A born musician, Jamar first leapt into the public spotlight in 2009 as a contestant on American Idol, and made his return three years later on NBC’s The Voice, where he sang his way through to the semi-finals.
Behind the scenes, Jamar had not had an easy journey. The man who captivated audiences with his powerful voice and easy grin had left home at seventeen, overcome a five-year addiction to crystal meth, and been diagnosed with HIV at the age of twenty-three.
And that wasn’t all.
Growing up gay in a fundamentalist Pentecostal household was one of the earliest challenges Jamar had to face, and one that left its mark on him the longest. In the first part of our conversation, Jamar recalls the conflict he experienced both with his community and within himself, fighting to find love in a world set on making him a lonely martyr.
What was the religious environment of the household that you grew up in?
Oh, we were in it, man, we were really in it. My mom was a single mom when she had me; I was a surprise. She was nineteen and my dad was not around. She got saved when she was pregnant with me, so you can imagine the amount of shame and grief she came to God with. I was born into just shame. I was born and that next Sunday I was in church. We were Pentecostal at the time, so there was no TV, no makeup, there was speaking in tongues, lots of music, but I loved it. As a child I fell in love with the music, it’s what gave me my musical foundation.
And then my mom got married when I was six, and her and my stepfather were very ambitious in church circles; they wanted to be close to the pastors, they wanted position. We ended up moving to Oklahoma in my freshman year in high school so that we could go to a very famous Bible college called Rhema. This is where I met Katy Perry. I grew up with Katy Perry and her family, my step dad was a minister and so were her parents, and so we’d go to each other's churches and I’d sing. I was always singing in church. I was only allowed to listen to Christian music; there was no secular music in the house whatsoever. I grew up on Caedmon’s Call and DC Talk.
When we moved to that church in Oklahoma, that's where things started to fall apart. I’d known I was gay since I was seven. Our youth group was the largest youth group I had ever gone to, it had about a thousand kids in it and it was very cliquey. I was fooling around with the drummer. We were fifteen. I told the wrong person and he told our youth pastor, and he called us in before the service one Wednesday, and was like ‘This is what's being said, and I need to know the truth.’ My friend denied it, so then I looked like a liar, and I was always a very feminine little boy, so it just looked like I was making up stories and I wanted him to be gay. That was my first time feeling really, truly ostracised from the church, and I tried to kill myself. I told my parents, ‘I'm never going to youth group again! I'll at least sit in the big service with you, I just can't face those kids anymore.’
And then when I was seventeen, my stepfather was arrested for molesting my sister. So our family fell apart and I was done with church, I just was done with church people. Then I became a drug addict between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three because I was lost. I didn't know what to do with myself; my whole world had been shattered. I had gotten my first dose of freedom. Coming from such a strict household, the first week I moved out I got drunk for the first time, I smoked weed for the first time, I got my ears pierced, I had sex. I did all of these things I was never allowed to do. I became HIV positive at the age of twenty-three because there was just this recklessness. I had no boundaries.
Ultimately I thought God was mad at me, and so it didn't matter what I did anymore. When I found out I was positive, my first thought was: it's because I'm gay and I've been punished by God, so I need to get back in church. I went to church again for my second round, and I guess we can get to that later, but that's my upbringing and how the church scarred me in my youth.
Rewinding a little bit, you said that you knew that you were gay when you were seven, and then you were outed against your will when you were fifteen. In that time in between, were you able to reconcile your faith with your sexuality?
I couldn't make sense of the two. My biblical hero was King David; I loved his worship and his heart for God. I loved God, I really did. I've always had unique experiences with the Spirit since I was a child, I could palpably feel the presence of God. And I couldn't understand, if I love you so much, how come you're making me go through this? I remember being seven and being suicidal, wanting to die because I thought I was going to hell. That is traumatic and that is child abuse. I don't think that any child should have to be in fear of going to hell. I was at the altar crying every weekend, ‘Oh my God, I don't want to be this way, I need you to take this away from me, please!’ And he just wouldn't.
After it all came out at the church, my parents sent me to counselling and we did the whole ‘pray the gay away’. I wasn't allowed to hang out at boys’ houses anymore and I couldn’t talk to boys on the phone. I had to quit Theatre which I loved going to at the time because homosexuality was prevalent! They took away all my fun. I felt like I was being punished by them and punished by God, but yet I was still afraid to stop loving God. I loved God but I was scared of God. Looking back now I realise that I looked at God the same way I looked at my mom: I loved my mom, but she fucking terrified me. She was my first bully, the abuse that I suffered at her hands. I've completely forgiven her now because she was doing the best with the information that she had at the time.
