SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Honestly, first question to every other former church kid I meet - what was your favorite church song growing up?
JOEL KIM BOOSTER: Oh, gosh. I mean, I was a "Lord, Your - Lift Your Name On High" (ph) sort of traditionalist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD, I LIFT YOUR NAME ON HIGH")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) You came from heaven to Earth...
BOOSTER: I liked any song with hand Movement...
BOOSTER: ...Anything where there was an accompanying sort of gesture that would go along with it. I was very into that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD, I LIFT YOUR NAME ON HIGH")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Lord, I lift your name on high.
SANDERS: Now, how would y'all sing? Was it just, like, an acoustic guitar? Was it, like, a band? Were y'all rocking out?
BOOSTER: Well, it depended. If it was a Sunday morning, like, if the adults were in the room, it was very traditional, piano only. If it was youth group, that's when things would get a little funkier with an acoustic guitar or maybe a tambourine.
SANDERS: So my guest today, as you heard, he grew up in church. But as he began to learn more about the faith, he also began to realize something about himself - that he's gay. Today, he tells us that story.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
So for this episode, let me tell you right off the bat, we are not going to talk about a few things. We will not discuss this week's debate. We will not discuss the election. We will not discuss coronavirus or the economy because if you are like me, you've probably already heard enough about all of those things already this week.
So instead, this episode, we're going to celebrate a very special day. Coming Out Day is Sunday, October 11. It is a day that means a lot to me. So in honor of it, this episode right now - a beautiful coming-out story from a guest who grew up a church kid, just like me - actor, writer and comedian Joel Kim Booster. You might know Joel from his comedy specials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOOSTER: Yeah, I was adopted from South Korea. South Korea, for those of you - you might know this. It was the only country in the '80s that would fly a baby to the U.S. You did not have to go and pick it up. So in many ways, it was like the GrubHub of babies. You know, they would just...
BOOSTER: ...Fly a baby straight to your door. No hassles, no fees. It was great. But, yeah, so it was an interesting thing for me, growing up with this face in an all-white family in an all-white town. Like, I fully knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian. That's...
SANDERS: But we are not talking about Joel's career on the show today. In honor of Coming Out Day this weekend, Joel is going to share his coming out story with us - how he came out to his family and his friends and his church, but most importantly, how he came out to himself. Listeners, heads up - there is a discussion of sex in my interview with Joel, perhaps not the best interview for the kids. OK, with that, here's Joel Kim Booster telling his story of coming out. Happy Coming Out Day to everyone out there. Enjoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BOOSTER: My conception of sexuality was, like, forming when I was, like, so, so young. Like, I started jerking off when I was, like, six or seven. So, like, I was, like, hypersexual at a really young age. And, like, really, it didn't - the shame and everything that came after it, it was all so instinctual when I was, like, a young, young kid. And it was only when I started to hit, like, prepubescent, 9, 10, that I started to connect the dots. And, like, this private thing that I thought I was the only person in the world who did became, suddenly, you know, reflected in the POV of what we were learning in church and stuff like that...
BOOSTER: ...About sexual mores and everything like that. I actually specifically - this memory will, like, always be stuck in my head is - I was, like, watching an episode of "20/20" about gay dads. And my dad was in the room, and I remember my dad being like, that's wrong, and that being sort of, like, a very early sort of, like, cajole - like, memory of learning the wrongness that, like, I had inside of me and that - yeah. So that will stick with me. Thank you, Barbara Walters.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Listen - she's a fount of endless stuff.
SANDERS: How hard was the compartmentalization? Like, so you know you like guys. You know that's part of who you are. But you're also going to a conservative church, and you know that your family and your church won't accept this. Like...
SANDERS: ...It honestly was pretty easy for me to compartmentalize, like, as a kid. I was just like, OK, well, I can't be gay right now. Like, shut up. And, like, you just live that life.
BOOSTER: That - I mean, that happened way later that I had to go through - where for so long, sex and romantic sort of affection were separated so completely for me. Like, I didn't - it wasn't like, you know, I had sexual feelings for men, and then I realized it was wrong, and then I started to suppress that in favor of trying to make it work with women; it was more like I developed sexual feelings for men and then, sort of apart from that, through watching TV and movies and, you know, learning from society, basically, that, you know, a man ends up with a woman romantically, developing those sorts of fantasies - like, at the same time that I was, like, jerking off to Scott Bakula in "Quantum Leap" drag...
