Ordained minister Robert Lowry, the pastor and head of staff at Fondren Presbyterian in Jackson, Miss., is gay, and he certainly doesn’t think it’s a choice.
“I don’t think I chose to be gay any more than I chose to go bald at middle age,” Lowry told the Mississippi Free Press.
“I got ordained, I got married, and I got divorced. Not being out was waking up every morning and living my day dishonestly.”
Lowry, who is featured on episode two of PBS’ “Prideland,” a short-form digital series about being LGBT+ in the South, said he was not always as sure of his identity as he is now. Despite growing up in a “very supportive home” in Arkansas, the concept of being gay was foreign to Lowry for many years.
“I didn’t identify as being gay because I didn’t understand what that meant for a lot of my life,” Lowry said. “I didn’t have the vocabulary for it.”
‘I Got Ordained, I Got Married, and I Got Divorced’
During his interview with Dyllón Burnside, the host of “Prideland” and star of FX’s “Pose,” Lowry explained that when he began seminary, the Presbyterian church had a ban on gay clergy. He had previously been married to a woman.
“I got ordained, I got married, and I got divorced,” Lowry told Burnside. “Not being out was waking up every morning and living my day dishonestly. It’s kind of like I was wearing my shoes on the wrong feet for a decade.”
Lowry told the Mississippi Free Press that his decision to marry a woman was based on societal cues of what he was “supposed to do” once he graduated from college, but that his decision to come out was closely related to his love for religious work.
“I finally came to the reality that part of honestly being who I am in the world is loving who I love,” he said. “I wasn’t ever going to be a good pastor until I was able to do that.”
Of his coming out to his friends, family and colleagues, Lowry said it was “wonderfully unreal” how much support he received. And in 2017, when Lowry interviewed to become Fondren Presbyterian’s pastor, the church welcomed him with the same support.
“I told the search committee, ‘Well, there’s something important you need to know about me before you make your decision,’ and when I told them they said, ‘That’s no big deal,’” he said.
Lowry said he feels the same levels of support from Fondren Presbyterian’s entire congregation.
“Fondren is a politically diverse congregation that is gathered around a common sense of promoting justice in the world,” Lowry said. “It’s been that way since the beginning.”
When the church’s pastor-search committee was doing a meet-the-congregation session with Lowry, a congregation member said, “We’re not voting to call our first gay pastor; we’re voting to call our next pastor.”
“I don’t think a pastor who has a spouse or two kids and a cocker spaniel would be treated any differently than I am,” Lowry said. “They treat me like their pastor, not their gay pastor, and that’s the wonderful thing about Fondren Presbyterian.”
Dorsey Carson Jr., a Fondren Presbyterian congregant and founding member of the Carson Law Group, said the church’s selection of Lowry was not as “controversial as it may have been in some congregations.”
“Once he (Lowry) got in, any naysayers were very quickly turned into fans of Rob,” Carson told the Mississippi Free Press. To Carson, the care Lowry puts into his sermons and worship has caused Fondren Presbyterian’s unity as a congregation to deepen. “His (Rob) sexuality isn’t at the forefront,” Carson said. “He’s just an amazing pastor doing amazing things for the community.”
A “handful of people” left the church after Lowry was selected, Carson said, but he thinks “they were already on their way out.” Under Lowry’s leadership, Fondren Presbyterian has “gained more members” than it “ever would have lost,” Carson said.
Not Praying Away the Gay or Straight
Lowry’s story was perfect for “Prideland” because it helps to discuss “misconceptions about the modern-day LGBT+ community, but also the modern-day south,” which is at the center of the series’ mission, said Brandon Arolfo, head of PBS Digital Studios.
“Part of the point of the show was showing progress and to be able to have him (Lowry) was important,” Arolfo said.
To Arolfo, Lowry’s story is precisely an indication that the South has stories of “celebration” and brings to light “how things are changing” without “ignoring that there are still issues that the LGBT+ face around the country.”
Arolfo, who is southern and gay himself, said he hopes Lowry’s appearance on the documentary and “Prideland” as a whole help to identify stories that aren’t often celebrated, and to educate on being LGBT+ in a short-form digital format that most mainstream media haven’t attempted, yet.
Mississippi, home to 79,000 LGBT+ people, cannot help but play into the southern tradition of tensions between culture, religion, and identity, Lowry said, but he does not think that these tensions should define how LGBT+ people express themselves religiously.
“All too often the LGBTQ community has been convinced that someone else gets to make a determination in our relationship with God, and that we have to filter that relationship through the straight world around us,” Lowry said. “That’s nonsense.”
Lowry shared a similar sentiment with “Prideland,” saying, “You’re not on this earth to pray away the gay any more than you are to pray away the straight.”
To Lowry, misconceptions about what it means to be LGBT+ are rooted in people’s failure to understand each other as human, and that there is often an emphasis on what is “other” about everyone.
“The Church Has an Obligation to Speak’
The alarming rate at which trans women of color are being murdered, especially in the South, is a specific indication of this focus on the “other” to Lowry, and he thinks the church has a role in speaking up for the women who have lost their lives.
“The church has an obligation to speak,” Lowry said. “Silence is complicity, and we cannot be complicit in that violence.”
“Someone who is trans is living an extremely authentic life, and for a lot of people in the South, a trans person of color is very representative of ‘other,’” Lowry added. “But otherness isn’t a bad thing; we’re all other from one another.”
Acceptance of LGBT+ people in the South starts with looking beyond the “word” that people attach to themselves, Lowry said.
“When you know someone as more than this word that you’ve put on them, and you know them as a human being, it really changes the way you build community with that person,” he said.
Watch Rob Lowry’s appearance on PBS’ Prideland here.