It is a gray Tuesday in November. The year is 1994, and I am a sophomore at the University of Washington in Seattle. I am pacing nervously up and down the sidewalk in front of Terry Hall, waiting for my friend Matt. Although long experience has taught me that he will be a few minutes late, I am five minutes early.
I rehearse the scene. Matt will arrive (a little behind schedule) and apologize that he didn’t make it on time. I will say it’s no big deal. We will shake hands. Then we will walk into the cafeteria, where we will grab lunch. We will chat about this and that—my classes, his job search, good books we’ve read recently, how we think the election will turn out.
This part of the scene doesn’t require much rehearsal. He’s an easy friend to talk to and we have a lot in common—above all, we’re both Christians. Our faith is important to us. We try to live it out in our daily lives, study it, discuss it, understand it. We both love C. S. Lewis, and in the year we’ve known each other, he’s introduced me to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. We talk a lot about how to be faithful Christians in Seattle’s increasingly secular culture. So we always have a lot to talk about, and today should be no different.
A few minutes in, however, the script gets trickier.
“Matt, there’s something I want to tell you about…”
“I’ve never talked to anyone else about this before…”
“There’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while. Can we talk?”
As you can see, I’m still trying to work out my lines.
I decided to talk with Matt about this in May. And now it’s November. It’s not that we haven’t hung out. We have, numerous times. Every time we’ve hung out, I’ve spent hours—or days—going over the scene in my head. And over, and over, and over… And every time we’ve met up, I make it through the first part of the script just fine. It’s when it comes to confessing the secret that I keep missing my lines…
Over the summer, I wrote him several long hand-written letters. Some of these letters were intensely personal, telling him all about the history of my struggle. Others focused more on theological questions about sexual morality, and mentioned my own struggles in the context of that reflection. Some focused more on defending traditional Christian sexual ethics. Others focused more on the hypocrisy of relaxing biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, while harshly upholding Biblical condemnations of gay sex. Still other letters started from the problem of culture war politics. How could Christians do a better job of presenting Christ’s love? Why did focusing on culture wars end up pushing people away from Christ? How could Christians do a better job of reaching out?
I poured everything into those letters—and never sent them. I wrote them, held on to them for a few days while trying to work up the courage to drop them in the mailbox. Then tore them up and threw them away. Sometimes, just to be extra sure no one would see what I’d written, I burned them…
I break out of my reverie as a light blue Honda comes around the corner and pulls up to the curb. I look at my watch. He’s eight minutes late.
Coming Out Scene! Take 25! And… Action!
The scene starts smoothly. He gets out of the car. I walk over to greet him. He is a head taller than me with dark brown hair and a somewhat goofy smile. He apologizes for being late. I tell him it’s no big deal. We shake hands. As we walk into the cafeteria, we chat about job interviews. He has several coming up, and I’m applying for an internship at Microsoft that would start in January.
We finish lunch and head back to my dorm room, where we hang out for a while longer. We talk about good books we’ve read recently. Then I edge the conversation towards how Christians can do a better job of upholding traditional teaching without alienating people. It’s a good conversation, but soon it’s time for me to head over to the main campus for a chemistry lab, and time for Matt to head back home to work on job applications. Once again, I’ve flubbed the scene.
As we get in the elevator, Matt offers to give me a ride over to my chemistry lab. Instead of thanking him, I blurt out: “There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.” Then I turn bright red and clam up. He looks at me curiously, and after an awkward pause I say it: “I’m gay.”
He gives me a hug.
We talk about it in the car on the way to campus. Matt pulls into a turn-around to drop me off. “I don’t have to leave right away if you want to talk,” he says.
“I can be a few minutes late to the lab,” I say. I remember almost nothing about the conversation except this: Matt treats my struggle as just the same as he treats his own or other friends’ struggles with sexual temptation. He doesn’t really know what it would be like to be gay, but he asks good questions. I open up more. He is sympathetic.
I look at my watch. Two hours have passed. “I think I’ve missed the lab,” I say, without much regret. We chat a little longer, and finally, he offers me a ride back to the dorm. As I get out of the car, he comes around to give me a hug. “I love you,” he says. I know he’s straight, so I don’t mistake it for romantic love, but I squirm a little. He steps back, looks me in the eye and says it again: “I love you.” A pause. “Now it’s your turn,” he says quietly.
“I love you, too,” I mumble, somewhat awkwardly, struggling to maintain eye contact.
That wasn’t in the script. It is, however, the clearest reassurance I could ask for that we are still brothers in Christ.
I feel immense relief. The conversation went so well I can hardly remember why I was so afraid to start it. And as he drives away, I wonder how he managed to find the perfect line to end the scene, without having had time to rehearse.
* * *
Today is National Coming Out Day. “Coming out” is controversial for Christians, and I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect a bit on why I have chosen to be open about and write about my sexuality.
Everyone thinks about the world first through the lens of their own experience, and I’m no exception to this. When I “came out” for the first time in 1994, to my friend Matt, I was already committed to the traditional understanding of sexual ethics. I came out to several other straight Christian friends over the next three years before I talked with another out, gay person for the first time.
