odd man out.

In September, I had the opportunity to teach a class at Summit, an annual ministry conference ACU organizes for a mostly-Churches of Christ audience. My class was called—unoriginally enough—”Odd Man Out: What It’s Like to Be Gay and Christian,” and the audio is now available through the iTunes U page for ACU. (You should be able to download it by clicking this link—it’s #142.)

The class includes my story, my three suggestions for churches that want to be more hospitable to gay people, and a few of my favorite resources for people who want to learn more about what Eve Tushnet calls “gay Christian whatnot.” I’ve told fragments of my story on this blog, but if you’ve ever been interested in a more straightforward narration of my background, this is a good place to find it.

Two disclaimers (in addition to the literally six minutes of disclaimers I give at the beginning of the class): First, I definitely geared my talk to the audience, so there are lots of insider Church of Christ references (like to Randy Harris or the Zoe Group), and I assumed the majority of the people in the room took a traditional Christian (i.e., non-affirming) stance on same-sex relationships. Second, when I described Spiritual Friendship as one of my resources, I claimed that all of the authors identify as gay, and that most certainly isn’t the case. My apologies to the SF crew!

I always feel conflicted when something like the Duck Dynasty or Chick-fil-A controversies emerge. There’s a side of me that wants them to disappear quickly because harm and destructive conflict seem inevitable, but there’s also a side of me that recognizes them as useful case studies that reveal underlying attitudes and tensions.

In a recent post on her blog, Rachel Held Evans invited me and a few other voices to reflect on how we experienced the general evangelical reaction to Phil Robertson’s GQ interview. Evans wisely included both sexual minorities and people of color, since much of the controversy surrounding the interview involved Robertson’s statements on race. You can read my reflections and other voices over at Evans’ blog by clicking here.

In the midst of the holidays and spending time with my family, I’ve been thinking about the journey we’ve been on over the last few years since I came out to them. The short version is that we’ve come a long way, thankfully, such that conversations about me being gay aren’t nearly as heavy or difficult as they once were.

The long version appears in my new post at The Marin Foundation’s blog, in which I reflect on that journey and offer encouragement to people who may be at different places in their relationships. Click here to read it.

One of the common sentiments I’ve heard over the last few days from many who support Robertson’s comments in GQ is a sort of vicarious exhilaration in Robertson’s defiance of political correctness. I think the Duck Dynasty cast’s tendency to speak their minds, both on and off the show, without fear of possible repercussions is refreshing for fans who feel it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable in our culture for them to speak their minds similarly. Many of these people are conservative Christians who recognize it’s becoming harder to profess traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality (i.e., that gay sex is sinful) without facing some sort of backlash. So, even though people generally seemed to agree Robertson’s comments were unnecessarily crass and insensitive, many who share Robertson’s belief that gay sex is sinful were quick to champion his defiant chutzpah. I heard multiple comments to the effect of: “Maybe Robertson isn’t as eloquent as he should be, but national discourse has taken sensitivity to a problematic extreme, and it’s about time we had someone who wasn’t afraid to ruffle people’s feathers for the sake of proclaiming truth.” Some likened Robertson’s comments to Paul’s boldness in colorful passages like Galatians 5:12 (“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”).

Nevertheless, I think defending Robertson’s comments as a courageous protest against liberal politeness demonstrates ignorance to the inordinate amount of shame Christians have generally heaped upon sexual minorities.

Like I said on Friday, I’m less interested in the specifics of this particular case and more interested in learning how we can navigate similar controversies in a way that fosters communication and empathy. I’m going to take it for granted here that there are such people as “sexual minorities” whose experience of attraction to the same sex is unchosen and abiding and that Christian sexual ethics ought to be concerned with the conscious decisions one makes in light of their unchosen, abiding experience of attraction. I also want to draw a fine distinction between guilt and shame in the life of a Christian. Here’s how I’m using the terms: Guilt refers to feelings of remorse or grief over attitudes or behaviors. Shame refers to negative feelings about one’s inherent value or worth. In other words, guilt is what you feel when you think you’ve done something wrong, whereas shame is what you feel when you think you are something wrong.

Based on those definitions, I think every Christian experiences guilt from time to time, and it serves an important purpose in convicting them to repent from sinful behaviors. The proper response to guilt is something like what Peter does in John 21 when he sees Jesus for the first time after denying him publicly: He moves as quickly as he can to return to Jesus, diving into the water from his boat in order to swim to the shore where Jesus is waiting. (I’m grateful to Brennan Manning, whose similar interpretation of that story in Abba’s Child was instrumental in helping me tear down my own long-lived shame.) On the other hand, I don’t think all Christians necessarily experience shame, and I think shame has no place in the life of a Christian. Shame is something deeper than the sense you’re a sinful person in need of God’s grace and mercy; shame is a feeling of dirtiness and ugliness that convinces you you’re outside the reach of God’s grace and mercy. Shame produces despair, which can often manifest itself as depression, self-harm, or suicide.

