Wesley Craft stands at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, staring at a Christmas tree covered in photos of the 49 victims of the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11 and worst hate crime in modern history.
He is photographing the scene before him for his honors college Freshman Ventures video, but, for Craft, the Pulse shooting and its aftermath have been more than a school project.
Craft grew up in Raleigh, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, many of whom are Southern Baptist.
Until recently, Craft kept his sexuality a secret.
Following the June 12, 2016 attack in Orlando, Craft said he felt isolated because he could not explain to his family and friends why the shooting affected him so strongly. It was the crux for his inner struggle between his faith and identity.
Traveling to Pulse for the six-month anniversary of the massacre was Craft’s chance to find guidance from the Orlando community’s exemplification of love conquering hate and confront the internal conflict he feels between his religion and sexuality, a dichotomy that plagues many LGBTQ people, often resulting in not only self-hate but also hate towards others.
“Growing up, I was always taught that gay people were bad, disgusting, perverted people. I was rewarded with acceptance when I said bad things about gay people. They were the enemy,” Craft said.
Craft said these teachings naturally made him hide the uncertainty he felt toward his sexuality as an adolescent.
“At 11 years old, I decided that even though I was attracted to boys, I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t some far-off person who hated God. I made myself promise that no matter how strong the feelings were, I would never admit them, not even to myself,” Craft said.
Craft said he handled this problem the same way he handled all of his other problems growing up: He prayed.
“I prayed for five years. I begged God to take these feelings away,” Craft said.
Despite all of his praying, Craft said nothing in him changed. In high school, he said he tried dating a few girls, but as soon as things escalated beyond kissing, he recalls feeling “like he wanted to throw up.” So, he said, he decided to stop praying.
“I stopped my relationship with Jesus because everyone I knew had always taught me that one cannot be gay and Christian,” Craft said.
While in Orlando, Craft interviewed Robin Maynard, the vice chair for the non-profit organization Pulse of Orlando. During the interview, Maynard said that she grew up Southern Baptist and is also a lesbian.
Off-camera, Craft opens up to Maynard about his own struggles growing up Southern Baptist and gay. Maynard reads him a Facebook post that she wrote in light of the Pulse shooting.
“I didn’t want to be gay. I really, really didn’t,” Maynard said. “I would watch Grease with my sister and while she would go on about John Travolta, I knew I was more drawn to Olivia Newton John.”
At age 16, Maynard said she admitted to herself that she had feelings or one of her female friends.
Maynard said growing up, she had a good, personal, spiritual relationship with God and thus, in the same way as Craft, prayed and begged for God to take such feelings away from her.
“I bargained and pleaded and made promises I surely couldn’t keep,” Maynard said. “I left my high school my senior year to remove the temptation of being around the girl I was so drawn to – flee temptation.”
Maynard said she then paid her own tuition to attend a small Christian school and immerse herself in doctrine and Bible classes. She said her relationship was more than recite prayer but a true relationship – on a daily basis, with mindful intentions, she convened with her creator.
“Everything was great minus this one huge flaw,” Maynard said. “I was confident, had great friends, kept a smile on my face but inside I felt like a fraud from this awful plague of feeling love and attraction for the wrong sex.”
Despite her pleading, Maynard said at age 18, she fell in love with another beautiful, thoughtful, funny, adventurous girl.
“This should have been an incredibly happy time, but it was torturous. I cried. A lot. My internal conflict would not allow me full happiness based on what had been instilled in my core being.”
At this point, Maynard said she turned away from God and didn’t pray for the next five years.
“I had been told again and again that you can’t be a lukewarm Christian,” Maynard said. “It’s either black or white, you can’t live in the gray.”
She said she realized that being gay was not her choice, as she had always been taught, but intrinsically part of her identity. Since she couldn’t change who she was, Maynard said she thought she had to give up being a Christian.
Now, in her mid-forties, Maynard said she has long reconciled her relationship with her creator and recognizes that many religions create a block separating gay people from God.
“You can, in fact, have it all – a creator who loves you exactly for who you, that knows your heart,” Maynard said. “It’s the so-called representatives of Christ that are causing division between God and the gay community that are going to feel the repercussions.”
Maynard said she knows many of her friends and family don’t agree with her faith but it doesn’t matter because it’s her faith and not theirs.
“That’s the joy of not judging people,” Maynard said. “We get to coexist in unity, of all different faiths and beliefs.”
Maynard told Craft she hopes he can learn to love all of himself.
“You won’t be able to have a complete relationship with Jesus until you love all of yourself,” Maynard said. “Jesus demands that we love ourselves.”
Local pastor Jim Davis said that Grace Bible Church accepts people with same-sex attractions, as long as they want to repent.
“In some manner you’re going to have to choose – I’m not creating the rules here – there is a Bible that is very clear on it, and I believe the Bible,” Davis said.
Davis is the executive pastor of Oxford Grace Bible Church, which, he said, despite contributing to the Southern Baptist Convention, has a “non-denominational feel.”
“What people often want to say in all different categories is that they can have Jesus and their sins,” Davis said. “Those sins, however, Davis said, will never give them more satisfaction than the hope of Jesus.”
Homosexuality is a sin, Davis said, because it doesn’t follow God’s design and therefore, he would not perform a homosexual wedding.
Davis said God gave us these designs not as “bunch of rules to keep us in line,” but because we flourish best in those designs.
“There is more satisfaction to be found, more joy to be found choosing Jesus over any relationship that goes against the design,” Davis said.
When one embraces God, Davis said, his love will overpower the satisfaction derived from acting upon one’s sinful desires.
“There’s a real God that enters into your life and your heart and satisfies you in a way that makes you want to resist a myriad of other desires,” Davis said.
Craft admits that as a product of sexuality, he has had many strong feelings of hatred.
“I truly believed it was wrong to be gay so I hated myself and anyone who was like me,” Craft said. “Then when I realized that maybe it’s not so wrong, I was mad seeing open people being happy because I never thought I’d have that.”
“That’s why it’s so dangerous to make people hate themselves. A lot of people will do something to themselves or others.”
Davis said a “good Church” could prevent such feelings of self-hate that Craft, Maynard felt. Having an open community one can go to and say “this is what I struggle with” makes all the difference, Davis said.
Davis said stories like Craft and Maynard’s make him sad because they didn’t have a community they “could come out to and just say ‘this is what I desire and I don’t know how to process this.'”
Davis said he hopes he is explaining same-sex attraction to his children in a way that they will feel open to talk to him and not feel like any less of a person if that’s what they struggle with.
A year later, Craft has been reflecting on everything that has happened since the shooting. He is currently a counselor at a summer camp in Nashville.
“Last year on June 12, I felt paralyzed, this June 12, I was doing what I love,” Craft said.
He prays again, but sends up different prayers.
Craft said he thought a lot about the Pulse victims and why the shooting even happened. But this year he is working toward helping LGBTQ youths realize their worth.
“The whole thing is still difficult to think about, but I’m better now,” Craft said. “I pray the same for everyone else affected.”