I wrote the following story several years ago, when I was still deciding if “coming out” would completely ruin my life. At the time, I was a professional minister. Several times every week I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and told my stories… and talked about Jesus… and tried to help people understand that they are accepted by God.
But while I was sure that God accepted me just as I was (even though I was gay), I wasn’t sure the congregations I served would follow His lead if I told them my full story… especially the parts about me liking boys.
That’s why I wrote the following story. “Zoo Cow” was an outlet… a thinly veiled metaphor. It’s about a cow that lives in a zoo. Although the Cow feels terribly ordinary, he also knows he’s completely different from everyone else. He’s misplaced in a world that doesn’t understand him, hoping someone will see him – and love him – for what he is.
As a former youth minister, I’m increasingly concerned about gay teenagers in the church who currently feel as I once felt. We read bunches about loud and proud gay kids taking their boyfriends to prom, fighting for gay rights, and starring on GLEE. But what about the thousands of LGBT kids who aren’t loud… who aren’t proud… who spend every Sunday morning hiding quietly in the pew next to you?
You know they’re sitting next to you, right?
In a study of 5,819 religious teenagers from 635 churches, a team of researchers found that 7% of religious youth claimed to be homosexual, 5% claimed to be bisexual, and 2% weren’t sure or their sexual orientation (Clapp, Helbert & Zizak, 2003).
That means that, contrary to what some church folks seem to think, gay kids aren’t just out there. They’re in here, too. Apparently, 14% of youth in our churches aren’t as “straight” as some people may think they are.
They’re hiding from us – afraid of what will happen when they’re “found out.” They’re also hiding from each other – camouflaging themselves so well that they don’t see the people just like them who are hiding right next to them.
They know. It’s hard to be a cow in the zoo…
Once there was a Cow who lived in a zoo. He lived next door to the Panda and across the path from a Zebra, but they didn’t talk much. The Zebra was always busy and the Panda never had much to say.
Plus, they were fancy and the Cow was plain.
The Panda was wonderfully white with black spots and the Zebra was beautifully black with white stripes. But the Cow wasn’t extraordinary at all. He was just regular white except for a big black patch on his back.
Black and white.
White and black.
All three of them looked like I Love Lucy reruns standing in a field.
The children loved to watch the Panda and wished they could pet the Zebra. But when they stopped in front of the Cow’s fence, it was usually just because they needed to tie their shoes or because they found a stray nickel. Most children had seen a cow before.
One child had seen a cow on a milk carton.
Another had seen one holding a sign in a fast-food chicken restaurant.
The little boy with a balloon had even been brave and touched one once when he drove from the city and visited his Grandfather’s farm.
The Zebra loved it when the children took pictures of his beautiful stripes and watched him run across his field. Their shouts and flashes made him feel special. He sometimes wondered, however, what would happen when the children realized that he was really just a horse with stripes who was afraid of lions. They would probably think he was ordinary and boring and never come back to visit.
The Panda adored the bronze plaque that told everyone she was born in a far away place called China. It reminded her that she was rare and wonderful. She spent all day pointing at it so the people would notice, but she was secretly afraid that the children would love the monkeys better than her because they whooped and hooted and threw their poop at grown-ups.
The Cow stood in his field wishing the sticky faced children would think he was something other than ordinary. He often heard their parents call him “Grade A” and “Prime,” but somehow their comments never sounded complimentary.
One day a group of children came to the zoo in a big yellow bus. They stopped to look at the Cow, but only because their teacher told them to.
“The Cow looks lonely.”
“The Cow smells funny.”
“Why does the Cow have flies on its butt?”
“Are cows stupid?”
The children were loud and asked lots of questions.
One little girl said, “Mrs. Jenkins, is that the kind of cow that makes milk like I put on my cereal?”
“No,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “That’s the kind of cow that makes hamburgers like we’re eating for lunch.”
The little girl rolled her eyes. She was a vegetarian. Her mommy said that hamburgers would give her cholesterol. The little girl didn’t know what “cholesterol” meant, but since she already had cooties, she wanted to be extra careful.
The Cow felt trapped in the zoo. Lonely. Of course, most animals feel trapped in a zoo. That’s why it’s called a zoo and not a forest or a farm.
The Cow, however, didn’t feel trapped because of the gate. He wasn’t lonely because he didn’t get to visit faraway farms and factories like the country cows did.
The Cow felt trapped because the children and their questions reminded him that he would always be a cow – different from the other animals around him. No matter how hard he tried, he would never be as cool as the Panda or as interesting as the Zebra. He would never climb a tree or race like the wind. He didn’t like bamboo, and whenever he wore stripes, they only accentuated his already round belly. The most the Cow could hope for in life was a fresh bail of hay, a vague fantasy about a stampede, and a bell around his neck ringing to remind everyone that he was a big fat cow.
And so the Cow spent every day eating his grass – ignored and out of place – feeling like a cow in the zoo.
One day a Chinese woman came to the zoo and stopped to look in the Panda’s cage. She yawned when all the Panda did was pose and point and eat bamboo. The Chinese woman wondered if the zookeeper might have any ideas for keeping Pandas out of her backyard. It made her angry every time she saw one of the black-and-white beasts snacking on her serenity garden.
An African man seemed mildly impressed with the Zebra, but in a hungry way that made the Zebra nervous.
Later that day a little boy came to the zoo wearing blue jeans held up by a belt with an impressive silver buckle. The boy walked past the Panda and didn’t care much for the Zebra. But at the Cow’s pasture he stopped and watched for the longest time.
He stood next to the Chinese woman as she tried to offer the Cow a piece of her hot-dog. She seemed disappointed when he refused.
An African man behind the boy whistled so the Cow would run and play, but the Cow didn’t want to run and play. Especially not when someone whistled at him.
But when the boy saw the Cow he didn’t take pictures or point. He didn’t poke his hand through the fence or make loud noises. Instead, he watched. He watched until long after the Chinese woman and the African man left.
The boy wasn’t afraid of the cow, but he wasn’t impressed by it, either. He knew that cows are nothing to be scared of. He also knew that it’s better to understand something than to be impressed by it. And he already understood the Cow. Little boys wearing belts with big silver buckles usually do.
The Cow ate his grass and watched the little boy watching him. It was good to feel ordinary and unimpressive. After a long while he finally realized what the Panda and Zebra never would.
When someone really understands you, your cage doesn’t seem so small.
Clapp, S., Helbert, K., & Zizak, A. (2003). Faith matters: teenagers, religion, and sexuality. Fort Wayne, IN: LifeQuest.