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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Gay Men and Falling In Love – Part III

In the last few posts in this series on gay men and the phenomenon of falling in love (Part 1, Part 2), we have spent a bit of time framing the conversation well.

We first walked through the theological and philosophical foundations of personhood where we highlighted the positive strivings of humans over against a pathologizing of human desires. Then, we looked at how humans attach to other humans and what security and anxiety looks like within those relationships. In this third and final post, I’m going to bring both of those realities together and contextualize it for the gay celibate community in our current cultural climate.

Hopefully, by the end of this series, we will see a more complex view of what it means to have feelings for another human. We may not have concrete answers but maybe we can begin to ask the right questions.

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“Just Repent”

A Guest Post from Dave at
Gay and Evangelical

There seems to be an assumption that attraction is the same as lust. Feeling attraction for someone of the same gender must be lust, right? In fact, some of these comments from others seem to indicate that they themselves feel that if they (as a straight man, for example) were to feel attraction to a woman that it would undoubtedly be classified as “lust.”

Really? Is that really the sort of men and women which populate the Church? Have we created men and women who have no idea how to understand love apart from sex, affection apart from marriage, and attraction apart from dating?

Close friends in one of my favorite films: David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) as World War I pilots in WINGS, 1927.

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Joseph Nicolosi, Rest in Peace

Joseph Nicolosi

Yesterday Joseph Nicolosi, who played a prominent role in promoting reparative therapy, passed away unexpectedly from complications from the flu. Although Spiritual Friendship exists in large part to provide an alternative to Dr. Nicolosi’s approach, we join in praying for the repose of his soul and for those who were close to him, that they may find consolation in this difficult time.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part II

In the last half century, no psychological theory has had as much impact on our knowledge of adult love and relationships as attachment theory. By looking at a person’s relationship with her or his parents and how he or she handles stress within the relationship, attachment theory brings insight to some of the unconscious ways that humans relate to other humans and helps to explain ruptures and disconnections.

At the end of 2016, Christine Baker published a study on celibate gay Christians revealing this population’s common attachment styles — how a person handles stress within their closest relationships. Using the four categories of attachment styles including secure, ambivalent/preoccupied, avoidant/dismissive, and fearful/avoidant, her findings show that celibate, gay Christians experience far more anxiety in their relationships than the general population. This anxiety often leads to poor views of one’s self and contributes to a lot of insecurity within relationships.

In this blog series on gay men and falling in love (see Part 1 here), understanding attachment theory and the insecure ways that people tend to relate to their attachment figures will greatly help us think about the ways that we approach falling in love.

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One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”?

We’ve been around “the ‘gay’ identity label” block so many times before — see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but I had a conversation this week that made me wonder if one more post just may be worthwhile.

The basic question is this: Should Christians who experience sexual and romantic desire for members of the same sex, and who want to live chastely in accord with biblical and traditional Christian teaching, describe themselves with identity labels like “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bi”?

The case for a No answer has been put pretty well by our friends over at the Living Out site:

The Bible knows nothing of the concept of “sexual orientation” — so no-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, i.e., those which are pleasing to God (sex within marriage, which is between one man and one woman) and those which are not (all other sex, whatever the context). I now have a new identity, one which is based not on who I’m sexually attracted to, but rooted in my most important relationship of all, that is my relationship with Jesus Christ…. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, where some had been converted to faith in Christ from a background of same-sex practice, “he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For me, part of the “old” that “has gone” is this idea of identifying myself and describing myself according to my sexual attractions. If I were to hold on to that label “gay”, as if it’s somehow intrinsic to who I am now, then by denying myself a same-sex relationship it would feel as if I’d be denying who I really am (an accusation some of my gay friends already level at me). If my true identity is in Christ, however, then denying myself a same-sex relationship seems like a much more positive outworking of my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to put him first in my life.

I don’t want to rehash my case for a Yes answer — you can follow the links above if you want to see some examples of such a case. Instead, I want to ask you, dear readers, about a different reason entirely for answering the question in the negative.

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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.

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Study of Celibate Gay Christians

This past year I was part of a team that invited celibate gay Christians to participate in a survey. We have reopened the survey to ensure more people have a chance to participate and have their voices heard. If you already completed the survey, THANK YOU – we genuinely appreciate you sharing your experience with us. If you did not complete the survey at that time, would you take about 15-20 minutes to do that? Here is the link:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DVFPS8Q

If you know of others who might be interested in participating, please feel free to share the link with them.

Thank you,

Mark A. Yarhouse, PsyD
Professor of Psychology & Hughes Endowed Chair
Director, Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity
School of Psychology and Counseling
Regent University, CRB 161
1000 Regent University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA  23464

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.