BOOSTER: ...I was, like, also fantasizing about, like, marrying a woman, you know? And I think part of this, too, was easier because I was home-schooled for so long, too. So it was really easy to compartmentalize that stuff. It wasn't until I was, like, 13, 14 that - and really started to understand the reality of like, OK, this isn't a phase. This isn't going away. Like, and understanding that sex and romantic love were sort of intertwined, or supposed to be, that I...
BOOSTER: ...Fully understood, you know, and then started to compartmentalize and be like, OK, well, I can't address that. I can't deal with that. I can't do that. And just, you know, started to try and pray the gay away on my own.
SANDERS: What was that ideal hetero marriage that you thought about as a kid? What did that look like? Who was your wife?
BOOSTER: My wife was this girl named Alisha (ph) that I met at Bible camp.
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
BOOSTER: But yeah. So that was, like, the fantasy for a while - was, like, I was going to get over this gay thing. I was going to beat it. That, you know, obviously did not happen.
SANDERS: Yeah. What did beating it look like for you in your mind?
BOOSTER: I think it was, like, for me, I thought there was still, like, time to develop sexual feelings for women. Like, I really thought that, like, not necessarily that, like, the sexual feelings for men would dissipate, but that eventually it would even out a little bit. Like, if I looked at enough straight porn, if I looked at enough, like, women or, like - you know? And like, what I now sort of recognize as, like, diva worship almost - you know? - that it's, like, I almost was able to convince myself that the way I idolized certain women growing up was akin...
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Idolizing Beyonce is actually not - (laughter)...
BOOSTER: Yeah. It's not far away from...
SANDERS: ...Sexual attraction.
BOOSTER: Yeah, exactly. It's not far from, like, sexual attraction.
BOOSTER: So I was like, if I - you know, I'm so into - this is, like, such a weird crush, but Jeri Ryan, who is low-key responsible - or part-way responsible for President Barack Obama. She was married to the senator that Barack Obama replaced because in their divorce proceedings, it was revealed that he tried to take her to BDSM clubs. And...
SANDERS: Oh, I remember that.
BOOSTER: Yes, yes. She starred as Seven of Nine on "Star Trek". And like, that was, like, my early celebrity beard, was Jeri Ryan.
BOOSTER: And I was like, oh, I'm so into her. I would, like, print pictures off the Internet when we first got the Internet and a printer. Like, literally - and back then, it took a long time to print out a picture of anything - line by line.
SANDERS: Oh, I remember. Yeah, that HP LaserJet situation.
BOOSTER: Exactly. And I really convinced myself that, like, me sort of stanning this woman and women like her, like Britney Spears and Beyonce and all of these people, was akin and could be akin to a romantic sort of feeling. And I just eventually thought that my penis would catch up.
SANDERS: Coming up, how Joel left the church and found a new support system with the high school drama kids. Ah, classic story.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: How did God play into all of this as you're going through this from being a kid up until you're, you know, coming out towards the end of high school?
BOOSTER: I don't know. I wasn't...
SANDERS: Are you thinking about whether God likes it or not? Is that even an issue for you? Or are you just kind of like...
BOOSTER: I for - I've always been a very research-oriented person.
BOOSTER: And I remember really thinking, like, the Bible was inspired - you know, the Holy Ghost inspired these men to write the words of God. And that was something that I needed to believe and did believe. So for me, when I realized that being gay was, like, just not something that I could get rid of through prayer, I started doing research.
And, you know, thank God for the Internet. Like, I would go on forums for Christian teens and ask about, you know, like, is this a compatible lifestyle? And I stumbled actually on, like, really early scholarly work on sort of the translations of the New Testament and sort of pairing that with historical context of the day and learning that, you know, the words that we've translated to just be homosexuality in the NIV is actually much more complicated because of historical context. And what, you know, Paul was writing to the Corinthians actually about was not so cut-and-dry as, like, two men, two adult men, having sex or two adult men in a loving relationship. It just wasn't. And I remember bringing this to a church leader...
