…just like everybody else

I shifted my legs around to restore pin-prick circulation as the conversation stretched into its second hour. Coming-out was rarely a quick ordeal during those early stages of growth and he was only confidante number eleven, I believe. Equal parts disarming sincerity and riotous impulsivity, he had been a dear friend from the first month of college. And then, two years after he first learned my name, he learned my deepest secret.

As the conversation began to lull, he decided to change the topic a bit. Looking me in the eye he asked, in his typical directness, “So, are you attracted to me?”

Uh. I diverted my gaze and threw out my honest answer with a less-than-natural laugh, “Ha, no, you’re safe, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Worry about? Dude, I don’t care if you’re attracted to me. It’s not like it’d be a bad thing. I’m attracted to, like, lots of my close friends who are girls. I just wanted to know.”

Leave it to this guy to turn such an ill-advised question into one of the most profound offerings of grace I’ve ever experienced.

You see, at that point in my life I lived in terror of being attracted to anybody, especially friends. I mean, this is a common anxiety of coming out, right? That not only will those closest to you distance themselves from fear that you might fall for them, but also that, well, you might fall for them.

But more than that, I was still in the midst of a painful war with my body. While the rest of my hormonal peers were frolicking in their dopamine-addled pairing endeavors,* I was beginning to despair of ever feeling at peace because attraction, that bewildering spacial distortion that would sweep over me when I saw him, whoever he was, made me feel abusive and criminal.

It was, I think, the inevitable result of being told, and believing, that an uncontrollable, biological response is a willful act of sin. Like most underexposed evangelicals, I equated homosexual attractions with lust; they were one and the same – abhorrent failures of holiness to be avoided at all cost.

I remember ranting to my accountability partner (poor soul greatly to be pitied) time after time about my crush(es), “I have no right to even look at him, much less tell you his name! It’s disgusting. I just feel like such a monster.”

And to think this was during the “stable” phase of my college career. Good times.

But this is why that friend’s comment lingered so forcefully in my mind. By saying that it wouldn’t bother him if I was attracted to him because, duh, attraction happens to everybody and is totally not a big deal, he offered a distinct manifestation of grace that I had refused myself; the grace of being normal.

The grace of a common experience. The grace of not being a monster. The grace of being human, just like everybody else.

In the two years since we sat together in that light-filled prayer chapel, tears in our eyes, rejoicing in the goodness of it all, I’ve found profound healing as I daily live into my humanity – a lifetime of aching otherness slowly finding its place in the humbly unfolding narrative of becoming whole.

And lust? I’ve finally begun to understand what it really is. By binding that willful vice up with the inescapable neurological occurrence of attraction, I not only turned my body into an enemy of holiness but I also crippled my ability to effectively fight lust.

I used to conceive of it as little more than excessively strong attractions, something beyond my control, something that was ultimately about me and my “purity.”** Wrong. Lust is about ignoring the dignity and inviolable humanity of another and turning them into an object for my own personal pleasure. Lust isn’t so terrible just because it makes it harder for me not to type Google searches of questionable character, though that’s a part of it; it’s so terrible because it makes it harder for me to treat every person as the absurdly beloved-by-God people that they are, because it turns them into a “thing” and turns me into a hypocrite.

But what is more, I’m no longer hopeless in this struggle. Back when I thought it was lustful to even notice another guy, the overwhelming impossibility of “purity” haunted me. I think I knew then, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, that to be free from lust as I defined it – as others had defined it for me – would require me to eviscerate a part of my humanity, to deaden myself to the very real desirability of others. But now, rather than fear I will lose my humanity in the good fight against lust, I am thrilled to see it come more vibrantly into focus and fullness as I reclaim the true purposes of the struggle and realize what is actually at stake:

that I might see each person, whether or not they possess that indefinable breath-sapping spark, as beautiful, worthy of love, full of dignity, and to be served with joy.

I’ll be the first to say that I’m a weak and rather pathetic “purity warrior,” but at least now I know that I’m not a lost cause, that I’m not some exceptionally broken screw-up with an entirely different set of rules. At least now I know, and at least sometimes believe, that my body is good and that there are much worse things I could do than realize someone has incredible eyes and great hair.

Jordan

* … or something like that. I might have been a little bitter at the time.

** I don’t really like how we use the word “purity” to almost exclusively reference sexuality, especially as it has historically contributed to the social marginalization of women. Biblically speaking, someone who is greedy or who gossips is just as fraught with impurity as is someone who has committed sexual sin.

what’s in a word pt. 2

I completely agree with everything that Jordan said (in addition to enjoying his humor —- this blog would seriously be so dry and boring without him!), but I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

I think the main reason why Christians get hung up over the term gay is because of all of the baggage and negative connotations that can come with that word.

