The Pursuit of Banality

Gregory Coles is the author of Single, Gay, Christian, a memoir about faith and sexual identity that will be released tomorrow (August 22) by InterVarsity Press. He’s also a piano player, a baker, a worship leader, and a PhD candidate in English, not necessarily in that order.

Greg Coles

In my ideal world, being gay and celibate wouldn’t occupy a great deal of my thought life. (Not-having-sex doesn’t take very much time, after all…)

I’m not saying that I never want to think about being gay. It’s an important part of my experience of the world. The ways I’ve encountered Jesus, the dreams I’ve given up for him, the joys I’ve discovered along the way—those things are all indelibly informed by my sexuality. I face different challenges and enjoy different opportunities because of my same-sex orientation. The last thing I want to do is scrub away my life’s particular details with a bottle of Clorox and a sponge.

But if I had my way, I would think about gay celibacy the same way I think about my career options, or what I should have for dinner, or whether I want a pet ferret. I would think about it the way I imagine that straight people think about being straight, as if it’s simply part of life. It wouldn’t need to be a stentorian shout or an embarrassed whisper in the chambers of my mind. It would just be. It would be normal. It would be banal.

And yet, in the six months since I’ve come out as a celibate gay Christian, the topic of my sexuality has been anything but banal. I’ve had countless conversations, received countless emails and phone calls and text messages from people reassuring me of their love for me—or, more rarely, of their concern or disagreement or distaste. I’ve fielded countless questions. These interactions have (mostly) been precious gifts. But there’s no denying that they take thought.

Then, in addition to all the people who have wanted to talk to me, there are the ones who haven’t. The people who casually unfriended me on Facebook and disappeared from my life. The people who would talk about everything but sexuality with me, cleverly changing the topic as soon as we got close. (“…but tell me more about your bakery job!”) The people who might have been smiling less than usual when they passed me in the hallway, but maybe I was just imagining it. Those things shouldn’t have to take thought, I suppose, but they do.

I dream of a day when being gay and celibate consumes a relatively small portion of my emotional bandwidth. But today isn’t that day. I’m not holding my breath for tomorrow, either.

Even so, there’s no part of me (or only a very small, irrational part) that wishes I’d stayed in the closet. Keeping quiet about my sexuality didn’t keep me from thinking about it. Quite the opposite. The isolation and loneliness I felt during those fourteen years intensified as time went on. The longer I hid, the larger my secret seemed to loom in the shadows, growing fat on a diet of whispers.

The world I’m dreaming of is a world in which I could be totally honest about my sexuality without feeling like a spectacle, like a bicycle-riding baboon. I’m dreaming of churches where the statement “I’m gay” is no more or less controversial than “I’m straight,” because both orientations can lead to sin or be stewarded to honor God. I’m dreaming of banality.

Imagine it: A sweet elderly lady at my church offers to set me up with her granddaughter. “No thanks,” I answer. “I’m gay, and I don’t think marriage is in the cards for me.” I say it casually, as if I were telling her my hometown or my appreciation for Shakespearean sonnets. And she doesn’t bat an eyelid. She just nods, and we carry on chatting, and then she ambles off to find a more suitable prospective grandson-in-law.

To be clear, in wishing for banality, I’m not wishing that we didn’t take the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics seriously. On the contrary, I’m wishing that we took it seriously enough to stop getting freaked out by same-sex-oriented people who want to live according to that teaching.

For Christians of a certain ilk—and a rather vocal ilk, at that—my conundrum might be solved if I stopped calling myself “gay.” To be “gay,” these folks often argue, is to focus overmuch on the nature of your sexual attractions, to take on a totalizing identity that crowds out a gospel-oriented Christian identity. If this is true, the key to banality must be the erasure of the label “gay.” If we euphemize it into obscurity, surely its grip will disappear.

