other

Sometimes I forget that I’m gay.

Seriously. I’ll just be walking around, doing my thing, thinking about coffee or tennis or sleep or whatever, and suddenly:

Wait a second, I’m attracted to guys. Woah.

Then I resume my espresso daydream and life goes on. I probably don’t need to explain why such an occurrence is a little odd.

I mean, I’m going to just assume that straight people don’t know what it’s like to spend all day worrying over how straight they feel and wondering if other people can tell. “Oh crap, a beautiful woman! Was I staring? I think I was. Was someone watching me stare? Everyone must have noticed my eyes dilate. That man over there looks like he’s judging me. Great, now I have to leave the country…” “Did I play this sport too competently? Ugh, I hate myself…” “That old woman said she had a niece I should meet… does she think I like girls? How did she find out? Oh god, what if she tells my mom?” “Maybe if I just wear scarves and skinny-jeans no one will question my sexuality.”

But I could be wrong.

Either way, I used to be entirely preoccupied with image-control. I was almost always aware that I didn’t quite fit in and, therefore, pathologically tried to disguise that otherness, certain that should people find out I was gay the internal isolation that scraped and slithered around my brain would become an external reality and encompass me.

But a couple things are happening now: I am feeling less “other,” and my otherness is slowly shedding the fear and stigma of its youth.

I am not saying I expect, or even hope, to ever be “non-other”. Not at all. So long as I’m attracted to men, and so long as the late Jerry Fallwell’s elite team of ninjas succeeds in stopping President Obama’s diabolical plan to infect America’s drinking water with the gay gene, I will experience the otherness that comes from being a sexual minority until I die. However, such difference is no longer an inevitable occasion for anxiety because it is starting to reveal its role in the grand unfolding of God’s grace in my life.

(It is necessary to say that, even though I will be referring to “otherness” in the abstract, I can really only speak to my particular experience as an evangelical Christian man attracted to men – which is a reality that doesn’t externally mark me for marginalization. More than that, I happen to have inherited almost every other kind of socio-cultural privilege imaginable, which has, I am sure, significantly diminished the potency of my experience with “otherness.” While I may find myself occasionally camping in the margins, I do so with a $500 tent.)

The reason I’m even commenting on these brief flashes of “unawareness” or whatever-it-is, of not being consumed with feelings of “otherness,” is because this is the last place I expected to experience something like this. I flew down to Central America alone, re-entered “la bodega”, and have daily come up against rampant and incessant homophobia from the teenage boys I live with (and Central America’s machismo culture in general) – a recipe for angst and feeling super-gay and isolated. And yet…

I’m intrigued by the fact that I can feel so at home in my body while in a context where, honestly, I think bad things would happen if it got out that I’m gay. I’m experiencing almost-ideal self-perception in regard to my sexuality* in a less-than-ideal environment to be gay because, I think, they do one thing really well at the orphanage: work with the kids through diverse gifts and histories. I may not be “out” here, but the fact that I’m gay, and the way I’ve grown and deepened because of that fact,** has enabled me to serve these kids in a manner that is different from other staff members and yet still important and valued – namely, I tend to be more aware of how certain kids are being pushed to the fringes, more aggressive against bullying, and less rough in my behavior toward even the most obnoxious boys (one of whom, as I type, is randomly pressing buttons on my computer forcing me to engage in manic typo-prevention).

This is why I think the Church has so much to offer those attracted to the same sex.***  So many people can only dull the ache of difference by staying in communities comprised of those who are equally “other” and thus experience a kind of normativity.**** Though the Church does, in some ways, serve a similar function, it does not do so through the normalization or flattening of otherness; the Gospel is not about homogenization (this is one reason I think we have four notoriously idiosyncratic Gospels accounts), it’s about redemption, conformation, and scandalous equality before God.

I don’t love Christian community because I get to spend time with people “just like me,” though Christ-followers do share certain unshakeable foundations. I love Christian community because it reminds me that I am united in purpose and worship with a bunch of crazy people around the world who aren’t like me at all and who reveal Christ to me in ways that would be otherwise unknown.

In this community my otherness, once an occasion for feelings of distance and loneliness, can, and should, take its rightful place as a site of revelation of the goodness and beauty of God. And thus, somehow, otherness – the multiform, embodied experience of being wrongly marginalized for one reason or another – becomes a catalyst for a more profound unity and depth. And while I hesitate to ascribe any sort of moral exceptionalism to marginalization, we must acknowledge that we serve a Christ who seemed far more at home on the dusty fringes than in the cushioned halls of privilege.

There is so, so much more to this, and I apologize for all the nuance I couldn’t include in less than 1000 words.

But I want to finish by saying that I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the Church (specifically the North American church) will become less concerned with the maintenance of social power and position and more passionate about proclaiming the Gospel through myriad stories of redemption lived out in a community dedicated to loving service of the world.

Jordan

Edit – Please do not think I am glossing over the gross sins of the church in regard to the LGBTQ community or the serious hurdles we face as we try to move forward in love. For slightly more critical posts, see What Is Love (which I think is one of the most important posts I’ve written), and Family Talk, among others.