Before I actually knew gay people, let alone admitted to myself that I was gay, the word “gay” would instantly bring these (now ridiculous sounding) cliché stereotypes to mind:

-people having rampant, wild sex with their own gender
-people dying from this rampant, wild sex
-people hating God
-drugs, drugs, and more drugs
-people going to Hell
-rainbows, rainbows, and more rainbows

Not really things any Christian would want to be identified with (besides maybe the rainbows). I am largely convinced that this aversion is the main reason why Christians do not want to associate with the word “gay.” I think this is true because…

(a)    Whenever I tell Christians “I’m gay” – 50% of the time the tension sky-rockets in the conversation and they get really concerned,  make a judgmental face, and start asking me if I plan on pursuing a relationship (euphemism for — so you will have/have had sex with guys?).

(b)   Whenever I tell Christians “I experience exclusive same-sex attraction” I almost always have a favorable response.

(c)    When I tell the person in (a) that I don’t plan on being in a relationship and all that I mean by the term “gay” is that I am exclusively attracted to the same sex, he or she suddenly stops being concerned and the tension in the conversation evaporates.

In all honesty, that’s why I didn’t use the term “gay” – because it made my Christian peers too uncomfortable if I did. I have found three major problems with this:

1.       I was motivated by “the fear of man.” I constructed my language in a certain way not because it helped me in my faith but because it made me feel more at ease with coming out to people. This “fear of man” was one of the biggest barriers to uncovering a holistic understanding of my sexuality because it distracted me from focusing on God and who I am in Him.

2.       I felt forced to talk about myself in a certain way because of a power differential. I believed that the heterosexual Christian cultural majority would treat me better if I talked this particular way, so I did. That’s a problem. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for Christians to have an opinion on how I should talk about myself, but I shouldn’t feel emotionally threatened if I do not talk that way.

3.       Even if I did admit to my Christian friends that I was participating in all of the cliché gay stereotypes or that I did plan on having sex with guys, I still shouldn’t feel emotionally threatened. Sure, my Christian friends would have good reasons to be concerned for me, especially if my behavior is dangerous to myself, but I should never feel emotionally threatened or less valued by them.

Granted, I do understand and have grace towards people if their reaction does feel slightly negative at first after I use the term “gay.”  I mean, for some of my friends, I am the first gay person to come out to them, and it’s difficult not to act weird about something with which you’re completely unfamiliar or about which you are ignorant. We’ve all been there, wishing the other person would have grace with us.

But I just can’t help but think that these people want me to avoid the term “gay” not out of some holy desire for me to nuance my language but because they are afraid of gay people, and avoiding the term helps them dissasociate me from gay people, hence making them feel better about interacting with me. And that’s a big problem.

I’m not saying this is always true; intuitively I just feel like it has been true some of the time.

So besides having reasons for not saying “I am same-sex attracted,” why have I landed with saying “I am gay”?

1.       I’m also lazy, and it’s easier.

2.       It isn’t a sin to be gay. Yes, my identity is in Christ and Christ does take away my sins from my identity in the present. But since I use “gay” to communicate “exclusive same-sex attraction” and nothing else, this isn’t something that is actively being taken from me becuase it isn’t a sin. It is a part of my existence; it is part of my identity, at least at this point in eschatological history.

3.       I want to defy the stereotypes of ”gay,” and I think it is helpful for me to identify with all gay people regardless of religious affiliation because we do share some common social realities simply because of our gay attractions.

4.       I think the phrase “same-sex attracted” should be reserved for those who are not exclusively attracted to the same sex but do experience those attractions in some way. If someone is exclusively attracted to the same sex, it would be easier to just say “gay.” “Gay” just makes the most sense to me if it means a “consistent sexual attractions to exclusively the same-sex.”

I hope this has helped.

-Tony

responses to coming out

This post is about good and bad responses I’ve received from people I have come out to.  These responses should help inform most with how to respond to a gay Christian who is committed to the traditional sexual ethic. I will write in the future about how I think a Christian should respond to a gay Christian who upholds gay relationships.

Jordan’s post on “Listening” provides guidelines and principles we should always use when interacting with people. Check it out.

A Good Response

The first straight Christian I ever told about my sexuality responded perfectly.

I was pretty terrified the first time — I thought my heart was going to jump through my chest, and it took every ounce of energy to sound at least somewhat coherent. I told half-truths and fudged my experience with homosexuality — claiming I was “no longer” attracted to men and it was no longer an issue for me. This was sort of a “fail safe,” just in case he had a bad reaction. He did not.

In fact, he picked up that I was not being completely honest. He told me it was okay if I was still attracted to guys because he still accepted me. He also told me it did not matter to him to whom I was attracted, as long as I loved and pursued Jesus.

