Mike Allen lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.
To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.
It’s hard enough for many people to get past the gay-and-Christian part, let alone the gay-and-married-to-a-woman bit. Most people just don’t have a category in their minds for something like this. How in the world can a marriage even exist under such circumstances? Why would either party want it to? Upon what is such a marriage built?
Marriage isn’t something that I set out looking for. When I first met Anna, who is now my wife, I intended to pursue a life of celibacy. And, like a soft continuationist concerning the charismatic spiritual gifts, I didn’t entirely rule out the possibility of the miracle of an orientation change at some point in my future, if God so desired it. But it wasn’t something I counted on or actively sought. This part of my life was marked by periods of real spiritual growth and close communion with Christ, as well as times of faithlessness and desperate grabs at happiness outside of God’s design. And through it all, there was Anna right beside me. We became close confidants and shared everything with each other. Our bond grew as time passed, and I think we both gradually understood that such a relationship between a man and woman (one that I had never before experienced) would inevitably lead to marriage, though the idea seemed impossible, and we couldn’t see how that transition would actually take place.
The steady and unmoved relationship that Anna and I had enjoyed for several years as friends underwent a lot of changes in 2007. We felt that, ultimately, something would have to give. It was unfair for me to occupy the place in Anna’s life that I did but never take the step to marry her. People everywhere assumed that we were a couple already, and I couldn’t imagine any possible future husband of hers being comfortable with our relationship. And surprisingly enough, I wasn’t comfortable with another man taking a preeminent emotional place in her life. One way or another, the dynamics of our friendship would have to change.
I was overwhelmed. I had no idea what moving forward romantically would even look like, and I feared that the most responsible thing to do would be to eventually give up my best friend. We decided at several points throughout that year to spend time apart. But we lived in central China at the time, and being Christians and foreigners, our social circle was quite small and consisted of all the same people. So these periods of separation never lasted very long; it just wasn’t feasible.
Our other course of action was to go to the nice little green space in the middle of Anna’s apartment complex and plead with God to make me straight. (We spent several nights doing this.) We look back now and chuckle at how pathetic we must have looked to the people looking down from their balconies as we cried, prayed, and sang in this strange foreign tongue.
When it became apparent that God wasn’t going to change my orientation and we just didn’t have the strength or determination to separate ourselves, a third option finally became a serious possibility in my mind. I loved Anna, and she loved me. And I couldn’t imagine spending my life without her in it. So maybe marriage is what God had in mind for us after all. And maybe he wanted to do something even more remarkable than making me straight in order to make it work. So with much fear and trepidation, we got married the following year.
That was a little over six years ago, and without a lot of guidance on how to walk this thing out, it’s been a messy process thus far. The fortunate thing for us is, unlike many couples in mixed-orientation marriages, we both came into this thing fully aware of each other’s past and present realities. I was not in the closet nor was I the product of any ex-gay program. There was no pretense: I was a gay man, but I loved Anna in a way that I couldn’t explain, and I felt drawn, one might say destined, to marry her. We felt like we knew, as well as we could, what we were getting into. But, as with all marriages, you can’t really know until you’re in the thick of it.
Our marriage is based on our commitment to each other and on our deep friendship and love. But sometimes, for both of us, that’s just not enough. Natural physical attraction is obviously an important aspect of a romantic relationship in the minds of most. A quick reading of The Song of Solomon tells me that the Bible assumes that it is a powerful and present reality in the typical healthy marriage. For me, it is much more natural to experience that with a man. In my marriage, it is usually emotionally intimate situations that lead to physical intimacy. I’m certain the emotional bond with one’s spouse is a more important element than natural physical attraction. But this doesn’t mean that we both don’t sometimes feel the sting of longing for what feels like a missing puzzle piece. Anna decided to marry me because I loved her, was committed to her, and made her feel valued and cherished. But sometimes, she just wishes that she had a husband who had a natural desire for her, who could delight in her femininity the way that Solomon delighted in his bride.