SANDERS: Ooh, brave.
BOOSTER: ...And I remember the church leader telling me that - because it was written by a mom whose son was gay and who had come from a very similar faith background that I did. And this was, you know, sort of the research that she had done in conjunction with, like, actual scholars. And I remember emailing this to one of my church leaders, someone that I really trusted and believed in and I knew and I was friends with. And she - you know, she had just sort of graduated from Bible college herself, and so she was, like, in my age cohort. And I remember her emailing back and being like, you know, it's very clear that this mother loves her son, but she's wrong, and what she's doing is really harmful. And that was it. There was no real explanation for why she was wrong.
SANDERS: If a teenager sends something like that to a youth pastor, it's also kind of a cry for help. It's also you kind of saying, I'm struggling with these things - can you help me?
SANDERS: This is you trying to come out to her. Did she ever, in light of that email you sent, ask about how you were doing and if you were having thoughts and feelings around your sexuality?
BOOSTER: No. Well, here's the thing, is, you know, I'm a - I read as pretty gay, I think, to most people. I think there's, like, well, maybe a little bit of...
SANDERS: What? No, not you (laughter).
BOOSTER: Yeah. There might have been some ambiguity back then because I was trying really hard, you know? I was like - but I think most of - at that point, what happened was, you know, I had made a gay friend at my high school, and I had talked briefly about hanging out with that person. And I remember getting called into the office with all the church youth group leaders, my youth pastor, and being told that I had to either stop hanging out with this person or not come back to the church. And...
SANDERS: Wow. What'd you do?
BOOSTER: I never went back.
SANDERS: How old were you then?
BOOSTER: I was 16 then.
SANDERS: OK. OK.
BOOSTER: And it was a watershed moment, for sure, because for me, I knew which way I was headed, and I knew that, like, it was just, like, a dam was about to burst and I couldn't really hold back. And I was dealing with so many other things mentally at that point that I just, like, couldn't - I needed support.
BOOSTER: And I didn't - and I knew I wasn't going to get the support that I needed because especially, like - thinking back, this is, like, such a 2005, 2004 or whatever year it was mentality of just, like, playing chicken with me, rather than - you'd think now - I think a smarter church leader, even a smarter evangelical church leader, would have said...
SANDERS: Would be like, you're gay; we get it.
BOOSTER: Like, yeah, or, like, let's hold on to this kid. Like, let's - like, let's keep him in the fold. Let's keep him coming to church every week. And at least that way, you know, we'll have access to him. But instead they gave me this ultimatum that I think that they had expected me to adhere to, and I called their bluff, and I said, OK, I'm gone. And I called my dad. I had him pick me up, and we never went back to that youth group.
SANDERS: It's funny hearing you say that because, like, my church never gave me an ultimatum. They were maybe even a bit more strict than your church. They definitely knew that I was about to be a gay because they tried to pray it out of me a few times. But they never were like, you can't come back anymore. And I wonder, I don't know, which approach is best. Like, at least you knew when to cut things off. I think for many years I was trying really hard to continue to be in a place where I knew I just didn't fit anymore.
BOOSTER: Well, I mean, it's easy for me to talk about this in hindsight. But at the time, you know, like, I did stop going. But I was, like, fairly convinced I was going to hell, you know?
BOOSTER: Like, at that point, it was like, I'm not going to beat this thing, which is, like, such an odd way of putting it, but that's how I thought about it at the time. I'm not going to beat this thing, and I have no home here. So I might as well just, like, go crazy while I have the chance here on Earth, and then eventually I'll go to hell.
SANDERS: Oh, no (laughter).
BOOSTER: And that's that on that, you know?
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. It's so - I don't know. I want to just, like, find young Joel Kim Booster and give him a hug and be like, I'm sorry you had to go through that.
SANDERS: That sucks. Do you - I don't want to ask if you feel sorry for yourself, but I do want to ask, looking back years from now, how do you feel about that 16-year-old, 17-year-old kid and what he was going through?
