When Cameron Joyce was a senior in high school, a school administrator came to his classroom to read a newly adopted policy. Any student at the private, Christian school near the Triad who was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender would no longer be allowed at the school. Each student was asked to sign a statement that they weren't LGBT. If they were, they were expected to come out so they could be counseled or expelled. Joyce, who is bisexual, signed the statement and kept quiet, just like he had for years.
Joyce grew up in White's Memorial Baptist Church outside of Franklinville. He knew no other LGBT people and heard only rumors of others. As a teen, he didn't dare associate with any person who was even suspected to be gay.
"If they were out, you can't associate with them or you're outing yourself," Joyce says.
The son of a Baptist pastor, he heard regular reminders of the "abomination" of homosexuality. Iconic gay celebrities, like Rosie O'Donnell or Ellen, were ridiculed by the adults in his life. His father often preached against homosexuality. Joyce was a teenager when news broke of a megachurch's pastor whose son had been caught in a gay relationship. His parents and other community members said the young man had threatened his father's career.
"I remember how scary it was listening to this conversation," Joyce says. "That was a very big factor in wanting to stay closeted, hearing these conversations about kids who were gay and putting their families' life in turmoil. I saw that my actions and my identity could put my entire family in jeopardy."
Joyce, 23, is a recent graduate of UNC Charlotte and is pursuing a master's there. Moving to Charlotte to attend college was an intentional decision to leave the oppressive, rural community where he had literally no resources — no support groups, no LGBT-themed books in the public library, no knowledge or language to fully define who he was. No space to simply "feel safe and talk about what I was going through," he says.
"My home place was hyper-evangelical — everything was built and based around religion and it was a very small, anti-progressive community," Joyce says. "I assumed Charlotte would be the complete opposite of that." The Queen City did offer Joyce more room for growth. His first interaction with the community was at Scorpio, the city's long-running LGBT nightclub. He met an openly gay student at school. He began coming out to friends. He got involved advocating against Amendment One, encouraging students to register to vote.
Joyce's experience is not unusual for LGBT young people growing up in local rural communities. Micah Johnson, director of school outreach for Charlotte's Time Out Youth, an LGBT youth services agency, says young people in the more rural areas of their seven-county service area face greater challenges than those in cities like Charlotte. When Johnson travels to the few rural LGBT school clubs outside of Charlotte (Mecklenburg alone has as many as the rest of the service area combined), he sees students who may be out at school, but are not out to family.
"There is a real fear of coming out to families," says Johnson, because those who do come out face losing their homes.
Time Out Youth staffers say they receive calls from across the state — from places like Fayetteville and Buncombe County — for placement in their host-home program, serving youth ages 18-20. LGBT youth are placed in homes offered up by volunteers. The last three placements came from Stanly and Gaston counties. But the program has limited resources and only serves young people in the area. Last year, the program was able to serve nine young people, though staffers say inquiries far outnumber placements. Those under 18 are referred to The Relatives, a local shelter for homeless and runaway youth.
About 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, UCLA's Williams Institute found. About 46 percent run away because of family rejection. About the same percentage are forced out by parents.
The anti-LGBT prejudice at Joyce's home was reinforced at his Christian school. It came up in Bible lessons. Administrators and teachers encouraged students to go to the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University. As he was nearing graduation, the same administrator who had threatened gay students with expulsion told his senior class that "the biggest cultural issue we would face as Christians would be the fight against homosexuality." The administrator's generation had battled abortion and lost. "Our generation was fighting the queers," Joyce recalls him saying, "and he hoped that we defeated that cultural battle where his generation had failed at abortion."
Fearful of family rejection, Joyce came out to them only recently: to his mother last summer and to his father just three months ago. As a teen, he had feared being kicked out of his home — a reality confirmed when he finally told his parents.
"When I came out to both my mother and father, I wanted to know if that fear was real," he says. "They both said, Yes, I would not have been welcome in their home if I were not willing to choose a different lifestyle."
Outside of the housing program, Time Out Youth says it served 193 young people during drop-in hours and weekly discussion and support groups last year. Youth call in from rural areas, unable to drive to Charlotte. "If they're not able to get with us, we have been able to send them resources or meet with them in some form, even it is just phone counseling," says staffer Sarah Alwran.
Some fall through the cracks. Joyce says he'd never heard of Time Out Youth until after moving to Charlotte. He wishes he'd had support like that as a teen. For all the progress and equality the LGBT community seems to be making, rural spaces, even close to Charlotte, have a long way to go to catch up.
"It's a very isolating experience to grow up in a small, rural town," Joyce says.
This article is provided in partnership with QNotes, Charlotte's LGBT community newspaper. Learn and read more at goqnotes.com.