LAUREL, Miss. — Rev. Brandiilyne Dear, an ordained minister who grew up in a small town in Mississippi’s Pine Belt, was 11 years old when she had her first “experience with a girl.”
Their parents found out they had been together because they could not hide the hickies on their necks.
“That was my best friend,” Dear told the Washington Blade during a July 9 interview at a coffee shop in Laurel, a city of about 18,000 residents that is roughly 90 miles southeast of Jackson, the state capital. “I was not able to see her anymore after that. We got in a lot of trouble.”
Dear has struggled and confronted personal demons throughout most of her life.
She began to smoke marijuana shortly after her first same-sex sexual encounter with her then-best friend.
Dear took ecstasy and other drugs when she lived in Birmingham, Ala., in her mid-20s. She told the Blade she began taking crystal meth once she returned to Mississippi.
“When I was 28 years old, I had lost everything,” Dear told the Blade. “I woke up in a hotel room; a cheap hotel and I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had lost everything and I had to call my mother. I’m 28 years old, I’m having to call mom. I didn’t have anywhere to go and she came and got me.”
‘I had an experience with God’
Dear’s son was 11 years old when they moved into her mother’s home.
“If you live under momma’s roof you live by momma’s rules,” Dear told the Blade. “That’s just how it is in the South. You have to do what momma says; I don’t care if you’re 40 or 14.”
Dear said her mother, whom she described as a “big Christian,” made her go to church.
“I walked into this church and these people were a little hyper,” she said, noting she had grown up Methodist. “I laid on the back pew and drew in the books. And so I go in here and they were raising their hands and they’re doing the thing and they’re amen and hallelujah.”
Dear was still living with her crystal meth addiction when she first went to the church.
“I’m just sitting there going these people are nuts, and mind you I’m a junkie at the time,” she said. “I’m a complete drug addict and I’m sitting in the church saying these people are nuts.”
Dear’s mother had volunteered her to paint a children’s mural inside the church.
A youth pastor insisted that she attend a weekend-long retreat known as an “encounter” in September 2003.
Dear resisted, even hiding in another room to avoid him. She finally relented and said she would go as a way to get him to leave her alone.
“I went to this encounter and I had an experience with God, I mean a genuine experience with God,” Dear told the Blade. “I never wanted another drug, never used another drug.”
“After that weekend, I just knew I wanted to help people,” she added. “I just felt the call of God and it was very strong.”
Dear in 2005 established a ministry for drug addicts in Laurel called Dying to Live Ministries.
“I thought my life was a mess,” she said. “I thought I had this horrible addiction, and I was a terrible drug addict. But I started working with drug addicts and I thought wow, I’m Mother Teresa compared to these people. I mean they would come in and they were just in horrible shape. I connected with people and I was able to help them.”
Dear met the couple that currently runs the ministry when they were struggling with their own addiction — the woman was in jail where she had been put on house arrest and her husband participated in the program as an alternative to prison. Dear married the couple.
“I saved a lot of people from prison,” she said.
She opened a center for recovering drug addicts in 2012 after a 19-year-old man who had joined her ministry died in a car accident.
Chris McDaniel, a local lawyer who challenged incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in the state’s June primary, is among those who attended the groundbreaking.
“It was really tragic,” said Dear, referring to the man’s sudden death. “I decided I wanted to do more. I was having meetings every week and I had the jail ministry. I had all this going on, but I wanted to do more.”
‘Trying to pray the gay away’
Dear told the Blade that many of those who sought help through her ministry were gay men and lesbians.
“A lot of the LGBT people did cope through drugs and alcohol, so I had a lot of gay people in my ministry,” she said. “Of course I was trying to pray the gay away and rehabilitate, so I was involved in reparative therapy to a degree.”
She described the impact of reparative therapy as “devastating.”
“You’re telling people that you know God can deliver you through homosexuality, you just have to believe, you have to have faith,” said Dear. “When God doesn’t heal you or make you straight, you must have gone too far. God doesn’t love you and you’re not worth saving. Your self-worth is just depleted, completely depleted. It’s just a big thing. I started to see that in the last two years of my ministry.”
