“So much of my journey with not just my sexuality, but my spirituality, has been returning to a childlike version of myself.”
WARNING: THIS EPISODE CONTAINS REFERENCES TO SUICIDE.
Blake Mundell speaks about his highly personal journey through Faith and the clash with his Queer identity.
He discusses his fear of coming out as an NFL employee, a shame that drew him to attempt suicide, and the emergence of the empathetic musician we see today.
- Episode transcription
- Blake’s Spotify playlist featuring his songs from this episode and his five tracks to save from Armageddon.
- Blake’s forever home online.
- Blake (as Courier) and his video in which “a black man can go out for a jog and make it home”.
- Inspirational gay NFL players at Casino.org.
- Galop help and advice for someone who is being blackmailed at work.
- History Channel discusses blackmail used as a tool against the Queer community.
- Blackmail and persecution in Nigeria, from The Guardian.
- Lucan Presbyterian Church’s Zoom chat on Stigmas in the Church: Being Gay and Being Christian.
- USA Today reports Presbyterian Church approving gay marriage.
- Runner’s World short documentary on the Running While Black movement.
- NPR’s excellent Code Switch on the challenges faced by runners of colour.
- BBC report on the shooting of Tamir Rice.
- In the Key of Q composer Paul Leonidou’s online home.
Please subscribe to the podcast, rate and review. And spread the word!
You can find us on Twitter and Instagram and join the community over on Facebook.
This episode contains content that some listeners may find distressing. Please consult the show notes for more information.
Treating sexuality as something that you kind of carry along with you that's undesirable, that you're trying to detach from just only ever seem to produce really rotten fruit in my life.
I'm Dan Hall. I'm a gay man and I love my music. However, I've spent my life translating hetero normative content into my own story. So I'm speaking with queer musicians from around the world who mirror and inspire my queer journey. Welcome to In the Key of Q.
Blake Mundell is a bodywork specialist at America's National Football League, the NFL and between matches, he produces music ranging from Folk to Pop under the moniker of Courier.
In this episode, he tells us of a highly personal journey through religion and shame that brings him and his music to us today. Blake, it's great to welcome you.
Thank you, Dan. It's good to be here.
I know so many people who would identify as queer Christians, so even though I wouldn't call that necessarily my journey today, I also want to recognise that there are so many people for whom their faith is integral to who they are just as much as their sexuality.
And throughout my teenage years, I would spend gosh every night praying, 'What's wrong with me, please?' I would feel like I wasn't actually "saved" yet. That's kind of the terminology that we would use and that Jesus hadn't actually come into my heart yet. And so I would every night I would pray, you know, 'Please let it take this time, you know. Please actually, like, save me tonight.'.
There are so many American evangelicals that want to say you cannot be queer and you can't be Christian at the same time. That you can't square that circle. Hearing those messages was something I absolutely internalised. So for most of my 20s, it did feel like, you know, I had to choose between either one or the other.
So which side was winning and what effect did that have on you?
So a lot of times what we hear in American churches is this idea that we can't trust our experiences or we can't trust our feelings, right? That there's something about the desires that we feel or the emotions that come up that are inherently wrong or sinful or even poisonous to us. And so I learnt to ignore those and then allow others to interpret my emotions for me. And that was just a very quick way to launch myself into depression.
So you're a young, closeted man in your early 20s and you're not feeling comfortable with your own homosexuality and you're in a religious environment with a lot of Faith yourself. How did that manifest itself?
I actually voluntarily enrolled in a kind of an offshoot conversion therapy programme. They promise you that you would either experience either a reduction in your "same sex attractions". Or that they would reverse and that you would experience, "holy or biblical desires for members of the opposite gender".
And, you know, different programmes kind of temper that differently. Some will say, 'Oh, we're just going to teach you how to live a celibate life and deal with your sinful desires as best you can.'
It just sounds overwhelmingly toxic.
Treating sexuality as something that you kind of carry along with you that's undesirable, that you're trying to detach from just only ever seem to produce really rotten fruit in my life.
