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.
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.