Dear said a judge referred a lesbian to her ministry during the time she had begun to grapple with her own sexual orientation.
The recovering drug addict’s partner, Brandi, attended meetings with her.
“She came in with her partner,” said Dear. “She’s like ‘I’m here to support her. I don’t want to be here.’”
“She’s completely against church and against pastors and understandably so because of the way LGBT people have been treated in the church,” she added.
Brandi’s partner subsequently died from an aneurism.
Dear became “kind of close” with Brandi after she presided over her partner’s funeral.
“She came into the ministry and she started working toward getting straight, and she just didn’t,” said Dear. “She wasn’t straight. Of course it didn’t work.”
Brandi soon began to date another woman, and Dear told the Blade the church “blackballed her.”
“It was really, really bad,” she said. “She was very vocal about it on social media and we were very vocal about it on social media. We were bullying her.”
Dear fell ‘head over heels’ for partner
It was during this period that Dear met her current partner Susan Mangum when she approached her at the women’s gym she owns — and where the lesbian who had just been kicked out of her church worked out — to see if the business would donate memberships for those in her ministry.
“I’m standing kind of behind my secretary and giving her my spiel and telling her what I needed and what I wanted,” said Dear. “She’s just looking at me and I’m thinking lord, she’s going to kick my ass. She’s going to get up out of this chair and kick my ass.”
Mangum was initially skeptical of the request, but she eventually agreed.
Dear also bought a membership for herself and began to work out at the gym.
“I started going to the gym and I thought Susan was just cute,” she told the Blade, noting Mangum’s partner of eight years had recently left her and took their children. “Susan wasn’t doing real well at the time. And Pastor Brandiilyne goes into minister mode. I’m trying to minister to her and I listened to her a lot. She talked a lot, so I listened and we really just became great friends.”
Dear was married to her then-husband, but she soon began to “fall head over heels in love with her.”
“Here I am, freaking out at this point, I’m like I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m married first of all and I’m Pastor Brandiilyne and this is Mississippi and this can’t happen. That’s when I started to think and go back. That’s when I remembered my little 11-year-old affair.”
‘I lost everything’
Dear nearly passed out during a boxing class one day, so Mangum brought her to her home.
“She went upstairs to get a shower and get changed,” Dear told the Blade. “She came back down and I was just like I’ve got to do something about this. It’s making me physically sick. I can’t function. I’ve got to do something about this.”
Dear said she told Mangum that she is “crazy about you” and she is “falling in love with you.”
“She was sitting on the other end of the couch,” said Dear. “She raised up and said hell no. I was just like, well, that is not what I had envisioned.”
“She said no, hell no, you have this great life,” she added. “You’re Pastor Brandiilyne, I’m not going to let you screw up your life. You don’t understand what this is going to do with you.”
Dear and Mangum agreed to remain friends, but a couple of weeks later decided they were “just going to pursue it.”
Dear told the Blade that she had already decided to leave her church because she “didn’t like the way” it treated people.
“I didn’t like the way they treated the LGBT community,” she said. “I was just as bad, but you do what you’re told to do. You follow the leader.”
Dear told the Blade that she decided to tell the couple who are now running her ministry because “they were my best friends, very close to me.”
“I came out to them and told them,” she said. “They outed me to my pastor and my pastor resigned me from the pulpit the next day.”
Dear described the day she came out as “the most liberating moment of my life” that “was quickly becoming the most devastating.” She lost her ministry, her family and her husband.
“My pastors were like my father and my mother,” said Dear, noting she spent every major holiday with them as she became emotional. “I literally spent all of my time with them. So I lost everything. It was a rejection that went so deep and it was so painful. It’s indescribable.”
LGBT people ‘so much more than our sexuality’
Dear founded the Dandelion Project, a support group for LGBT people who live in Laurel and the surrounding areas.
