Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part I

One of the paralyzing fears and deep dreads for a gay man pursuing celibacy is falling in love with his male best friend. It is a phenomenon that is often spoken about implicitly in gay Christian circles, it’s often given the quick theological answer of suffering for the sake of the Kingdom, and it’s one that is shared across the theological spectrum.

Matthew Vines, in a lecture on the Bible and homosexuality, remarked,

Falling in love is one of the worst things that could happen to a gay person because you will necessarily be heartbroken. You will have to run away, and that will happen every single time that you come to care about someone else too much.

And Wes Hill, after confiding in his pastor about his heart break over his best friend, writes

I didn’t want to say that was right [that I had been in love with him], because if I did, then wouldn’t that mean I would have to give up the relationship? If I admitted, “Yes, I’ve been in love with him all this time, even though I’ve tried to hide that fact, even – or especially – from myself,” then didn’t that mean I was also admitting that the friendship was all wrong? That it had to end?

For Side-A gay Christians, it is often this reason (coupled with several others) that they find celibacy unlivable choosing then to pursue deep relationality in romantic same-sex relationships. For Side-B gay Christians, they identify this as part of God’s call to bear one’s cross and deny one’s flesh, and they look to the resurrection of the body as that time when they will finally be able to connect interpersonally like their heterosexual peers. Until then, they remain in this state of brokenness and distress.

What a terrible choice to choose between a moral violation against one’s deeply-held convictions or a life of deeply searing pain and isolation. Yet thankfully this is mostly a false dilemma.

Western Evangelicalism has been plagued by a poor view of human personhood and often functions within a context where humans are reduced to biological impulses and thus the mere experience of sexual arousal is met with moral condemnation . When we start with a poor view of personhood, we can end up theologically advocating for false doctrine that harms rather than heals or binds rather than frees. By re-discovering the way that Christians have viewed human personhood and human connection, gay Christians can reframe some of these issues and can begin to imagine a better way forward that includes deep, permanent, secure relationships that are simultaneously committed to chastity in the best sense of the word.

Let’s begin by outlining a positive view of human personhood.

Christian Smith, a Roman Catholic sociologist, defines the human person as follows:

[A person is] a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who – as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions – exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.

What we glean from this more complex definition is that human personhood is itself complex. We cannot engage in a reductionistic view of human personhood. The human person is not nothing but a biologically determined reality; the human person is not nothing but a soul trapped in a body; the human person is not nothing but a sexually driven animal, and the human person is not nothing but an evil and wicked creature covered by God’s purity (as in a warped version of simul justus et peccator). We are embodied selves who exist in cultural contexts that form us and develop us. We do have biological needs, and yet we also have psychological, sociological, and spiritual needs. Because we’re influenced by these multiple levels of reality, our motivations aren’t reducible down to a single external cause.

We do, however, understand our motivations as arising from our lived experience and based on how we understand our interactions with the world. Thus, when humans engage in any behavior, it’s driven by the desire to maintain their sense of self in interaction to the surrounding world. This ‘self’ is not a Cartesian isolated mind as if the self is purely rational and contained within the body. Rather, it is best understood from a phenomenological contextualist perspective as a person’s world of experience – a self embedded in multi-leveled reality where his or her interactions with reality are saturated with personal meaning. This self then forms organizing principles about how one understands him or herself in relation to the world. These organizing principles can either more or less conform to a transcendent reality offering goods of varying degrees and using affect to signal that experiential fulfilment. This is all to say that we are primarily motivated to understand ourselves in our world and work with the world to meet our needs.

For example, a man who frequently uses pornography does so not because he is a sexual beast carrying out his primitive urges or because he is a wicked sinner desiring evil but rather he uses pornography because it provides him with goods according to his organizing principle which reinforces his sense of self. Through his fantasy life and by his own control, he can achieve goods: he can assert his masculinity, his sexual identity, his power, his desirability, etc. through his identification and interaction with these ideal images of men and/or women. Christian maturity and sanctification dictate that he must grow to meet these goods in ways that conform better with reality (ways that do not degrade the personhood of those around him as pornography does) yet it does so by still fundamentally recognizing that that these are goods his self needs for his own flourishing.

This belief about human personhood is reflected well in historic Christian orthodoxy. Because God is the ground of being and goodness, evil then is not a substance equal to God but rather a privation of the good. Human beings, therefore, never attempt to achieve evil but rather, when attempting for the good sometimes engage in behavior that limits that good. This is best demonstrated by St. Augustine when he writes, “Man obviously wills to be happy, even when he is not living in a way that makes it possible for him to attain happiness.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “in things, each one has so much good as it has being: since good and being are convertible.” Humans are motivated by the pursuit of the ultimate good and must conform to reality in order to achieve that good.

