In 2016 Justin sat down for a two-hour interview with FAU Professor Fred Fejes as part of FAU Library’s “Generations” project.
Although many of us know him as a community activist and leader, Justin was also a young man growing up in Broward and coming into awareness of his sexuality at a time when identifying oneself as “gay” was a path fraught with difficulties. In the following edited excerpts of the interview Justin talks about that period.
I was born May 1978 in Hollywood, Florida. I was raised in Broward County my entire life, so I am a product of this local community. I did both private and public schools, elementary and middle. High school, I went to Coconut Creek High School, did dual enrollment at Broward College and FAU and got my law degree at University of Florida.
Growing up, I always had this innate sense of civic duty. I think it probably emerged when I was a Cub and later a Boy Scout. I ended up participating in the Boys State program, sponsored by the American Legion. Also I was raised very fundamentalist Christians, Southern Baptist particularly, and considered becoming a chaplain for the government or the military.
The first time that I felt or recognized my same-sex attraction was when I was in kindergarten. I can remember that was probably the first time that I knew that I was different. Later about 12, going through puberty, I learned the term “gay” and thought that I might be “gay.” I had a very comfortable relationship with my stepfather and my mother, but yet I was troubled by what being gay could mean. I sat them down and told them, very concerned, that I thought that I might be gay. My mother was distressed but my stepfather, said that it was quite natural to look at other boys during this period when your body is changing. And so I said, “That’s probably what it is.”
There’s part of me that regrets lying back then, but there’s a part of me that still is happy that at such a young age, at such an early time that I could have that conversation with my parents.
Fast-forward the timeline to senior year of high school, I sat my parents down again and told both my stepfather and mother, “Remember what I told you when I was in sixth grade about me feeling attracted to the — that I thought I might be gay, that I was attracted to other guys instead of girls?
And they said, “Yeah."
I said, “Well, it’s only gotten worse. And I don’t know what to do.”
Being good Baptists, we went to my then-pastor, Larry Thompson of First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale, and had a private meeting with him. “I feel that I might be gay. I feel that I’m attracted to other men. I know that that’s not right according to our religious teachings. What am I supposed to do?” I was very open to consider any and all options. He suggested that I do the individual counseling with a counselor there at church and also attend the group counseling.
It was frustrating because my religion taught that being gay was a choice and it could be averted and didn’t need to be embraced. But I wasn’t choosing to be a gay man, I knew that I was. Still, my faith taught that this was a choice. I figured, “I’ll give it a shot.”
So I ended up doing two years of Christian reparative therapy with Exodus International affiliated ministries here locally. I did individual counseling at my church, First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale, and then I went and did group counseling at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, then under the pastoral ship of Dr. D. James Kennedy.
Kennedy was a vocal critic of the gay and lesbian community. He was a national figure in the then very active Christian Fundamentalist movement. He was also a very prominent anti-gay local leader. I found it very discomforting, because I knew that we both believed in Jesus Christ, but I just didn’t believe as he believed.
I’d go to these group sessions which were more like an AA meeting with seven to 20 men, where everybody talked about how they’re trying to exit the lifestyle. But it didn’t make sense: I felt that I could be Christian and gay.
I bought this issue to my pastor Dr. Thompson at First Baptist. He wanted to know if, as a boy, I was molested or played with dolls. No, I was never molested and as a boy did all kinds of boy things like building forts and going hiking. Then I saw my counselor at the church. He told me that because my parents were divorced, I never had a chance to bond with my biological father and identify as a normal male. Again this made no sense. My stepfather was a very important figure in my life. My brothers weren’t gay. Just because your father is not your biological father does not make you gay. I mean Christ was not raised by his biological father.
But with difficulty I said, well, if this is the going theory, then, OK. Well, maybe this is fixable, I guess. So I continued with the individual weekly counseling and then biweekly groups over at Dr. Kennedy’s church.
Finally after two years I had an epiphany: I was made in the image and likeness of a loving creator. And that included being gay as much as being male with blue eyes and blond hair. Furthermore there’s been many times in the church’s history that they have been wrong on issues of social import, from debating the status of women to the issue of slavery. Homosexuality happens to be just one of them they can add to the list.
I told my counselor this, and he, of course, did not share my opinion. But then he broke down and told me that his own son had “suffered” from this and did not exit the lifestyle. He hoped that in being a counselor he could save other young men from this path.
I like to think these people reached out to me out of love. And in love, I reach out back to them to say that what they are doing is so very wrong.
Justin Flippen stories about his life can be [email protected]