Cornelius Williams remembers being 5 years old and dressing up in his mother’s wigs and wearing her lipstick.
He recalls that and other stories from his youth to adulthood in his memoir: Transition: From Homosexual to Preacher. That early experience was the first glimpse of sexual confusion that Williams, now a pastor, would encounter throughout his adolescence.
“It was my attempt to reach out for the love and attention I was not receiving at home,” said Williams, who grew up on the West Side, spending his formative years with his mother and grandmother.
Williams said he didn’t have strong male figures growing up. There was also drug use with some in his family, he recalls.
“I started to feel a level of rejection. As a result, I wore lipstick and wigs until I was 9 years old, and then began having sexual relationships with men at 11.”
Williams said he was openly gay over the course of 16 years, creating several short-term relationships with other gay men. He called it a miserable experience.
“It is not necessarily the case with everyone who is homosexual, but for me, it was all about sex,” Williams said.
Despite what he calls a tumultuous upbringing, he was able to graduate from John Marshall High School and later Columbia College in Chicago. He has a degree in music. In 2002, Williams started to devote more time to the church, getting his minister’s license that same year.
A death in his family in 2003 led to a personal sojourn to Ohio where Williams had a frank discussion with his aunt about his gayness.
“Prior to the funeral, we were talking and I announced my decision to become ordained as a pastor. She responded with the obvious question: ‘So I suppose this means you are not gay anymore?’ “
Williams says he saw this as God speaking to him through his aunt. He began to live as a straight man and, in 2004, got married. Williams was ordained as a Baptist minister that same year; by 2008, he was ordained a Pentecostal preacher.
Williams’s assertion that being gay is a choice has stirred controversy. He is vehemently opposed to legalizing gay marriage, saying that the scripture states that marriage is between a man and a woman. The pastor adds that it is impossible to be both deeply God-fearing and homosexual.
“You cannot say you are a man or woman of God and then contradict what the Bible teaches,” he said.
The fierce opposition to his views came to a head in August as Williams was scheduled to lead a discussion about his book at Oak Park’s Buzz Cafe. His scheduled appearance was criticized by some gay Oak Park residents who say that being gay is not a choice. Amid the protest, Buzz Café co-owner Laura Maychruk ended up canceling the event.
“We have had controversial speakers at the cafe before, but I have never seen this scale of backlash,” she said. “Most were not made aware of the fact that we had booked a panel discussion spotlighting several viewpoints on the subject of homosexuality, but all most people knew about was Rev. Williams’ appearance, and as a result, the backlash was swift and fierce.”
Williams viewed the incident as an attempt by the gay community to censor his message. He maintained that his message is not one of hate or “reformative therapy.” Williams, however, admits that he would not approve of a speaker who was critical of the church talking in front of a church congregation. That, he said, would “violate the divinity of the church.”
Williams said he’s open to sitting down with members of the gay community for a frank discussion.
“We don’t have to agree with each other, but everyone has a right to have an opinion,” said Williams, who used to live in Oak Park and now lives on the West Side.
Maychruk is also open to having the pastor schedule such a talk at her business in the near future.
“I worked for the Chicago Tribune for seven years and I see the value of presenting all sides of every issue,” she said. “I think a discussion on this matter would be vital for all sides. People have the right to an idea. And people have a right to disagree. However, everyone should be heard.”