The Cult of Before Stories: Heather Barwick, Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth

The Cult of Before Stories: Heather Barwick, Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth March 22, 2015

This post has been updated! See the end for details.

If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

King Lear, Shakespeare

I wish it could shock me anymore, seeing a family ripped apart by religion. It happens constantly in this modern age–and will probably get worse, really. But this story touched me particularly today because it hit a few all-too-familiar notes in that discordant jangle that is the Cult of Before Stories.

I mean, no pressure or nothin'. (tsaiproject, CC.)
I mean, no pressure or nothin’. (tsaiproject, CC.)

Meet the Cult of Before Stories.

The Cult of Before Stories” is a term I coined to describe that weird idolization Christians have of particularly impressive conversion stories. The more impressive the pre-conversion debauchery, the more divine grace that person had to have been given by “God.” So these stories have a distinct progression into worse and worse sin, a sudden moment of reversal, and then a glorious finale. They follow a predictable pattern–for a reason; their bearers are well aware that these stories get attention and rewards.

Christians who can spin an appropriately lurid tale of their horrible pre-conversion lives get a lot of breathless adoration from their peers. Nobody wants to hear a story about a young person who grew up Christian, didn’t really ever do anything outrageously bad or break any laws, and then rededicated his or her life to Jesus in college.

Wait. Well, that’s embarrassing. I basically just described myself as a Pentecostal convert. I guess that explains a few things about why Biff got all the attention with his (completely fictional) account of having been a Satanic Wiccan warlock and high priest who sold pornography to schoolchildren and got possessed during a totally for real sorcerous ritual.

But one needn’t go that far, into obviously made-up territory. Any Christian who can tickle the ears of the folks in the pews can join the Cult of Before Stories.

The Boogeymen of the Cult.

Right now the big boogeymen of fundagelical Christianity are atheists and LGBTQ people, whereas back in my day Christians panicked and wrung their little hands over Satanists and Wiccans, so obviously the cool kids will have conversion stories featuring lurid tales of how terrible it was to be LGBTQ or godless–and the very coolest kids will feature both.

Now, let’s meet Heather Barwick, the latest poster child for bigotry-for-Jesus.

Lately, bigots-for-Jesus are passing her around like a puppy at church camp. She doesn’t realize she’s being used to help her new tribe win the already-lost culture war they started. That said, I’m not sure she’d care if she knew. She’s got a cause. She’s got a goal.

Her method of reaching that goal is stripping away her own mother’s civil rights and human liberties.

Shots Fired!

Dear Gay Community: Your Kids are Hurting,” her post title screeches.

It’s a real shots fired moment!

Oh noes! Won’t someone think of the children?!?

She opens with this: “I loved my mom’s partner, but another mom could never have replaced the father I lost.”

Therefore, she goes on to tell her audience, same-sex couples should not ever get the right to marry or be allowed to raise children as a couple.

And because she’s talking to the Christian bigots-for-Jesus over at The Federalist, she’ll definitely find an audience willing to take her testimony at face value.

Blaming the Wrong People.

It actually hurts my heart to see someone this hurting putting so much blame in such a totally wrong place.

From her very first sentence, she careens off-course. You see, she’s kinda right, but also totally wrong. Another woman wouldn’t replace her father, no, but neither would another man have been able to replace her father.

By that I don’t mean that a birth parent is an exalted role that can never, ever be filled ever by anybody else. Take it from someone who got a new dad after a divorce: sometimes the new parent is a lot better. Mine was, and infer what you like from that assertion about how totally abysmal my birth father was at parenting.

Sometimes, the new parent is a lot worse, while most times they’re a mix of better and worse. And these parents can give their kids a new lease on life in a lot of ways. Maybe those kids wouldn’t have had that kind of opportunity with the birth parent.

But in Ms. Barwick’s eyes, that position was exalted. She might be an adult, but her childish declaration reveals that in her heart she’s still a child who is reeling from her parents’ breakup.

The Attack Spirals Into Madness.

Her attack piece continues on from there–and it is an attack, make no mistake here. She writes extensively about how she thinks that gay people are “my people,” (emphasis hers), before going on to say that she doesn’t think her people deserve the same rights that straight people take for granted. Specifically, Ms. Barwick doesn’t want her mother to be able to legally marry the person she loves and cherishes, the person she raised her children with, and the person she wants to spend the rest of her life with. If that’s how she treats her people, I don’t want to see how she treats others.

Oh, she insists, but it’s totally not because she’s a toxic zealot with an ungrateful heart full of vitriolic bigotry against gay people for being gay. She insists it’s totally got nothing to do with them being gay. She strangely issues a nonsensical non sequitur about how much she totally loves her mother and totally isn’t opposing her mother’s right to choose her marriage partner because her mother is gay. Oh no.

