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Growing Up Gay

Updated: Sep 21

By Serena Vasudeva

MTSU Seigenthaler News Service


Jarred (left) and Seth Garrison pose outside their Winchester apartment. The couple, who attended Franklin County High School, said growing up gay in southern Middle Tennessee was often a challenge. Photo by Serena Vasudeva

Tucked away on Old Tullahoma Road is Maplewood Apartments, where Seth Garrison and Jarred Garrison have built a home together. The garden in their front yard is decorated with small pride flags, which stick out of flower pots and line the sidewalk leading to their glass door.

“There’s pride flags hanging everywhere. There’s a lot of LGBTQ+ people here in this complex alone,” said Seth.

Growing up gay in southern Middle Tennesse, Seth and Jarred married in 2016 after meeting and dating four years earlier. For both of them, life has had its challenges. Seth was sent to conversion therapy as a teen. Jarred suffered a beating at the hands of co-workers. Over time, as the climate has gotten better, both men have healed together.

The two met online and began dating Feb. 12, 2012.

“We met in person for the first time at a laundromat to fold the newspapers and put them together. Jarred was delivering newspapers at the time and I was basically going on a date by going to work with him,” Seth explained.

“We moved in with each other the day we met. We were inseparable from that point on,” Jarred added.

Before gay marriage was legalized, Seth and Jarred kept a scrapbook that featured their ideal wedding. They envisioned a Celtic-themed wedding on Christmas, as Jarred is Scots-Irish.

In June of 2015, when same-sex marriage was made legalized, Seth and Jarred waited.

“Once they legalized marriage, I was worried as soon as we did it that Tennessee was going to outlaw it. At the time, they were fighting it,” Jarred explained.

What finally persuaded him, however, was his own superstitions. He saw their seventh anniversary as lucky. While the couple was at Planet Fitness in Tullahoma, Jarred proposed in a casual manner. “It was two in the morning, it was a day or two before our anniversary, and I said, ‘you want to get married?’”

Seth enjoyed the minimal planning time, as it would keep Jarred from getting cold feet. They married on a cold February day in a park with a Valentine’s Day theme. Both wore kilts to the altar.

To his surprise, Seth’s parents showed up for the wedding. When he was 15, they forced him to attend a so-called conversion therapy program, a discredited practice that falsely claims to change a person’s sexual oreintation or gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“It wasn’t the extreme version of conversion therapy that you hear about in the past, like with electroshocks. It was just mental torture.”

On his first day, he spent around three hours alone with a youth minister at Grace Baptist Church in Tullahoma.

“He would sit me down and he would ask me all of the things that I had done with another man. It was very uncomfortable, being 15 years old and talking to someone who was 30,” Seth recalled.

(ADDENDUM: In the story, "Growing up gay," Seth Garrison told of being sent to a conversion therapy program whose aim was to turn him away from his sexual orientation. His parents deny this happened. In the story, Garrison also told the reporter that he was sent to live with his grandmother because his parents did not want him around younger siblings. His parents deny this allegation, as well, stating that Garrison's move to his grandmother's had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. The parents also stated they do not understand why Garrison framed his teenage years in this manner and the representations are untrue. They did attend Seth and Jarred's wedding and to this day they are supportive of Seth and their other children no matter their sexual orientation.)

He attended three times a week after school. During the three hour sessions, he was forced to “pray the gay away.” His youth pastor often explained to Seth that he wasn’t really gay, but instead wanted to be the men that he felt attracted to. Seth was also pressured to make more male companions and exercise routinely, as “the masculine energy would change his way of thinking.”

“It was tragic and it really messed me up. It made me feel worthless and led to multiple suicide attempts,” He recounted.

Seth said he only lived to tell the tale because of the support he received from family and friends.

“I have this insane fear of churches because of it,” Seth added, “I couldn’t imagine someone being trapped in a conversion camp 24/7.”

