What should the Church’s message to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people be?
Typically, this question is quickly framed in terms of sexual ethics: should the Church bless same-sex marriage? Framed in this way the traditional answer—which I fully believe—is that the Church cannot bless same sex marriage, because both Old and New Testaments teach that gay sex is contrary both to God’s plan in creation and to His revealed law. I have written tens of thousands of words and participated in numerous public debates defending this position and responding to various revisionist arguments.
But there is a danger here. In today’s Gospel reading, Christ says, “But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Again, He says, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
In 2003, my friend Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that I just described. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. The essays have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. But, over the years since the essay was published, I’ve received more than a thousand emails from gay Christians who read my essay, felt convinced by my arguments, but felt that if they tried to obey the commands, they would be condemned to a life of loneliness and self-hatred.
Looking back, I realize that that essay, which probably has been read more widely than anything else I’ve written, did more to load my readers with burdens than it did to help them bear those burdens. In many ways, the Spiritual Friendship project emerged organically out of my efforts to respond to those emails, and to make good on my earlier omission.
As I’ve reflected on how to do a better job of bearing the burdens of young Christian men and women who are coming to terms with their sexuality, I’ve often thought back to my own adolescence.
I was a bit of a late bloomer, so hormones didn’t hit until my freshman year of high school. And until that time, I had no reason to even consider the possibility that I would turn out to be physically attracted to guys. I assumed that I would marry a woman and have children, and I thought about which of my female acquaintances would make a suitable match.
I think it’s worth recognizing that the desire to marry a particular person is much more complex than just the desire to have sex with that person. It also involves emotional connection, the desire to become a father (or mother) and to raise a family together. So even though I didn’t feel any physical desire for any of the girls I knew, I could still daydream about the possibility of a future together. And I think this is relatively common—most children think about marriage long before they know what sex is or have any desire for it.
During my freshman year of high school, however, my hormones began to awaken, and I realized with some shock that I was fantasizing about my male friends.
It’s difficult to describe or even remember in detail the process by which I realized my own sexuality and began to come to terms with it, because I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church where, in the late 80s and early 90s, where I heard pastors at church condemn the “homosexual agenda” as an abomination to God and a threat to America.
Yesterday, I described the paralysis I felt as I tried to come out to my friend Matt. But when I first realized I was sexually attracted to my male friends, the shame and fear of what would happen if anyone found out was almost equally paralyzing to my thoughts and memory.
I’d heard insults like “fag” or “homo” tossed around at school, but I never really figured out what they meant.
I thought of them as generic terms of abuse, not words that referred to any specific desires. And, in fact, these words are more often used more to indicate the abuser’s contempt for the victim than to make accurate observations about the victim’s sexual orientation.
I must have been in fifth grade when I participated in a conversation about Ryan White, an Indiana hemophiliac who had been diagnosed with AIDS. I remember that words like “fag,” “queer,” and “homo” got thrown around a lot. And, to my shame, I was on the side that said he should not be allowed to come to school.
I remember, in sixth grade, when I learned that the Latin name for the human species was homo sapiens, knowing that there was something funny and rather awkward about asking someone, “Are you a homo sapiens?” But I could not have explained the joke, and I had a vague sense that it would be extraordinarily awkward to ask someone else to explain it. I did not know what a “homo” was, but I knew that there was something unspeakable there, some dark meaning that could only be hinted at through jokes and insults.
My dad sometimes warned me about the danger that “queers” posed to young boys; but I don’t think I had any clear idea of what a “queer” was (some kind of wild animal, perhaps?).
But though I heard words like “fag,” “queer,” and “homo” used as insults, I don’t ever recall thinking they had anything to do with me.
One day, right around my fifteenth birthday, I had an epiphany: these fantasies meant I was attracted to men the way most of my peers were attracted to women. These attractions were what words like “gay,” “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” and “homosexual agenda” were about. And once I realized that “queer” had to do with sex, I realized that a lot of Christian condemnations of the “homosexual agenda” had to do with blaming gays for sexual promiscuity. And I realized that the danger my dad had been warning me against was rape.
You might think that I would have been horrified to realize that I belonged to a group despised by my peers and my church. And, to a certain extent, I was, so fearful that it took me a couple of years even to be able to think freely about my sexuality.
But despite those fears, my main response was to marvel at how stupid everyone I knew was when it came to homosexuality.
The way that I heard gays portrayed by my dad, by my pastors, and by my peers simply did not resonate with my own experience.
For several years, I had had what I would now describe as an unrequited crush on a friend I met when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, I can recognize what I felt when we met as a kind of love (or at least infatuation) at first sight. But at the time we met, I hadn’t even the slightest inkling that I was sexually attracted to other guys. I thought of the warmth I felt in his presence as a kind of intense friendship. Mostly, we talked about shared interests in science.