The hurdle isn’t physical attraction alone. Somehow wrapped up in that instinctual attraction, is the way that a (straight) man connects emotionally to a woman. I often find it much easier to relate to Anna as a dear friend than as the object of my romantic affection. This is obviously hard for Anna, but I too, have sometimes grown weary. There have been times when I’ve felt almost a sense of despair when faced with Anna’s emotional needs, while still having a void of my own. I’ve longed for a relationship in which I could give and receive in a way that felt more natural and left me more energized rather than drained. It’s hard to put into words exactly what I mean, but I’ve explained to Anna before that the way I’m inclined to relate romantically to a man isn’t the same as a woman is; it’s like a third thing. It’s something that I suppose only another gay man would understand. It’s the ability for the other person to meet me there that I sometimes miss and long for. The challenges we face in this area have, at times, left Anna and me frustrated and discontent, wishing we were in relationships with different people or even that we weren’t in a relationship at all.
It’s been hard, but we stay because we genuinely do love each other and have made a covenant with each other before God. We do not belong to ourselves; we belong to him, and we belong to each other. Marriage means expectations that I feel utterly incapable of meeting, and living according to biblical principles means the very real loss of something that feels (at least to this 21st century Westerner) essential to a complete, fulfilled life. But following Jesus is always costly, and anyone who doesn’t feel that is probably not really following Jesus. And he calls me to lay down my life for Anna. Jesus laid his down for me, so how can I respond in any other way?
It’s worth mentioning that while the particularities of our situation are somewhat unique, hardship in marriage is a universal experience. Paul tells us as much in 1 Corinthians 7:28. And the call to self denial for the sake of one’s wife is given to every Christian husband (Ephesians 5:25-33). In this way, my marriage with Anna is not all that different from the typical heterosexual marriage.
After sharing some of this, I’m typically challenged by well-meaning Christians with the notion that I’d be better off if I would just drop the “gay” label, that it’s somehow keeping me trapped in an identity crisis. I understand where they are coming from, but I didn’t just start dealing with this yesterday. It’s not a novel idea they’re presenting, this rejection of the g-word. In fact, it’s only within the last year that I’ve comfortably, confidently called myself a gay Christian.
I grew up in and out of church in the Bible Belt, and by the time I was in college, the only narrative I’d ever heard from the church about gay people is that they were going to hell. I knew that they (we) needed to repent, but of what? Of actions? Of thoughts? Of something more intrinsic? Amidst the confusion, it was in college that I first understood the gospel in a saving way: that Jesus had atoned for whatever it was about me that deserved judgment, that he had reconciled me to the Father.
In light of the way the very limited conversation on homosexuality was framed, I eventually felt obligated, pressured perhaps, not to refer to myself as “gay,” and opted for phrases like “same-sex attracted” when discussing the matter. But rejecting the label didn’t negate the reality that it describes. The only psychological effect that it had was negative. I felt disingenuous, like I was mincing words, and that the whole business of dancing around this little three-letter word was rather silly, making it hard for the gay-affirming people in my life to take me seriously—especially those who were gay themselves.
Every challenge that a gay person trying to live a biblically chaste life would face was a challenge for me. And every difficulty that a gay person would have if married to someone of the opposite sex was present in my life. So no, the absence of the word “gay” in my vocabulary didn’t do a thing to help me identify more with the gospel or live a more victorious Christian life.
What has been helpful for me is the growing number of gay Christians who have been willing to acknowledge their sexual orientation and that it does indeed play a big part in how they experience the world, yet are committed to living according to the traditional sex ethic. The articles and discussions featured on Spiritual Friendship have been particularly beneficial in allowing me to make sense of things in my life. It seems to me that the approach represented by SF is the most intellectually honest, and it is the one that deals most responsibly with scripture, culture, and the overall gay experience.
I feel like I’ve been given permission to talk about myself in a clearer more honest way, which has alleviated a lot of frustration in me and led to much better communication with Anna. It hasn’t made this road we’re walking any less challenging, but it has made me a better companion for the journey.
See also Mike’s follow-up post, which clarifies some confusion about what he was trying to say here.