So for me, coming out had nothing at all to do with embracing gay culture or revisionist theology or a progressive political agenda. I told my friends I was gay because “gay” was the word everyone I knew used to describe people who were attracted to the same sex. Sometimes I had to clear up misconceptions about what I meant when I said I was “gay,” but I never ran into ordinary Christians my age with a bee in their bonnet about calling myself “same-sex attracted” rather than “gay.”
Over the next few years of college, and later as a Microsoft employee, I was moderately open about being gay. I didn’t announce it to everyone, but I became less and less concerned to hide it. It wouldn’t be the first thing you’d know about me, but if you got to know me well, it would usually come up sooner or later.
Still, the whole process was complicated. I couldn’t just talk about my sexuality in the relatively uncomplicated way that other friends could refer to theirs. Even where my friends’ heterosexual feelings were unambiguously temptations to sin, they could be brought up without the elaborate preparations that I had to make to talk about my struggles with temptation.
An important part of friendship is knowing and being known. Jesus called the disciples “friends” because He had revealed Himself and His Father’s plan to them (see John 15:15). In Spiritual Friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx wrote:
Wholly alone is one who is friendless. But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans.
The closet is the enemy of friendship.
With my friend Matt, the fear of how he would react to my revelation of my sexuality made it difficult for us to speak freely. Suppose that he spoke about his relationship with his girlfriend, or about marriage, family, and children in his future. As he revealed his hopes and dreams, could I reveal why I wasn’t dating or didn’t think it was likely I would ever marry? To reveal that seemed an enormous risk. But to hold it back was, implicitly, a rejection of his friendship. In revealing himself to me, Matt implicitly invited similar disclosure on my part. I’m sure he expected, at first, that my dreams would be like his. But to refuse disclosure entirely was, in some significant way, to refuse the invitation to know him and to be known.
Our sexuality is a central part of human experience. We begin sorting through what this means for us in middle school and high school. Who is interested in whom, who is going with whom, these are very important questions for high school social life. Boys boast of their conquests in locker rooms. Mothers walk a delicate line between fearing for their children’s moral standards and scheming with other mothers to make a suitable match for their children. The Homecoming Dance, Junior Prom, and Senior Ball are some of the biggest social events on the high school social calendar.
If you are not dating, friends ask about whom you are interested in. If you mention someone, they’re likely to try to set you up with that person. If you say you’re not interested in anyone, they keep pressing. If you say that you’re interested in someone of your own sex… Well I have no clue what would have happened because I was never foolish enough to try while I was in high school.
Adolescence is, of course, a very difficult time for everyone; everyone has secrets, fears, and insecurities. Social life, dating, and romance can be very frustrating for heterosexuals as well. However wide the gap is between their real self with all its insecurities and fears and their carefully packaged public face, however, there are significant connections. Even if the girl they are interested in thinks they are a pimple-faced geek, they can at least talk about her unattainable beauty with their other pimple-faced geek friends. Even if society has labeled them a nerd, they can band together with other nerds and plot to take over the world. Students mocked for their race can go home to a family which understands racism and can be supportive and sympathetic. Girls frustrated with boys’ sexual harassment can go to their mothers, who likely dealt with the same issues growing up.
But when I realized that I was attracted to other guys, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell anyone. Which meant that navigating the continual conversations about dating and romance was like navigating a minefield, with the constant threat that a wrong turning would destroy everything.
This had two results. First, it meant that I found myself relentlessly splitting into two parts: an academically focused over-achiever who didn’t have time for dating, but enjoyed many friendships, won honors, and who seemed to have everything; and a very lonely, sometimes suicidal, often very confused kid trying to find his way, to find friendship, and maybe love. The second result of remaining silent, and of the silence of others in my high school who were dealing with the same issues, was that we were alone. The nerds could commiserate with other nerds; the minorities could talk to other minority students and to their parents; and we had nobody to show us how to live.
In a 2003 article for New Oxford Review, I wrote,
when it comes to the Church’s teaching about same-sex attraction, we have presently a great disadvantage: those who choose to embrace the world’s teaching will find an abundance of role models, whether in the media, in the schools, or even in their own parish, for many parishes today have no shortage of publicly proclaimed dissidents. But those who choose to live a life of chastity will have the greatest difficulty finding any role models at all. Here, the Church’s teaching is almost always presented in the abstract, without in-the-flesh-models. And so it is quite common that those who realize they have same-sex attractions see no choice but to follow the world, because it is only the world that offers them role models.
I have become more open about being a celibate gay Christian because I want to combat the shame that young men and women who are coming to terms with their sexuality often feel in Christian circles. I want them to be able to be known by their friends, family members, pastors, and others who are close to them. I want them to be able to form the kind of joyful friendships with other believers that Aelred describes.
It would be nice if coming out were unnecessary. None of my straight friends would need to write a post like this trying to explain what they had gone through growing up. But then again, none of them have to fear the kind of backlash that lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians have to fear even for disclosing their sexuality in the context of talking about struggle with temptation. There is no pressure for them to keep their sexuality completely hidden. And thus no need to explain why they choose to talk about it.
I hope that the day comes when posts like this are unnecessary. In the meantime, I share my own experiences in hopes that more lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians will find a friend like Matt.
This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.