If I try to recall those years, I remember daydreaming that he and I would create a new aerospace company which would build the first American supersonic transport, and eventually take the role of lead contractor in the United States first manned mission to Mars. (I’m embarrassed to say that my sketches for the global headquarters of this future conglomerate were in the International style; my sketches for the SST, on the other hand, actually looked pretty good. If you saw them, you’d probably feel sorry we didn’t achieve our dreams.)
It sounds kind of silly looking back, but it was an intense desire to share life together, a kind of desire that I never felt for any of my female friends. However, it would be more than three years before I recognized any overt sexual attraction to him.
So when it hit me that I was sexually attracted to other guys, I had already been in love (in a typically immature, puppy-like fashion) for several years with a friend I’ll call Luke. And when I realized I was gay, those feelings were the best evidence I had about the nature of homosexual desire. When I heard pastors speaking about the “gay lifestyle,” I compared their words with my own experience, and my own experience with that of my straight peers.
Was I tempted by promiscuity, casual sex, and the other things my pastors condemned? The most direct answer to that question is: I was a fifteen-year-old human male. But I knew my straight friends well enough to know that such struggles were hardly unique to me. And many of my straight friends were significantly more sexually adventurous than I was (though the fact that they had more opportunities than I did may have played an important role in this).
Even as a teen, when hormones were at their most intense, casual sex was not my heart’s desire. I wanted to find happiness in a relationship with another man. And while sex played a part in this desire, the most important thing was to be loved and to love. I wanted to know that there was someone in the world who loved me more than anyone else, and I wanted to love him more than anyone else, as well.
I wanted a man who understood the long loneliness I had experienced growing up gay, and who I could talk to when I faced prejudice and misunderstanding. But I hoped the world was getting better, and that our relationship would gain greater acceptance as people came to understand gays and lesbians better.
I wanted to be able to take him home to meet my parents, and introduce him as the one whom I loved more than anyone else in the world, and have him welcomed into the family. I wanted him to introduce me to his parents as the one he loved more than anyone else in the world, and be part of his family. I wanted to exchange vows in front of our friends, family, and church, and celebrate our vows by dancing together at the reception.
I wanted to buy a house and make a home together. I wanted to go to garage sales and second-hand shops together, and pick out furniture and decorations for our home. I wanted him to be there when I came home at the end of the day. I wanted to find a Tiffany lamp to hang over our dining room table, and I wanted to cook romantic Italian meals that we could share by candlelight.
I wanted us to adopt children together—I thought four children would be a good family size—and change diapers and go to little league games and high school and college graduation. (I suppose we might have had to argue over which one of us got to escort our daughters down the aisle when they got married, but that seems like a minor obstacle in the larger scheme of things.)
I wanted to worship God together and share with each other the insights we gained into our faith along the way. I wanted a church that would welcome our family the way they welcomed every other family.
I wanted to be able to walk down the street holding his hand and kiss him goodbye at the airport without having to worry about stares and comments.
I even wanted to grow old together, to know that he would still be there to come home to as our hair fell out and our bodies wrinkled and grew fat. I remember wondering what love would be like in old age, and imagining running my hand over his now-bald head. It was strange to imagine as a teen, and yet somehow deeply satisfying to think that as we approached the sunset of life, we would be able to sit in armchairs by the fire, or on rocking chairs on the back porch, and reminisce about the life we had cultivated together, the friends we had shared, the children we had raised, the memories we had created, and the heirlooms we had collected.
I began a few moments ago with the question: what should the Church’s message to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people be?
If it had been possible for me to talk with my parents or my pastor or my Christian friends about these feelings, hopes, dreams, what could they say?
Freud thought that the libido, or desire for pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, was the very most basic human motivation. Following the sexual revolution, something like this idea became more and more part of the unquestioned background of our cultural understanding of relationships. In my teens, I often heard homosexuality condemned as if it was just a kind of life entirely dominated by an unchained Freudian id.
My own experience, however, taught me that that desire for another person is much more complex than the Freudian account. That kind of immediately sexual desire certainly plays a role, and often a very significant role. But I don’t think the kind of desire for shared life with Luke that I just described was really just a dressed up way of trying to have sex as often as I possibly could.
The “answer” that I got from other Christians was profoundly negative. First, I could never pursue the kind of relationship that seemed, in my adolescent eyes, as the only path to happiness. But not only could I not pursue this: even to admit the desire was profoundly dangerous. I could get beaten up at school, kicked out of my home, or shunned at church. So I also had to put up high walls that divided me from my family, my friends, and my church community.
It is true that the Bible condemns gay sex. But far more frequently, the Bible condemns self-righteous religious leaders who bind on the burdens of the law without lifting a finger to help others obey. Given the public role I have taken defending the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, I must always examine my own behavior. Am I truly helping others to live under the law that I teach? Or am I contributing to their silent suffering?
And as I survey the present state of the culture wars, I do not think I am the only Christian who could profitably ask themselves that question.
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.