Humans of TCGMC: Brian O’Dowd
This week, our interviewer Josh Elmore, from South Carolina, had the pleasure of connecting with a fellow deep southerner. Brian O’Dowd, who moved from Mississippi, narrates how his understanding of family, religion, and community have evolved as he makes a new home with us in Minnesota.”
Josh: THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING ME TODAY. I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU GREW UP IN MISSISSIPPI. THAT STATE HAS QUITE A REPUTATION. WHAT ARE SOME THINGS PEOPLE COMMONLY ASSOCIATE WITH THE STATE? WHAT ARE PEOPLE’S REACTIONS IN MINNESOTA WHEN YOU TELL THEM?
Brian: I’ll say, “I’m from Biloxi, Mississippi,” and they’ll say, “Oh…Okay! What was that like?”You know, those who are Minnesota nice will say that, and you know what they’re really thinking.
Josh: SO, BRIAN, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Brian: If we’re talking about general family life… Biloxi is very tourist-driven. They want it to be like Florida, but what a lot of people don’t know is that we have barrier islands off our beach that trap sediment, so our water is brown. Our beach is man-made. The sand doesn’t stick to you as much! The coast looks like a dirty, gross river. We have a lot of casinos.
I grew up with a single mom. She has four children, including me. She had a rough, rough childhood that I didn’t know much about until I was 23. My dad was always far away, but always in the picture. One thing I’ve found is that most gay men are really close with their moms, but I’m closer with my father than my mother.
Growing up, I made friends with girls more easily. Guys were scary, girls were nice.
I remember my first feelings of being attracted to a guy was when I was six. CMT [Country Music Television] was on, and my mom had gone to work. I was in the living room watching it and there was a Clint Black video on. I said to my sister, “He’s cute,” and my sister said, “We don’t say that about other boys.” She was 14, it was the early 90s, and we grew up Catholic, so I’m sure she didn’t know how else to respond. Today she’s my biggest supporter and #1 fan in every aspect of my life. But from that moment on, I pushed those feelings to the back of my head. Until I was 20, I managed to do that.
I tried to stay away from boys, because most of them were athletic and country and hunting and fishing and doing things with their dads and their brothers. I just wanted to listen to Mariah Carey and watch TV and be into pop culture.
When I got to high school, I was in band and some pastor’s kids invited me to this event their church was having at the beach. I didn’t go to church there, but 8 months later, they invited me to another event, and I loved it. The next day, I went to church, and then I never stopped – for 15 years! Many would describe them as fundamentalists. They believe every word of the Bible is the literal Word of God. I was totally sold out for it. I loved the music – I’m a music guy, obviously! Up to this point, my only church experience had been in the Catholic Church.
I went through the process of “getting saved.” Five years later, I got involved with their music team. I sang backup vocals, and then lead vocals. A few years later, I was co-leading the ministry, and eventually I was pretty much running the entire music department in the church. That process of starting background vocals to leaving the church was 10 years.
Josh: AND WHY DID YOU LEAVE?
Brian: I wanted to come out. At age 18, I went to my pastor and told him I had “same sex attraction.” He was understanding and non-condemning, but he also said to “trust God and he will take care of it.” It’s not quite “pray away the gay,” but close. For people who aren’t gay, they just didn’t understand that it wasn’t going to change. There was a guy in high school who claimed that God delivered him from being gay. That’s great, but it gave me a lot of false hope.
I just wanted to have a family. I used to draw pictures as a kid and there would be a mom and a dad and four kids. I was so desperate for this ideal of a mom and dad and kids in the same house. I wanted that more than anything in my entire life. The idea that I was gay and would never have that was so devastatingly scary that I couldn’t even think about it.
At age 20, I began to let myself feel it. I liked a girl, and I remember being emotionally attracted to this girl. It’s the closest thing I could’ve been to being in love with her as a gay guy could. She ended up choosing someone else to marry, and announced it at the church. When that happened, I gave up. It was the first time I let myself feel anything… allow myself to think about men in a romantic or a sexual sense.