* Almost-ideal not in that I forget that I’m gay, but in that my sexuality does not dominate my self-perception as it used to.

** Though such growth and depth are, I would say, the result of interacting with my sexuality through the primary and total filter of my Christian faith.

*** Aside from the, you know, relationship with Jesus and eternal life and all that.

**** I’m not saying such communities are bad. Not at all. In many ways they can be both necessary and life-giving. I greatly benefitted from my time in the gay student-group at Wheaton, which is but one example among many. I just don’t think they are an adequate substitute for what the church is called to be.

broadening sexuality

I rarely see gay couples.

Almost every local environment I’ve lived in has been conservative and homogeneous. Wheaton, although it is becoming increasingly diverse from its immigrant population, hosts mainly heterosexual, middle-class, white families, and even though it is probably one of those urban-legends based on unfounded statistics, people also boast that Wheaton has the most churches per capita in the United States. Not really the best place for a gay couple to freely express themselves.

Recently I was very near Boystown, Chicago’s gay-friendly neighborhood. I saw rainbow flags denoting welcoming places for LGBT individuals, advertisements for the upcoming gay-pride parade, and, not surprisingly, two guys who clearly loved each other romantically holding hands.

This threw my heart and emotions into a mess.

I wanted that. I longed for a relationship with another man, like these two guys had. This wasn’t really a sexually charged longing — it was an intimate desire to be known, to be in love, to wrap my arms around someone and have him mean the world to me. It felt so right.

The rest of the night was rough. I felt so conflicted inside and argued with myself about why a gay relationship might be okay.

“How could something that feels so beautiful and natural not be okay?!”

“Maybe God does want this for me. I mean, only good could come out of it, right?”

These thoughts and feelings aren’t new to me. I’ve had them many times before. And I’ve seen gay couples before (I hope to become friends with some). There was just something about seeing a gay couple this time that made my heart bleed the rest of the night.

_________________________________________________________________________

All of us want to be intimately known. We were created that way — not just to be in relationship with God but also to be in relationship with other humans. The only thing that God said “wasn’t good” about His creation was us being alone.

So we need human relationships.

But does the answer to aloneness have to be a sexual relationship? Since I don’t think God wants me to be married to another man, am I destined to suffer in aloneness my entire life?

Ask anyone to define the term sexuality, and most people will give you an answer that centers around sex. I define sexuality as our embodiment as human beings that allows us to interact with one another in meaningful ways. Genital-to-genital contact is only a small subset of this sexuality. Think of it this way:

I believe a sexual relationship is only one way God designed us to be intimately known by someone. And when we hyper-focus on relational fulfillment being about romance and sex, we miss out on the much broader vision God has for our sexuality. We take the “sex” circle and force it to fill our entire sexuality circle. We give sex way too much power over the significance of our lives.

It’s easy to have sex with someone. It’s easy to move quickly in a romantically charged relationship.

It’s much harder to build a long-lasting friendship and trusting bond with someone — what I call friendship love. What’s a common reason people get divorced? Because the relationship was built only on romantic love, and as soon as that died down, there was no friendship love to maintain the marriage.

I think our society has a problem with knowing how to build friendship love. And I think this is partly because we have hyper-sexualized everything. When two people start showing affection to each other, we start attaching sexual connotations to the affection. We have a relational script in our society that says if you become really close with someone, it means you should probably become sexually involved.

This script has both damaged many relationships and hindered others from becoming closer. I think it may particularly stunt male-male friendships. Two men, regardless of orientation, might fear being affectionate or emotionally close because this means people may start questioning their sexual orientation. Or perhaps a male-female friendship, that was mostly void of sexual feelings, is terminated because people start questioning their intentions. Society quickly conflates any emotional or physical affection with sexual feelings.

Our worldview has been shaped so that we think the only way to experience intimacy is through a sexual relationship. The problem with this worldview for Christians that uphold the traditional sexual ethic is that we can easily think that our lives are lonely and relationally unfulfilling just because we aren’t romantically involved. “If I could only find someone and get married, then I would no longer hunger for intimacy.”

However, being in a sexual relationship is no guarantee for relational fulfillment. Some of the loneliest people are in marriages. And even those who do find relational fulfillment in a marriage likely still struggle with loneliness and yearn to be better known. I’m not trying to downplay the beautiful unity of marriage, but sometimes I think we forget that no one except for Christ can ultimately satisfy our desires to be intimately known.

But still, no matter how close we are to Christ, we need people. I just think our need for people doesn’t have to be sexual. It’s just hard to build intimately close relationships that aren’t sexual in a society that equates intimacy with being sexual. But it’s possible, and I believe I’ve already experienced degrees of intimately close relationships with several of my friends. I am blessed to be able to say that I have had many nights of epic conversations and fellowship with friends where I have gone to bed feeling overwhelmingly loved without a hint of loneliness. It is those nights where I’ve seen my sexuality be expressed in satisfying, meaningful ways that didn’t center on sex.

_________________________________________________________________________

Jordan and I emailed back and forth that night as my heart bled after seeing the gay couple.

