I was asked this week if my choice in life, to be celibate in response to being same-sex attracted, is actually a form of internalised homophobia. Not too many years ago I suspect I would have been secretly crushed by this question; it would have poked at insecurity and summoned up a broiling inner conflict. That wasn’t my reaction on Monday. In fact, part of me celebrated the moment as it highlighted that I am in a remarkably different place now.
It’s an excellent question; it’s built on central ideas that govern our culture and how they’ve manifested in relation to sexual minorities and in tension with the Church. Perhaps it’s a hint that the church hasn’t applied the nuance it could’ve done. Such a question allows me to give direction to several thoughts I’ve been sitting on for a while. Please note that this isn’t a defence against aggressive statements I’ve received, it’s just a provocative way to shape the discussion below. That said, gird your loins and let’s dive in!
Let’s start with the empirical evidence. No one who knows me well at all would accuse me of being homophobic. After I stuck my head out of the closet, checked that the way was clear, I then fully exited it in plain view of thousands of people. Since that point I reckon most of my friends, family and colleagues would have observed a change in my manner. I’m at a point where I can comfortably talk about the specifics of my attractions, e.g. what and who I find attractive. I don’t cringe inside when I meet gay people, nor do I feel queasy when talking about gay sex. At times, I employ what you might call a uniquely gay sense of humour; I can be pretty camp.
Now, some of you might be reading the above and hearing alarm bells. If so, please continue reading as I hope to provide some psychological, sociological and theological qualifications to my more “gay qualities”.
You may have noticed, and some of you have inquired already, that I often use the term gay to define myself rather than simply same-sex attracted. There’s probably a whole other article in this since it’s a somewhat live issue for evangelical Christians at the moment. I’ll try to be succinct.
It boils down to the fact that my characteristics, interpersonal desires and relational conduct aren’t encompassed in the description of same-sex attracted. Take the most obvious example that it says nothing about the quality of my relationships with women, which is probably more than half of my relationships. Yes, I’m attracted to men, but that implicitly means that I am not attracted to women and therefore there is an absence of the normal pressures men face in relating to the opposite sex.
This is a big deal for me and, in many ways and at many times, it’s been part of the redemptive package I’ve received as a Christian. I value my female friends immensely. I think back to my school years when I was so dissociated and fearful of my orientation; I would have been gravely alone if not for female companionship. A female Christian friend recently wrote me saying, “[I] love… gay men, I feel safe in a way I can’t with either a woman or man.” What a privilege I have to enjoy those intimate, secure, empathetic relationships with women as a man. This has always been a mark of the gay community, one that I identify with and one that doesn’t compromise holiness.
There are other things common to gay people everywhere that have always emerged from my personality long before I had any exposure to anyone or anything to do with the gay community: tone, interests, aesthetic. Saying I’m gay is to include some of the stuff that comes with that descriptor outside of sexuality (as far as I understand sexuality).
I don’t believe that sexuality is something to be feared. Earlier this month I read Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change by Denny Burk and Heath Lambert. In some important ways this is a logical, coherent, theologically accurate book that is, at times, quite helpful. Sadly, they make several serious missteps throughout their work.
The first and most obvious problem is that they fail to build any real theological or psychological framework for sexuality. They don’t explain the distinctives of attraction, desire and orientation but instead lump these terms together. What this results in is a confused impression of sexuality as something nuisance and universally sinful, something toxic we can’t avoid. One reviewer (a former pastoral worker to LGBT people) states that the book, “…establishes a rather defective foundation upon which to discuss same-sex attraction, and not surprisingly pushes one towards a negative assessment of it as well.”
At one point they are rightfully pushing back against someone who is, let’s not mince words, a heretic, however their response is equally unhelpful. They say, “No Christian has ever been helped by seeking out the virtuous elements of his or her sinful tendencies.” This, in my view, shows an anaemic understanding of both sin and sexuality. It seems to say that sin is something that exists on its own. This is demonstrably untrue. Sin is parasitic; it exists in corruptive attachment to our good, God ensigned design. So of course we can and should seek out the virtuous elements of our sinful tendencies.
It’s not enough to kill the weed, something good must be allowed to grow up in its place. Is that not the work of repentance, sanctification and redemption? Dying to sin and coming alive to the image of God in Christ?
Burk and Lambert would say that there is nothing virtuous in the sexual construct of a gay individual. They say simply having a same-sex sexual orientation is sinful in itself. This highlights a profoundly distorted view of personhood and sexuality. The very fact that I have the capacity for sexual attraction is an important part of being a healthy functioning human, made in the image God, made to desire, made for intimacy and made for appropriate relationship with both men and women. Yes, same-sex attraction is a disordered desire but our psychological and biological response to human beauty is a good thing that shouldn’t be quashed. Yes, homosexuality is a disproportionate affection but I say with my brother Wes Hill, “the ultimate way to do battle with sexual temptation can’t be to turn away from the human; it must be to struggle for a kind of purified gaze, to try to rediscover what erotic desire is for in the first place.”
There is much to affirm within the sexual construct of a same-sex attracted individual, as there is with any individual, much that we as Christians have often missed. Sexuality and, more generally, personhood are extremely complicated realities. They are this way because we are made to represent an incomprehensibly vast creator. Distil that into something as small as a human… and then bring fallenness into consideration?
That is a lot to unpick and scarify and we should be worried if we find that to be a simple task. We’d do well not to cut beyond the need for pruning.
So am I secretly phobic of my own sexuality? Well, I don’t fear being attracted to men if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve been there, and it doesn’t help. To demonise attraction means you’ll always circle back to it and dwell, obsess, imagine, lust, regardless of orientation. It’s its own small form of trauma. The people I know who’ve supressed or demonised their attraction to the same sex have hid in secrecy, thrown in the towel regarding their faith, left their unsatisfying marriages, started dating and sleeping with others of the same sex while still denying their orientation and even been suicidal.
I certainly can’t live disintegrated from myself and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do so. Does that mean you have to be sexually active to find wholeness? No. Is that absence felt? Absolutely. Are the promises of the gospel enough? Certainly.