It’s because “traditional marriage and parenting” (by which she means straights-only marriage and parenting, using language straight from toxic Christian playbooks in a blatant logical fallacy, the appeal to tradition) seems to hold more “beauty and wisdom” for Ms. Barwick now that she’s had a pack of children of her own with her male spouse.

Beauty and Wisdom Are Only for Straight People, Apparently.

See, the everyday reality of growing up in a same-sex household doesn’t hold the same subjective “beauty and wisdom” for Heather Barwick personally. Therefore, her mother shouldn’t be allowed to access her right to marry a same-sex spouse.

Presumably her mother thought her household had plenty of “beauty and wisdom” and likely thinks that her daughter’s newfound bigotry is horrifying and ugly. But only Ms. Barwick’s opinion matters when it comes to deciding what’s beautiful or wise. Only her opinion holds legal weight.

And that’s when her cruel attack suddenly swerves into disturbingly familiar territory and becomes a conversion narrative.

Ah, There’s the Testimony.

She goes on to talk about her childhood as the daughter of two women who were immersed in the gay-rights movement of her area. She even briefly touches on seeing Christian bigots demonstrating against LGBTQ people. That nasty display of “Christian love” hurt both her feelings and those of her parents.

But none of that matters. She’s still hurting inside herself about her parents’ divorce. She still has some issues to resolve about it. So therefore, her mother should not be allowed to access a basic human right: the right to freely choose a marriage partner.

That makes sense, right?

Well, no.

Not to rational people who know, thanks to actual science that doesn’t rely on anecdotes and ancient books of superstition to handle big questions, that (among other things) when parents stay in miserable marriages “for the sake of the children,” that’s actually worse than if the parents just divorce!

The Search for Christian Pity Points.

A demand like Ms. Barwick’s makes perfect sense, though, if you happen to be a fundagelical Christian writing for a fundagelical audience that will cluck and coo and nod and feel outraged on her behalf at the mean, shallow, selfish mother who cared more about having a loving relationship than she did about staying in a bad relationship to make her daughter happy.

That daughter grew up. Now she feeds into every one of the negative stereotypes and nasty opinions that toxic Christians hold against LGBTQ people. She validates their bigotry and fans the flames of their hatred.

She’s doing it to build a case for how terrible her life was in a household that didn’t correctly worship Jesus the correct way according to TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

Strangely, however, she takes pains not to drag religion into her attack.

The Vicious Attack That Tries to Sound Rational and Objective.

Christianity appears not even once in her post.

Well, it appears only in that confusing bit at the end of it about how Westboro-style picket signs were very hurtful for her to see as a little girl. She goes to great pains to explain,

I turned hot with anger right there in the street with you. But that’s not me. That’s not us.

I think she’s trying to say that she, herself, doesn’t feel that kind of hatred toward gay people. Oh, sure, she thinks that gay people need to not have full human rights. Of course. But she does it in a totally loving way, not like those Westboro Baptist nutbars who screech hateful slurs at gay people. She might want exactly what they want in the end, but she doesn’t hold up signs talking about it.

We often run into Christians who think there’s a nice way to strip human rights from people and deny them the right to pursue consensual relationships with whatever consenting person they love. There isn’t. She’s just as nasty as her pals on the street with the sign who menaced her family years ago. But she’s not shrieking slurs, so she thinks she’s okay.

A Vicious Worldview That Belongs Only to Christians.

The Federalist piece doesn’t actually specifically mention her religious convictions at all. But opposition to LGBTQ rights is almost exclusively a Christian idea.

Not all American Christians are bigots. But pretty much all American bigots are Christians.

Indeed, in her post Ms. Barwick uses every single dog-whistle those bigots-for-Jesus like:

  • talking about how much better “traditional marriage” is for children;
  • trying to find a non-religious-sounding excuse to bar LGBTQ Americans from the right to marry;
  • separating being LGBTQ from having a same-sex relationship;
  • falsely insisting–repeatedly at that–that an opposite-sex marriage is “the best and most successful family structure” in which to raise children;
  • worst of all, repeatedly claiming that other children of same-sex households are being silenced by some massive gay conspiracy and are too terrified to talk about how devastated and depressed they are about how they’ve been deprived of mixed-gender parents.

Using LGBT Terminology as a Weapon Against Her Family.

Hell, she even appropriates LGBTQ language to announce her bigotry: she’s “letting [herself] out of the closet” to announce that she simply cannot support equal marriage.

It’s a little weird to hear a bigot using this phrasing to describe holding a position that demonstrably damages, harms, and persecutes a marginalized group.

It’s like saying that she’s letting herself out of the closet to announce that she’s not a racist; she just doesn’t think black people should be allowed to vote. Putting it the way she did, using the language of liberation and freedom to describe the dead opposite, is so insensitive and mean-spirited that one has to wonder why she ever thought it was a witty inversion to make. She’s punching down, to put it mildly.

