What I Learned From My Ex-Gay Days Part 2: Reflections

In my previous piece, I described my experience trying to change my orientation. As promised, in this post I will discuss some practical insights, many of which extend beyond the ex-gay context in which I learned them.

The most immediate insight is directly about sexual orientation change efforts: change in orientation is not something we should promise. Hope in orientation change can be false hope. This is true even for someone who is willing to put great effort into trying to become straight and, more importantly, dealing with the sorts of issues often claimed to be behind a homosexual or bisexual orientation. It is important that we be honest.

Putting my hope into orientation change had less fallout for me than it had for many others. As a man who was already attracted to women, changing my orientation was never quite about being able to function in a marriage. Remaining attracted to the same sex did not have any particular implication about celibacy; it merely meant that I could not be as normal as I wanted and that I would face negative attitudes from some conservative Christians. I was able to come to an acceptance of this reality. However, other people do experience significant hurt. As I alluded to in the first part, even parents may be unnecessarily hurt when they take the blame for their children’s orientation.

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How to Narrate Complexity

I finally watched Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a recent hour-long film that’s gotten a lot of attention in our circles of late. It tells the stories of three Catholics who, at least at one time, understood themselves to be homosexual but now, in light of their return to the Church… well, you’ll just have to watch it and see how unpredictable and multi-layered their narratives are. As Eve Tushnet has pointed out, these are by no means simple “ex-gay” stories, but nor, I think, are they exactly the sort of stories we often highlight on this blog. I thought I had heard most everything in our little gay Christian world, but this movie surprised me.

One of the things that especially stood out was the way each of the three subjects managed to narrate complexity at each stage of their journey. It’s one thing to tell a “before and after” story, in which confusion is succeeded by order, or vice versa. But this movie includes genuine mystery and complexity in every chapter; a too-tidy, answer-dispensing resolution never arrives.

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What I Learned from my Ex-Gay Days Part 1: My Experience

Like several other bloggers on Spiritual Friendship, I had a period of my life when I was actively trying to change my sexual orientation. Although my perspective has shifted dramatically since then, I learned some important lessons through my experiences. In order to reflect on those lessons, I am posting a two-part series. In this piece, I will discuss my experiences with ex-gay approaches. In a follow-up piece, I will discuss some practical insights, many of which are broader than the ex-gay context in which I first learned them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered the ex-gay movement during my later teenage years, and I initially understood references to being “formerly gay” or having “overcome homosexuality” as becoming completely straight.

Much of the ex-gay literature comes from a particular perspective about how same-sex feelings arise. I never really bought the most common claim, which was that my attractions arose from a defect in my relationship with my father. I knew that, while not absolutely perfect, my relationship with my dad was a good one. The prevalence of this explanation in the ex-gay literature, however, did cause some hurt and frustration when I first told my dad about my sexuality. Though I didn’t blame him, I could tell he was concerned he may have done something wrong.

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Grocery Store Celibacy

The folks over at A Queer Calling have an interesting article up today in which they deftly tackle several common misunderstandings about celibacy.

Among several errors they single out for deconstruction, there is this:

An argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy—the only option—is meaningless.”

This is a view I like to call grocery store celibacy, because the view of the Christian moral life it paints is one much like a grocery store. The more “choices” and “options” you have, and the more unhindered you are in being able to freely decide which option you want to choose from the smorgasbord on offer, the more moral value the choice you eventually make will have. The closer the Christian life comes to reflecting the economy of a consumerist society, the more Christian it is, allegedly.

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Lives That Go Unwitnessed

It hurts the most after spurts of laughter. For instance: I was recently working out in my apartment and heard the Free Willy theme song. Naturally, I started singing because somehow I knew the entire Free Willy Theme song, and by the end of it I was raising my hands and singing (Throwback 90s Praise Band Style) in between reps of bicep curls. By the time I was doing tricep kickbacks, I could barely sing the words because of the lump in my throat created by the memory of how the kid saved the whale and the whale saved the kid. When I suddenly realized how ridiculous and hilarious the whole thing looked—the singing, the raised hands, the lump in my throat and the Free Willy Theme Song—I started laughing hysterically. By the time I got to shoulder presses, the sharp pain of loneliness set in: another moment gone unwitnessed.