Here is part of what was said:

Jordan: Seeing those guys is just, you know, life. It’s like every time I saw Sam. I couldn’t help that I saw him, and I couldn’t really help the surge of emotions and longing within me. It’s seems unfair that it would be wrong to indulge, but that’s how it is. The Truth is life, you’re so right. It’s crazy that those particular moments where entering into a relationship with a man seems so right can overshadow the immense catalog of God’s faithfulness in my life, where truth won out and filled me with joy. I have a short memory, I guess.

Sorry for your suffering. I’m kind of down too. Sigh… let’s pray for each other.

Me: You’re right. God has been so faithful in our lives. We both know that. And we’ve both encountered his overwhelming love for us. The other reality is that everyone has let down in their lives regarding intimacy. Very few people actually have sustaining, intimate relationships — gay or straight. Plus, fulfilling relationships don’t have to be sexual or romantic. There are so many relationships out there to make us feel intimately known; they just aren’t meant to be romantic relationships. Glad that you know and get what I’m going through. And that right there is evidence enough that God will provide us with relationships without them having to be sexual/romantic. Anyway, I have to go to bed now, but I will pray for you!

I still went to bed that night feeling melancholy, but the email exchange also gave me a sense of hope. Hope in the assurance that God loves me, hope that I will continue to experience His perfect love, and hope that God will continue to put people in my life to show me His love.

-Tony

as holy as thou

It seems almost stupidly brash to say that my attraction to men is no barrier to holiness. But, as I mentioned in my last post about reorientation therapy, I think the above statement to be true, though perhaps I should nuance it a bit.

I believe my attraction to men is not intrinsically a barrier to holiness.

Sexuality is a gift, a startling, bewildering blessing given to us by God for the nourishment and flourishing of all creation. As it is with many aspects of life, the journey to understand my sexuality begins with a divine question rather than an intractable declaration. That question is simply, “So what are you going to do with this?” Everybody, regardless of their orientation, must face that question.

Sexuality is an invitation to disciplined, life-giving stewardship for God’s glory and the good of others. The fact that, for whatever reason, I just so happen to think some guys are attractive does not instantly derail everything. It does limit my opportunities for romance, which is painful, but it does not limit me or my pursuit of holiness. It does not limit what God can do to draw me to himself.

It has taken me a while to believe this. I’ve had some pretty dark moments, thinking, How could God love me if my sexuality is repulsive to him? I’m so pathetic! No wonder he avoids me. Even I don’t want to spend time with myself. I’m going to be lonely and isolated my whole life, and I guess I deserve it. 

I never thought God actually hated me, but sometimes it felt as if he had an awfully unloving way of showing affection. This was all happening at the same time I was feeling socially isolated and neglected by my friends, which is, you know, super unsurprising. (Side note: my friends are awesome).

One of the oppressive, looming questions gay Christians (or non-Christians, sometimes) face is this, “Is my entire existence before God a sin because I am attracted to the same sex?” My sexual attractions feel so natural and are such a daily presence that when I begin to beat myself up about my homosexuality or doubt God’s loving nearness it’s hard not to let every part of my life get sucked into the vicious whirlpool of “divine” disapproval.

Thus I consider it a miracle that I am now so convinced that my orientation can actually contribute positively to my desire for holiness. If being same-sex attracted is not intrinsically sinful, then I am also certain my attractions do not automatically make my sexuality less holy than a straight person’s. All sexuality is prone to error and excess – it’s just a bit more obvious what errors and excesses threaten me.

But let’s be honest, we’ve all objectified someone, turned them into a thing to be consumed by our hungry imaginations. We’ve all sinned, forsaken the good purposes of our sexuality. My sexuality poses a constant challenge to me – I’m reminded of it every time I see a guy I’m attracted to, or not attracted to, or maybe attracted to, or hear about anything relating to sex or romance or love or marriage or a million other things that bombard me every day. But everybody’s sexuality is a challenge. I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you of that. Being gay is a unique experience with its own burdens and hurdles,[1] but one of those hurdles is not an intrinsic unholiness that renders me especially distant from God.

Am I making sense? I’m not totally sure. It’s still something new to me, something profoundly different than what I used to think. I’m stammering here, grasping for words that aren’t wholly solid.

All I mean to say is that although my attractions make some normal human behavior unhelpful/sinful/unavailable for me, they do not inexorably compel me to unholiness. I can use my sexuality, just like anyone, to bring God joy and glory by using it chastely to serve him and my neighbors.

The frustration of unmet desire can turn me to a God who satisfies; the longing for intimate touch reminds me I am always being held; the fear of rejection points me to the open arms of Christ who has already accepted me and calls me to embrace others; the overwhelming awareness of the brokenness of things moves me to be a source of healing for those around me. And in all of this I know God rejoices over me as he empowers me to falter forward on this beautiful path of sanctification (can I call it “running?” It seems so unlike it[2]).

I hope that lends some clarity to my previous statement. Feel free to ask questions in the comment section, I’ll try my best to answer them well.

Peace,

Jordan


[1] I can’t read this without switching it to “burdles and hurdens.” Enjoy!

[2] If it is, it’s little more than this.