I've probably got very outdated views of what conversion therapy is, Blake. I have that kind of picture of you like like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. You know, with your eyes prised open, forced to watch gay porn constantly and electrodes tied to your balls trying to electrocute the shame out of, you know.
Well, no, it's not. A lot of what they did was they would like blame my parents for not raising me right. And kind of try to distance me from my parents. So I would say that it was still torture in the way that you would you would think of torture, but more psychological.
And that said, there there were some like trade secrets that would kind of like circulate. This pastor he said, 'Hey, I don't tell everyone this, but something that's worked for me is, you know, when you're masturbating, when you're when you're looking at porn, you just go until you're about to climax. And then right when you climax, you switch it to straight porn really quick. That will rewire your brain to want that instead of the gay porn that you've been watching.'
Dan 6.04 Because because, of course, what everyone wants to do just before they cum is start opening browser windows. You know, play with trousers, not with browsers!
Yeah. Yeah. And it's like, did you forget that there's also a man involved in straight porn as well? So, you know, you can just kind of block out the rest.
Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. You know, you're just going to load up the male female grouping and you're just going to look at the pecs.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, honestly, the surprising part about that for me was porn was a big no no. And masturbation as well is like, 'We don't do that. We don't talk about it.' So even the fact that he was talking to me about the reality that he was like, yeah, like "when" you masturbate as if it was something that he was almost encouraging me to do.
So you can't watch porn and you can't masturbate. I think for most of the listeners on this, that's kind of what most people spend their entire 20s doing! I can't think what I would have done with my twenties if I wasn't doing those. Maybe I would have read the Bible.
That that sounds a lot more fun than reading a Bible in my opinion!
Would you say that all of your internal anti-gay sentiment was purely down to religion?
Because my gender presentation has usually kind of matched up with people's expectations for me and because I've always loved sports and I've always loved, you know, doing a lot of things that, like "manly men" like doing, I guess I had this image to maintain that I didn't want to be interrupted by coming out or telling somebody that I was gay or queer.
And so, yeah, I didn't tell anyone about that until I was twenty two. And even then I used very veiled language. You know, I would, I would say, 'I have same sex attractions' or I would try to skirt around any mention of identity language like 'I am gay' or 'I am queer'. I would say, 'I experienced same sex attraction' or 'I have these desires that I want to get rid of'.
I do believe that words are a bit like magic, that they do have a way to bring things to life that weren't alive before or to bring things into existence that that didn't exist before.
So, Blake, you're in the church environment. You've emerged out of conversion therapy, I'm guessing, feeling like dual same sex attractions are under control. What happened next?
I was really good friends with our pastor and he was really pushing me to get married to a woman. And his wife's best friend was kind of who he was trying to set me up with. And so we ended up getting married. And when that didn't work, I think they just didn't know what to do with me.eached a point in the Fall of:
A dozen black candles didn't lay down in the shape of a star on the floor. To smoke and mirrors Soochow reflections, hoping we'd find something to live for or to die.
That letter got circulated amongst the church and they kind of used it to discipline me, and so it was-
Sorry to interrupt you. You sent a suicide letter, a confidential suicide letter to your pastor who then saw it fit to pass around? Is that standard behaviour from them?
Yeah, I would say, I can't say this for sure, but I would imagine yeah, that's pretty typical in church settings like mine. Typically, because, you know, they'll say that they're kind of sharing this information for the greater good of trying to, you know, win my soul back.
Yeah. But it was obviously not about you, was it? It was about using you as an example to frighten other people into submission.
Oh, 100 percent. Yeah, I was for sure they're kind of model sexual minority for a good several years. And so, yeah, I think that shedding that role that I played for them was I think they didn't know what to do with it.
The folks we call them elders in the Presbyterian Church kind of formed this meeting and invited me and just kind of ambushed me with this kind of hard love tactic to set me back on track, which was honestly one of the most hurtful things in the whole ordeal.
So this hard love thing that you describe, where they've ambushed you. They did this knowing that you were emotionally fragile, knowing that you were suicidal?
And they did it anyway?
Mm hmm. Yeah.