Her contortions were all for naught, anyway.

On her Federalist author-bio page, Ms. Barwick describes herself as a “former gay-marriage advocate turned children’s rights activist.”

When I read that, I immediately knew she was a fundagelical Protestant.

Learning to Associate T’One With T’Other.

When I first made that connection, I told myself, “Cas, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s not completely fair. Maybe she’ll be the first bigot who isn’t also a fundie. Who knows?”

So I did a little legwork. It didn’t take long to turn up the truth. Yep, she’s using the language of liberation and freedom because she’s making a case about becoming free somehow. She’s simply not doing it honestly.

The Federalist tries hard to be a right-wing mouthpiece without dragging religion up in overly transparent terms. In other words, it’s sort of like a slightly more intellectual Fox News. I’ve seen that a lot lately, especially with regard to the twin hills that fundagelical Christianity is currently dying on–LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. Christian culture warriors who are writers, speakers, and thinkers have clearly figured out that phrasing their arguments in definitively religious terminology turns off more moderate listeners and readers. So they’re scrambling to find more secular ways to express their overtly religious ideas.

Forced-birthers have been doing that same thing for a very long time, long enough that there are plenty of non-Christians who have totally absorbed and internalized the movement’s fallacious arguments and pseudoscience. However, anti-gay bigots have only been at their culture war a short while.

They’re still so bad at it that one would term their efforts “comical” if those efforts weren’t trying so hard to cost so many Americans their rights. 

Smearing the Enemy.

The more outrageous and bombastic ends of conservative Christianity, especially, have been trying to tie homosexuality to every serious social evil under the sun for decades–from Scott Lively flat-out asserting that the Nazis’ most powerful leaders were gayer than gay to Mike Huckabee linking gay people to pedophilia.

Implying that children need extra protection from LGBTQ people is a favorite tactic of right-wing Christian hatemongers. So Heather Barwick’s specific claim here, about being a gay-marriage advocate who decided to focus on children’s rights, directly feeds into that mindset.

In truth, gay-marriage advocates are very much children’s rights activists. In fact, the material and emotional damage done to children because of bans on equal marriage have formed the basis for most of the lawsuits overturning those bans. Every lawsuit discusses (and offers evidence for) exactly this issue: that not allowing same-sex parents to access their right to marry actually hurts children considerably.

But the way she specifically describes herself here, with the word “turned” implying that there was some U-turn from “gay-marriage advocate” to “children’s rights activist,” speaks to a conversion narrative. She used to be this, but she turned into that. Yeah, that’s a convertin’.

Striking Gold.

Ms. Barwick specifically phrases her testimony as a traditional conversion narrative elsewhere.

She left out religion from her story on Federalist, but on the much more overtly Christian World News Group website, she feels free to let her Jesus-freaking flow. And it does flow–in a totally standard “testimony” format.

The story’s called “The kids are not all right.” It’s an outright smearing of both divorce and same-sex marriage, all in an attempt to stir up moral panic on behalf of children that research tells us constantly are actually harmed way more by parents not having access to their full slate of human rights of marriage and association.

In her testimony’s first act, Heather Barwick describes how worldly and outlandishly antithetical to evangelicalism her childhood was. Then, in the second act she talks about how terrible her life was. Thirdly, in the last act she shares how she found “healing” — after dedicating herself to Christianity. Yep, now everything is perfect:

Barwick said she only found healing for her “father wound” after she began attending church with her future husband. “It really wasn’t until I came to Christ that I felt that burden lifted off of me. And I’m not bitter. I’m not angry,” she said. “I forgive my dad.”

Misidentifying the Problem.

At the end of the day, though, this bigot-for-Jesus is at heart a hurting child deep down, as I mentioned earlier. “If we say we are hurting because we were raised by same-sex parents, we are either ignored or labeled a hater,” she writes, blithely unaware that the problem wasn’t that she was raised by same-sex parents. I do not ignore her, nor do I think she hates her mother. She’s bought into a flawed and hurtful faith system that taught her these things, just like I did many years ago.

As a result, she’s perfectly willing to sacrifice her parents for her childishly simplistic solution to and explanation of her suffering.

And the right-wing-Christ-o-sphere was happy to let her do it. Just as they spread the urban legend about how the guy who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” had his 180-degree turnaround, they point to how a little girl who grew up as the centerpiece of a real-life Heather Has Two Mommies has now turned around and is spouting the proper fundagelical party line now about her very own parents.

Man! That’s the kind of turnaround that gets their attention!

A Child’s Fantasies.

Very obviously something went a little pear-shaped in her rearing. Something that really needed to be addressed wasn’t; something the family needed to discuss went unspoken. It’s very sad that she’s latched onto this magical fantasy of hers: Oh, if her mother had only either stayed married or chosen a man to marry next, then everything would have been totally perfect and awesome and wonderful and unspeakably lovely!

