This Huffington Post article, by Michael Hobbes, on “gay loneliness after gay rights” has been making the rounds. I first saw it when a friend of mine sent me the link last week, and I was truly moved by it. Here’s a taste:
The term researchers use to explain this phenomenon [of disproportionate experiences of depression, loneliness, and suicide among gay men] is “minority stress.” In its most direct form, it’s pretty simple: Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.
For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.
John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect — not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them. “No one has to call you queer for you to adjust your behavior to avoid being called that,” Salway says.
James, now a mostly-out 20-year-old, tells me that in seventh grade, when he was a closeted 12-year-old, a female classmate asked him what he thought about another girl. “Well, she looks like a man,” he said, without thinking, “so yeah, maybe I would have sex with her.”
Immediately, he says, he panicked. “I was like, did anyone catch that? Did they tell anyone else I said it that way?”
This is how I spent my adolescence, too: being careful, slipping up, stressing out, overcompensating. Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. “Dude, did you just check me out?” he said. I managed to deflect — something like “Sorry, you’re not my type” — then I spent weeks afterward worried about what he was thinking about me. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.
The whole article is worth your attention, and it’s already prompted a lot of conversation in my circles, but I just want to make two brief points that I haven’t seen others making in quite the same way.
In the first place, those of us — like me — who believe, for Christian theological reasons, that gay sex is morally wrong and therefore have a sort of vested interest in seizing on articles like this as proof of sin’s deleterious effects need to exercise extreme caution — both as we read the articles themselves, paying close attention to any potential confusion of correlation and causation, and as we talk about them with others, especially those who aren’t Christians or who aren’t convinced of the goodness of traditional Christian sexual ethics.
Much of the “traditionalist” Christian writing I’ve seen on homosexuality from the past few decades seems to follow a similar tack: as a preliminary step, they describe all the undesirable consequences that allegedly are caused or exacerbated by same-sex sexual behavior, and then, for the punch line, they say, “But following the traditional Christian sexual ethic will spare you all of that — so, come to Jesus!” This approach often appears to relish the lurid details of the seamier side of gay life and sometimes seems to gleefully fixate on supposed physical dangers associated with particular sex acts while neglecting to talk about any goods in gay relationships, and, on the flipside, it can easily present the gospel as a “fix” for human psychological ills. On both of these fronts, I’m dubious about it.
I’ve written elsewhere about the problem of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religious blackmail”: “those styles of evangelistic preaching that seek first to persuade people how wretched and miserable they are,” as Ian McFarland describes them, “and only then introduce Jesus Christ as the cure for their condition.” We should avoid this type of blackmail, regardless of any pathologies, imagined or real, that may beset the gay community. The gospel of Christ is a message of forgiveness and healing and eternal life — but not necessarily or straightforwardly a “solution” to any temporal maladies, though we may wish for and work hard for its benefits to be known and felt in the here and now (as in social justice work, and much else, that would help ease the suffering of gay communities). Robert Jenson has put the point with his characteristic pungency:
Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may in their own ways be describable as “forgiveness” or “liberation” and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: “We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.”
Alas, I fear he’s correct.
The second point I want to make is a slightly hazy one that I am trying to feel my way towards: Reading this HuffPo article made me want to talk with my gay friends who aren’t Christians about the possibility of a shared loneliness. One of my primary experiences as a same-sex attracted man — and I really do think it is somehow deeply implicated in my homosexuality — has been, and is presently, loneliness. And if this article by Michael Hobbes is at all on the right track, then many irreligious gay men also experience loneliness at a basic, defining level. And my instinct is to say, Here is a possibility for real solidarity between us, somehow, in some way.
One of the ways I think about my task as a Christian is that I am called, in Tom Wright’s words, to enter into “the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.” I am to participate in the world’s own groaning, including the groaning of my fellow gay men who aren’t Christians. But — and here’s the thing — I am not to do so from a place of superiority, as if my speaking the gospel to them has to involve an uncomplicated “before-and-after” testimony of how to escape gay loneliness, as if I can look down from a height I’ve scaled and offer assistance from a posture of carefree safety. Rather, if my deep human pain and loneliness has been shared by Christ — if in fact He has entered into my pain and born it on my behalf — then my calling, in union with Him now, is not to extricate myself from the human suffering He chose to share but rather to share it too, as a way of loving others, as a way of Christianly standing within (not apart from) the world’s brokenness.
Christ became human not so that my Christian life can be a release from the world’s humanity but so that, through baptism, I might now stand with the world for the world’s healing. Baptism, as the Episcopal priest and writer Fleming Rutledge has written,
means adoption into God’s family, lasting fellowship with him and the other brothers and sisters, the forgiveness of sins, empowerment for a life of joyful service, and the promise of eternal life — but it also means, inevitably, entering into a life of identification with the world just as the Son of God did…. To be a baptized Christian, then, means to be actively involved in the world as Christ was — not standing apart from it while it goes to hell, but taking its wounds, scars, and afflictions upon ourselves.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. If gay loneliness can be alleviated through greater understanding of its causes, then by all means let’s pursue its alleviation. If any homophobia or bigotry, Christian or otherwise, is contributing to the alienation and marginalization of gay men, then by all means let’s renounce those things and redouble our efforts to fight against it. I hope I’m not advocating quietism here. But, as we fight, and as we experience the travails of the status viatoris, the ache of not having arrived at our destination yet on the pilgrim road, I hope we can cultivate some empathy and solidarity in the meantime. Wright again:
We [Christians] are to stand or kneel at the place where the world [is] in pain and need, and, understanding and feeling their sufferings, to pray with and for them, not knowing… what precisely to ask for, but allowing the Spirit to pray within us with groanings that cannot come into articulate speech.
Reading this HuffPo article on gay loneliness, in short, made want me to compare notes with my gay friends, especially my gay friends who aren’t Christians. It made me want to say, “I feel this loneliness, or at least a deeply related kind of loneliness, too.” If in some small way that instinct can lead to any kind of deeper hope, for all of us, and maybe also some kind of deeper camaraderie or loyalty between us, I would be glad.