Coming Out of the Closet in Appalachia
by Harley Wince
David Kohlmeier has it set. He has recently appointed minister is a Unitarian church off of Cape Cod, is expecting a child soon with his husband, Nathan, and is feeling the love and acceptance from friends and family all around him during this big transition in his life. Despite the feeling of solidarity now, Kohlmeier faced great opposition being a closeted gay man in rural Appalachia and being raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
Kohlmeier grew up in St. Albans, in the Jehovah’s Witness community. “It’s such a weird thing to look back on, because so much of my adolescence as a young, gay boy felt very alone. At the time, there was just no one. I had no way to think there was anyone. In the late 80’s, you didn’t even have the Internet. There was nothing.’”
“I first learned the word ‘gay’ through gay jokes,” Kohlmeier told Contraband during a phone interview. “It wasn’t a word I heard. It wasn’t on TV. When I grew up, there was just nothing like that. Hearing vulgar jokes about gay people and then thinking ‘Oh, that sounds kind of like me’ is a really unhealthy way to learn about yourself.
Around this period of his life, Kohlmeier stumbled upon an interview of some New York City drag queens on The Donahue Show that piqued his interest. “These drag queens were obviously chosen because they looked like freaks, but they talked about being homosexual in New York. I’m sitting there watching it with my mom. My mom is shaking her head in horror, and I’m realizing everything they’re saying is something I had felt before. I remember having this secret plan to run away from home to go to New York City, because that’s where the show was, and where I thought all of the gays were.” He can recall occurrences of rumors circulating about other students’ sexualities, and the other students in turn being beaten by peers due to being allegedly gay.
Years passed with Kohlmeier keeping his sexuality closeted until one day he had a strong epiphany. As a Witness he was summoned to a “judicial committee” after he had had a sexual relationship with another young man in the congregation. He recollects, “Witnesses will do these things called judicial committees where if you are thought to be guilty of a sin, you are taken into a closed room and it is decided whether or not you should be expelled from the religion and shunned. “ In a closed community such as the Witnesses, a shunning is a great dishonor and is often a very painful, traumatic event, particularly for Witness youth. A trial was conducted by the elders, in which he was interrogated on the details of the intimacy in the relationship. After the questioning, he was dismissed from the room and told to pray for forgiveness while his fate in the community was being decided. “At that point, I hadn’t prayed in a long time. I was really struggling, but I tried to be good so I started praying. At that moment, I had so many emotions, to the point where I couldn’t form words. I was angry. I was afraid. I was ashamed. All of the sudden, in the midst of that craziness, all of the emotions just stopped. It was absolute peace that came out of nowhere. It was a feeling that was not put into words, but if I had to put it into words it would be ‘I’ve always been okay with you, and now you can be okay with yourself.’”
“Witnesses make a big deal about the scripture that says God makes peace in the heart for righteous people, so if you’re righteous, God will take pain out of your heart. For a Witness to have this experience like I had, it makes you think ‘I can’t be wrong. God would only give me peace if I was righteous, so God must be okay with me being gay.’” After the deliberation, the elders pulled Kohlmeier back into the room and deemed him official repented, with the one caveat of being required to pray more and complete Bible studies. Despite being cleared of any demerits on his record, he turned away from the religion entirely.
“It’s hard for me to talk about my journey through life as a gay person without mentioning my religion because they were always connected, for better or for worse.” He attributes his faith strongly as stepping stone towards accepting himself. “I don’t know if I could have accepted myself unless I truly believed that God loved me.”
When asked on his advice for young closeted people, Kohlmeier took a long pause and deep breath. “ I have so much to say.” After another long pause, cultivating his many years of experience into one soundbite. “If they’re Christian, there’s a part of the Bible where Jesus is asked what is the greatest of all commandments, and the answer is ‘Love the Lord, your God, with your whole soul.’ My soul is the soul of a man who loves men, so I can’t love God with a soul that isn’t mine. I can only love God with the soul I have, so if you’re queer, love God as a queer person. That is the soul you have. You don’t have to leave your faith behind if that is who you are.”
He found great truth in following your heart, advising people to listen to a voice that does not tear you down; forming an opinion based on beliefs after hearing both sides. Finding community within your area or through the Internet is vitally important for creating a safety net of sorts with allies and like-minded people. “I would tell people who are isolated to reach out–and that’s scary to be alone– but you’re also not alone.”
Kohlmeier found acceptance and a sense of community through a Unitarian Universalist church in Charleston. During a sermon one day, he noticed a lesbian couple holding hands with their child during the service. “I cried because no one seemed to care. It wasn’t like the sermon was a gay rights lecture. They were just so accepted that of course they could just hold hands with their child in church. More and more religions are doing that, and I think it’s huge.” After accepting a job and relocating to Massachusetts, a “blue” state, Kohlmeier found that being gay is so common there, it is considered “boring.” “I find that because I don’t have to fight for myself as much as I used to that it obligates me to fight for other people.”
As far as the future of LGBT rights go, he remains optimistic, but sees where the community could be more inclusive of their trans kindred. Nathan, Kohlmeier’s husband is a trans man. “I remember a trans guy asking me out years ago and me saying ‘I’m flattered, but I’m not into that sort of thing,’ which now I’m terribly ashamed of because it showed I was operating under this prejudice of what a man was, but when I met Nathan I just fell for him. The fact that he was trans was so irrelevant.” The two are expecting the birth of their first child in the coming weeks; a pregnancy that has been accepted by many in their community and congregation, even having a baby shower thrown by the church.
Kohlmeier puts a positive spin on past regrets. “The one moral of the story here, is that think of this experience I wouldn’t have had if I carried that same prejudice that led me to turn that one guy down.” He pauses. “When you shut yourself off from love, you are being foolish. When love comes your way, just let it come your way.”