While shame is neither unique nor inevitable to the experience of sexual minorities, I would argue that shame is much more common among sexual minorities than it is among straight Christians. Wesley Hill, who describes his experience of attraction to other men as unchosen and abiding, and who is committed to traditional Christian sexual ethics, effectively describes that feeling of shame in Washed and Waiting: “[In moments of feeling attracted to someone of the same sex], it feels as though there is no desire that isn’t lust, no attraction that isn’t illicit…For many homosexual Christians, this kind of shame is part of our daily lives…the feeling that we are perpetually, hopelessly unsatisfying to God.” My impression is that whereas many straight Christians may never feel they are “perpetually, hopelessly unsatisfying to God,” most-if-not-all sexual minorities go through at least a period of feeling that way. If you’ve ever felt that way, you know how absolutely paralyzing it can be. For some, that shame eventually disappears (or at least decreases) due to an encounter with God’s grace and mercy, regardless of what they come to believe about same-sex relationships; for others, that shame remains and makes faith absolutely intolerable, such that they abandon faith for their own survival; and for some, that shame wins out in the form of (as above) depression, self-harm, or suicide.

Here’s the point: Whenever people speak about sexual minorities in a way that increases shame, the stakes are much, much higher than merely “ruffling people’s feathers,” or “hurting people’s feelings,” or “making people uncomfortable.” The danger increases whenever sexual minority youth, who may still be settling some fundamental perceptions about who they are and whether they’re worth anything, are in earshot. To be honest, sometimes I want the people I love and trust in the context of Christian community to speak difficult words of truth to me that might make me uncomfortable. I need friends who will tell me that the way I treated another person was unkind or that my recent purchase probably resulted from greed rather than wisdom. But those exhortations are something very different from blasting messages of shame at an entire community of people who have often been victims of abuse and marginalization at the hands of Christians. Tough love really only works if we’re on a level playing field, when abuse and marginalization aren’t part of the equation.

When prominent individuals make insensitive comments about sexual minorities that increase their shame, the danger isn’t that sexual minorities might feel irritated or insulted; the danger is that they’ll believe Christians perceive them as dirty or ugly, that Christians see them as being somehow uniquely ineligible for the grace and mercy every other person needs from God. If they’ve already dismissed Christians as hateful and homophobic, this will likely (and justifiably) isolate them further. If the opinions of Christians matter at all to them, though, and especially if they’re vulnerable kids hearing these messages at church, this has the potential to produce despair. Some believe it is impossible to profess traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality (i.e., that gay sex is sinful) without heaping shame on sexual minorities. I don’t believe this is the case, but in light of Christians’ historical reputation for heaping shame on sexual minorities, and in light of everything we’ve learned about sexuality in the last century, it certainly requires more tact and nuance than you’re likely to find in something like a magazine interview or a Facebook status update. The way Christians talk about this stuff has to change.

So, what do I see as the difference between comments that heap shame and comments that don’t? As I said above, I think there’s a fine distinction, but I think there are certain questions that might give us some clarity: Does the way I’m expressing my views make a certain behavior seem more immoral than others? Does my description of sin seek to emphasize how repulsive and gross certain behaviors are to me and, consequently, how repulsive and gross certain people are to me? Does my attitude demonstrate self-sacrificial love, or does it serve to make me look superior to the group I’m criticizing? Does my posture demonstrate interest in understanding the experiences of people who are different from me, or does it emphasize how strange they are? And, maybe most helpfully: How does my message seem to affect the people it targets? 

Regardless of how much you might disagree with someone else’s attitude or believe it to be harmful or destructive, no one likes to feel as if they’re being unfairly censored or criticized, so I understand why there’s a certain appeal to the kind of cheeky audacity Robertson represents. Nevertheless, Christians who rush to defend controversial comments would do well to examine whether they’re proclaiming a message of shame that drives people away from the gospel.

[See also my series on Homophobia and Hamartaphobia.]

The Duck Dynasty controversy is a good example of why being someone who is committed to faith in Jesus and who is attracted to men often leaves me feeling like an odd man out. I’ve got a foot in the Christian world. In fact, I’ve got a foot in the small, specific corner of the Christian world the Dynasty folks call home, the Churches of Christ. On December 18, my social media feeds were full of Dynasty references in response to Phil Robertson’s GQ interview. One day prior, on December 17, my social media feeds were also full of Dynasty references in response to an announcement that my college—a small private university associated with Churches of Christ—would be hosting three of the Dynasty cast members (not including Phil) as speakers for an event in April raising funds for a couple Abilene organizations. From what I can tell, the Dynasty crew has amassed a strong, devoted fan base within my denomination, and I think the way many Christians are leaping to defend Phil’s comments in GQ probably has as much to do with their familial affection for him as it does with any of the sentiments he expressed. This conflict feels personal to them because of their affection for Robertson, who (to my knowledge) hadn’t previously expressed sentiments like those in the interview. The conflict also feels public because the backlash against Robertson is indicative of the growing animosity they sense in our culture toward the traditional Christian attitude toward same-sex relationships.

