A Guest Blog

By Jessye DeSilva

“Fly over the pines of South Jersey, past the traffic on I-95.

It hurts so much now, but you’re learning

That life’s more than staying alive.”

– “Devil In New Jersey,” Jessye DeSilva

Where I grew up, in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, there’s a lot of folklore around a cryptid referred to as the Jersey Devil. As is always the case with these stories, there are variations in the origin of the Jersey Devil, but one tale talks about a woman referred to as “Mother Leeds,” who curses her 13th child who, at birth transforms into a hideous creature before flying away to roam the Pine Barrens in hiding – always haunting the area.

You might wonder what sort of connection this folk tale has with a nonbinary singer-songwriter like myself… When I was 16, I came out to my family as gay. My father was a Baptist minister at a small, conservative church in southern New Jersey. Growing up, I hadn’t heard much about LGBTQ+ folks, other than as the occasional evening bible study topic on sinful “contemporary issues” that threatened to “undermine” God’s will. I remember driving with the family when a Melissa Etheridge song came on not long after she’d publicly come out. My father just shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat and changed the station. All of the subtle as well as the not-so-subtle messages I received in childhood made me feel like a freak of nature. Where did I come from if this wasn’t “God’s will?” Oh how I wished I could just fly away…

However, as years passed, my parents seemed to be opening their minds. We were always close, and after my mother found my diary, my father took me to dinner to confront me about whether I might be having feelings for other boys. Although it wasn’t so much my choice to come out, the conversation was loving and we began to correspond for months after that by written notes we left for each other when it felt too uncomfortable to speak about it face-to-face. In these letters, my Dad shared with me how he’d been reading more queer-affirming theological authors and slowly evolving his views on a more loving, accepting god. Eventually, my mother and I began to talk more and soon my parents shared my coming out with my younger sisters. Things were feeling a lot more peaceful in our home, until the following summer.

While we were away on a family beach vacation, my Dad received a call from one of the leaders at the church. When he returned to the porch where we’d all been sitting after a day at the beach, his face looked pale. It seems that one of the women at the church whose child was in the youth group with me and went to the same high school had read a school newspaper article about the gay-straight alliance I’d helped to start at our school. She’d gone on a rampage, calling everyone she could at the church and expressing her “concern” about this scourge I’d introduced into their previously “safe, Christian space.”

What followed felt like something from a movie. In the months after, I just stopped going to church on Sundays. My father was called in for what seemed like a trial in front of the church deacons, where one older man actually referred to me as a devil. He hurled outrageous accusations at my father, accusing him of being “in league with the Devil.” He expressed “concern” that the younger children of the congregation weren’t safe with me, and in the end my father was given an ultimatum. He was told that if he wished to stay at the church, he must address and condemn the issue of homosexuality in a Sunday morning sermon.

These events have obviously stayed with me. I’ve spent years of therapy unpacking the trauma of my religious upbringing, and I’m still discovering the dark corners of my life in which this trauma hides, affecting my relationships with myself and others. However, another thing which has remained with me is the love of my family. My father didn’t have to think about the church’s ultimatum. He knew in that moment, that he could not reduce his child to an “issue” or “controversy” or a laundry list of “sins” to be condemned from the pulpit. He chose in that moment to leave a place where I could be anything less than a loved and accepted human being, and although the months ahead were difficult for the entire family, what we kept with us is something that’s guided us ever since – life is more than merely “staying alive”.

Listen to Jessye’s New Album, Landscapes, here:

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