Sometimes I feel it when I arrive at my destination after a long road trip. I pick up my phone with an urge to text Someone that I got where I was going, and it occurs to me that no one knew I left. Sure, some friends knew I’d be out of pocket at some point, but they didn’t know when I was leaving or when I’d be back. They weren’t aware of my existence in real time and space. Sometimes I turn to social media to let The World know I made it somewhere they didn’t know I was going—to let them know I still exist—and the “likes” calm the subconscious fear for a moment. Of course I call and text friends to talk of my excursions and hear about theirs, but that’s what’s disconcerting: I increasingly find myself telling them about my life rather than sharing it with them.

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Athanasius and the Scope of the Story

This summer I’ve been making my way through Peter Leithart’s excellent work on the theology of Athanasius. Laying out Athanasius’ hermeneutical principles, Leithart explains that for Athanasius the primary framework determining right and wrong interpretation is the overall shape of the biblical story. Thus Leithart says,

The standard of right reading is the ground motif of Scripture as a whole, the history of creation, fall, incarnation, glory. As Frances Young puts it, “Athanasius is not neglectful of the details of the text,” but more basically his reading is guided by a “sense of the overarching plot” that he has inherited as the fundamental narrative of salvation. Thus “the ‘Canon of Truth’ or ‘Rule of Faith’ expresses the mind of scripture, and an exegesis that damages the coherence of that plot, that hypothesis, that coherence, that skopos [scope], cannot be right.”

Athanasius of AlexandriaWhile this is hardly the only criteria for biblical interpretation, it strikes me as a particularly helpful one. When explaining to others why I’ve been convinced by the traditional interpretation of the biblical text with respect to same-sex sexual behavior, I’ve often said that the first three chapters of Genesis were far more persuasive than any of the so-called “clobber passages”. Of course Genesis 1-3 don’t explicitly talk about same-sex sexuality at all, but I think what I’ve been trying to get at is the point that Leithart is making above about Athanasius: the overall shape of the story should guide our interpretive decisions.

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When All Gay Desire is a Desire for Gay Sex

A response to Katie Grimes’ response to Eve Tushnet. 

You can learn a lot in nightclubs. One evening, I was out dancing with some friends at a local bar, when a man approached one of the women in our group. She turned to him, and they danced. Then he got a bit handsy. Then he got more handsy. Then she told him to back off.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes men will approach one of the women, and the two will dance for a bit, having pretty innocent fun at the moment, and then move on when the song is over. There are two kinds of men at nightclubs: men who want to have fun at the club, and men who want to “have fun” after. For the second group of men, every interaction is just one small step in a longer series of actions leading to the bedroom. They’re wholly incapable of enjoying a song or a dance, because they’ll always want something more.

In a sex-crazed culture, intimacy is rarely tied to a single moment. It’s simply a small part in a series of acts leading to sex. This is especially true for sex and porn addicts, who have trained their senses to desire one thing, to make every action a means to get that one thing. Continue reading

Between Two Weddings

Two years ago, as I was just beginning to think more critically about my faith and sexuality, I attended a wedding. It has been interesting to revisit the memorialized emotions that accompanied the ceremony, to examine the well-worn paths down which my uncertain thoughts routinely fled when confronted by longing and sorrow.

Wedding Rings

Weddings used to primarily remind me of all I couldn’t have, my easily startled psyche darting away from the encroaching shadows of jealousy and isolation. I would think, over and over, “I want this. I still want this.” There was always a bitter ache, a subcutaneous anxiety. Pain threatened my convictions and wove itself into every sensation. Unsurprisingly, I imagined that watching my best friend get married would be a similar experience, just exponentially moreso.