This type of response validated my Christian faith. As I mentioned in “some of Tony’s story,” I was fearful people would think I was not a Christian since I was attracted to guys. But when my friend told me it mattered most to him that I was pursuing Jesus, he affirmed he still thought of me as a Christian.

He did not say much more to me; we finished the conversation with a huge hug. After that I looked for him to give some sign that he thought less of me — if he avoided me or refused to hug me again or something — but he did not treat me any differently from then on. He was just as encouraging and loving as before.

His actions towards me after our conversation were crucial. The way he responded gave me the confidence I could still be loved and accepted, despite being gay. It is important to note this: I would have been crushed and thought bad of myself if he had unintentionally avoided me. It is very important to go out of your way to encourage and show love to someone who has recently come out to you, especially if you are one of the first few people he or she has told.

His response gave me confidence that God still loved me. Why? Our interactions with others shape our view of God.  As children, before we have any concept of God, our parents are the closest thing to Him. If our parents are unconditionally loving and accepting of us, we will probably view God as the same. If our parents withhold love or make us feel worthless for every mistake, we will also probably feel that God views us the same. Although we may be able to rationally articulate that God unconditionally loves us, emotionally we will feel and operate in ways that prove this is not true. In psychology, this concept is called Correspondence Hypothesis.

The Correspondence Hypothesis also has relevance for how people internalize God based on how the Church treats them — and this may have an even more direct influence because Christians are to be Christ’s representatives. Growing up, I had never seen any evidence of the Church loving gay people and all I heard was negative rhetoric about homosexuality. Naturally, in line with Correspondence Hypothesis, I began to internalize that God did not love me either.

Thankfully it did not have to stay that way. Many individuals reoriented my view of God through their love to me.

Countless people who knew about my sexuality gave me some of the best hugs in the world and told me that they and God love me. And then they did it again the next day. And the next day. These people proved to me that God does love me. And now, because of these people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, I never doubt that God loves me.

A Bad Response

Fortunately, I’ve had few bad responses. But I have heard horror stories — of people being kicked out of their houses, of friends never talking to him or her again, and of people going and telling others.

I hope I do not have to explain why these are terrible, completely un-Christian responses. These stories grieve me.

The few bad responses to me came out of good intentions. These people genuinely wanted to help me, but their misunderstanding of homosexuality caused their bad response.

A good rule of thumb: if you do not understand something, do not give advice.

Again, do not give someone advice about homosexuality if you have no experience understanding it.

Some people told me God would change my gay orientation if I pray harder and believe He could do it.

Never say this. It isn’t true. And it could cause someone to question their faith.

Yes, all things are possible with God, and it is okay to believe that God could change someone’s orientation. But it is not okay to believe God will change one’s orientation. This is simply a Gnostic belief that denies the importance of our human body. If you read “My Gay Theology,” you will see why it is entirely possible someone may have a gay orientation their entire life. Just as someone born without an arm or who has their arm cut off will not grow a new arm, a person’s brain could be permanently wired to be gay. I do believe that there are different degrees of hard-wired gayness; some people’s brains are likely more malleable than others, and there are definitely people who have experienced change. But there are also people that no matter what they go through, they will always be gay.

Also please do not quote Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 as proof that God would completely heal gay people. For starters, probably just about everyone who is gay already knows these verses. And secondly, all of these passages refer to gay sexual behavior or gay lust; they do not refer to being gay (having strong same-sex attractions).

The danger in telling someone that God will heal them if they have enough belief is that if change never occurs, the person might begin to think that God does not exist or the person might begin to think that he or she is not a Christian.

Another unintended consequence is that the person might start to think that God did make him or her gay and thus, God must want a gay relationship for him or her.

In one of my theology classes I read a book where the author claimed people struggling with homosexuality simply need to repent and pray to God for change. He specifically said this about same-sex attraction, not just gay sexual behavior. Now, I had heard this claim before and I thought I had a pretty firm grasp of my theology of being gay… but to hear a famous theologian say this put me in a panic again. If he was right, I was not a Christian. With tears streaming down my face, I immediately called one of my good friends in the class (at one in the morning!). After finally getting out what I wanted to say, he told me the theologian was completely wrong and that I was not crazy. Those verses really do refer to just gay sexual behavior and not attraction.

So please never tell any gay person that God will heal them of their same-sex attraction if they pray hard enough or have enough belief. Every time I hear someone say this, I die a little bit inside.

(Ironically, this blog may give you enough information to give someone advice; you may even know more than the person who comes out to you. But make sure the person is open to this advice, and please make sure they agree with your belief system if your advice is religiously informed — read “interacting with gay non-Christians”).

-Tony