For example, I may desire to be a famous actor or a wealthy business owner. I may want to be in the limelight and be important, or I may want to have a lot of money and a big house. A temptation might be to critique my desire as vanity, as evil. What I want is bad, therefore, my desire is bad. However, there exists within my desire for fame and wealth a desire for security, safety, and value. It’s not wrong to want to be loved or to feel like I belong. What is wrong is if I engage in behavior that devalues my own humanity or the humanity of others to achieve this desire of my heart because it limits the good.

Finally, we understand human persons as inherently relational. We understand who we are through our interactions with others. We are not isolated minds bumping up against one another but actually form our personalities through our intersubjective interactions with other persons. As H.S. Sullivan once wrote, “Personality is made manifest in interpersonal situations, and not otherwise.” Because we are motivated to make meaning of ourselves and our surroundings and because we create that meaning interpersonally, we cannot help but attach to those around us. We seek those relationships where others can help us feel understood, loved, and accepted.

Keeping this understanding of personhood as our starting point, let’s examine the role and function of sexuality.

Most people hold to a Freudian understanding of sexuality. They assume that sexual arousal is a mechanistic, biological response that functions much the same way that appetite does. Just like hunger tells us to satisfy our body’s need for food, sexual arousal tells us to satisfy our body’s need for sexual pleasure. While sublimation, the movement of sexual energy to something more socially acceptable, could work for people, it was not advised long term and most were encouraged to seek after their biological sexual needs or risk developing neuroses as was prescribed by Sigmund Freud and his later prominent followers Alfred Kinsey and Wilhelm Reich.

This fundamentally views human persons as biologically determined and not the relational, interpersonal selves that we’ve now understood them to be. This also views human persons as having isolated minds interacting with objects within the environment, rather than motivated to connect interpersonally.

Sexual arousal is not a mechanistic, purely biological response but is rather motivated primarily by an interpersonal intentionality. We are sexually aroused by a person, not an object. It is our desire to be desired by this ideal person that causes our affective response. Our sexual desire points to a desire to connect with this person in an embodied way and to be loved by them. The telic end of sexual desire, then, is not orgasm or sexual pleasure but rather interpersonal connection.

This means that should it be unethical for me to engage in sexual behavior with someone who arouses me (e.g. I am not in a marital relationship with this person, the sexual act will not be open to procreation, or his or her embodiment prevents ordered sexual activity) then I either do not connect interpersonally with this person or connect interpersonally in chaste ways. This is the core tenet behind chastity and ordering one’s sexual desire.

Contextually, for the gay man, if he experiences the occasional sexual arousal toward his best friend, it is not the end of the relationship. In fact, it points to the deeper reality that he truly loves his friend. It is not a sinful, shameful stain that ruins the relationship. It is the normal functioning of two people who grow close together in intimacy, and because sexual arousal points to loving intimacy, it can simply be ordered to the life and vitality of the close friendship. His affect will eventually order within the relationship as he lives in the embodied reality with his friend.

Now, many of you might recognize the logic of what I have said and may agree with my conclusions, but you still feel the deep pain of this predicament. It reads so simple but your experience is not like this. Many of you still wrestle with the deep dread of falling in love with your best friend, the stomach-churning fear of loving someone more than he will love you, and the terror of being tossed to the curb and abandoned at the first sign of trouble and hardship. To these emotional responses, sure, having a theoretical framework explain your experience may be helpful, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

In my second and third posts, I hope to answer some of these lingering fears. After having firmly establishing the personhood ground rules to frame this conversation, I will dive deeper into relationships drawing upon the best in adult attachment literature to provide more practical solutions for gay Christians navigating this anxious terrain.

18 thoughts on “Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part I

  1. I do tend to disagree with your conclusion that sexual arousal can be a healthy part of a chaste friendship; It ignores the reality of lust, and as a Roman Catholic the ‘disorderedness’ of homosexual sexuality. In-fact your argument seems to conflate two very different things: lust and chaste love, as though the former might nourish the latter. The reality I suspect is that the former deforms the latter, and in some cases may lead to truly disordered behaviour which may ruin a perfectly good friendship. I write this as a gay Catholic man in a long-term relationship so I have nothing against chaste loving relationships per se, but the import of your argument seems to me a spiritually problematic one.

