Brandi Burgess grew up in Alabama, the daughter of renowned evangelical radio talk show host Rick Burgess of the Rick & Bubba Show. When Burgess came out as bisexual earlier this year in an op-ed for AL.com, she found herself in the middle of a firestorm. While readers wrote to say she'd inspired them to come out to their own religious families, hers wasn't so kind
"I love you enough to tell you the truth," her father said to her on-air. "I'm not going to come up with some version of love that really isn't love at all, that pats you on the back to justify you all the way to hell."
His wife, Sherri (Burgess's stepmother), later chimed in, "I don't care if you're happy. I don't care if you're healthy. I care about your eternal salvation."
Before coming out, one of Burgess's "aha" moments was when a gay male friend asked her to pray with him. "[He said], 'Your connection and navigation of life and spirituality inspires me to be better.' That was a really inspiring moment," she says. "The spirituality I'd always felt shame over because I wasn't going to church enough or didn't encounter God in the same way the people I was raised with did ... inspired another person or made another person feel comfortable or someone felt they could find solace and rest."
Soon after, Burgess moved to Prague, where she lived for a year. It was there, seven hours away from her family, that she discovered love and it opened her eyes. She saw that God is love, and love is God. It was a vision of God and a kind of love quite different from what her fire-and-brimstone father offered.
"I love the idea that God can transform," she says. "Why would God not be big enough to do that? To transform and meet us as individuals? I think resting in that truth separates shame from it, because then you can truly expand spiritually."
This newfound spiritual and emotional freedom was put to the test when Burgess fell in love with her partner, who is transgender, and became an LGBT activist. While she remains close with her biological mother, her father and his wife have been trying to save her ever since. In essence, they gave her an ultimatum: "If you don't believe that homosexuality is a sin, then we can no longer support you."
Burgess is Christian enough to say she understands. "We use [fundamentalist principles] to mask our own fears," she explains. "We insert these fundamental laws, which are from God so they must be true. Now I'm going to use that to mask my fear. I'm going to use that to oppress this person that scares me or is different from me."
Above: Burgess with her father (at left) in happier times, from a video she made for HRC.
As Burgess's self-awareness evolved, so has her definition of family: "For me, the core of family is unconditional love ... I've had to redefine what family is by looking at my own community, by looking at my best friends, my support system, the ones who say, 'You can be broken. You can be projecting your grief and fear onto me. You can be pushing me away. You can be a puddle on the floor, and you are still mine. I'm still claiming you and nothing can compromise that love.'"
She continues, "Family is any person or group of persons that is emulating and embodying what I think to be God's love, which is that untouchable, perfect, unconditional love and support. And truly living by that. Not just saying it, but truly living it [even] when it's hard and when it's not necessarily benefiting the person giving that love out. For me, that is what family is."
Today, Burgess is an actress and a teaching artist who has created theater curricula for diverse communities, including special-needs learners and low-income communities. She says finding unconditional love and support and an expanding definition of family couldn't have come at a better time.
"That's actually been a really beautiful thing to discover, because you know, in this time where I could feel very alone and feel orphaned and like I have no one, I'm actually finding I have so many family members around me."
Watch Burgess in a video for the Human Rights Campaign:
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