I’ve also got a foot in the gay world. It goes without saying those two worlds overlap in some significant ways, but the Dynasty controversy has made apparent the culture gap that often exists between them. Many of my gay friends, and especially my gay friends who aren’t from the South, hadn’t even heard of Dynasty until this week, and their first and only impression of the cast was Robertson’s interview. His comments were profoundly hurtful and offensive to many of them due not to Robertson’s beliefs but rather his manner of expressing them, which included some regrettable comparisons and vulgar descriptions. (To be sure, many people would have been hurt and offended by the beliefs themselves regardless of how he expressed them.) This conflict feels personal to them because Robertson’s comments concern nontraditional sexual orientation, which is a huge, inextricable component of every gay person’s identity and experience. The conflict also feels public because the flood of Christian support that has erupted for Robertson seems symbolic of the historic victimization and marginalization sexual minorities have faced, often at the hands of Christians.

The flavor of this controversy, in which a poultry-related institution beloved in the conservative Christian subculture but mostly unknown elsewhere has come under fire due to public statements about marriage from one of its figureheads, has brought to mind last year’s controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A. I’m often curious about how people on both sides of the culture war look back on that event, whether it was as big of a deal to them as it was to me. I’ll admit I was in already in a tender place when it happened, since I was coming off a wonderful-but-tiring summer planting myself right in the middle of the culture war in an internship with The Marin Foundation; but the sheer volume of the strong opinions and sharp conflict I encountered throughout that debacle was absolutely staggering to me. My read on that controversy was that it was damaging for both sides. It seems to have left many conservative Christians feeling more defensive and many gay folks feeling more abused. I think it largely broke down communication and empathy between the camps, both of which are necessary for any sort of cultural reconciliation and healing.

My anger and regret about what happened with Chick-fil-A may help explain why I’m concerned this Dynasty controversy could become something similar. Robertson’s attitude and A&E’s response have very little to do with me, but the situation is significantly impacting many of the people of my life. It’s possible the noise will die down, especially since the holidays stand (rightly) poised to divert our attention, but the dramatic reaction I’ve already witnessed from people across the spectrum leads me to believe things will continue to escalate. (I’m aware this post itself may serve to prolong the controversy in my corner of the Internet, but I believe that ship has sailed.) Even if the Dynasty commotion does dissipate, I fear it’s only a matter of time before another similar controversy (Ugandan politics? the Olympics? the Supreme Court?) draws out strong opinions and sharp conflict. This post is my attempt to influence my corner of the Internet to handle the Dynasty situation and any others like it in a way that fosters communication and empathy.

As you think, read, write, talk, post, share, tweet, or comment about Robertson’s comments or any other controversy related to faith and sexuality, I’d encourage you to keep three suggestions in mind:

1. Don’t sink into lazy habits.

I don’t think most of us are lazy people, but I think something about these controversies (maybe that they occur online, or maybe that we’re all getting tired of arguing, or maybe that many of us have been severely hurt?) often draws us into lazy habits. We might make broad generalizations about gay people or conservative Christians or duck call manufacturers that unfairly characterize complex and diverse groups as monolithic movements. We might rely on inaccurate assumptions that color our perceptions of people and their actions, causing us to read unintended messages into their words and unfairly idolize or demonize them. Or we might read or listen poorly, manipulating someone else’s words rather than engaging them charitably and seeking to comprehend what they mean to communicate. (For an example of that last point, pay attention to any comment thread or discussion board you see online, and watch how quickly the conversation moves away from the original speaker’s content and collapses into tired, repetitive talking points. Often, it seems like many of us have lost the ability to engage what other people are actually saying on their terms.) When you commit one of these errors of laziness, acknowledge your error, apologize, and move on. When someone else commits one of these errors, confront them gently, and be quick to forgive and move on. If we’re willing to do the hard work of dialogue, we’re capable of productive conversations and deeper understanding. But that stuff is work, especially when it involves a topic that’s become so contentious, and we have to recognize the temptation to laziness and actively resist it.

2. Take your time.

The nature of a drive-by controversy like Robertson’s interview naturally motivates people to move quickly in order to capitalize on the attention. I don’t mean that in a cynical, everyone-is-scheming kind of way; I just mean we all understand people probably won’t be talking about Robertson in a month, so those who want to support or criticize his words in a visible manner realize, even if only subconsciously, they have to do so before our national attention shifts to something else. This past Wednesday evening, I caught wind of Robertson’s interview, and petitions to repeal A&E’s decision to remove him from his show had already begun circulating that night. It’s natural people will feel strong emotions when something like this happens; but when we make the decision to turn those strong emotions into visible forms of activism that aim to send a message, I think it’s foolhardy to rush into that activism without pausing a moment, or many moments, to consider the impact our activism will make. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, a demonstration in which a record number of people ate at Chick-fil-A on August 1, came together in less than two weeks after politicians in Boston and Chicago criticized the company. After Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, I commented that there seemed to be vastly different perceptions of the purpose of the demonstration, even among its participants. If the participants themselves couldn’t consistently articulate the message they hoped to send by eating at Chick-fil-A that day, it was inevitable they would have little control over the message others would hear. Whether the message you want to send involves inviting thousands of people to a protest or merely tweeting your opinion in 140 characters, don’t allow the momentum of our culture to make you rash or thoughtless.