    • I conceptually distinguish sexual arousal from sexual fantasy and/or sexual behavior. I conceive that when arousal moves into fantasy or behavior, it can become lust, but never before.

      I very much follow the conceptual framework offered by Roger Scruton in his book, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. He recognizes a phenomenon that occurs prior to sexual fantasy or sexual behavior that encompasses a “more passive state of mind — the state of arousal, in which the body of one person awakens to the presence or thought of another” (p 16). This is what I mean by sexual arousal and why it points to an interpersonal intentionality and thus is not necessarily antithetical to chastity. As soon as arousal turns to objectification (regardless of orientation), it becomes disordered (lust).

      While I’d recommend the book, Matthew Lee Anderson’s writing on this topic might be more accessible to you:

      • Thank you for the explanation and the Scruton recommendation (he’s really quite wonderful!). Anderson is great too so I’ll have to read through his article at some point.

  2. I think you do a disservice to Freud here.

    Whatever he may have thought about purely biological aspects drives, the field of Psychoanalysis he opened up was the *first* to realize something along the lines of “Sexual arousal is not a mechanistic, purely biological response but is rather motivated primarily by an interpersonal intentionality. We are sexually aroused by a person, not an object. It is our desire to be desired by this ideal person that causes our affective response.”

    I mean, that’s basically Object Relations theory in a nutshell.

    Frankly, the Medieval (Christian/Catholic) understanding of Lust is much more “an animal drive vaguely analogous to Gluttony for food.”

    Don’t put that on Freud! (Or, at least, don’t reduce his “followers” to Kinsey and Reich as opposed to, say, Klein and Fairbairn and Kinsberg).

    One wonders, though, if both could be true in different cultures? Perhaps medieval sexuality was just more “simple” and merely a matter for the virtue of Temperance to discipline.

    Maybe the reason it took so long for Psychoanalysis to discover the “real truth” of the complex symbolic interactions going on in the subconscious was less that we finally had people smart enough to see what had been true since the foundation of the world, and more that the complexity “discovered” had really only recently developed. Or maybe that subconscious complexity had always been there in an elite stratum of refined sensitive members of the arts and aristocracy, but had only in the 19th century begun to reach a critical mass of trickling down to the masses.

    You speak as if Christian phenomenologists were the ones who realized all the symbolic psychological goods at stake in (modern) sexuality/eroticism (“assert his masculinity, his sexual identity, his power, his desirability, etc. through his identification and interaction with these ideal images”). But this is a pretty big misrepresentation! Laughable even. It was Psychoanalysis which discovered this idea of deeper and more human symbolic motivations, not the Church. (But then, the way Vatican II/JPII Catholics speak, it’s almost as if they believe the Church also invented democracy, human rights, and the Enlightenment generally…)

    I wouldn’t dismiss Freud. He *helps* your case here in that it is he who begins to unmask the truth that modern “falling in love” (I say “modern” but I’m not denying the same phenomenon perhaps manifested itself as Eros in refined circles of ancient Athens and as Courtly Love in the refined medieval upper crust)…is not simply a “given” that we cannot question like our hunger for food, but rather that it’s perceived “urgency” or existential necessity actually comes from how the modern psyche or Self is (often) constituted.

    And that this constitution isn’t necessarily healthy but quite possibly pathological or at least developmentally stunted. Representing, for one example (though I’m sure there are many creative structures in many different people), a compartmentalization and repression of aggression and longing in order to preserve the idealized mother-image, etc.

    With complex object-relations resulting that require projective identification and frustrating transference dynamics with idealized exciting objects (or rejected objects, or rejecting objects)…that always disappoint and which may explain the high divorce rate and serial monogamy of this Age of “Woody Allen Heterosexuality” in which all sorts of personal meaning has been hyperinvested in and projected onto sexuality and marriage, which are perhaps too weak of vessels to actually bear it…

    • I was primarily critiquing Freud’s drive theory, so you’re right to seek clarification from me on that. My whole post is saturated with psychology and philosophy of the mind so I definitely don’t discard all of Freud’s work. I’m a huge proponent of phenomenological contextualist psychoanalysis as espoused in the work of the psychoanalytic Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange, so I definitely recognize the validity of the psychological realm and psychoanalysis as a therapeutic lens. I also believe that Freud was wrong about a lot. The reason why I mentioned Kinsey and Reich is because they’ve been responsible for popularizing drive theory in sexuality where Fairbairn and Klein critiqued drive theory (as well as other followers like Ainsworth, Bowlby, Kohut, etc).