I actually received an email that was kind of like making a threat. That person was threatening to out me to everyone and to my bosses at the time. I work for the NFL. And so outing me in that context was very scary for me. I can't kind of, like, come out here, I'll lose my job.
So I'm guessing at this point, the conversion therapy, the sense of keeping those same sex attractions under control was faltering. Was there something specifically that really made you realise that you couldn't control this?
You know, I started working on a new project under Courier called 'Human Becoming'. And so it was like all of my other Courier work, these were songs that were written about other people's lives, other people's experiences.
Gosh, one of those stories involved a dear friend of mine who I went through conversion therapy with in my early 20s, and he had dropped out and went on and affirmed himself much earlier than I did. So part of the tipping point for me was actually getting into his story, reading a letter that he had written me when he left conversion therapy, telling me that it was not tenable for him anymore and that it was damaging to his spirit.
I sort of thought, you know, if I'm going to do this dear friend's experienced justice, I have to be able to feel all the things that he was feeling. I have to actually try to get into this letter that he wrote me. And once I started feeling those things, I was like, 'Shit. I feel all of this pain as well.'
So there could be massive consequences with your church, but with a blackmailer, also with your job.
I thought that it would mean this means I have to leave my faith behind if I'm going to affirm my sexuality, I can't hold both together. I was also afraid that I would lose just about everyone in my life because my community, my I guess, chosen family at that point was all people in my church. And I did end up losing all of those people.
So you're very much like at the edge of an emotional and also of a life precipice. You feel you're going to have to come out and you've got this blackmailer who I understand forces you out.
I was just like, you know what? This is not at all the timing that I wanted to do this in, but I'm kind of ready to kind of like, share with the world to kind of take the power away from someone who is going to do it for me.
And was the reaction at the NFL as bad as you thought it might be?
No, I was very scared of that the first season after coming out. And I've encountered questions, but I have not encountered hostility.
There was a year in which I sort of tried to rebuild my life and go through the rigmarole of a legal process of ending my marriage, which was a whole thing in and of itself and trying to kind of find my people.
In that process. I did find my current partner and I would say where I'm at now is kind of still in this in-between place because I'm still kind of it still feels like I'm kind of peeking out of the closet in many ways and trying to find just kind of fellow travellers on the journey and a new kind of chosen family.
One of the scars of perpetual self-hatred, I think, is that we feel unlovable or we feel unworthy of love so that when people do love us, we often reject them. You spent so much of your adult life, in fact, so much of your general life having religion tell you, 'You are not worthy of love the way that you are.'.
You've met someone who does love you the way that you are and you accept that. And that's a really, really good sign. That's 70, 80 percent of the work already done.
Yeah, wow, that's. That's a good way to put it. Yeah, I think so much of it is about tearing apart the messaging that we've been given and the message that we so often get is, 'You are not lovable.' For me it was like, 'You are a poison to the people around you'.
And so, Blake, what relationship do you have now with your religion?
I would say it's primarily a posture of curiosity and a posture of admitting that, 'I don't know'.
I think another thing that we do well is queer people as we kind of break down the binary, right? We're able to more clearly see kind of the spectrums and the myriad of different ways that we can experience life.
And so when thinking about some sort of religious identification or the way that I think of spirituality now is I almost see it like I hold all of these past selves together within me. Some of them are Christian, some of them are not. And they all kind of like sit around a table when we consult with each other. And they're part of my experience and they're part of who I am. But they don't describe the full breadth of who I am.
Now, Blake, on your website, therealcourier.com, you have at the top of it a quote which reads, "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." What is that telling us about you?
As a queer person who does tend to see things from the outside in so many ways, I would say a lot of my music over the last several years has taken on something of a of a protest quality to it.
You know, we were talking about the messages that we receive about, you know, whether we're worthy, whether we're lovable. I think the act of interrogating those messages through art is a way in which we call out those messages and we say, 'That message is destructive.'.
And that's going to rattle some people who are comfortable with that message. But it's also going to comfort the people for whom the message was oppressive.
