I was a senior in high school the first time I shared my story on a stage. The ex-gay ministry I had been attending for 8 months asked if I would be willing to share about the Lord’s work in my life, and I was honored. That was the beginning of what has now turned into twelve years of speaking publicly about some version of being gay and Christian. There were several motivating factors for me entering into the public conversation back in the day: one was that I wanted to be accepted by my community—I wanted to be the good kind of gay. The other reason was that I wanted to do right by the gay youth silently suffering in the pews. I wanted them to know Jesus loved them and they didn’t have to go it alone.
Twelve years later, I care a little less about approval and a lot more about the gaybies. Because I care about the gaybies and it’s right to keep it real even if it comes at a cost, it seems like a good time to share some of the ways my thinking on how to best love and support sexual minorities has evolved through the years. I’ve been troubled by the way human stories are often used to further one agenda or another in the culture war, and honest, nuanced, untidy stories seems like one way to avoid that happening (quite as much).
Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now. When friends have chosen to lay their lives down for their partners, I’ve celebrated their commitment to one another and supported them as they’ve lost so many Christian friends they loved. When young people have angsted at me about the gay debate, I’ve just told them to follow Jesus—to seek to honor Him with their sexuality and love others well. For some, I imagine they will feel led to commit to lifelong celibacy. For others, I think it will mean laying their lives down for spouses and staying true to that promise to the end. My main hope for all of them is that they would grow to love Jesus more and that it would overflow into a life spent on others.
While I struggle to understand how to apply Scripture to the marriage debate today (just like we all struggle to know how to interpret Scripture on countless controversial topics), I’ve become increasingly troubled by the unintended consequences of messages that insist all LGBT people commit to lifelong celibacy. No matter how graciously it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians. It leaves folks feeling like love and acceptance are contingent upon them not-gay-marrying and not-falling-in-gay-love. When that’s the case—when communion is contingent upon gays holding very narrow beliefs and making extraordinary sacrifices to live up to a standard that demands everything from an individual with little help from the community—it’s hard to believe our bodies might be an occasion for joy. It’s hard to believe we’re actually wanted in our churches. It’s hard to believe the God who loves us actually likes us.
I don’t think this happens because anyone hates gay people. Most of the Christians I know love gay people. They simply underestimate the burden of feeling marginalized, scrutinized, unwanted and relationally toxic because one of the best things about us—the way we give our love away—is seen as sinful. It’s easy for straight Christians to underestimate how exhausting it is to simply exist in communities that feel uncomfortable with gays: we’re constantly wondering if we should tell the truth when asked that question, or sleep on the floor when there’s room in the bed, or cut that hug short, or voice that question, or publish that post, or write that tweet, or curb that mannerism, or run from that friendship, or shut down those feelings or leave the church altogether. Those fears subside around friends who simply delight in who we are as whole human beings made in the image of God.
We’re made for long-term, committed relationships that bind us to one another and cost us something. Relationships are where we realize how selfish we are and begin to delight in setting our wills aside to nourish another. They’re where we grow in tenderness, having received grace in our ugliest and most embarrassing moments. They’re where we energize one another with a love that overflows into hospitality as we welcome our neighbors into our homes.
Some might find that in friendship, which is wonderful. But most will find it in a spouse because that’s the context we have for making such serious commitments and staying true to them once life happens. When we make those kinds of promises to one another, we need a community to surround us to support us for the long haul. Communities with a traditional sexual ethic have, more often than not, dismissed sexual minorities the moment they moved in this direction. Rather than working out what it would look like for them to stay connected to the church and process all the questions in community, they’ve forced gays to go it alone.
Moreover, that kind of treatment isn’t just reserved for those in relationships. The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.
Because many Christians assume that those who support same-sex relationships do so out of a desire to satiate their appetites rather than sincere Christian convictions, I feel the need to say that I’m not dating anyone (though I’ll add that our public obsession with total strangers’ sex lives does strike me as strange). I’m as single as ever and have remained celibate throughout my twenties. The Side B dream is one I truly believe in: it’s my lifelong goal to persuade people to make cross-country moves for friends, establish relationships across generations, share homes with married couples, and grow old with friends regardless. But it feels important for me to push for those kinds of changes as someone who also supports people in same-sex relationships so that friendship is promoted as a good in itself rather than a quick fix for the gay problem.
My goal now is the same as it’s always been: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the God who’s been my first love all along. When it comes to this conversation, my goal has been to help Christians create the kinds of communities that make LGBT people feel wanted—where we can worship God, use our gifts, serve our neighbors, and find a family to share in the joys and sorrows of living in a world where so many people are so lonely. That looks a little different to me now that I’ve seen so much fruit in affirming communities, but it’s a widening of my circle—not a move in a different direction.
If it turns out that I’m wrong, I trust God will be faithful to catch me. For now, though, I hope those of you who disagree will continue to welcome my friendship and serve alongside me. It’s not too late to call it quits on all the fighting. We could choose instead to focus on all we share in common and seek to mend what’s been broken in this fragile world.
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I think I may be done with the church, I’ve been a Christian for about 25 years and all I read, hear and see is essentially homophobia, judgement and condemnation dressed up as politeness, “Christian” concern and pride.
Boy,howdy a lot of those comments were really depressing. I fail to understand how people who profess to be Christians can be so consistently mean spirited and exclusionary toward their fellow humans and so condescending. As a non-believer I can only feel sad when a courageous woman speaks so eloquently on her own and others behalf, to lessen the pain and danger that LGBT people live with, and to be so roundly shamed by her supposed fellow believers. That is appalling. I once wrote something about a passage in Mark that could have indicated that Jesus was gay. I thought “oh, cool. Why would it matter?” The response was horrific.
Julie: You sound rather awkward, even downright pessimistic, about evangelicalism’s ability to provide a type of safe-haven, supportive environment, filled with deep and affirming friendships, for celibate same-sex attracted Christians at a grand scale. This is sad. What do you think it will take for the church to become that type of warm, accepting community within the context of a traditional sexual ethic? I think we need your help.
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Julie, I am touched by your humility and integrity and above all, your love to Christ. May God help us to stay true to His Word in this broken world.
Christian from Africa