In my last piece, I discussed my own experience as an early teenager finding myself attracted to the same sex. Now, I would like to offer a few reflections on what this means for today’s kids.
We must always start by thinking about how to actually love sexual minority kids. Loving people does not merely reduce to preaching about sexual ethics. Instead, we need to take into account the entirety of Christian teaching. We should start by examining our own hearts. As I wrote about previously, even though I’m not straight, I’ve had to deal with self-righteousness and other negative attitudes towards sexual minorities. I’m certainly not the only Christian to have heart issues responding to sexual minorities, and we need to keep our own motivations at the forefront. Even when sexual sin (which should not be confused with mere orientation) is involved, we must make sure that doctrine matters to us for the right reasons and that we are not only focusing on the sins of others.
Having framed the discussion this way, I will now turn to discussing some specific reflections from my own experience.
As I mentioned in the first part, I grew up without hearing much acknowledgment that there are Christian kids who find themselves attracted to the same sex through no fault of their own. Many of the difficulties I faced ultimately stemmed from this lack of acknowledgment. It would have been really helpful for me to have heard that this was a possibility even though I wasn’t rebellious, had healthy relationships with both my parents, and had never been abused. It would have been nice to know that finding myself attracted to other guys didn’t mean that I was uniquely broken, but that it was merely one thing that can happen living in a broken world.
It would have been particularly helpful to know that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. Knowing of specific people with names and faces would have been immensely beneficial. I was like an awful lot of sexual minority people I’ve talked to, in that we each went through a significant part of our teenage years thinking we were one of the only people dealing with this. This is one of the primary reasons I’ve chosen to speak as openly about my sexuality as I have. I’m just doing what I wish someone else would have previously done, so that I can make things a little easier for those that come after me.
In my later teenage years, I did discover the ex-gay movement, which did involve some people speaking up about their stories. There are several reasons, though, that this wasn’t as effective as it could have been. For one, many of their stories were told anonymously or with first names only, reinforcing the idea that not being straight was something to be ashamed of. Even when they were told under real names, many of the stories were from people who had basically been sex addicts. As a virgin, I couldn’t really relate to their stories. I was dealing with the fact that I simply found other guys attractive in a way that included a sexual component, not that I was actually having sex with anyone. The biggest issue, though, was that ex-gay testimonies often lacked clarity and thus created unrealistic expectations for me. People would speak of how they were “formerly gay” or some such thing, and I got the idea that I could stop being sexually attracted to other guys. It was only later that I came to learn that what people usually meant was either that they had stopped being sexually active, or that they had developed an attraction to one or more people of the opposite sex, often leading to marriage. The testimonies were thus not particularly relevant to me, because in addition to the fact that I was not having sex, I was already attracted to women as well.
It would have been helpful to have others who could helpfully speak into my own struggles with sexual purity. When I found myself tempted to lust after women, I at least knew that I was not alone and that there wasn’t anything shameful about the attraction in and of itself. I had role models, and there was helpful discussion about how to deal with temptation. However, aside from the false promises of orientation change that I just brought up, I never encountered much in the way of helpful responses to my feelings for other guys. Now, I tend to see the attraction in and of itself as something that is not shameful and can even be a positive thing if directed toward positive ends like friendship. I see struggles with lust towards men as fundamentally similar to struggles with lust towards women, and I try to deal with them the same way. It took longer than it should have for me to figure this out, though, due to the lack of helpful discussion from others.
The key for any of this to have taken root, though, would have been for me to have actually felt safe talking about what I was going through. As I mentioned previously, I spent most of my teenage years dealing with intense fear of anyone finding out. It would have been immensely helpful to know that I could talk about what I was going through without being shunned or hated. The fact of the matter, though, is that in a polarized world where a lot of Christians say hurtful things about homosexuality, it’s hard to know how people will react or who will be safe to talk to. As I’ve discussed previously, I found it helpful when people would specifically address homosexuality in ways that indicated they cared about people like me. That was often how I overcame my fears, at least early on. In order to reach today’s teens, I think we have to take the same approach.
The least helpful thing for me was facing culture war attitudes towards homosexuality. Hearing gay people talked about primarily as enemies was fundamentally alienating, and it made it difficult to admit even to myself what I was going through. In private correspondence, Ron Belgau has helpfully proposed the question: “Would what I’m saying about sexuality have helped me if it were said about my sexual struggles when I was 14?” That question should be at the forefront of our minds as we think about how to talk about homosexuality, since there will be sexuality minority kids who hear what we have to say.
This also relates to one crucial difference for today’s kids, compared to when I was a teenager. The theological view affirming consummated gay relationships is much more mainstream than it was back then. Now kids are hearing a message that they resonate with, one that also teaches that most of Christian tradition has been wrong about sexual ethics. Furthermore, it is often the same people who are promoting the traditional teaching who say the most hurtful things about sexual minorities. It’s clear to sexual minority kids, on the other hand, that people promoting the affirming view actually care about them. I don’t think that view holds up theologically, but that simply means we have all the more need to provide a compelling alternative that addresses people where they’re at. We must actually show genuine concern for them, and furthermore we must address the many difficulties they face. For example, in addition to the kind of concerns I mentioned above, those who are not attracted to the opposite sex often face additional questions. Lifelong celibacy is often in view, and there is a very real fear of loneliness. What kind of hope are we providing? I am glad to be part of Spiritual Friendship as we work together to try to address some of these issues, and to try to provide a compelling alternative to the available narratives.
Jeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.