Clearly, her very real hurts and pains went un-addressed. I know exactly how that goes. My little sister spent most of her formative years openly fantasizing about our birth father returning to rescue us from our adoptive father. Our childhood did not look traditional or idyllic. She was sure that when–not if–he swooped in to save us, everything would be perfect again.

The nice thing about childish fantasies is that they roam in a child’s mind unfettered by the cruel reality of logistical issues.

In one lonely child’s mind those fantasies coalesce into a talking stuffed-tiger pal. For my sister, she ignored the realities of our bio-father that had caused our parents’ breakup. In Ms. Barwick’s, her childhood fantasies manifest as a rock-solid conviction that if only same-sex couples had remained stigmatized, her life would have been totally better.

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.

As it is, one can hardly imagine the pain her poor mother is going through, having a daughter basically say in so many words that she thinks her own mother doesn’t deserve the same rights her daughter was raised to expect without even requesting them. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, indeed.

I guess that’s why the Federalist piece seemed like it was missing something. It was. She was spinning a conversion narrative, a witnessing-style testimony, but for some reason had to leave out the overtly religious bits. It was a safe risk to take: her chosen audience would fill in the blanks, while leaving the post enough plausible deniability to avoid an overtly religious label.

She and her target audience of bigots all clearly want her story to form part of a secular argument against equal marriage.

Either way, it’s quite clear to me that she’s confused, a sentiment echoed by a great many detractors of her original post. As one of those detractors has put it, “denying a huge swath of American citizens our civil rights is not an answer.” Another notes, correctly, that while her pain is absolutely valid and not to be dismissed, she’s really aiming at the wrong people here.

Rewarding the Worst Behavior.

As long as Christianity rewards its adherents for creating these kinds of stories for themselves, we’re going to keep seeing them. And as LGBTQ people continue to be mistreated by Christians, more and more of those narratives are going to hit all their moral-panic buttons.

And the funny thing?

As I said, this battle is already lost.

Bigots can trot as many testimonies as they want out in front of people. The vast majority of kids raised by same-sex parents know the truth. So do their friends, families, and neighbors.

And rights are rights. If someone has the right to marry, then that’s that. These testimonies not only don’t impact an essential right, they backfire by demonstrating just how necessary those rights are to protect.

PS: I’m trying hard to restrain myself from discussing her genuinely creepy and off-putting Jesus Smile. Look at how happy she is denying her very own mother her basic American rights. Just grinnin’ ear to ear. How amazing her god’s grace is that is poised to slash her very own mother’s freedoms.

Ain’t Jesus wunnerful? 

UPDATE TIME.

I’m writing this update in 2019. I wondered what became of Heather Barwick. In 2015, she was FREAKIN’ ERRYWHERE. Thousands of Christian sites featured her Jesus smile and simpering bigotry. And thousands of progressive sites criticized her, including this blog obviously. She even showed up in the Obergefell trial, where she submitted a brief about how awful it’d been to have two loving, committed parents who happened to be the same sex.

With that level of fame/notoriety, surely she found fame and fortune as a journalist for the Christian Right, right?

No.

She completely vanished after Obergefell, except for one solitary appearance I found on a bigots-for-Jesus podcast a year after Obergefell. There, she and her fellow bigots-for-Jesus wrung their widdle handsies about how sad they were that the Supreme Court hadn’t whacked gay people’s human rights to make them feel better. The guy who runs the podcast unapologetically detests higher education and wants it destroyed. That’s the level of reasoning going on with her social milieu.

Otherwise, she is simply gone like she never existed.

What Happened?

It looks like the Christian Right recruited her specifically for this decisive battle in their culture wars. Afterward, her purpose fulfilled, she slunk back into the shadows again. She was a Hail Mary pass from the Religious Right. They very likely knew that if she hung around much after that, we’d find out a LOT about her that would only damage their cause.

Suddenly, so much falls into place about Heather Barwick’s small part in this battle for bigots. I always did think it was weird that her biographies always sounded so vague and nondescript, and her testimony contains so few solid details.

(Hilariously, I think I found her Facebook account. She’s using a different last name on it, probably a married name. The photos on it look exactly like her, just older and a bit plumper. If I’m right, she’s using an old college photo of herself in her 2015 media blitz. I’m not linking because I might be wrong and it’d be really bad to be wrong about that.)

Either way, Heather Barwick’s laying very, very low.

Good. Her voice only hurt people, just like those of all the other bigots-for-Jesus in the world. Just cuz she did it with a simper instead of a top-volume screech with signs, that doesn’t make her bigotry hurt people any less.


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(This post tidied by Cas on September 24, 2019.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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