I’ve got a few concerns with this approach, most of which have already been more eloquently articulated by others. (See, for instance, Eve Tushnet’s brilliant discussion of what we lose when we lose the ability to say “because I’m gay.”) But as it concerns banality, my primary objection to this approach is that avoiding words or euphemizing them rarely makes them seem less important. Just think of the perpetual unnaming of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in Harry Potter. The citizens of Harry’s world (and we Potter-savvy muggles) know who “he” is without being told, as if “he” had always been a part of their previous sentence. The things we fear to speak aloud are destined to become our eternal antecedents. By removing the names of things, we make them omnipresent.

How, then, can I pursue banality? If I can’t stop calling myself gay, can’t pretend my sexuality doesn’t exist, can’t cram myself indecorously back into the closet… what route is left?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the road to banality runs through outspokenness. The more we tell our stories of being gay and faithfully following Jesus, the more our churches can become places where people like us are invited to belong. I talk about being gay—I let it take up more of my thought life than I wish it would—not because I want to focus on it forever, but because I want to make room for myself and people like me to stop focusing on it. It might take us a while, but that’s okay. I can wait. All I need is stamina for the meantime.

I dream of a world, a hundred years from now, where a sixteen-year-old boy can say to his youth pastor with a shrug, “I’m pretty sure I’m gay.” And that youth pastor can shrug back and say, “Me too. Let’s talk about what it might look like for you to follow Jesus. I promise it will cost you everything—and I promise it will be totally worth it.”

Maybe, if we keep telling stories, that dream can become a reality.

25 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Banality

  1. Words matter. They do. Words are powerful and can hurt and destroy as well as define a person for good or bad.
    Your word ‘ilk’ for example that you use to describe me just because I refuse to call myself “gay”. That word is derogatory. The Urban dictionary has it as a connotation of a typed group being of bad or questionable character and I agree the modern use of the word isn’t what it used to be. So for the word gay — negative connotations.
    But, I understand your drift which is most refreshing and redemptive. Especially, ” “Me too. Let’s talk about what it might look like for you to follow Jesus. I promise it will cost you everything—and I promise it will be totally worth it.” That’s precious!

    • ” For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

      And I would suggest neither words not labels can separate us from God’s love.

      Have peace Mike.

  2. I am fascinated with this post and am eager to reveal that I live the life of banality you are pursuing. Despite knowing myself to be gay for at least forty years, I have chosen to keep that knowledge private from about 98% of the people in my circles. Consequently, my children will never have to know me as their ‘gay dad’. My parents will never have to know me as their ‘gay son’. My congregants will never have to know me as their ‘gay pastor’. And my musical associates will never have to know me as their ‘gay pianist’, ‘gay choir director’, or ‘gay worship leader’. My wife died several years ago, so now when my friends decide that I need a girlfriend, I just say that “I’m not looking for anyone right now because I’m very content with being single.” The freedom that results from sexual anonymity is a gift from God that I’m grateful for every day. And yet, I don’t deny my homosexual struggle – not for a minute. That’s where the other 2% of my friends come in. They are God’s provision to help me deal with my daily challenges – my prayer partners, my crying shoulders, my godly encouragers. They are the ones who allow me to be able to have those “Me, too!” conversations with young men who are coming to terms with their sexuality. I’m able to challenge and encourage them to take up their crosses and walk the narrow road, just as I’ve done for the past four decades. So ‘banality’ is exactly how I would classify my life these days. I’ve learned how to live with the normality of sexual temptation, not as a ‘gay man’, but as a ‘man’, pure and simple…and that’s the best kind of banality there is.

  3. Gregory these are very strong words and don’t come close to being banal. You’re desire to follow Christ regardless of your sexuality is apparent. I’m a gay catholic man and unfortunately am afflicted with AIDS. Some where here I have written an account of this. One very rare condition of AIDS is a person can experience complete loss of sexual function, which is my case. I have even lost the sense of lust. This has brought me to a new point in life and even refreshing. Completely void of any sexual desire. I almost died a number of times in the hospital and I firmly believe Jesus was saying, okay Ernesto you’ve had enough sex. Time for you to move on. And I have. My faith has greatly improved over the last two years of my illness, but I’m still a gay man even without all that functionality. I’m more at peace than ever before. I’m currently writing a book about this and my life experiences. Peace…

  4. First of all let me say that I am glad that you are determined to avoid sexual sin, rather than find a way to justify homosexual behavior. That is difficult and praiseworthy.

