As the only openly lesbian on-air personality in Dallas’ mainstream radio market, Jen Austin host of Mix 102.9’s 7-to-midnight show could seem like a brave pioneer. But that’s nothing compared to her most important coming-out process.
"It’s way more difficult to be openly Christian in the gay community than to be out in broadcasting," she says. "To be lesbian in broadcasting is not a big deal. My company has domestic partner benefits and has been very supportive."
But to discuss her faith among others in the gay community for Austin at least has been a much harder struggle.
"I don’t know if they don’t care or were taught God hates them, but [the reaction I get] is one reason I don’t talk about it all that much," she explains.
That will change this weekend, though, as Austin signs and reads from her book, "Coming Out Christian: Finding Wholeness in Faith & Sexuality" ($15, Sources of Hope) at the Oak Lawn Branch Library Saturday.
Austin understands the awkward pull between religion and sexual orientation firsthand. She grew up in a rural Nebraska town of just 700: There were 12 students in her high school graduating class, and virtually all residents were conservative Republicans. (An aunt who came out as a Democrat sent shockwaves through the family, she jokes.) Austin regularly attended church and faith was an important part of her daily life.
But so was her sexual orientation, even from a young age. Looking back, she realizes that "there had never been a straight moment in my life."
But her faith kept her closeted.
In the years before Rosie, Melissa and Ellen even before Roseanne Barr’s same-sex smacker with Mariel Hemingway finding queer female role models in the heartland was impossible. As far as Austin could tell, the universe of gay people encompassed Austin herself and "one female cousin who wore a lot of black leather and kept her hair short, though no one discussed her," Austin remembers.
In church, she’d listen to sermons about the sins of homosexuality.
"I thought if I came out, I would struck by lightning. I was taught not that God loved me but that he hated me if I was gay," she says.
For years, she suppressed dealing with her lesbianism. Then she went to college and developed a crush on a woman.
"And there was no turning back," Austin says.
Unlike some gay people brought up in a religious household, Austin didn’t want to abandon her faith.
"I think a lot of people put religion on hold and think they will get back to it later," Austin says.
That just didn’t seem like an option for her. She realized that to be both spiritual and lesbian required a reconciliation of these two prongs of her personality.
"Who would want to approach a God who you feel is gonna hit you in the head with a skillet?" she asks.
A religious doctrine that promulgates the policy that "if you’re going to be gay, you can’t be part of our faith we need to take ownership of that," she says. "I feel God’s presence in my life, but it’s not the god of Jerry Falwell or James Dobson."
And so she sought out a way to resolve what some saw as a conflict.
After moving to Dallas in 2001 on Sept. 11, of all days Austin quickly joined the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas’ gay church. In 2002, she co-founded 20something, a support group with the cathedral where young devout gays can discuss their faith.
It was around the same time that she decided to write "Coming Out Christian," which took her nearly three years to complete.
"It was an arduous process," she says. "I was worried about negative reactions."
For the most part, Austin kept her work on the book limited to a core group: Her partner, Angela, who suggested the book; some family members; a few close friends. At first, she did it more as a therapeutic exercise than with thought that it would "be a best seller and get me on Oprah."
But after completing it in 2005, she began to think that her story might help others grappling with similar issues. Before long, she found herself with an East Coast agent and some interest from publishers. (She finally ended up placing it with Sources, the Cathedral of Hope’s imprint, with the support of the Rev. Michael Piazza.)
The book had been out for more than a year before the Dallas Library contacted Austin and asked her to speak about her book and her experiences as a devout Christian and gay broadcaster. But Austin says her goal is not and never has been to evangelize the unconverted.
"I don’t have an agenda I’m not a preacher or militant. I’m just Jen, who lives the truth. Religious structure drives me just as crazy as the next guy," she says.
What she does want people to know is that it is possible to be spiritual and gay without that being oxymoronic.
"No one agrees with everything a church teaches," she says. "I’m not saying you get in the faith buffet line, but I think it’s good to ask questions. Any responsible religion should want you to challenge authority. No one can teach you faith. You just have to do what’s right for you."
Mix 102.9’s Jen Austin reads from "Coming Out Christian" at the Oak Lawn Branch Library, 4100 Cedar Springs Road, Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. Free.
TALES IN OUR CITY: OLYMPIA DUKAKIS AT NASHER ON THURSDAY
From the Oscar-winner who uttered the famous line in "Moonstruck," "I know who I am," to her lauded role as Mrs. Madrigal, the trans landlord of "Tales of the City," to being Michael Dukakis’ cousin, Olympia Dukakis has captured the imagination of a broad audience. Known for her frank demeanor, her lack of pretension and her ongoing quest to explore ever more aspects of herself and her art, she is a role model for all.
On Sunday, Dukakis is the featured guest of the NasherSalon lecture series. And if her lecture is anything like her memoir, "Ask Me Again Tomorrow," Dukakis will deliver a passionate and inspiring message about dealing with pain and victory.
Feb. 28 at 8 p.m., followed by a screening of "Moonstruck" at 9:15 p.m. $45. Sold out. NasherSalonSeries.org. 888-695 0888.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 22, 2008