      I’d also be careful not to view everything through Object-Relations. It’s a good lens but its definitely not a full picture of human functioning and has some issues with its strong import of Cartesianism (as most psychoanalysis has).

  3. As a Side A gay christian, I’ve been told many times by other completely well-meaning Christians that I should be celibate, no matter what. In that regard, what you wrote here about the subsequent choice that Side A Christians make is spot on.

    The thing is, I had this conversation with a deeply conservative Christian friend of mine hardly a year after finally coming out. I knew that she meant well, but she was incredibly persistent in telling me that I must always be celibate, because of what the Bible appears to say regarding homosexual relationships.

    I initially thought for a while that I could make myself happy being celibate and single. To say that it didn’t work would be putting things far too lightly. Just in the last 3 years alone, I’ve had numerous moments in my loneliness where the pain of not having a partner felt like a crushing weight on my soul. And so, my goal is to find the right guy one day, whenever the moment is right.

    Please understand that I fully respect the choice that any Side B individual makes to be celibate. I have no intention of asserting that it’s a horrible choice for them to make. But for me, I don’t feel like I can make myself remain single forever and truly be at peace.

    Thank you for writing this article, it was very well written and thought provoking.

  4. You sure do seem to have an ax to grind against the Cartesian model. That said, I am not sure believing the Cartesian Dualism view about the soul/body relation necessarily means that one doesn’t view the world through a similar lens concerning interpersonal intentionality or the way we interact with the world.

    I am a Descartes man myself. Been one ever since I took a gross anatomy class at university. Cutting open a real cadaver and seeing what we really are dispelled a lot of the romanticism about the reality of human life to me. Definitely shattered the Aristotelian view. We are sentience (a soul) riding around in a meat bicycle (the flesh) that serves as a vector for interacting with the world. The meat serves the mind.

    The philosophical nitpicks aside, getting occasionally aroused for a friend is natural. As long as you don’t act or dwell on it I don’t see much of an issue. If you really feel bad about it, pray that God takes the feeling away if that be his will. If you still get the feeling then that is means God doesn’t mind it or that God dropped the ball and it is his fault. Either way, you are free from guilt – you made a report to the boss. All you can do.

    • cutting up a cadaver and seeing the lifeless flesh is not necessarily contrary to the Aristotelian view. Aristotle says that when an eye stops working, it is not an eye, it is merely an eye in name, like that of the eye of a statue. and so cutting up the body and seeing the insentience and the personhood in the body is not contrary to Aristotle. the body is simply no longer the self, it is merely that person in name early, because it no longer works.

  5. Interesting piece.

    I’ve often wondered whether or not I was gay. It’s pieces like this that convince me that I’m not, and help me to see that being gay is something more specific than being queer.

    I have a strong aesthetic preference for the same sex. In fact, I don’t find women to be attractive at all, except in rare cases. And I don’t generally find myself being sexually attracted to anyone. I desire sex about as much as I desire going to the dentist. So, my relationships with other men fit a fairly “straight” narrative, and I don’t feel a desire for anything else. I have a hard time conceiving of what it would be like to desire emotional dependence on another guy. Thus, I can’t conceive of falling in love with another guy. And neither can I conceive of wanting to be around a woman for the rest of my life. I’m actually fairly content just living independently. If I find myself attracted to gay culture, it is only because I face less judgment for being single among gay people than among straights.

    I used to think that this is what it’s like to be gay. In fact, I came out as gay at one point in time, but it never felt like the correct identity for me. I’m thankful for pieces like this because it helps me see the diversity of our various experiences of attraction. I’m probably just an asexual who thinks that male bodies are more physically attractive than female bodies.

    That said, sexuality is far more diverse than the binary categories that captivate our culture. I’m glad that this blog is less political and more reflective on our human diversity.

  6. Really appreciated what you wrote here:

    ‘Contextually, for the gay man, if he experiences the occasional sexual arousal toward his best friend, it is not the end of the relationship. In fact, it points to the deeper reality that he truly loves his friend. It is not a sinful, shameful stain that ruins the relationship. It is the normal functioning of two people who grow close together in intimacy, and because sexual arousal points to loving intimacy, it can simply be ordered to the life and vitality of the close friendship. His affect will eventually order within the relationship as he lives in the embodied reality with his friend.’