    My concern is that in accepting “gayness” as a fixed identity, you are aiming too low. You should hope that those desires will go away some day, as they have for others, even as you recognize that you have them today.

    If you consider creation, had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would not have had gay children. Those children, if they existed, would not be able to obey God’s command to “go forth and multiply” in a joyful manner. From that we can conclude that gayness was not a part of God’s creation that was “very good,” but instead was introduced with the Curse in Genesis 3 as an impediment to multiplication and, as Malachi says, “Raising up a godly seed.”

    I know that for many if not most homosexuals, you don’t feel like you chose this orientation. However, since it is not part of creation, you may hope to be delivered from it, if not in life then finally at death.

    But once again, I write this not to condemn you but to encourage you. God may have plans for you that are way beyond what you imagine now.

  5. I look forward to reading the book.

    That said, the whole A/B controversy has always seemed a bit contrived to me. It seems to prevent the kind of banality that the author rightly seeks.

    As for Side A, it seems to embrace a notion of same-sex marriage that looks little different from opposite-sex marriage. It requires one to buy into the notion that the sex of the parties is an interchangeable variable in the context of marriage. I find this to be a rather ridiculous notion. I’m generally open to the notion of committed opposite-sex relationships. But I see no reason why they should necessarily model themselves after opposite-sex marriage as an ideal.

    As for Side B, it seems to obsess too much over celibacy. In a certain sense, it buys into the same ridiculous Side A notion that opposite-sex marriage is the model for committed human relationships. And because the proponents of this view seem to believe that true marriage can only involve members of the opposite sex, they promote perpetual singleness.

    I believe that the better path lies somewhere in between. Contrary to the views of Side A folks, I see no reason why same-sex couples should necessarily conform their relationships to the prevailing social models for opposite-sex marriage. And contrary to the views of Side B folks, I see no reason why singleness is the only option open to gay Christians. Something akin to a committed friendship seems more appropriate. And whether, and to what extent, those relationships have a sexual component ought to be private matters between the couple and their pastors.

      • Don’t get me started on the “purity culture” and the whole notion of “waiting for marriage.” It’s probably decent practical wisdom. But it’s unclear that it’s biblically mandated.

      • There is a clear biblical standard – no sex outside of marriage(original meaning) Matthew 5. How we all live up to that standard is a different matter. Just as the greatest commandment is ““Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” which each and every one of us fails to obey – because it’s not in our sinful nature to do so.

        Nothing wrong with purity culture if it’s a statement of the requirement. It only goes wrong when some pretend that they are more able/qualified to fulfill that requirement than others.

      • I don’t think there are any more or any less side A people waiting for marriage than straight or otherwise. We humans are all cut form the same cloth.

      • I disagree. It’s only an observation but gay men, whether they are Christian or not, make allowances for (meaning justify) their more ‘gregarious’ sexual appetites than they are (typically) willing to admit. Lesbians are certainly different. Both are a kind of distortion of the ideal – and yes it’s a mindfck being one of those persons who is aware that ‘natural’ sexuality isn’t… part of the Creator’s original plan.

      • I get what you’re saying. That said, I think it depends a lot on the crowd you’re with. Before 2012, most gay men were fairly careful about disclosing their sexuality. Thus, until very recently, the more visible examples of male homosexuality tended to veer toward a certain campy, hyper-sexualized narrative. Those guys still exist, but they are becoming outnumbered by the ever-increasing number of out gay guys who come off as pretty normal dudes. I work for a law firm that consistently scores near the top of the list as a gay-friendly workplace law firm. And I think that that’s true. Even so, most of gay male colleagues remain fairly discreet about their sexual orientation, at least at work. And, when they go out, they go to the same bars and restaurants as other upper-income professionals. Being gay has become increasingly banal for under-40 professionals.

      • Joe, disagree all you want. I was out and in the LGBT community for 19 years and before that in the straight community for 33 years and I can tell you straight people are no different, no better, no less perverted, no more perverted no more sexual, no less sexual than you and me. It depends on who you associate with.