“There’s so much more to it than just a weed,” she told the Blade, noting how she began studying the dandelion after she saw one while driving down a local road. “A dandelion is a beautiful thing and it’s a great thing and it’s a good thing. They’re everywhere and you can’t stop them.”
The group has more than 50 members, many of whom meet weekly at her Laurel home.
The Dandelion Project has produced a number of video campaigns that promote acceptance of LGBT people.
Dear and other members of the Dandelion Project also appear in “L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin,” a documentary that premiered on Showtime on Friday.
“We’re so much more than our sexuality,” said Dear. “I don’t know how it is everywhere, but here in the South when people find out your sexuality, the rest of your identity is overshadowed by stereotypes. It’s the first thing they see. It’s like ‘hi lesbian’ and that’s it. They can’t get beyond that.”
“They can’t see that you’re intelligent; they can’t see that you’re professionals; they can’t see that you’re business owners,” she added. “They only see your sexuality and immediately it’s a negative thing. You’re a pervert, you’re demon-possessed.”
The Dandelion Project was also involved in the campaign against a law — Senate Bill 2681 — that opponents contend allows businesses to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs.
“You don’t have to have a law that says you can do it because of religious beliefs,” said Dear. “You can just do it because you’re a business owner. You can say you know I’m not going to serve you because you don’t have on your shirt or you don’t have on your shoes or whatever reason. It was basically we’re going to stand up and tell the gays how we really feel. That’s how we feel. That’s how I feel about it.”
Dear said the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based anti-LGBT organization the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group, said in an article that her gym is among the businesses that are “discriminating against Christianity.” The AFA removed the reference after Dear threatened to sue and her lawyer sent a cease and desist letter.
“We’re battling with them,” she said. “They’re calling us bullies. The fact of the matter is they’re bullies.”
Old South ‘still haunts us’
Dear told the Blade she feels the “old South still haunts us like a ghost of the past.”
“The Confederate flag is the centerpiece of our state flag,” she said, referring to SB 2681. “We just can’t seem to get away from it. In the South people are proud; people are very proud and they’re proud of their heritage. That includes that mindset.”
She is nevertheless proud of Mississippi.
“Mississippi is moving to the front in the fight for equality, and I’m very proud of where it’s going,” said Dear. “I don’t think anybody expected Mississippi to progress so quickly and for people to stand up and say, hey, you know we’re not going to take this anymore and we’re not going to be quiet and we’re not going to be your sweet Southern girl and we’re not going to keep our mouths shut and we’re not going to be the Southern belles. We’re standing up for our rights.”
Dear told the Blade she and other members of her group are “very excited” about the growing momentum behind marriage rights for same-sex couples, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other LGBT issues across the country. She nevertheless said nuptials for gays and lesbians will not become legal in Mississippi until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on it.
“That’s how we’re going to get it here,” said Dear.
She also said she welcomes the Human Rights Campaign — with whom she interviewed for a job she did not receive — and other national LGBT advocacy groups that want to work in Mississippi.
“I think a lot of people feel like they just swooped in and took the reigns away from us,” said Dear. “We’ve been working a lot and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think they’re handling themselves pretty well here.”
Group encourages members to ‘live authentic lives’
Dear said the Dandelion Project encourages people to come out and “live out.”
“Society needs to see us and our hometown needs to see us,” she told the Blade. “They need to see us in Walmart and holding hands or just walking close to one another.”
Susan was initially reluctant to hold Dear’s hand in public places, but she has subsequently changed her mind.
“I’m not willing to live quietly,” said Dear. “We need to live authentic lives and our communities need to see us and so we really encourage people to live authentic lives, especially in this area.”
Dear told the Blade she “would love to leave Mississippi,” but has decided to remain in her state and fight.
“If I don’t stay here and fight, I leave it to the next generation and I feel that’s irresponsible,” she said. “So if I can make a change and make a difference than I’ll just stay. This is my state and you know what I’ve just decided that you’re not going to run me off. I’m going to live my life and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to change things.”