Blake, you've spoken passionately on some of your social media posts about your feelings about the black experience for Americans, specifically, you mentioned something called 'Jogging Whilst Black'. Which as a white British man, isn't really something that I'm that aware of. Could you explain to me a bit about what that is?
You know, Tamir Rice, like a teenage boy who is just playing with a toy gun, get shot by police. Whereas I remember we would take, like, airsoft guns, which were just these like guns that would shoot little like air pellets at people and play around with those when we were when we were teenagers and we were never in danger of getting shot by police for it.
So when we talk about, 'jogging while black' or, you know, 'playing with a toy gun while black' or in my partner's experience 'wearing a hoodie while black' and being mistaken for a convict on the loose, all of those things are things that wouldn't get me in trouble for walking down the street with a hoodie or playing with a toy gun or going out for a jog.
But the black experience in America is one in which there's a hyper vigilance about doing any of those things because there could be negative consequences for them.
I have a dear friend, his name is Jermichael and one of the singles that's out, it's called 'Recovery' is about his story. Being in our church, we were both in together. How most Sundays he was the only person of colour in the congregation. And it was there was just a poignant moment that I remember that he kind of took membership vows at the church, which is just where you become a member. Everyone wanted to come shake his hand and tell them how welcome he was there.
And then knowing that a few months later, 81 percent of the people in that congregation voted for a man to be president of the United States who did very little to hide his white supremacist ties, said racist things. And how their attitudes about that really didn't change for the last four years.
And we made a little music video of him just kind of running. We were sort of like, 'Let's just make a video where a black man can go out for a jog and make it home.'
Blake, so much of your story is about your own oppression and self-hatred that you've had to go through. Your music, your queer visibility is helping to stop other people feel that. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel closer to the younger versions of me that are disturbed. It makes me feel like I can comfort those versions of me, you know, like the 18 year old kid who didn't want to play football, but who was kind of pushed into it by his dad and coming up alongside him and being like, 'You're OK, there's nothing wrong with you'.
To like, thirteen year old me, who is, you know, singing worship songs with my eyes closed. Just hoping that somehow my acts of service towards the church will kind of redeem me. To kind of come up alongside that version of me and comfort that version of me and say, 'You're good just as you are. You belong'.
Blake, you've already chatted briefly about the younger versions of yourself. What do you think your 15 year old self would think of your music?
15 year old Blake wanted to write worship songs, so 15 year old Blake would probably be pretty appalled by the music that I'm putting out now. I think 15 year old Blake would love the music that 22 year old Blake was making. But eight year old Blake would really love the music that I'm making now. And I think I would more probably like to hang out with eight year old Blake these days and then 15 year old Blake.
So you make it sound like there's like an eight year old boy version blossoming inside the adult you.
Mm hmm. Yeah, I think so, yeah. The more of that innocent joy and curiosity that that eight year old Blake had has returned a little bit.
And I think a lot of us can relate to that idea of harking back to this joyous, innocent child. You know, that we've had teenage years and adulthood where it almost feels like people bullied that joy out of us.
Mm hmm. Yeah, I think for me, I almost bullied it out of myself. But, uh. Yeah, so much of my journey with not just my sexuality, but my spirituality, too, has been returning to a childlike version of myself.
What a fantastic ambition, Blake.
Now one of my aims for this podcast is to introduce our subscribers to new queer music. And I think one of the best ways to do this is to have a gateway song that introduces people into your catalogue. So what would you say do you think your gateway track would be?
I would say right now I would probably tell people to go listen to 'Conversion'. That's going to kind of set the trajectory for the music that's coming. But if they just want, like, a good feel good song, that kind of sums up what I've done so far. I would say go listen to 'San Francisco'. That seems to be the popular one these days!
Blake Mandell, a.k.a. Courier, thank you so much for joining me today.
Dan, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Just even getting to know you. And I really appreciate you reaching out and featuring my music; tell my story a little bit. Yeah, I really appreciate it.
I really look forward to having you back on the show again soon when you've got some gorgeous new material that I can't wait to hear.
That would be awesome. I would love that about.
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TRANSCRIPTION © Dan Hall