Taking your time is essential in order to discern what and how you need to communicate, then, but it’s also essential in order to understand the position of your opponent. If you want to say, “The other side is irrelevant in this conflict,” go right ahead—you do not have to engage. If you want to say, “The other side is wrong,” though, that claim requires you to take the other side’s position seriously as a means of understanding and evaluating it. Without a doubt, there’s a good chance you’ll still come to the conclusion the other side is wrong, but at least you’ll know where the other side stands rather than picking fights with straw men and stereotypes. There’s a clear difference between listening to one’s opponent for the sake of attacking them and listening for the sake of understanding them. The latter requires seeking out the best advocate of a position rather than its laziest, shallowest, most-easily-defeated zealot. As above, it requires avoiding generalizations and assumptions, and it requires you to listen well. If your goal is nothing more than to state your case, that will take little work and requires almost no engagement with your opponents. If your goal is to affect your opponents productively, though, you must be willing to do the hard work to get there, and that takes time.

3. Remember that everyone involved is a human.

Remember that everything you say is going to be heard by humans, and remember that everything you hear was spoken by humans. I’m often perplexed when I come across a seemingly homophobic Facebook status update written by someone who knows I’m gay and who has treated me with nothing less than love and respect. I’m tempted to take the remark personally, as if the person had me in mind when they wrote it, and to conclude the person doesn’t actually love me like I thought. (My feelings are similar when I see posts attacking Christians, but I suppose I feel Christians have less room to feel offended.) Nevertheless, I think people are more complex than that. I think we’re each trying hard to live with integrity between our beliefs and our relationships, and I think sometimes the results of those efforts are messy and inconsistent. I have to remind myself constantly: “This isn’t about me. We’re all on a journey.” Should I find ways to express my hurt to the people who write and say those things? Absolutely, and I think they’d probably appreciate my honesty. But when social media gets tumultuous, it helps protect my heart if I can remember that the people writing and saying things that might be hurtful to me are humans themselves. Allow people to be complex beings who may have a cacophony of motivations affecting the way they think and feel.

The other side of that coin is to remember your audience consists of humans. To be honest, I can still remember many of the specific comments I heard during the Chick-fil-A controversy, both positive and negative. The sad truth is that in both cases—whether the comments elated or deflated me—the impact of the words was probably much, much greater than the amount of thought that went into them. This means a spontaneous word of grace can do immense good, and it means a thoughtless word of abuse can do immense harm. If you’re in any sort of position of influence, think about the weight your words may carry for key individuals in this controversy, for those people who won’t be able to shift their attention to some new controversy next week. How might your words be received by a young girl struggling with her sexuality who genuinely believes God doesn’t care about her, by a father losing sleep over what it means to love his gay son, by the bully who’s planning to beat up his effeminate classmate tomorrow? Can you effectively and clearly communicate everything you need to say to them in the comment you’re about to make, and if not, what is the purpose of your comment?

The controversy surrounding Robertson’s comments is, like the controversy surrounding Cathy’s comments, a huge opportunity. It’s one of those rare times when everyone is directing their attention to that strange intersection of faith and sexuality, an intersection that includes politics, religion, identity, family, and, strangely enough, reality TV. That means we have the chance to take a step toward improving the situation in our culture or damaging it further. Let’s avoid sinking into lazy habits, take our time, and remember that each and every one of us is a human, and perhaps this noise can ultimately produce greater communication and empathy.

On Wednesday, I asked a question: “If you believe being gay is a choice, upon what evidence do you base that claim?” Over the next couple days, I heard from a number of thoughtful, patient people who expressed why they believe, or previously believed, being gay is a choice, and their answers were enlightening. (Check out, for example, all the comments on Wednesday’s post: I’ve rarely seen a comment thread with such effective, productive communication.) My goal was to seek clarity on a perspective I didn’t understand, and my question was evidently a source of curiosity for a few of you, so I want to offer some scattered summarizing notes and commentary on what I learned from the comments and other conversations.

