“My faith has always been important to me, but I’ve experienced a lot of pains at the hands of the church,” says Brad Howe-Johnson, a 40-year-old nurse in Austin, Texas.
Howe-Johnson grew up in Clyde, a rural West Texas town, where his mother was a hairdresser and his father was a farmer and mechanic. His family attended Southern Baptist church, which was a core part of his identity. When he came out as gay in his early twenties, he was living at home while attending his nursing school. Upon this revelation, his parents no longer made home feel like a place he was welcome, and the church asked him to leave.
After being rejected from his beloved faith, Howe-Johnson explored different belief systems, including Buddhism and Judaism, but he always returned to Christianity despite feeling unwelcome at churches. Then he moved to Austin, a liberal city that overall is not religious, but tends to have more inclusive churches.
“It’s kind of like reconciling who you are with your idea in a higher power, then finding a place where you can live that out,” Howe-Johnson says. “Fortunately, I found that place here in Austin.” With time, his parents also came to terms with his sexuality, making his family home a safe place to return to as well.
Read on for Howe-Johnson’s interview to learn what it’s been like reconciling life as a gay Christian man, finally finding a welcoming spiritual home, meeting his perfect match, and creating an impact through his work as a nurse.
Profiles in Pride: Can you tell us a little about your journey to coming out as gay?
Brad Howe-Johnson: I think I knew I was gay when I was probably 14, but I really didn’t have a word for it at the time. And then I was hanging out with one of my friends who was a male, and I remember him kissing me, and I didn’t think it was weird, but then I was not sure how it would be perceived, so I just kept it to myself.
Then when I was in my early twenties, I finally came out to my family, and of course then my church also found out. And then that’s when I was asked to leave the church. My family was not very accepting at that time; this is when I was made to feel unwelcome in my parents’ home, and I was going to school to be a nurse.
So I got fast food jobs, random jobs, to make ends meet until I finished nursing school. Then as soon as I finished nursing school, I moved to San Angelo, Texas, and started working in a hospital there. That’s where I started to actually live as a gay man, go out to the club, or date, or have dinner with other people and really be involved in the LGBTQ community.
PIP: What was it like being told to leave the church? How did you eventually find your spiritual home?
BHJ: It was difficult in the beginning when I first came out. It was a place where I thought I belonged and was OK being me, and then as I came out and had the experience of being rejected, that really caused some brokenness and some anger towards the church. But I could never shake that feeling of a faith in someone greater than myself. And visiting different faith groups was interesting, but I always found that I felt drawn to Christ and Christianity, and there was a sacred connection there.
So it wasn’t until I moved to Austin, probably in 2011 or early 2012, that I visited the church I now attend, St John’s United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church as a global denomination is not accepting and affirming, but at the church I attend, we have voted to be accepting and affirming. It’s what we call reconciling. I was there when we actually took the vote to become a reconciling congregation. I now work with several people within the community in the United Methodist Church here in Austin to make the United Methodist Church more welcoming and affirming of LGBT people. We are part of the Reconciling Ministries Network.
PIP: It’s no secret that there’s some animosity from the LGBTQ community toward the Christian faith and vice versa. Has this been your experience, and is there a way to build bridges?
BHJ: I would agree. I think just in the media alone, you can see multiple stories of where the church has made it well known that they are not supportive or inclusive of LGBT people. There are very few denominations that are. So with that being said, I can understand that whole anger and that hostility towards the church from the LGBTQ community and can see that kind of tension between the two.
However, being involved in the church, there are some Christians who genuinely want to connect with LGBTQ people and they sincerely want to have the LGBTQ story shared as part of their sacred faith traditions and open up their spaces for understanding and inclusiveness.
You know, for the longest time, I did feel like the gay community didn’t want me because I’m Christian, and the Christian church didn’t want me because I’m gay, but here I am living life alongside everyone.
When I found the church I attend now, I felt like, OK, they accept me for who I am, I can be my authentic self. I have made inways and developed friendships and relationships with people who know that I’m Christian and know that I love them and accept them for who they are. It’s made all the difference.
So I do think the story of one’s life matters, because it’s the story being shared that changes peoples’ ideas. I had this story in my head that the church hated me and didn’t want anything to do with me. And then I show up at this United Methodist Church, and they’re like, we love you, we’re so glad you’re here, we welcome you and affirm a you. So that story and that welcome changed my perception and it ultimately changed the way I live my life.
PIP: How wonderful. I know you’re recently married; can you talk about how you met and tell us a little about your relationship?
BHJ: I actually met my husband online, and we chatted online for the longest time. And then we exchanged numbers, but would only text one another for the first month. We finally talked, and after like two weeks, he asked me on a date. We went on our first date down on Lake Austin. We just had food and just talked and got to know each other. He’s African American. And I grew up in rural West Texas, which is predominantly white. To my knowledge, he’s only the second African American person to have ever been in my parents’ home. I also brought the other African American person with me into their home.
