In December I was looking at an agenda for the Fort Worth City Council and noticed the Rev. Lee Ann Bryce had given the invocation. More than 35 years had passed since I’d thought of that name. We both attended Bailey Junior High School and Arlington High School in the 1970s. A few Google clicks later, I found Bryce’s e-mail at a local church and sent her a message. She responded with an invitation for coffee.
In school, we were never close friends, but we were friendly. The girl I recalled was sandy blonde, athletic, a gifted singer, perpetually smiling, and a “good girl,” meaning you never saw her in detention hall or partying on the weekends.
She barely recognized me when I walked into the Ol’ South Pancake House on University Drive two weeks ago. But she looked much the same. The main difference was her attire. She wore a black shirt with a white clerical collar. She doesn’t normally wear the ministerial outfit in public, she said, but she was teaching a diversity training session later that day for the Fort Worth Police Department (part of the program implemented after the Rainbow Lounge police raid in 2009).
Small talk led to bigger talk, and she described coming to terms with her sexuality, answering a calling to preach, and returning to Tarrant County after a long absence. Her path hadn’t been easy.
Raised by loving but strict parents, she attended the nondenominational Pantego Bible Church regularly, sang in the school choir, and excelled on the basketball court. She wasn’t sexually active but occasionally dated boys. However, strange thoughts about girls nagged at her.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a same-sex orientation,” she said. “There were no images in media to look at, or certainly no positive ones.”
She pushed the thoughts out of her mind. Thinking of girls was akin to skipping school or smoking a cigarette –– something she wouldn’t dare.
“You may want to do a lot of things that aren’t right, so you just don’t do them,” she said. “It was about behavior. It wasn’t about ‘This is who I am, and this is who I will always be.’ I didn’t have any sense of that.”
In our senior year in 1978 she joined a country-rock band with some school chums and they worked up a decent repertoire of secular music, with Bryce on lead vocals. They sounded great at their debut gig at a local Elks lodge, but Bryce’s father was shocked to see his good Christian girl on a stage belting out Linda Ronstadt torch songs. He banned her from the band. She was crushed and tearfully told her bandmates to go on without her.
“I toed the line,” she said.
After high school, she attended Friends University, a conservative Christian college in Wichita, Kan. A student named John began courting her. He was good to her –– he was a good man in general –– and they married in 1981. Bryce looked forward to marriage, children, and the kind of “normal” life that she and her parents had always envisioned. After graduation, the couple settled in Wichita.
“That was part of my initial motivation behind marriage,” she said. “I was thinking, if I marry this good man, and he loves me, I will be happy, and that will mean these other things will go away.”
They had a son, David Allison, in 1986, and a few years later the family moved back to Arlington. Bryce worked with kids as director of the Hugh Smith Recreation Center. By then her sexual orientation was becoming clearer in her mind, and her marriage was fizzling.
“I realized there is something called ‘gay,’ and that’s me,” she said. “I understood myself finally. It took me until I was 35 to do it, but then it crystallized.”
She kept her mouth shut, fearing she’d be fired from work, booted from her church, disavowed by friends and relatives, maybe even stripped of her right to see her son if she got divorced.
Part of her evolution came from maturity. Part came from seeing Ellen DeGeneres and others proclaim their gay pride.
“Those things we laugh about now were really important to me,” she said. “They opened up my world. I so admired Ellen’s bravery. I was completely closeted.”
She remained that way through her divorce in 1997.
“Those were hard times,” she said.
Afterward, she moved to Colorado to begin a new life.