- Many people speaking in the past tense acknowledged there was a time when their attitudes about gay people were largely uninformed and unconcerned. If these people would have said, “Being gay is a choice,” it was because they’d had no reason to give the question much attention and were working from uncritical assumptions. For some, these assumptions were closely tied to the absence of same-sex attraction in their own experience. Because they’d never felt attracted to someone of the same sex, it had simply never occurred to them that someone else might be so inclined, so they weren’t thinking about the question in terms of orientation vs. behavior. In their minds, some people chose to live, or to experiment or to dabble, in an entirely alternative way of life. For others, these assumptions resulted from a theology that said, “If gay sex is a sin, God wouldn’t create someone who was inclined toward gay sex, so people must be choosing this. At the very least, they’re picking up that desire along the way.” For others, a general aversion to the influence of science or secular disciplines—and to the politics associated with those—led to a resistance to the increased presence of the message that sexual orientation is not a choice.

- A few also acknowledged how much their perceptions resulted from the environment of a certain church or the influence of a particular minister. There’s a side of me that wants to say: “We all have a responsibility to be well informed, so we can’t rely on a church/minister to shape our perceptions.” But there’s also a side of me that acknowledges many of us simply don’t have the time or energy required to become well informed on a number of different topics, including sexuality, and in those cases, we tend to trust the influence of significant figures in our lives. We don’t all get to spend three years in seminary! For that reason, I would say that if you do happen to be a minister who’s in a position to influence people’s attitudes about sexuality and gay people, you have a dire responsibility to be as informed as possible and to do the hard work of thinking critically about this stuff. If you’re influencing people about anything—in this case, about sexuality—you don’t have the luxury of relying on simple assumptions. So, if you aren’t going to do the hard work of thinking critically, find someone who has done that work and who can speak to your context.

- I get a sense there’s a lot of disagreement within the conservative Christian subculture about how to talk about sexuality and orientation. Some people use the word “gay” exclusively in reference to someone’s behavior, so for these people, being “gay”—i.e., engaging in gay sex—is incompatible with a traditional Christian sexual ethic. Others (including a portion of my friends who are predominantly same-sex attracted) resist the label “gay” because it carries hefty cultural baggage for them. The word implies behavior, yes, but it also implies a whole set of assumptions about values and ideology and allegiance that makes them uncomfortable, especially if the sum of those assumptions feels substantial enough to take the place of a central Christ identity. Others expressed a general dissatisfaction with the way our culture has come to talk about sexuality: For them, it seems efforts to expand cultural assumptions about sexuality to make room for the experiences of sexual minorities have actually, in a way, given us a more limited view of human sexuality—one that diminishes people to nothing more than an array of (sexual) desires. (Let me say here I have no interest in replacing common misconceptions with equally problematic misconceptions.)

- …that means Christians aren’t thinking or talking about sexuality in the same way, even with details like the meanings of the words we use. Some people see this as nothing more than a peculiar linguistic anomaly. For others, though, it’s a crisis and an injustice. One friend pointed out to me that while adult Christians casually discuss amongst themselves what it means to be “gay,” vulnerable kids (and non-kids) are overhearing their messaging and often receiving disastrous, toxic messages about themselves. Let’s imagine a 12-year-old boy who comes to realize he’s unconsciously attracted to other boys—that, much to his surprise, and against his will, he finds himself noticing his male classmates at a reflexive level, no matter how much he tries to avert his eyes or focus his attention elsewhere. Because the boy is a 12-year-old in the year 2013, the word he learns to associate with himself is “gay.” Now, imagine that boy has come to believe that God’s opinion of him is more important than any person’s opinion of him, and then imagine the boy comes to believe that merely by being “gay”—a reality that is, for him, nothing more than an unconscious inclination toward other boys—he’s displeasing or upsetting God (i.e., the one whose opinion matters most). What might that belief do to the boy’s sense of his own self-worth and value? In this case, the inability of Christians to speak clearly and coherently—to speak in a way that 12-year-olds will understand—is dangerous and potentially destructive.

- Along those lines: I’ll confess one of the statistics from that Gay Christian Network video left me utterly baffled. For the question, “What if a gay person is celibate for life?” 54% of straight, Side B Christians responded, “It’s still a sin,” and 18% answered, “Unsure.” The only way I can comprehend the answer “It’s still a sin” is that the respondents assume “gay” means “having sex” and that “celibate” means only unmarried and not necessarily chaste. (Even that’s questionable to me, though, because in my experience, evangelical Christians tend to use the terms “celibate” and “chaste” synonymously.) If I’m a 24-year-old man who has given this stuff a lot of thought and still can’t really understand that answer—the answer that is, according to this survey, the majority attitude among straight, Side B Christians—how on earth is a 12-year-old boy supposed to make sense of it? The message that boy receives is, in many cases, quite clear: “If you’re inclined toward people of your same sex, you’re living in perpetual unrepentant sin unless you find a way to change your inclinations.”