Ultimately I thought God was mad at me, and so it didn't matter what I did anymore. When I found out I was HIV positive, my first thought was: it's because I'm gay and I've been punished by God.
But I was never able to come to terms with being a Christian and being gay. I could not wrap my mind around that and I couldn't understand why I felt like God hated me so much. Why was he making me go through this when I was willing to worship him and give up so much for him? Every time I even thought a guy was cute I was repenting, so I was repenting a hundred times a day. I was constantly in repentance. Do you know what that does to a teenager’s psyche? It’s not good, man. My mental health was not good at all throughout my teenage years.
Did you ever have any doubts about whether it was wrong? Was the progressive Christianity movement something that was at all on your radar?
I was a teenager in the late nineties, there was no progressiveness whatsoever. There was black-and-white: it was wrong. There was nothing right about it. I now see these affirming churches, and if I had seen that as a teenager, that might have been a little more beneficial for me. But no, there was no way around it. So that's why I dated girls, I was trying to make myself straight. I was just hoping that something would magically click, but it never worked. It was a waste of time.
What happened when you eventually joined another church after leaving home?
That was the first church I had joined after I found out I was HIV positive, so I was in a very fragile place. They were non-denominational, but they were one of the dangerous kinds because they were hip. They were really hip. They were with the times, they were racially mixed, and the pastor was cool. It was just this utopia; I wanted to be a part of this church family. And they knew I could sing. On my first Sunday, the guy standing in front of me heard me sing a little bit during the worship, he told the worship team and they wanted me to join the church right away.
They didn't know my status at the time, nor did they know that I had left meth or that the girl that I was moving in with was my best friend and that her baby was not mine. When they wanted me to join the worship team, they asked me our relationship, and after I told them, they said ‘But you guys live together, and if you want to be on our worship team, we're all about appearances, you have to stay away from the appearance of evil. And why don't you want to marry her, son? She's a woman! She can cook, she can take care of you, here is God giving you the opportunity for your deliverance!’ I bought into it and I remember sitting down with the pastor after even a year of doing it and crying, ‘I can't have sex with her, I just can’t.’ And the pastor’s wife was like, ‘Your confession should be every morning in prayer: I love my wife, I'm attracted to my wife, my wife fulfils me.’ I tried that and it just didn't work.
That's why I dated girls, I was trying to make myself straight. I was just hoping that something would magically click, but it never worked.
So she and I broke up, but I was so in it by this point that I didn't even want to tell people we were breaking up because I was so scared of the judgement. I realised that I was really worshipping my pastor; I was more concerned with what he would think of me than what God would think of me. After she and I broke up, I started dating a guy on the low, and my mom – being the wicked person she was at the time – outed me to the pastor, and then they publicly sat me down. I was thinking: I'm going through this all over again!
My saving grace was that I auditioned for American Idol throughout that process, and so I got a lot of TV time and I was able to move to New York to start my career. If I had to stay where I was at that time after being sat down and publicly chastised, I don't know, man, I might have tried to kill myself again. I was devastated by these people that I loved very much. I love them. I still love them. It took me a long time to forgive them, but I do forgive them, and when I look at their church services online now, it is sad, because the pastor is literally preaching the same message that he’s been preaching since 2005, and the church hasn’t grown.
Was their stance that they were fine that you were gay, so long as you didn’t ‘act’ upon that?
Yeah, it could be a struggle and one of those things that you're overcoming, but it can't be a lifestyle you’re entertaining, because then you're not actively working towards your redemption, and God is only going to do so much; you're going to have to meet him halfway. And the fruit of the Spirit is ‘long suffering’. We're taught to suffer for the cause of Christ. That's been the biggest bit of programming that I've had to undo; I've broken my agreement with suffering. I no longer have to learn lessons from suffering, and I no longer feel like I have to suffer for a cause or be a martyr.
After you broke up with your girlfriend and started seeing a guy, at what point did you start to accept that that was who you were?
I still didn't accept it. That was in 2009. I moved to New York and I was depressed. I remember trying to date guys, and I just couldn't. I couldn't let myself do it. I would like a guy and I would feel such immense guilt I had to check myself into a psych ward; it just wasn't gelling. So what did I do? I joined a church in New York! I didn't break the pattern. I joined this church in New York and then I auditioned for The Voice. I really wish I would have learned my lesson the first time now that I'm telling my story, it just seems really redundant and ridiculous, but here we are. I dated another woman after all of that. She was from my church in New York and I ended up seeing her for six years.
