historical enemy of we homosexuals. Much twisting of meanings, interpretations of texts, and outright ignoring of verses is necessary to allow for gay people in Christianity. So, I re-ask: Why would any self-respecting, honest LGBT STILL be a Chritian? Just WHY? It’s like a Jewish Nazi, or a Black KKK member.

          • Because it’s their right to be. It’s like how me as a straight man can never understand what it’s like to be a gay man. It’s why men can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman. You don’t understand it because you aren’t. People who are Christian and gay can explain it to those who find it insulting or a contradiction. Everyone can Monday morning quarterback other people’s choices, but don’t we live in a country where we are free to be who we want to be. If you want to be a Christian and you’re gay, awesome. More power to you. So you ask Why would any self-respecting, honest LGBT STILL be Christian? Because that is their choice, that is their right and your opinion of that choice is irrelevant to their happiness and life.

          • slowe11

            Jason, of course they have a right to be. I never implied otherwise. My point was why would they choose to be. See. a religion is a choice, unlike your sex (male or female) and sexual orientation. – the two examples you give for your argument. But since being a Christian IS a choice that one can choose, my question is valid. It seems self defeating to be a member of an organization and a philosophy or a religon that thinks you are a sinner, immoral, worthy of rejection, not worthy of acceptance, etc. THis has been true of the Christian church for thousands of years and is still true for the vast majority of Christian denominations and Christian members. It is their choice of course, but I challenge them to justify that choice because it seems illogical and self harming to me. It seems hypocritical – like supporting your enemy. Maybe they don’t realize that they really have a choice. Or that Humanism is an option. Perhaps.

          • Who are you to outright stand up and challenge their choice? Last time I checked, no one needs to justify their faith, home purchases, orientation, haircut or pedicure to anyone, let alone the comments sections of the internet. My answer was simply you’d have to ask them directly, and if you did, how quickly would you try to degrade their faith as a crutch for your own personal agenda and viewpoint? You want people to think like you, not people to think for themselves. We all have different opinions. I, for one, don’t like anyone’s thrown at me because of how someone will quickly tell me what I’m doing is wrong (and that’s BOTH sides of this discussion). People can dog Christians for their bad apples and perceived hatred, just like people can dog Humanists for insulting entire swaths of the population by insulting their upbringing and belief system.

            Long story short — ask them yourself.

          • slowe11

            When anyone makes a public claim ” I am gay, I am Christian” anyone can question or challenge such a claim. That is not the same as saying “you may not be both” but saying ” I don’t get why you would want to be or can be both, that is a contridictory claim. Can you make it make sense? ” I ask this question evertime I engage anyone making that duplicate, seemingly contradictory and non-sensical claim. I do ask them – as I did in this forum. Your answer is not an answer but a challenge to my right to even ask the question. I think everyone does, or should, make their choice about religion by thinkig about it. THis is one of the things a gay Christian should think about it. I am sorry you don’t like the question.

          • So you’re asking the question not to truly understand, you’re asking them, phrasing it as non-sensical and contradictory (in your opinion) to what end? The way I’m reading this is you’re intent is to get them to shun their faith and start thinking like you do.

            You actually don’t want an answer to the question, you seem like you just want a reaction that’s in line with your belief system, rather than their own.

            If you disagree with their answer, you’ll completely attack the faith itself, thereby attacking the person and who they are.

            You can ask the question all you want, don’t expect people who see what you’re angling for to engage you in such a spring-loaded one-sided discussion.

            Good day.

          • slowe11

            If there is a good answer, I would like to hear it. Yes, I AM challenging their position. Yes it is a rhetorical question. Yes I think they should think about this contridiction. Yes I think they shoud change their mind. Especially if they don’t have a good answer to the question. Yes, I think gay people, if anyone, has a better reasn than most to abandon Christianity because of it’s history and opinion of us. I am not attacking the person and who they are. I am attacking their choice to remain a Christian. I will not hide that. I ask the same of every woman because the Christian, Jewish, Muslim religion as been very harmful to women where they are second class to men and have been held back and mistreated for thousands of years. I also ask the same to every African or African American whose ancestors were enslaved by Christians under Chritaian kings and governments. Who were held enslaved by Christian owners who were justified by their Christian ministers in church every Sunday. Christianity is no friend to anyone but straight, white males.

          • That’s cool man. Hate away.

          • slowe11

            Do you deny any of what I said? It is not hate, it is reason, a good reason to reconsider your choice. Many never really consider this, having been raised in a Christian home with family members and holidays and never really consider the possibility of simply abandoning an organization that demeans them.

          • Not going to bite on your obsession over other people’s religion. Don’t try to shield your hatred of religion by calling it reason.

          • slowe11

            I don’t hate religion. I think it is wrong. We should always try to correct errors and wrongs. You seem to think that one’s religion, or religion in general, should not be criticized, that it is protected from analysis and examination and criticism. that it is a personal choice and it would be rude to speak ill of it. You are mistaking criticism for hatred.

          • Didn’t say that, didn’t allude to that. This is why I typically don’t discuss politics or religion with anyone, especially people on the comments sections. I didn’t follow my own rule. You’re inferring I think one thing when you have no visible proof. I won’t engage you further, so that means you must be right, right? “I seem to think” — no, I don’t seem to think. I don’t doubt you’re more educated and a tad more worldly than I am, but that doesn’t make you superior with your thoughts and how you have come off as having a greater intellect because you have an entire arsenal of anti-religion comebacks and rhetorical questions. Never said it shouldn’t be criticized. That’s where you are wrong You continued this discussion to push YOUR opinion and your thoughts of what I should think because I don’t align with your view on religion. People like you will make every effort to try to rip someone’s religion away from them. Yes, that’s a hatred of something when you will do everything in your power to change people of what you feel is wrong. You know what that is? That’s NO DIFFERENT than those whack jobs yelling at gay people to try to get them to change because they think being gay is wrong. You’re no different. None. Have a nice day. I have said my piece. I will not reply to any more. I’ve got no place for people who can just disrespect entire classes of people. Enjoy that double standard you live in.

          • slowe11

            Again, religion is a choice, being gay is not and I am saying that people should consider these issue as they continue to choose to be a member of an organization that has harmed us, rejected us, even killed us, provoked some to commit suicide, etc. I am not disrespecting a class of people, I am challenging a choice they have made and remake every day they decide to remain a member of an organization and a philosophy that disrespects them, and harms them. It is NOT the same as homophobes trying to get us to change. Religion IS a choice.

          • Couldn’t resist the last word, could you? Your actions are the SAME. Too bad you’re too busy patting yourself on the back to realize it. Now I’m done. However, you’re not. People like you LOOOOOVE the last word. Makes you feel all tingly inside.

      • Slowe11 has a valid point. One of the reasons, but NOT the main one, why I am an Asatruar / Heathen is the attitude, ignorance and plain old arseholery of ‘Christians’ towards LGBT. They hide it behind their bibles and church.

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