I ended up leaving the church because after years of that, when I realized that it wasn’t working. I was going to be gay, and there was nothing I could do about it. It took another 5 years before I realized I couldn’t maintain my position and be gay.
I decided to move to Minnesota. My dad lived in Woodbury. I came up here for “the State Fair” to come out to my family who live up here. This is August 2017. The last Sunday of that month, I stepped down from my position at the church, and that night, I came out to my sister and nephew in Mississippi. She didn’t remember the conversation about Clint Black! But she told me she loved and supported me no matter what and just wanted me to be happy. I also came out to my younger sister over FaceTime that night. That Tuesday, I came out to everyone in Minnesota. I drove to Jackson and came out to my brother. I came out to my mother. I posted a YouTube video for everyone else. I moved to Minnesota in October 2017.
Josh: WOW. THANK YOU FOR YOUR VULNERABILITY, BRIAN. AS YOU KNOW, I MYSELF GREW UP IN SOUTH CAROLINA, AND MUCH OF YOUR STORY RESONATES WITH ME ON A DEEP LEVEL. IN LARGE PART, I MYSELF CAME HERE BECAUSE I WANTED TO BE IN A PLACE THAT WAS SAFER FOR QUEER PEOPLE. YOU LEFT SO SUDDENLY, AS I DID. I HAVE TO ASK – WHAT DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU THINK OF MISSISSIPPI? DO YOU FEEL ANGER, RESENTMENT, JOY, NOSTALGIA? DO YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE VISITING?
Brian: Kind of all of the above. When I go home, I never like to stay for too long. I have friends there who are supportive and loving. I really found out who my real friends were when I came out – those who wanted me to be happy and successful. I came out six weeks before moving here. I found that when I went home, I found I had this obligation to come to church. I went home three weeks after moving here, and I went to church. Six months later, I went to church. When I’m home, I just go to church. I don’t really care to go back to church for church, but I want to see some of my old friends. I’m conflicted; do I want to go see these people who were my family for so long, or do I not want to go at all because I don’t have to?
Josh: YOU MENTION FAMILY QUITE A BIT. ONE OF THE IMAGES YOU TALK ABOUT – QUITE LITERALLY! – IS THE DRAWING OF THE FAMILY WITH A MOM AND A DAD AND THE KIDS. HAS YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF FAMILY EVOLVED OVER TIME? IF SO, WHAT DOES THAT FAMILY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU NOW?
Brian: In my process of coming out, I was very adamant about getting married and having children – it was just going to be a man on the other side of the equation. I’m kind of open now. I had a very definite idea of what a family looked like for me, and now that’s much more open. I don’t know if it will be a husband and dogs and/or cats, or children or cousins and aunts and uncles or… I don’t know!
Josh: I THINK THAT’S BEAUTIFUL. I THINK THAT BEING GAY AFFORDS YOU THE ABILITY TO BREAK AWAY FROM THE HETERONORMATIVE NARRATIVE, WHERE YOU GET MARRIED YOUNG, HAVE KIDS, MOVE TO THE SUBURBS AND GET A HOUSE AND A WHITE PICKET FENCE AND CATS AND/OR DOGS.
THIS IS OBVIOUSLY A VERY PERSONAL ISSUE FOR YOU. YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE CULTURE YOU GREW UP WITH, AND YOUR SEXUALITY, IS ALWAYS A PART OF YOU. WHAT DO YOU APPRECIATE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOUR LIFE IN MISSISSIPPI BROUGHT TO YOU?
Brian: It gave me a sense of values, less so Christian values, just learning to be a good person. Loving people without judgement. I know the church hasn’t embraced that towards the gay community, but I don’t think Jesus would put anyone down or make anyone feel low about themselves for anything. That’s not how I studied him; that’s not how I know him. Over the past several years, though, I have started to question so many things.
Josh: YOU LIVE IN MINNESOTA NOW. WHAT ARE THE BEST THINGS ABOUT LIVING HERE
Brian: For sure community through the chorus. Freedom to be who I am without judgement. The ability to explore who I am from all aspects.
Also, a much, much larger dating pool! Not that I’m dating anyone or have a relationship, but… the options are there! There’s always hope!