Seth believes that as long as most churches are anti-lgbt, conversion therapy will continue on some level. Bans on conversion therapy are left up to the state legislatures. While Tennessee currently has no laws preventing the practice, Seth explained that extreme physical abuse under the guise of therapy is illegal. Jarred believes that it would be incredibly difficult to enforce a law against conversion therapy because locations are often “tight-knit secrets” not open to the general public.

Seth was able to leave conversion therapy at 17, when his parents realized that it did not change his sexual orientation. Their new solution was to send Seth to his grandmother.

“My parents did not want me to live with my younger brother. They thought that I would turn him gay just by being in the same household with him,” Seth explained.

Seth’s grandmother ended up supporting Seth emotionally and paid for his schooling. His time with her allowed for healing.

“It was still a learning process for her, she was born in 1944. She experienced gay people put in prison. She was still more progressive than my parents, even,” Seth said.

At 18, Seth organized a walkathon against bullying called Pace for Peace in Estill Springs. During his time in Franklin County High School, Seth and his friends were bullied for their sexuality.

“What’s sad about that whole thing is even though I was geared towards LGBTQ+ activism, I had to keep it secret. I was out but if they knew that we were LGBTQ+, we wouldn’t have gotten any help,” He explained.

Seth has two younger siblings who have both come out as LGBT. He has become their fierce guardian.

“I have made it very clear that if [my parents] aren’t supportive, I want nothing to do with them. That fear, I think, is what straightened them up because they are big on family.” His parents, meanwhile, have accepted Seth’s happy, long-lasting relationship with Jarred.

Jarred went to the same high school as Seth but seven years earlier. He was only open about his sexuality to his close friends. On one particular day, he overheard some students talking about going hunting. Because deer season was closed, Jarred asked what they were after. Their answer made his blood run cold: they were going gay hunting.

“I thought, ‘oh God, do they know?’”

Jarred said students made fake online profiles on websites such as Yahoo messenger and flirted with male students. If the flirting was reciprocated, an attempt would be made to lure the person into a meeting. When the student showed up, a gang would push them around and hurl slurs.

“The biggest thing was that they wanted to beat them and teach them a lesson for being gay. It really has come a long way, but that shadow’s still there,” Jarred explained.

Thankfully, the students did not know about Jarred’s sexuality. He regularly tried to dissuade students from participating.

“I like to think that me downplaying it as much as I did may have put a bug in their ear that it wasn’t okay, that it was stupid because they’d get in trouble over somebody.”

Around that time, faculty at Franklin County High School began cracking down on fighting by sending students home early as punishment.

“They saw it as a stronger kid beating up on a weaker kid instead of seeing it for what it was.

Jarred highlighted that this was a necessity for teachers because they didn’t have the correct tools at the time to address the deeper issue.

“It wasn’t until after I was out of high school that more people found out I was gay. By then, I wasn’t in an area that I was consistently surrounded by danger or hunters."

Around 2008, Jarred began working for a factory in Winchester. He was never closeted at his job.

“I didn’t care, I wanted to be out… If someone came up and asked me, I told them, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’ I spent too long in that closet to not have at least some sort of say.”

Jarred’s struggles at work began in the public bathroom. His co-workers refused to use it at the same time as him due to Jarred’s sexuality.

“If I went to the bathroom, nobody would go in there. They’d wait outside.”

This continued until a co-worker stood up for Jarred, walking into the bathroom despite the attitude of the others working at the factory.

“Man, y’all are stupid,” Jarred recalled him saying, “Don’t ever let them bother you.

After that, a few of Jarred's co-workers began using the restroom without paying any mind to Jarred. While he did gain the respect of some of his peers, a few used it to further their own motives. After Jarred was defended, a friendly man approached him and asked if he would like to hang out after work. Jarred, recalling his loneliness due to the environment at his job, quickly agreed.

“I always parked my car close to the door because I didn’t feel safe. There was a camera there.”

His co-worker, however, had parked in the back of the parking lot and invited Jarred to meet him there.

