My best friend and I found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of artsy lezzies with our communal gaze fixed on one of our favorite musicians. There was nothing particularly gay going on, but something in the female folk singer happened to draw a certain crowd and that crowd happened to be a bunch of lesbians. My friend and I were both trying hard to be something other-than-gay at that point in our lives, but that night in that venue we felt a freedom we rarely felt: the freedom to stand at ease and release the tension in our shoulders because for one night we could cease to play the straight part and still belong.
We were surrounded by women who knew a slice of our experience: feeling giddy with delight around girls instead of boys around the time we hit middle school, sensing a need to keep it secret if we hoped to be accepted, praying to God to take it away because we wanted so badly to be good, and apologizing for our existence without knowing what we’d done wrong. There was an unspoken solidarity in that space. Just as I was settling into the peace of knowing I was surrounded by others who shared my way of being in the world, I was flooded with a sense of shame. I felt so GAY. The concert brought out my inner lesbian. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I felt guilty because I felt so at home.
As I prayed, studied, listened, and introverted in the months that followed, I began to acknowledge that what I was experiencing that night was something I had experienced (and tried to suppress) throughout my entire life: a sense of peace and belonging when I was around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine. We were gay. We had been different for as long as we could remember, and regardless of where it came from or how we would choose to express it in the future, it seemed obvious that the self-flagellation we felt the need to indulge in simply because we felt safe and secure in a group of lesbians was not the path to flourishing.
I knew I loved Jesus and wanted to follow Him with my whole heart. My daily rhythms involved quiet times, Bible studies, accountability groups, and service as a way of life. The big sins I struggled with weren’t related to sexual sin: they were the sins of pride and unforgiveness and selfishness. The fact that I happened to relate to both men and women differently because of my gay orientation didn’t involve any sort of choice—it was merely an expression of diversity, a unique way of experiencing art and beauty and community.
Many Christians struggle to understand how a gay orientation could be anything other than sinful. They say things like: “Julie, if gay sex is sinful, then isn’t ‘being gay’ sinful since it involves the desire to sin? Jesus said it’s not just the act of adultery that’s sinful, but the desire for it in one’s heart. Shouldn’t you be fighting your sexuality—crucifying your flesh—rather than accepting it and even embracing a ‘gay’ label?” The question makes sense if “being gay” implied “having gay sex”, but that’s obviously a silly assumption in light of the fact that we never assume someone is having straight sex when they tell us they’re heterosexual. We don’t assume anything about their sexual ethic: that they’re dating, or prone to lust, or attracted to every single opposite sex human that crosses their path over the course of a given day. We simply take it to mean they’re straight.
Rather than asking “Is being gay sinful?” or “Is being straight holier?”, we’re wise to search the Scriptures to understand what it actually says about sexuality. The Bible is pretty straight forward that marriage is between a man and a woman, and sex is only blessed when it occurs in the context of marriage, which means any sexual act that occurs outside of marriage is outside of God’s intention. The Bible also says lust is sinful, and lust occurs when anyone actively dwells on sexual thoughts about someone other than their spouse. So sexual acts outside of marriage are sinful and lust is sinful, but the Bible is silent when it comes to questions of sexual orientation. We have reason to believe there were gay people since Plato, Philo, and others discussed individuals with homosexual orientations, but the Bible doesn’t say anything about a gay way of being in the world; it only speaks against sexual acts outside of a marriage between a man and a woman (acts we have choices about). This is a narrative we can actually live into, because we all (gay and straight) are called to be chaste.
A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.
Occasionally a lesbian’s desire for women is sexual in nature. Over the course of the 10,080 minutes that go by in a given week, very few of those minutes (if any at all) are likely comprised of sexual thoughts about other women, and moments when one dwells on those thoughts (lust) are even more rare. In those instances—those rare instances—when one dwells on lustful thoughts, we can all agree that it’s sinful. It’s not sinful because it’s GAY lust, though; it’s sinful because it’s LUST. If a woman were dwelling on sexual thoughts about a man that wasn’t her husband, it would also be sinful. This means we’re all on level ground: both gay people and straight people have the capacity to lust, and both gay people and straight people have the capacity for sexual sin by having sex outside of marriage. We’re on level ground when it comes to having a draw toward other people with the capacity for that longing to be sexualized, and we’re on level ground in that we have a draw toward other people that can be actualized in beautiful ways that promote human flourishing through community, relationship, and service.
This is really important to understand because it can feel defeating for gay Christians (who are diligently striving to submit their sexuality to the Lord day in and day out) to be so scrutinized for their very existence. You can probably imagine the shame many LGBT people experience when they’re led to believe their unchosen orientation is sinful in itself, causing them to feel they’re uniquely toxic because their orientation affects the way they exist in the world relationally, spiritually, and physically. When they’re led to believe something that touches on so many areas of their lives (such as the way they pursue friendship, the way they experience art and beauty, the manner in which they serve the world, and even the way they relate to God) is evil, they can’t help but internalize that in a way that makes them feel totally gross.
I spent ten years trying to change my orientation because I wanted so badly to be found pleasing in God’s sight. I wish I could describe the anguish of trying to rid myself of all things gay because I didn’t yet understand what it meant for my orientation to be sanctified and offered up to God in a way that could be used in service of His kingdom. You can probably understand why the line of thinking—that the orientation itself is sinful—drives many gay Christians to self-loathing and self-hatred because they feel like the entirety of who they are is evil and disordered, with little hope for change and zero power to instigate what little change might be possible through natural fluidity. You can probably imagine how small LGBT people feel when, as a result of the message that our unchosen orientation is sinful, we’re led to believe we’ll only be loved by our communities if we minimize it, hide it, or lie about it. You can see why young gay Christians feel so alone—so unknown and unloved.
We can do better. A better way to frame this is that all of our sexualities are good and all of our sexualities are broken. Our sexuality is good when it draws us outside of ourselves and into community. Sexuality is good when it compels us to give our love away through sacrificial love and service. At the same time, all of us (gay and straight) display a broken sexuality when we allow it to be expressed through lust or sexual acts occurring outside of marriage.
Gay people exist! So far, the primary message gay people have received from the church has driven them to shame and self-hatred because there was no positive message about how they might be a gift to those around them as they submit themselves to the Lord moment by moment. If you’re concerned about the possibility of gay people having sex at some point, it would be good to express that same concern for the countless straight people having sex in our churches. Until gay people see more consistency in the impassioned cries from Christians around them, they will continue to feel singled out for scrutiny and condemnation. We can do better. We can begin to imagine together the ways our churches are blessed by the unique witness of LGBT people who daily take up their cross in order to follow Christ and alleviate some of the suffering in the world around them.