- On that note, a few people argued (as I described above) it’s important for us to maintain some language of “choice” in our discussions about sexuality, even if we believe orientation is unchosen, simply because we want people to know (maybe even as a contrast to messages they receive outside the church) they do have control over what happens in their bedrooms. I’m sympathetic to this attitude and often feel frustrated with what I perceive as our culture’s idolatry of our sexual appetites. On the other hand, Christians have to be so careful whenever they’re going to use the language of “choice” and “change” related to the experiences of sexual minorities because the message of complete orientation change (e.g., “Anyone who is predominantly same-sex attracted can choose to become predominantly opposite-sex attracted.”) has become nearly ubiquitous in the conservative Christian world. I’ve written elsewhere about where that message came from and why I predict it will decrease, but it’s recent enough that I think Christians simply have to use caution with their words. They can’t leave any room for misunderstanding, because people are going to assume they’re still talking about complete orientation change.

- Finally, I’d argue Christians aren’t the only ones in our culture who disagree about how to talk about sexuality and orientation. My sense is that outside church walls, and even within the broader gay community, people assume different things when they say “gay.” This isn’t a case in which conservative Christians mean one thing and nonreligious gay people mean something else; instead, we’re simply in the midst of a significant cultural transition in which we’re all collectively determining, often through mistakes, a universal language to talk about the rich diversity of human experiences related to sexuality.

Thanks to everyone who provided input on this discussion. Like I said, it’s been enlightening for me, and I hope it’s helped clarify your thoughts as well.

You may have seen the video the Gay Christian Network recently posted providing data from a survey they conducted about attitudes of Christians toward gay people. You can watch the video by clicking here. The video brought to mind an old question for me, and I’m earnestly seeking clarity on it.

GCN surveyed 3,000 people during a tour of college campuses in 20 American cities they describe (mostly) as “heavily evangelical.” For the video, they focus on the attitudes of the section of the population consisting of straight Christians who believe gay sex is sinful in all circumstances. (GCN calls people who believe gay sex is sinful in all circumstances “Side B.”)

Within that group—straight, Side B Christians—64% of people answered “Yes” to the question, “Is being gay a choice?” An additional 20% answered they were “Unsure.” What this means is that, of all the straight, Side B Christians that they interviewed, only 16% believe conclusively that being gay is not a choice. I don’t know enough about statistical analysis to understand how or whether we can project those numbers onto our culture’s broader population of straight, Side B Christians. What I do know is that even if that percentage is dramatically higher on a national level—even if 25%, or 50%, or even 75% of our nation’s straight, Side B Christians would answer “No” to the question of whether being gay is a choice—that’s still a surprisingly low number to me.

So, I want to ask a genuine question. My goal is not to argue with anyone or try to undermine anyone’s beliefs; I merely want to listen and understand.

Because I’ll be honest: I sincerely don’t understand why someone would believe being gay is a choice. If it were merely a small percentage of people who believed being gay is a choice, I would quickly dismiss that attitude as irrelevant or ignorant. As GCN’s data shows, though, it’s not a small percentage of people who believe being gay is a choice. It’s actually a large percentage of straight, Side B Christians, and I’m connected to a large number of straight, Side B Christians. I refuse to believe those people are maliciously ignoring the same statistics and stories I’ve encountered, or that they merely haven’t encountered that data themselves, or that their beliefs are incoherent. For that reason, then, I have to conclude that I haven’t effectively sought to comprehend the attitudes of people who believe being gay is a choice. That is to say, if this many people believe it to be true, then surely the fact that I am unable to understand their attitude says more about me than it does about the attitude itself.

Here’s my question: If you believe being gay is a choice, upon what evidence do you base that claim? Again (and I know I’m tripping over myself trying to be reassuring), I honestly want to understand. I’m prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve spent time trying to figure out why someone would assert being gay is a choice, and I’ve come up with two potential explanations of what they mean to communicate:

First, they mean people choose whether, and with whom, they are going to engage in sexual behaviors. And I would agree with this entirely. I have no trouble with this statement. Regardless of the gender to which someone tends to feel attracted, that person decides whether, and with whom, they’re going to have sex. In this case, I disagree with the person’s terminology, but that’s an easy fix: They’re using “gay” to mean “having gay sex,” whereas I’m using “gay” to mean “same-sex attracted regardless of sexual behavior.” We can just clarify our terms and move on. (The GCN video acknowledges the real issue here may be nothing more than a disagreement on terms—that whereas LGBT people like myself tend to use the word “gay” to describe someone’s attractions or orientations, many straight, Side B Christians use the word “gay” to describe behavior.)

The second possibility is they mean people who are predominantly same-sex attracted can change and become predominantly opposite-sex attracted if they follow the proper steps. In this case, they’re not so much saying, “People choose to be gay,” as they are saying, “People don’t necessarily choose to become gay, but they absolutely choose whether to stop being gay.” We might thus rephrase the original statement—”People choose to be gay”—to read, “People don’t choose not to be gay.” In this case, I disagree with the person’s assumptions about the probability and predictability of orientation change, but again, we’re not really disagreeing about whether someone chooses to be same-sex attracted; we’re disagreeing about whether there exist reliable means for people to change their sexual orientation.

At this point, I will stop talking and restate my question. If you believe being gay is a choice, upon what evidence do you base that claim? Do you mean to communicate one of the two explanations I provided above, or do you mean something else?