“I had this weird insecure gut feeling that something wasn’t right. I kept telling myself, ‘no, it isn’t that, this guy seems to be really nice.’”

When he arrived, Jarred’s co-worker was standing near his truck a few feet away. Years later, he still recalls what he said.

“Hey, you found me!”

“Yeah, how’s it going?” Jarred asked him.

“It’s about to be better."

Suddenly, a mob of his co-workers rushed out from behind the surrounding vehicles.

“Some had metal chains, some had sticks, one person had a wooden pole, one guy had a tire iron.”

Jarred tried to run to his car but was struck in the back of the legs. Once he was down, he was kicked unmercifully, he said.

“Getting hit in the back with a board and a chain really leaves a mark. I had bruised ribs… They didn’t hit me in the face, which was good, because I was able to hide the fact that I was beaten."

There were a few bystanders who heard the commotion and came to investigate. Their presence scared the attackers, creating an opening to escape.

The next day, Jarred reported the incident to HR. He was told that nothing would happen- one of the orchestrators was a part of the family that owned the company. Both Jarred and Seth call this the “good old boy” system, where justice is impeded by a deep network of blood relations and friendships.

Jarred was eventually fired. He was informed that his highlighted hair and ear piercings were bad for the company’s image even though he never interacted with customers. Feeling his sexuality played a role, Jarred consulted a lawyer. At the time, there were no protections for LGBT people. He was told he didn’t have a case.

“After that, it was really traumatizing to find a job and be comfortable in a job.”

After Jarred was jumped, he became afraid of using public bathrooms.

“Going to the bathroom was a chore. In a lot of ways, it still is.”

Jarred knows that he isn’t alone. Attacks in public restrooms happen because of a guaranteed lack of cameras. Typically, when using a public restroom, he chooses a stall or a urinal farthest from the door.

“If that person coming in is sketchy, you can always find another bathroom.”

Jarred has dealt with a handful of sketchy people who have attempted to intimidate him. One incident which took place at the mall in Huntsville.

"This big guy in a plaid shirt came in and just stood behind me while I was at the urinal. He was close enough that I could feel his body heat on my back.”

The moments ticked by for eternity as Jarred finished up and slid past the stranger. Once he left the bathroom, he took off his pride-themed accessories and did not put them back on for a long time. He also expressed concerns with his husband’s pride-related accessories in fear for his safety.

“This guy, it took me coming into his life to be okay with being gay himself. He was open, but he was never proud of it,” Seth said.

“No, I couldn’t be proud to be gay, I had to hide it. I wanted to be proud. At that point, I knew I had to protect myself,” Jarred said.

On occasion, Jarred sees his graduating class around Franklin County.

“They’ll see me in Walmart and they’ll recognize who I am. They’ll look away. You can see that there is guilt, but they never apologize.”

A large part of Jarred’s healing has been Seth.

“Being from almost two different worlds, Seth has been able to make me more comfortable and open my eyes to how things have changed,” Jarred said.

Time has also played a factor for him.

“Over time I’ve just gotten to where I don’t care anymore. I’ve done the song and dance, I’ve been beaten. I’ve grown enough from it and seen that the world isn’t as bad as it was,” Jarred explained.

Now, Jarred works at a grocery store, where he recently found a package of pride Oreos. The dazzling foil is decorated with encouraging words like “be exactly who you are, the world needs more of that” and “there’s a place in this world for you.”

“If I had that exposure around when I was younger, I would have felt a lot more included. It really is a great thing,” Seth said.

When Seth and Jarred vacationed to Niagara falls in June, they recalled seeing buildings lit up in rainbow colors and pride flags hanging from businesses.

“You won’t see that kind of stuff around here. Twenty years can pass and I’d never see the courthouse lit up in multiple colors,” Seth said.


Serena Vasudeva is one of nine journalism students from Middle Tennessee State University who spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be seen at www.theroadtripclass.com.

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