On Gay Loneliness

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.

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Permission to Lament

In one of Henri Nouwen’s newly published letters, there comes this moment of real human transparency and frailty:

What I keep hoping for are friends who protect, support and care for my celibate choice while not withholding from me a nurturing affective friendship that allows me to shed some tears of loneliness from time to time and return to the “battlefield” knowing that I have friends who support me.

Nouwen, for those readers who may not know, was a renowned priest and spiritual guide, in person as he taught at Harvard and Yale and worked among disabled persons at L’Arche and through his many books and talks, and was outed as gay after his death in 1996 by his first biographer. His story of ongoing, unchanged same-sex longings and vowed, evidently lifelong celibacy has given a lot of hope and courage to many of us who blog here at SF. If an evangelical Anglican may be permitted patron saints, Nouwen is certainly mine. (I even have an icon of him hanging in my office; just don’t tell the Dean of my seminary!)

When I read this portion of one of his letters, I underlined it immediately. It sounds like the sort of thing I’ve said to numerous friends over the years: “Please do support me in my choice to be celibate—please help me live out that commitment well. But please also let me also talk openly from time to time about the loneliness it inevitably involves. Let me lament, and please don’t offer cheap comfort.” As I’ve sought to live my life as an openly gay, celibate Christian in the church, one of the most encouraging gifts I’ve received from my fellow Christians is permission to “shed some tears of loneliness from time to time.”

For me it’s crucial to distinguish lament from despair. The Catholic theologian Josef Pieper has described the latter as the conclusion that we will never arrive at our heavenly home. If hope is the characteristic posture of wayfaring Christians, of believers who are “on the way,” then despair is its inversion. If hope says, “I’m not there yet, but I’m counting on what I can’t see,” despair says, “I’m not there yet, and I never will be.” Despair is a rejection of wayfaring. Despair is giving up on the pilgrim way. Despair is sitting down on the side of the road in the certainty that it leads nowhere, that there is no new Jerusalem lying at its end.

But lament is different. If despair says, “The road has no destination,” lament sounds a contrasting note: “I know there will be joy when I arrive at the destination, but I’m not there yet, and this road feels very long and hard sometimes.” If despair gives up on the pilgrim way, lament keeps putting one foot in front of the other—while crying (Psalm 126:5-6). If despair’s head is downcast, lament’s face may be shining with tears but it is upturned, addressing God. If despair gives up, lament gives way on occasion—to frustration (Psalm 13:1-2), to groaning (Romans 8:18-25), to complaining (Psalm 22:1).

From all my years spent in evangelical Christian churches, I feel confident in saying that many Christians are good at resisting despair—and also, alas, equally good at resisting lament. Theologian Ben Myers’ reflection on sadness is diagnostic:

In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalization of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure…. Where evangelical churches theologize happiness and ritualize the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracized. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person’s spiritual failure.

And the real casualty of this pathologization of sadness is, paradoxically, hope. “A culture without sadness is a culture without hope.” If hope is the virtue of wayfarers, then hope must involve sadness and lament. If you erase sadness, you’re in danger of erasing the sad pilgrim herself, whose sadness is a sign that she hasn’t given up the pilgrim way, that she’s not joined despair on the side of the road, that she’s still waiting for the city of God. Her sadness is an index of the hope she still carries.

Three stories in conclusion to try to make all this more concrete.

When I was in my early twenties and just beginning both to come to terms with my homosexuality and to talk with my fellow Christians about it, I remember sitting with a friend whom I trusted and trying to describe for her how it felt to watch many of my friends from the Christian college I attended pair up and get married. I said I knew marriage wasn’t “the answer” to my loneliness, but also, I confessed, attending all these weddings made me wistful, desirous, and often tearful. And without missing a beat, I remember my friend saying, “Wes, you will get married one day. I know that. You may not see it now, but I believe God will give that to you.” And just like that, in that one instant, my desire to talk any further about my ambivalence, confusion, and frustration in celibacy evaporated, and I looked for a way to end the conversation. Lament suddenly felt as if it had been prohibited.

Fast-forward ten years to my early thirties. I was sitting with another friend, an Anglican priest whose children were almost all grown and out of the house, confiding in him that much of the angst of my twenties had diminished but also that I still wrestled with loneliness. I knew, I said, that marriage is arduous and costly and not in any way a “solution” to problems. And yet, and yet. I told my friend that when I read statements like Justice Kennedy’s—that those gay folks who want marriage equality “hope… not to be condemned to live in loneliness”—I find myself grieving a bit over the thought that marriage, and all that goes with it, isn’t likely in the cards for me. To which my priest replied, “Wes, even the very best marriages leave people lonely. I’m in a very, very good marriage, and I still deal with loneliness.” And again, although I knew he meant well—and despite the fact that I knew what he said was true!—I found that I suddenly had no more desire to talk with him about the particular shape of my loneliness and, as Nouwen wrote, “shed some tears” over it. My unique experience of loneliness had, I felt, been quickly subsumed under some generic umbrella of loneliness that married people experience too. My friend certainly didn’t intend to do this, but the effect of his words on me in that moment was to curtail my lament. I didn’t know how to go on from there to unburden myself, to give words to what seemed like a special kind of loneliness that I was wrestling through.

