Keeping the Faith
Once “ex-gay,” now openly gay HIV educator Dontá Morrison strives to inspire more inclusion in churches
by Stevie St. John
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f people were more affirmed, they would do everything possible to have the healthiest life possible. That’s what Dontá (pronounced Dante) Morrison, forty-three, believes, and that’s why he works to affirm, educate and enlighten.
An HIV educator by trade and by passion, Morrison hopes to inspire young gay and bisexual men to make healthy decisions. And he strives to sway ministers to take a more inclusive view toward LGBT people and to get involved in the fight against HIV.
Morrison’s work is deeply personal. Not only is he a gay, HIV-positive person of faith but he has been profoundly affected by the stigma he fights. In fact, it drove him to denounce his homosexuality and identify for some five years as ex-gay.
In the spheres of faith and family, sexuality was a difficult topic from early on. He loved the church but felt that love was unrequited.
“I—like so many black gay men—grew up in a traditional church system that demonized our natural desires for men. Having that ingrained into your psyche can be extremely painful to live with,” Morrison said. “I always felt like the outcast because of my sexual orientation.”
Meanwhile, Morrison being gay was an open secret in his family. He came out to his mother in the mid-nineties, and she “dealt with it,” but beyond that his relatives never spoke of it. They knew, but it was treated as taboo.
In 1999, Morrison, then a white-collar worker, got tested as a matter of course. Just a routine HIV test. When he was told he was HIV-negative, life went on as usual. Until one day, at work, his phone rang. There had been a mistake; he was HIV-positive. He began to cry at his desk.
Though savvy enough to get tested, Morrison lacked a sophisticated understanding of the results. He perceived HIV as “this virus of death.”
Morrison’s long-term relationship dissolved. He slipped into serious depression for about two years. He felt as though God had abandoned him. And that led to his “heterosexual phase.” He immersed himself in religion and began dating women.
“It was a weird space to be in because I had so many gay friends whom I loved and cherished dearly but no longer associated with. I separated myself from anything ‘gay’ and vowed to never return to that way of living, which lead to a severe feeling of loneliness,” Morrison says.
Many of Morrison’s gay friends began to interact with him differently; they treated him in ways he found hateful. He found the way they derided his new identity off-putting. At the same time, he spent time with some other “ex-gay” men who clearly had not become straight.
“A lot of them associated celibacy and abstinence with deliverance,” Morrison recalled. “I would often ask, ‘If the opportunity to have sex came up, who would you do it with—a man or a woman?’ Many would answer ‘a man’ and go on to explain that God was still working on them.” Many of the “ex-gay” men married to women were unfaithful, engaging in sex or phone sex with men.
“I actually fell in love with a man during my ex-gay phase,” Morrison said. “It was a tough pill to swallow, and I was angry at myself for allowing my heart to go there, but what could I do? I began to talk to God and get true and honest answers about myself….Once I was affirmed within myself, I began to live in my truth. I began to walk from a place of assurance, unfettered by the opinions of those who said I let God down.”
Today, Morrison works at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), where he coordinates an HIV awareness program for young gay men. When he was growing up, he says, he lacked guidance and role models. Consequently, he engaged in risky behaviors. He lacked a sounding board, and as a result he allowed himself to go through a lot of pain he might have avoided. Now he strives to be such a sounding board for others.
His experiences in “ex-gay” circles built bridges in faith communities. And though his faith has evolved, it has not faded. Morrison is on the path to being ordained as a minister, and—outside of his capacity at APLA—he educates pastors on LGBT cultural competency. He encourages them to be inclusive, to use appropriate language, and to avoid anti-LGBT slurs.
Pastors who need counsel on avoiding slurs might seem unlikely to seek out such knowledge, or to enlist in the fight against HIV. But during his “heterosexual phase,” Morrison gained allies. People who knew him first as “straight Dontá” and then as his authentic self, gay Dontá, had to take a step back and look at how they treated LGBT people.
“I made them accountable for that,” he says, and those who knew personally could vouch for him to others. “It was like I was kind of a mole for five or six years.”
Being a mole, even an unintentional one, taught Morrison a lot. And his experiences have given him an unusual vantage point on LGBT people, people of faith, and how they sometimes see one another.
“I wish there were compassion on both sides. Ex-gay men are living their lives in a manner that works best for them and [so are] gay men. Both sides need to understand that all of us have our own road to travel, and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he says.
That doesn’t mean Morrison doesn’t see ways he would like to see anti-LGBT churches change.
“I discovered that the church needs to be educated in human sexuality. It is not as black and white as they believe it to be,” he shares. “I learned that my being gay was only a huge factor to the church, not to God. A great deal of Christians do not study the Bible in full and operate from a passed down understanding steeped in traditions and not facts. Many Christians are taught that homosexuality is wrong and refuse to hear anything that may deter that belief. It is a very sad state of mind to be in because God is much bigger than the Bible….
“If persons of faith would operate in unconditional love and affirm LGBT persons, we would see healthier attitudes and choices made by those who feel unloved by both church and God. If a person feels valued, they will more than likely make better sex-related decisions, which can lead in a decreased number of new HIV infections. The church needs to get fully involved in the fight against HIV and support all at-risk populations, not just the ones who fit their belief system.”
In addition to Morrison’s work with APLA and his work in faith communities, he has written two fiction books inspired by his real-life experiences.
To learn more about Dontá Morrison, log on to: www.dontamorrison.com.
Stevie St. John is an assistant editor at Brief Media, a veterinary medical publishing company based in Tulsa, Okla. Her byline has appeared in many LGBT publications.