He actually goes to a Baptist church, where he sings in like five choirs; he’s very musically talented. We just hit it off, and his mother was a nurse, so she took to me quite well. And our relationship just blossomed.
I think back to our faith; you know, I could talk to him about my faith journey and about the things I felt spiritually, and he understood from that aspect because he also had his own faith journey. So I think that was maybe one of the greatest things, because if you’re having a faith journey, sometimes it’s difficult for people who are not on that same journey to understand maybe your experience or your thoughts or the way in which you perceive things to be. With him, I could talk to him about my faith and about doubts I had or about things I was concerned with or praying over, and he didn’t look at me like I was crazy. He understood that journey, and so that’s been a really big portion of our relationship.
When we got married, we had a minister and a rabbi perform our marriage ceremony. It’s just because we’ve both always been very open to other people, we’ve always been very welcoming and affirming of anyone. We live by that motto of if you have more than enough, build a longer table, not a fence.
We really wanted it to be evident in our wedding that everyone was welcome, that all people have value, and so we really found that important to have as part of our wedding.
I mean, we got married October 7, so we’ve only been married a little over a month, but I am really enjoying the marriage and it’s kind of shifted my ideas, and really the idea of being one unit and living as one. It’s just really been a happy and a good, positive thing. We thought that we’d never be able to get married for the longest time. When we got married, we’d been together five years.
PIP: What was it like to experience marriage equality, going from thinking you can’t get married to all of the sudden being able to?
BHJ: We were really happy about it, but then there were also moments of anxiety of like, how long will it last? Will it be rolled back? We were super excited and we know several of our friends got married right away, but we weren’t quite ready. But at the same time, there was that kind of urgency for a little bit there, like will it last, will we be able to six months from now? So we were happy and then we were anxious at the same time.
PIP: That makes sense! Now I’d like to talk about your work as a nurse. In what type of clinic do you work?
BHJ: We are a family practice clinic, but the doctor, Dr. Terrance Hines, is part of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, so we do lots of education and testing. We also do gender care for trans patients. He’s one of the only doctors within the healthcare system I am employed by at this time that provides those services.
Of course we also have the Kind Clinic here in Austin now, so if someone doesn’t have insurance or they can’t quite afford the treatment they need, they can go to Kind. But if they do have insurance — and a lot of the Austin local businesses, their insurances are very cool and they’re very inclusive — so a lot of our trans patients work for a local Austin company and are able to use their insurance to get their gender care supplies and medication and come and see the doctor and follow up and have labs drawn.
It’s amazing to watch someone come in kind of looking beaten down and exhausted, and then as they transition, to see the joy return to their life and that they’re happy and comfortable in their skin. It’s an amazing transition to watch.
I’m so thankful every day for my job. I love being a nurse, but in that respect I love watching people transition and go from the place you saw them walk through the door to this other place where they’re happy and comfortable and they have that quality of life that they didn’t have before, and to be a part of that and to be able to be there with them is really rewarding. My faith and my work as a nurse are anchored in the words of John Wesley, who said do all the good you can, by all the means you can, for all the people you can. I love my life!
PIP: That’s wonderful. You mentioned before the interview that you believe your work as a nurse with non-LGBT patients can help change some peoples’ attitudes about gay people, especially those who get to know you before they find out you’re gay. Can you talk a little more about this?
BHJ: I think people, especially people in religious backgrounds, have certain perceptions of what they think gay people are going to be like. Stereotypes maybe they’ve seen on TV or were taught about in a church setting.
But when they actually meet someone who is educated, caring, compassionate, works as a nurse, and they get to know you and then later on they find out you are gay, it does not alter everything for them. They’re like, oh, this person who has been so kind to me and has been so helpful and who’s educated and taking care of me is a gay person, and that’s not what I perceived a gay person to be like, because of the stereotypes or the ideas that they had in their own mind.
While I do get to interact with trans people and LGBT people a lot, I do have older patients who live in the neighborhood, and several of them are more conservative. And I do have pictures up of me and my husband, so it’s not like they don’t know. But I think as they get to know me, I change that perception that they have of people from the LGBT community.
Because for the most part, I’m very calm, I’m not this wild party person, and all of these other perceptions they think of. I’m married to one individual person and we’re in a monogamous relationship, and unfortunately, that’s not the perception they have of gay people. They think we’re out drinking and having sex with multiple people, which is OK if that’s what you want to do, but for me, I’m in a monogamous relationship and I love my husband. But I think being a face and having people know you and see you live out your daily life, and then they happen to find out later on you’re gay, it kind of changes their perception that they’ve already developed in their own world in regard to LGBT people.