In contrast to both of these stories, I find myself thinking about another conversation that happened several years ago. I had just finished writing the manuscript for my book Washed and Waiting, and a friend who had gone over each chapter with a fine-tooth editorial comb had invited me to lunch to talk about it. When I arrived at her door, she gave me a hug and ushered me into the dining room. As I sat down next to her husband, I wondered whether I was about to hear correction or admonition: “Wes, you write a lot about the loneliness of being single, but…” That admonition never came. Instead, what my friend wanted to tell me was that she felt she had a better sense of what it felt like to be navigating life while gay and Christian. She said my manuscript had made her think of the gay believers she’d known over the years and how heroic—that was the word she used—they are. She said she better understood and that she wanted to think with me about how best to offer friendship and support to them—to me. I realized, leaving her house that day, that that’s what I had been most hungry for: I wanted someone to hear me say how hard this road could be. I wasn’t looking for an excuse to quit the road, to give up the pilgrim way. But what I felt I did need was someone for whom my sadness, my loneliness, wouldn’t be treated as an obvious sign of spiritual failure or a problem to be overcome or a misunderstanding to be corrected.

There’s a vast difference between lament and despair, and the friends I cherish most are those who know how to help me fight the latter while understanding and offering much leeway for the former.

“Beyond marriage and religious life”

Our own Eve Tushnet has a new piece in America magazine about non-marital ways people can belong to one another. I recommend it enthusiastically.

My housemates Aidan and Melanie Smith and I—about whom I’ve written before—were interviewed here, along with other friends of SF like Tim Otto. Go read the whole thing!

My favorite part of the article was how it ended:

Several people I spoke with emphasized that they had not had any expectations for their way of life—or they had to lose the expectations they did have. They did not feel that they had successfully achieved friendship, partnership, community membership. These were things they received through luck or Providence. Love did not solve their problems; it was as likely to sharpen their loneliness as to relieve it. As Zoe Mullery said, “You’d think [community] would deal with your loneliness better—and it doesn’t.” They are grateful, not satisfied.

The God who emerges in their words is a weird and unpredictable God. It is a God who wants you to love others, to make your life a gift, but who offers no guarantees that anybody but him will take you up on the offer. This God may call you to break societal norms but give you no guidance in how to do it well. This God will use your loneliness and insecurity to drive you to love others, but then make you see that no human being—and maybe nothing in this life—can satisfy your hunger to be loved. In the battle between solitude and community, community wins—even contemplatives rejoice in and suffer the intense relationships found in a monastery. Yet it might be said that our willingness to accept and sacrifice for our community obligations must rest on the bedrock of our solitude with God.

As someone pursuing an intentionally single, chaste life in community with dearly loved, “committed” friends, I would co-sign every single word of this. And I want that phrase “grateful, not satisfied” carved on my tombstone.

When Friendship Isn’t a “Solution”

Paul Wadell, author of some of the few contemporary treatments of friendship in the Christian tradition (that draw on St. Aelred, among others), has an article in an old issue of the Christian Century on a complicated friendship of his. Going through some of my old files today, I ran across Wadell’s essay and found myself thinking about it again. (The piece is behind the paywall, sadly. But for the few of you who may subscribe, here’s the link. It’s worth reading.)

Wadell tells the story of an especially rich friendship from his high school days that later became painful and led to heartache and a “parting of the ways.” He and his friend started traveling different roads and lost the ability to understand and sympathize with one another. But neither of them, it seems, gave up on the friendship entirely. Wadell only tells snippets of the story, but it seems to me from what he wrote that the relationship remained pretty touch and go until the friend’s death. There was genuine love, even reconciliation and forgiveness, but never a return to that joy that sparked the friendship in the first place. And this got me reflecting on a paradox at the heart of friendship.

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Revelation

[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]

Notre Dame Basilica and Dome

In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.

For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.

After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.

I disagreed.

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Bearing One Another’s Burdens

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).

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The Forgotten Side of the Mountain

Over the last few days, I’ve been attending a private retreat for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians. Sunday evening, I was asked to offer a few words of reflection for the group. This is a rough transcript of what I said. 

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Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.

A retreat is an opportunity for refreshment. We leave behind the troubles of our everyday lives, and come here to spend a few days seeking God together.

Each of us comes from a different place. Some of us bring joy and hope to the retreat, others come burdened by grief and anxiety: struggles in prayer, struggles with loneliness, struggles with sin that you may feel mired in. Some had travel problems, unexpected traffic, airport delays, etc. And some bring more serious issues like depression.

Most of the people in this community originally met through online forums. This weekend, we’ve deepened our friendships face-to-face. The conversations this weekend are a reminder that we are really made to know each other face-to-face. It’s far more affirming to sit with a group of friends and talk than it is to exchange messages online—though it’s wonderful to be able to keep in touch with distant friends in a way that was impossible in the past.

But as wonderful as face-to-face contact can be, we are returning home tomorrow. I’d like to reflect a bit on how to move forward.

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A Call to Empathy

 

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Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.

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The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Alan Jacobs comments:

It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.

This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

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Positive and Negative Precepts

Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.

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