    One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome was learning that these attractions in and of themselves are not innately wrong but could be used in such away to deepen friendships by focusing in on enjoying the beauty of who they are as someone loved and made by God. Thank you for tackling this topic, I wish it was something I had exposed myself too thought wise in my late teens and twenties.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful post. Perhaps you could help me with this: does scripture really only critique action and not motive, thought, or desire?

    You write at one point, “It’s not wrong to want to be loved or to feel like I belong. What is wrong is if I engage in behavior that devalues my own humanity or the humanity of others to achieve this desire of my heart because it limits the good.” And I agree that many of the desires within us are good, for example, the desire to be loved, to belong.

    However, Jesus seems to move away from behaviors towards what’s going on in the heart. He moves from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. And Paul often does the same thing.

    The particularly threatening implication for this line of thought is that same sex attraction itself would then be considered sinful (at least in the Side B camp it should be) – not just same sex sexual activity. To clarify – because same sex attraction is a misalignment with God’s perfect design in creation (in the Side B camp), then it’s not merely the activity but the alignment that is broken and wrong and must be corrected.

    I’m not sharing this as a curmudgeon but with real curiosity (and I’m not sure if I’m Side A or Side B at this point of my journey so I don’t have an axe to grind here). I’d welcome any insight you would share with me. Thanks.

    • You’re right to identify Jesus’s critique of intentionality and matters of the heart. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ raises the standard for righteousness by identifying not only sinful behavior but also sinful dispositions. His focus on holiness ultimately climaxes with the command to be perfect in love.

      I do say disordered loves are sinful. That’s why I advocate for acknowledging the good that a person is truly seeking and ordering his or her behavior and disposition to follow that good. As we find ourselves aroused by another, how do we respond to it by growing in chaste intimacy and embodied love?

    • I’m not gay, so maybe I’m not the best one to respond. But I think straight people often assume that being gay is reducible to a desire for gay sex. It is not, at least not any more than heterosexual relationships are reducible to a desire for sex.

      It also shouldn’t be lost on us that we live in a world of pairing. Before the 1950s, about 10-15% of the adult population didn’t marry. And married life didn’t revolve around one’s partner to the extent that it does today. Married men tended to spend a lot more time with other men than they do today, and married women tended to spend a lot more time with married women than they do today.

      That began to change in the 1950s. Marriage today requires a strong desire to want to be around someone of the opposite sex a lot of the time. I’m single because I only enjoy being around women on a fairly limited basis, and especially not within my domestic space. And I have no desire for sex, so marriage to a woman offers very few benefits and presents me with a lot of costs. I often feel an attraction to a same-sex relationship because I think men are more attractive and because I generally can stand having another guy around my living space. I wouldn’t want to have sex. But I’ve run into some number of guys–some of whom identify as gay–who aren’t too different from me. As I noted above, I’m asexual, meaning that I don’t experience sexual attraction. I’m also strongly dismissive in my attachment style, so I don’t like to be dependent on others and don’t want them to be dependent on my. In my gay dating experiences, I found that my asexuality wasn’t that big of a problem. I found that a lot of gay-identifying guys were not as into sex as they may let on, and felt relieved to meet someone who wasn’t. My gay dating crashes occurred at an emotional level. I found that many gay-identifying guys are looking to connect emotionally with another guy. So, from my experience, I’d suggest that, if being gay is reducible to anything, it’s reducible to having a desire to emotionally connect with and depend on another person of the same sex. And it’s hard for me to see how the desire for that is sinful.

      I started hanging out at some “gaybro” events, where the guys were mostly like me…mostly hard-driving professionals who didn’t have a strong desire for sex, preferred to remain emotionally distant from people, and were tired of being nagged about not having a girlfriend. So, they came out as gay to shut everyone up. I’ve still not told my mom that I no longer identify as gay because it’s been more than 3 years since she’s asked me when I’m going to get married. It’s great. In my opinion, at an aesthetic level, men are more attractive than women. And I connect better with guys personally, because they respect my emotional space better than women do. But I identified as gay for three years. And I still go to gay clubs and hang out with gay friends. In some ways, I just like the unscriptedness of gay life better than the scriptedness of straight life.

      So, when I read crap like what Denny Burk writes, I really wonder who his gay interlocutors are. I suspect that he’s simply just created a hypothetical gay person in his mind, designed perfectly to receive the condemnation of fundamentalist pastors. But I’ve rarely met a gay person who fits that description. Identifying as gay can mean a lot of different things.

  8. Pingback: Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part II | Spiritual Friendship

  9. Pingback: Gay Men and Falling In Love – Part III | Spiritual Friendship

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