        I happened to live in the suburbs for many years and moved around quite a bit. I socialized with all my neighbours and the gay couples both men and women that I met lived normal lives as couples– just like straight married folk– including myself.

        The sexual appetite argument you are peddling is a bad stereotype that needs to be debunked quite vigorously .

        The problem LGBT people are faced with in my observations is that– we are told through perpetuating stereotypes by your kind of statements and those who are living or who have lived a sexually promiscuous lifestyle that “we are that way”.

        Movies, stories, music, advertisements are in many cases geared towards sex but don’t try to say it is only gay people buying into that life. Straight people are obsessed with the topic of cheating and adulterous affairs as well as perversion and one night stands. It generates revenue.

        The sex industry is a multi billion dollar industry fuelled by straight money. Straight people are their most important customers, so, I think the stereotype you are making here needs to be looked at more critically and with more understanding on the topic of human sexuality.

      • Evan773, I found your comment interesting how it divided down the male/female lines and not really the gay/straight line.

        Sexual appetite, in men is primarily about testosterone levels not orientation. And for example those who transition from female to male and start taking testosterone find they have an increase in sexual appetite.

        So this is a good point.

      • I understand the (political) motivation behind debunking stereotypes. Perhaps by using the word “appetite” I gave the impression that I think gay men are inclined to want more sexual partners than straight men. They certainly do seek out more partners – as countless surveys have confirmed.

        Conversations between gay men about sex and relationships are slightly less ‘coy’ than they are between gay men and straights/women. That’s also true of gay Christians – who are under much greater social pressure to value/promote monogamy.

        When it comes down to what people actually do (rather than what they desire) the main limiting factor is the presence of women.

      • BTW when my straight male friends (who aren’t Christians) talk about sex it is mostly talk about pornography and what they liked to do – as equally “promiscuous” as gay male talk but, generally speaking, containing fewer reports of actual hook-ups, one night stands etc.

      • Let’s be honest Joe, making stereotypical statements on a blog for all to see is political.

        As well, it occurred to me while reading your comment that Jesus said it’s what comes out of your heart that spoils you and he also said, looking at a woman with lust is sin. Therefore talking may be equal to acting in God’s view. This is a debate between some christians but I generally believe Jesus has a good grasp on where sinful desire originates.

        As far a myself I don’t dwell on sexual fantasies or have a preoccupation with sex and that discipline has never changed who I am attracted to.

      • Joe, I would like to see what countless studies you are referring to that reveal gay men seek out more partners.

        Statistic gathering often coincides with social change and cultural movements of a specific time or place and are useful for policy making (or misused in policy making)– and are often open to evaluation or critique. They are never used to tell truth but to reveal trends. Do you understand the difference between the kinds of statistic gathering that is done? (i.e.: qualitative vs quantitative research methods?)

        I heard the other day that Ghengis Khan’s sexual appetite was so prolific his genes are responsible for 1/200 people who are alive today on earth. How is that for a statistic? And, what about Solomon and his 700 concubines? What about the stories rock stars tell about their sexual escapades?

        I don’t think comparing the sexual appetites of gay men to straight men is a worthwhile argument considering the many extenuating factors such as socio-economic influences impacting them.

        I am not trying to criticize you personally, Joe, but I would say you need to go deeper with your understanding.

      • All of the stereotypes about gay men are true though! LOL I have tried to shake them off but 30 years of hanging out with gay men of every type of class, race, educational & cultural background has only reinforced them..

        Look I know conservative Christians do things slightly differently. Perhaps it’s because I naturally gravitate towards working-class Christians in real life, as few and far between as they are in my part of the world, that I feel no great pressure discuss these things the way most side A/B commentators do.

      • I can understand that your experience has caused your bias — my personal experience has show that the stereotype does not hold true and is not consistent and my years of being around gay people equals yours.

        But Joe you did claim there are countless statistical surveys which prove your point, not your personal experience, in your previous comment. The comparison we are talking about here is between gay and straight men and thier behaviour.

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