BOOSTER: I mean, I'm looking at it now with - that was half a lifetime ago. And I'm so thankful that everything happened in the way that it has because I love my life now. And I don't know, you know - there were so many steps that, of course, like, hurt to get there. I mean, there was so much tumult with my family before getting here and a lot of therapy to get me here. But, like, ultimately, I'm glad that it happened because it was certainly, like, emotionally, ripping a Band-Aid off. But I don't know if there was a better way to do it in terms of where I was at at that point in my life.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I want to flashback to that moment in high school when everything starts to just happen. You're growing up in the church. You're being home-schooled. You have these aspirations to just, I don't know, become a youth pastor in adulthood.
SANDERS: But then, you end up asking your parents if you can go to public school to do drama club - right? - to, like, do theater. And they let you go to public school, and then everything changes. Take me back to that, like...
BOOSTER: Everything changes.
SANDERS: ...First public school moment when everything just hits the fan.
BOOSTER: I - it was standing in choir class behind a kid named Esteban (ph) who was wearing Axe body spray...
BOOSTER: ...And, like, getting a boner. And I believe he was, like, freshly out and, like, is, like, you know - I don't know. And, like, the excitement of that of, like, standing next to an out gay kid who was so hot to me at that point and, like, smelled so good and, like, all of that...
SANDERS: You know he didn't smell good. You know he smelled bad 'cause it was Axe body spray.
BOOSTER: I don't know. Axe body spray - it still - something in me will react to it...
BOOSTER: ...I think because of that moment.
BOOSTER: But, like - but for real, I mean - and that was that. And I think, like, being surrounded by kids for the first time who were very open to it, who knew it about me before I even knew it about me and who sort of - for the first time, I was around people who, you know, were vocalizing the opposition, that were saying, like, no, gay is OK and, like, you know - this is a pre-"Glee" era, certainly. I mean, kids are coming out left and right these days. But, like, I think I was one of, like, four or five out kids at my high school at the time. And so it felt revolutionary, and it felt very - I don't know - empowering in a way and scary in another way.
BOOSTER: And - but I had a lot of - you know, I had that cliche drama clique that was there to support me. For the first time in my life, I had a support system that was going to stand behind me and make sure that I was OK.
SANDERS: Coming up, Joel talks about losing his religion but finding a few other things in the process.
How much of the way you were raised still shows up in, like, your sexual life now? I think for me, one of the biggest things was, like, because you're growing up in this church background and you can never really show any of the same-sex desire you have to anyone around you, you start to lead a life in which you're allowed to be gay, but secretly. And so all of your first experiences have to be an incredibly big secret. And then even when you realize you don't have to do that anymore, your predisposition is, keep it secret. Were there any lingering effects of your upbringing that you're still unpacking when it comes to just, like, the way you live out your sex life as a gay man?
BOOSTER: No (laughter).
SANDERS: Good. Good. You got over it.
BOOSTER: Yeah. I think that there are definitely some of the - I think, like, there's a frankness to the way that I see and approach sex that is a direct result of and maybe a direct reaction to the secretiveness of which it was sort of - that surrounded it while I was growing up. You know, it just wasn't something that we talked about. I was never given any sort of sex ed. It was personal and private.
And I never understood why, and I still don't understand why because it's just - I don't know. I always felt it as a bodily function, and I still view it that way. And - 'cause then, when I had it and I started having sex, I was like, this is the thing that's wrong? This is the thing that we're not talking about? It's like it's a fart, you know? Like, it's just, like, one of those...
BOOSTER: It's something our body does. And it just - it seems so silly to not - at least to me - not to talk about it. I understand not everybody views it that way, and I - you know, I never want to push that viewpoint on - to overcorrect, to be as legalistic about it as my parents were on the opposite.
But - and I'm very curious. I mean, I'm still so curious about it to this day. I think a lot of my work is centered around that curiosity because so much of it I learned in practice and not in theory. And so it's fun to sort of be curious and sort of ask people, like, well, how do you do it? And there is no right answer. And that's why it's a fun question for me to continually ask ad nauseum.
SANDERS: One of the things that comes up a lot when I talk with people about God and sex, whether they're straight or gay or whatever, is that regardless of who you are, when you grow up in a strict religious upbringing, there's just this pressure in general to be relatively asexual. You know, sex is not...
BOOSTER: Chaste, yeah.