I’m eagerly seeking comments that answer the question (either directly: “Here’s my evidence…” or indirectly: “Here’s my friend’s evidence…”), but I’ll delete comments that merely seek to diminish or inaccurately portray other people’s views.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this post you can read by clicking here.]

National Coming Out Day is October 11, so I’ve been reflecting recently on my process of coming out. As much as I’ve written about the theme of coming out, I’ve rarely given attention to the internal process of acknowledging my orientation as a prerequisite for coming out to others. In many ways, that was the turning point for me—once I could be honest with myself, it was only a matter of time before I’d be honest with other people.

My new post at The Marin Foundation’s blog discusses that process of coming out to myself. Check it out.

This post is the same idea as my previous post on desolations: Being gay has directly affected my relationship with God and my relationships with other Christians, and now I want to sketch out some of the ways it’s benefitted my faith. These aren’t unique to being gay, of course, except maybe #4. As with the desolations, I’d imagine gay people reading this post will identify with some items on my list and resist others.

1. It made my faith more complicated: From day one, following Jesus has almost always benefitted my life. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where a certain amount of religiosity lends credibility, and I received scholarships to attend Bible college and study ministry. For most of my growing up years, there was never a reason for me to consider not being a Christian, so my decision to be a Christian seemed inevitable. One reason I resisted acknowledging my orientation for so long was that I probably feared it would make my faith much more complicated and difficult or even unworkable. When I finally did accept I was gay and tell someone else, it made real the possibility that remaining a Christian might potentially cost me something I desired very much, and dwelling with those higher stakes invited me into a kind of faith where Jesus might call me to take up my cross in other huge, life-altering ways. I’m persuaded those negotiations always work out in our favor—we give him rags, he gives us new robes (even if only in the life that’s coming), that sort of thing—and I certainly don’t want to give the impression I’ve reached any virtuous measure of surrender. But I think I understand the dynamics of those negotiations better now.

2. It provided an object lesson in privilege: Talking about privilege is a minefield I’m not knowledgeable enough to enter, so suffice it to say that it was only when I began to recognize how my experience was different from my straight peers’ experience (and not because of whom I was attracted to, but because of the realities of living in a context where heterosexuality is assumed and many people harbor biases against gay people) that I started to recognize how other minorities’ experiences might be different from mine and how my culture might be shaped to benefit certain groups over other groups. Some people grasp this instinctually, but I didn’t. (See #1.)

3. It made grace tangible: There was a time when I believed that the fact of God’s love for me depended on my ability to either suppress or eliminate my attraction to men. As that endeavor proved to be fruitless—no pun intended—it (God?) revealed to me a much bigger picture about the error of thinking anything I might do or not do would affect God’s ability to love. It turns out God loves me because loving is who God is. That, consequently, induced a stronger, not weaker, desire for me to live in tune with the rhythms God would reveal to me—obedience, if you don’t mind that word—but this time around it was as a beloved child rather than as one vying for affection.

4. It made it easier to show affection to male friends: I’ve never been fond of that kind of frat house subculture in which communication between males primarily consists of insults and sarcasm, and obviously I’m not the first person to say it’s a tragedy and crisis that men in our culture tend to be so reluctant to express warmth and tenderness to one another. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m no longer worried about being perceived as gay, since that cat’s out of the bag, but I’ve grown much more comfortable expressing affection to the gay and straight men in my life. I think that tendency is a direct result of the fact that I openly acknowledge how much I do find men enormously attractive: not just physically, though (duh) I do appreciate male beauty and now feel freer to compliment it, but in all the other ways people are attractive that are harder to parse out. So I don’t generally don’t want to say mean things to my male friends, even sarcastically—not because I’m noble, but because I just really delight in them—and my closest male friendships tend to be with men who aren’t afraid to receive and give affection. (Honestly I aspire to the kind of friendship Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins share on Parks and Recreation, which is my favorite part of the show. Leslie typically greets Ann with over-the-top, sometimes bizarre, admiration: “Ann, you vivacious rainbow of joy.” “Ann, you spectacular cloud of brilliance.” “Ann, you delicious stack of waffles.”) It’s a joy to be free to speak genuine words of encouragement and positive identity formation to others without worrying about what people might suspect about me.

5. It forced me to be vulnerable: The truth is that my conversations coming out to friends and family are some of my sweetest and most sacred memories. They were terrifying, without a doubt, but those talks drove me to a kind of shaky, naked vulnerability I’ve not experienced in many other moments. When I started opening up about this one part of my life, it showed me how rich and powerful those moments of sharing are, and it made me want to do it with other parts of my life as well as to welcome that kind of sharing from others. That’s called relationship, and God designed us for it.

Like what I wrote yesterday, this post comes from a vulnerable place, so let’s limit the comments to reciprocated vulnerability: If you’re an LGBT Christian, what have been the consolations of your orientation or gender identity for your faith?