We lived together, we were in a non-sexual relationship, and we were both miserable, but we felt like we were suffering for the cause of Christ. We ended up leaving New York and moved to California, and that's where I became a youth pastor. That’s the last church I went to in 2014, and I now was starting to deconstruct. I had read The Shack, and that was opening my mind to God and Jesus in new ways, and then I read Pagan Christianity which just gutted me. When I read that book and saw how much of Church culture was rooted in Pagan culture, I was depressed for weeks. I was like, what are we doing? We’re just like the world, yet we're not supposed to be a part of this world, I don't understand! This church was like every other church I had joined, I was still repeating a pattern. I wanted to be a worship leader there, but they really wanted me to be the youth pastor, and they did not like my girlfriend.
Was she a part of your church?
She was. She grew up in Church too and she was a very powerful person in her own right. She was very prophetic; she could look at you and be like, ‘The Holy Spirit is telling me this about you,’ and she would be very on point. That's what attracted me to her: I love this passion for Christ. So we joined this church, and they did not like her because she would not submit to them. She was headstrong, and she didn't want to serve in the same way I was serving, and they just didn't like her, so they tried to break us up. So I’m thinking, here I am trying to be with a woman, and they won't even let me be with the woman I want to be with! This is crazy.
I had this very powerful moment with the divine about these pastors. I was hit and I just couldn't stop weeping. I saw their hearts in the Spirit, and it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. They were filthy. Just black, disgusting, rotten, obsessed with money, greedy. And this may sound strange, but it was one of the moments which is why I believe very much in the Holy Spirit, I believe very much in our intuition that we all have. I believe in God as an energy more than as a person and I believe that we can all tap into this energy source that is love and every need is taken care of if we just surrender to the flow of life. And once I saw their hearts, it was like the Holy Spirit was saying to me, ‘You need to detach from these people, you don't want to build with them. I need you to start packing your things, because you're not going to be at this church much longer.’
A week later I was gone, and that was my last experience with that church, and I'm glad I went through it. I'm glad I was able to sit in on the meetings and see how they planned everything around money. It was all about getting people in the seats so that they could give. They knew that I was a very great salesman, so they would have me do the scripture and the little pitch before the offering, and I just felt icky. I felt really dirty and like, this ain’t it, man. People's lives aren’t being changed; it’s the same people at the altar every weekend, and you're recycling your messages every six months. You’re preaching on prosperity every Sunday, your people are giving away their rent money, their electricity money, and they're still poor and broke. Where is the healing? Where is the love?
When you were leading worship or doing youth work, did you experience any kind of internal tension, in the sense that: ‘I think and believe this, but I have to preach and sing that’?
Yeah, have you ever seen guys in dress pants? They're hot! I would have that juxtaposition on the inside where I would be onstage thinking, ‘Wow, that usher is really cute,’ but also feeling like it's my job to usher in the presence of God. Then I would jump into repentance mode right away. I didn't start accepting my sexuality until the beginning of this pandemic. That is just the honest to God truth. I left the church in 2014, but I still couldn't accept myself as a gay man, I just couldn't. I still had this belief that God didn't want me to be gay, even though I wasn't in the church anymore! I thought that it was okay for other people to be gay, but I had dreams of me being a father, and so I thought that God had this plan for me and I had to stay faithful.
People are dying and I could die tomorrow, and here is love now.
Finally I met James in 2019, and it was just a very different vibe. Once the pandemic hit and he asked me to quarantine with him, I was going to instantly say no because that was just my programmed response. But then this thought crossed my mind: people are dying and I could die tomorrow, and here is love now. This guy is beautiful and he loves me and I'm going to turn him down? Why? It was this, ‘aha!’ moment. If it wasn't for Covid, I don't know where I would be today to be honest with you. And here's the kicker: the more I embrace myself and talk about it, the more doors open for me. The more I talk about this shit that scared me the most, the more opportunities fall in my lap, and I think that that is truly your inside being manifested outside. It's crazy, and that’s how I know that God is real. Faith to me is taking a leap because the net always appears.
In the second part of our conversation, Jamar shares how he discovered true religion outside of the church, and the journey that led to his own resurrection moment.
For more on Jamar, visit his website at: https://thejamarrogers.com
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