SANDERS: Chaste and pure and, like, almost ignoring that humans are sexual beings.
SANDERS: And I think a lot of people still kind of carry that with them in their adulthood, whether they stay in church or not. You seem to be totally over that. Do you think that was just the way you are, or was there a thing or a moment or a process that got you there? Like, just...
BOOSTER: I just think it was in me. I really do. Like, I was, like, always - I was that kid in the middle of the living room floor, like, humping his stuffed animal...
BOOSTER: ...As a child, you know? Like, I was, like, always, always, always - like, from the moment I realized what my penis could do, I was like, this is a miracle. This is, like, the greatest thing in the whole world that, like, it can just do this. And it can just make you feel like this any time you want it to, really.
So, yeah, I don't know. It was, like - that was, like, the first and the easiest thing for me to sort of let go of when I untangled myself from the church. And I think that there are definitely, like, shades of - you know, there's been a lot of, like, shading work and therapy and whatnot that I've done as an adult to make sure that I'm approaching sex in a healthy way. But, like, in terms of exploring it and viewing it as a gift - like, that's how I've always seen it. And yeah, I've never wanted to hide my light under a bushel, as it were (laughter) - a basket or whatever.
SANDERS: Hide your junk under a bushel. No.
BOOSTER: Yeah, yeah. No, no, no - not for me.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Do you ever imagine a time in your life - here, now, later - where you'd go back to church, go back to God, go back to some kind of religion or organized whatever?
BOOSTER: I mean, I go to church every time I visit my friend Sarah (ph).
BOOSTER: I do it out of...
SANDERS: Her church.
BOOSTER: ...Respect - yes. I do it out of respect for her. And there is a big part of me that, like, you know - I think I've always searched for community wherever I am because that is something that was, you know, sort of instilled in me in a very young age because of church. I definitely do that. But I found the community that I've been looking for, I think, in the gay community. And they stand in for what church used to stand in for for me. And church now becomes a dance floor or, you know, a warehouse party or a game night, you know? It can be all of those things - just getting together with those - with my community.
SANDERS: Yeah. I know that you are agnostic now. But if you had to look back over your journey with your sexuality and religious beliefs and say, this was a lesson God was trying to teach me through this or this is a lesson for everyone else through this story, what is the lesson and the moral of the story?
BOOSTER: I mean, I guess - wow, that's a heavy question. That's a heavy question. You really knocked me over at the end here. I was doing so well. I was feeling so articulate. I guess the lesson for me is that the road is long, and you can't see - you know, I think, like, sometimes it's that optical illusion where you think you see the end of the road, but it's actually just a hill, you know? And once you're over it, there's a whole other stretch that you can't even see from where you're standing. And it's about perspective.
And I think, like, it's really easy, even when things are hard, even when I'm going through and have gone through - I mean, right now is such a great example of it. It feels like this is never-ending and that I'll never leave my house again, and I'll never get to dance with my friends again. And I feel lonely. And I feel, you know, unshakable sadness sometimes - is that it's just - when you can't see the end, it's just a hill. And you'll be - and you'll have a whole other stretch. And then that stretch will, you know, bump and obscure itself as well. But it's - I'm somebody who always really, really wanted to know what the endgame was, which I think is why Christianity was so comforting - 'cause it was like, well, I accepted Jesus in my heart.
SANDERS: And I will go to heaven.
BOOSTER: So I know what the endgame - yeah.
BOOSTER: Exactly. No matter what, I know what the endgame is. And I think having that stripped away from me was what really set me off balance for a lot of my, you know, later adolescence into young adulthood. And being OK with not being in control and not knowing has been, you know, the greater growth, I think, of my - this period of my life.
SANDERS: I love that. Life is a journey. The road is long. You'll never see all the hills and the turns. But keep driving.
SANDERS: But look at that. You got me in the heart space, Joel.
SANDERS: This is the part where we end the interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Thanks again to Joel Kim Booster for sharing his coming out story with us. Coming Out Day is Sunday, October 11. Enjoy it, everyone.
All right. This week, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Anjuli Sastry, Jinae West and Andrea Gutierrez. Our intern is Star McCown. Our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson. Our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.
That's a wrap for this week. We're back in your feeds next week. Till then, be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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