I resist stereotypes about gay people and try to avoid ascribing certain inclinations or aversions to my sexual orientation. With that being said, I recognize there are certain ways my sexual orientation has directly influenced my relationship with God and my relationships with other Christians. This post is a sketchbook for me to reflect on the desolations I attribute to being gay, the ways it’s harmed my faith. These aren’t the ways it’s made faith more challenging, since those struggles tend to be positively formative and produce maturity. These are the ways it’s impaired my faith. I imagine some gay people will resonate with certain pieces here, but I imagine others have experienced their sexuality differently, and they might even label a consolation for themselves what I’ve identified as a desolation. I’ll cover my consolations in my next post. This is intentionally less polished than what I normally try to write here, and I’m not trying to make any grand point; consider these snapshots of my life. (To those who saw my post about the difference between being transparent and being vulnerable: This is one of the rare times I’m being vulnerable, so please be gentle.)

1. It gave me doubts about God’s love: I needn’t say much here because I described this at length in a recent post, but without a doubt, this was the most severe damage my orientation perpetrated against my faith. During the time when I believed God was fundamentally against me, it was hard (impossible?) to develop a relationship with God characterized by trust and gratitude.

2. It sowed the seeds of skepticism toward Christians: I’m the kind of Christian who thinks participation in a thick faith community is essential to Christian life—maybe even that it’s sort of the point of Christian life—so it’s a huge problem for me when I begin to suspect other Christians don’t have my best interests at heart or don’t really care about me or understand me. In some cases, those suspicions are accurate. There are undoubtedly Christians who don’t love gay people, and they foster environments in which it’s dangerous for gay people to engage. Skepticism becomes an invaluable defense in those cases. Other gay people have fared much worse than me, and it’s a tragedy when someone seeking Christ legitimately can’t find a community in which it’s safe for them to do that. But the majority of Christians I happen to know do love gay people, even if some of them presently lack the apparatus to love them in the most beneficial ways. In those cases, skepticism can become an unnecessary obstacle to developing trust, and trust is necessary (as in any relationship) for intimacy. I try to give the benefit of the doubt to others, like to other Christians, when I have the slightest inkling they deserve it, but the prevalence of bona fide homophobia within many Christian circles makes that tough.

3. It made transparency with my faith community harder: I mean transparency about the nitty-gritty parts of my life and faith, because I’ve struggled to overcome the lie (at least on a subconscious level) that it’s inappropriate for me to talk candidly about the realities of my life as a gay person—the challenges, the joys, the heartaches—when I sense it might make straight people in the room uncomfortable, because it often does. I’m describing here what people call “internalized homophobia” rather than external homophobia, because the reality is that, at least in my present church setting, the people around me have always welcomed and honored anything and everything I’ve told them. They’re not afraid of the reality of my sexuality. (Even if they were afraid, though, that would be an area of growth for them and not a reason for me to censor myself. I get it.) I’m not interested in whether it’s my fault or the fault of others that I’ve gradually internalized homophobia, but it persists and poses a threat of preventing intimacy between my church and me, which in turn poses a threat for my own formation as a person of God.

4. It drew my attention to what made me different: When you start coming out in a conservative Christian environment, compassionate people often want to hear your story and learn from you, especially if they’re unfamiliar with sexual minorities. That’s admirable, and I feel genuinely honored whenever people listen to me, regardless of whether it’s for my benefit or theirs. But I’ve noticed that my willingness to speak about the realities of the ways my experience is unusual—because it is—have sometimes caused me to give too much attention to the things that make me different from straight people rather than locating threads of shared experience and universal humanity between us. Some of the most formative conversations for me have been the times when straight people pointed out the ways they resonated with things I expressed, and even when I tried to defend myself as some exotic outsider, I had to concede the ways we were alike. And once I got over myself and acknowledged our similarities, it was always so healing for me, but I still find myself tempted to distance myself by focusing on how I’m not normal.

5. It multiplied my self-righteousness: Oh gosh, here’s a biggie. When I was still in the closet and thought my being gay prevented God from loving me, it increased my self-righteousness because it made me try to earn God’s love. I measured my value by how effectively I could do the laudable things and abstain from the wicked things, and that made it easy for me to measure the value of others by the same standard (or actually a stricter standard). (This was especially pernicious in the youth group, since I wasn’t lusting over the girls like all my peers were, and sex was, like, the primary currency of righteousness for church teens.) When I started coming out, the self-righteousness swelled. Acknowledging my orientation led to a season when I realized being a Christian might get much harder for me, depending on what God called me to do, and I allowed that reality to cultivate an ugly arrogance in me, especially since I was in a setting (a private Christian university) full of people for whom the Christian machine seemed to continue working as well as it had once worked for me. I might as well have prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—heterosexuals—or even like this tax collector.” 

As I said above, this post comes from a vulnerable place, so let’s limit the comments to reciprocated vulnerability: If you’re an LGBT Christian, what have been the desolations of your orientation or gender identity for your faith?