I was wrong.

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Mourning the Loss of My Friend Chris

Here’s a more immediately personal post than I often write.

I’ve just lost one of my best friends, and I thought it would be appropriate to share here at Spiritual Friendship the remembrance I wrote of him. It’s been posted over at Books & Culture, and you can read the whole thing there. For now, an excerpt:

When I stepped off the train in Oxford, Chris was standing there in the station waiting for me, his face breaking into its characteristic goofy grin when I landed on the platform, but he didn’t stay still longer than it took to give me a tight hug. He pivoted as soon as he released my shoulders, grabbed one of my bags, and sped toward the rental car. We were already late for the adventure he had planned. We were going to drive from Oxford to the little village of Wolvey in Warwickshire, roughly 115 kilometers away, to look for a tombstone.

When Chris was growing up in Oregon, his family employed an Englishman named William Alcott Bailey as a part time gardener and handyman. Chris learned the value of hard work, he said, from Bailey. He learned how to work with his hands and see a yard project through to its finish, but, even more, he learned how to take ownership and pride in his work. He learned those things, specifically, from Bailey. And now, in between his other responsibilities in the UK, lecturing and researching for a new edition of one of C. S. Lewis’ books, he wanted to go looking for Bailey’s grave, as a way of paying tribute to someone that, in retrospect, he viewed as essential to the arc of his childhood. He knew Bailey had spent his childhood in Wolvey, but that was about it. Whatever leads he had had petered out there. We’d just have to look for the tombstone, assuming that Bailey would have wanted to be buried where he grew up.

I wish I could capture the simultaneity of Chris’ fiercely serious fixation on this task and his boyish, smiling enthusiasm for being on a quest. It wasn’t unusual for him—that combination of zeal and playfulness is what had made me want to be friends with him from the beginning—but it was what made Chris unique. And I wasn’t the only one who loved him for it, but, nonetheless, I treasured the feeling that this particular glimpse into it was mine. This was a special trip for just the two of us, a way for me to learn more about my friend’s upbringing and to delight in what made him happy.

We never found William Alcott Bailey’s grave. We traipsed around the overgrown C of E parish cemetery, uncovering some Baileys that Chris was convinced were his Bailey’s relations, but as far as we could tell, there was no “William Alcott.” Undeterred, we went to the pub anyway to toast him. At the Blue Pig just down the road—I still remember sitting across from Chris at our table by the window, with the glint of summer evening sun caught in our pint glasses—we hoisted our ales “to William Alcott Bailey and his good memory.” Afterwards, we lit pipes and walked the length of the empty fields behind the pub and talked. The conversation was vigorous, spirited, meandering, as it always was with Chris, with both of us talking over each other at various junctures, stalled only by moments of concentration for an occasional relight.

Chris later said that trip to Wolvey cemented our friendship. I inwardly beamed whenever I heard him tell the story—as I did many times in the intervening years—to others.

Chris was for many years the director of The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and he was for the past year professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He died last Thursday evening, July 10. He was an exemplary scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend to many. But more than that, he was a Christian who believed in the hope of the resurrection. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

On the Need for Gay Christian Role Models

Samuel Ernest is a young blogger whom I haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting, but we’ve corresponded a bit, and I regularly read his sensitive, thoughtful posts with interest. His latest, about his decision to enter The Episcopal Church, was particularly striking. Here’s a portion that stood out to me:

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in [the] denomination [I grew up in] that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

I’m struck by many things about this, but mainly it prompts me to ask what would have to happen for churches who uphold the historic position on marriage and sexuality (marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, and sexual abstinence is called for among those outside that covenant) to be places where the appearance of gay role models was normal. My experience was similar to Samuel’s insofar as my church growing up scarcely admitted the existence of gay people, let alone talked about the various possibilities for their sanctified witness among us.

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