Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Being Gay and Being Christian—A Dissonant and Difficult Walk

For as long as I can remember, I've identified myself as a "Christian." Some of my earliest memories involve Sunday school classes, hymns, and being taught the religious significance of Christmas and Easter.

When I was in junior high school I experienced what a lot of evangelical Christians refer to as a born-again experience. I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, repented (and then repented again and again and again), and promised to consider Jesus in all my daily, and life, activities. It's a lot for a junior high school student to embrace.

As our family moved wherever the U.S. Air Force sent my Dad, I continued finding church homes and making friends with fellow Christians. In high school, I met a girl who was an electric personality and had a vigorous faith. We dated for many years, beyond our college years, in fact.

At the same time, I was growing acutely aware that I was attracted to men. While very active in my church's youth programs, I was also romantically and sexually involved with one of my high school classmates. In retrospect, I was so deeply enmeshed in contradictions—a condition that would continue long after I passed through my adolescence—I can hardly fathom how my young mind managed to function. I fought the same-sex attraction. And lost. And fought again. And lost again.

In college I lived in a house on campus that was organized for young Christian men. Koinonia, as it is called, still stands on Daniel Street on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. There were thirty of us—all young and energetic committed Christian men. In fact, the leaders of two high-profile Christian ministries lived at Koinonia. They were disciplined in prayer and community service and evangelism. I remember admiring them and wishing I possessed their qualities of rigor and restraint.

Not long after I became a member of Koinonia—there was an interview process that scrutinized the initiate's commitment to his Christian faith and moral code and if either were found lacking, well, you found another place to live—somebody whom I'd known of only peripherally interviewed for an open space at the house. He was accepted. Almost immediately we found ourselves in an intense romantic involvement. Were he and I to compare notes today, I'm sure we could reach an agreement that it was the first time either of us had fallen deeply into infatuation (and love) with another man.

And, again, I fought the attraction. At the same time, I was enrolled in a behavioral psychology class. Our semester-long writing project involved identifying a behavior in our lives that we wanted to change. Using various tools of behavior modification, I set out to change my same-sex attraction.

As I look back on my advising sessions with the young graduate student who taught the class, I'm struck again by his kindnesses towards me. He supported me and my project, even though I sensed he thought it was unnecessary and fraught with potential for emotional destruction. I, however, was adamant and committed to pursue my conversion. I wanted to change because the Bible's writers condemned homosexuality. And that's what I was—a homosexual.

Well, actually, in Evangelical Christian lingo, I was a heterosexual being lied to and tempted by Satan to embrace something I was not—again, a homosexual.

My young love interest and I parted ways, at least our romance ended. He met a girl. Later they married. And today they have two children. But I continued to "struggle" with my (homo)sexuality.

Another intense love interest came along. And a near emotional breakdown almost derailed my college career in my junior year. Then, I graduated and moved to California. Still, I "struggled."

The pastor of my Evangelical Free church advised me that Satan has the potential to enter into our lives long before we leave our mother's womb. My homosexuality was Satan's doing. I needed to fight it at all costs.

I even spent hundreds of dollars on weekly counseling sessions. The professional's brilliant remedy for my homosexual tendencies was to date women, to immerse myself in heterosexual romantic relationships.

So, I dated a lovely young girl who attended a Christian college in Santa Barbara, California. I learned later, after our failed attempt at a dating relationship and, even later, after we drifted apart, that she got married and had children.

Still, I "struggled." It's a refrain of sorts, isn't it. Then, fifteen years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. Immediately, I got involved with a friend's church and sometimes socialized with her church crowd. Once one of her friends, a guy who, as it turned out, "struggled with his own dueling sexual identities, suggested I was a little "sweet." This bothered my friend, and she set about to fix my “sweetness.”

During this time, I traveled for a month or so in England and then returned to Washington. In the meantime, my friend had researched groups that helped Christian men and women who "struggled" with homosexuality change. The goal was to change sexual orientation, I think. It's all a little unclear what the goal was. As it happened, several men in the group ended up in romantic partnerships with each other, a seemingly fundamental flaw in the organization's apparatus, to be sure.

My partner, whom I met at this ex-gay ministry group, and I were doomed as a couple from the start. Because we weren't comfortable being gay and being Christian, we fought our feelings and each other. It would never have occurred to either of us to admit we were in a relationship, although we lived together, slept together, and traveled together. Because we were not free to identify ourselves as "partners," could not fathom that we were gay men, the partnership was crushed by our failures as Christians to fight against what we felt were unnatural tendencies.

I'm forty-three years old today and it's been a long walk of recognition for me. Gay life has changed dramatically in the past twenty or so years. And with those changes, and with age, I've reconsidered what it means to be gay and be Christian. One thing that hasn't changed, and never will, is the truth of a relationship with God being an act of faith. Faith in believing in something we cannot see or touch. Faith in believing words that were written by men thousands of years ago about God and Jesus. Faith in God's promise of a life beyond what we experience here on earth. Faith isn't easy, and it's complicated when the mainstream Christian church considers a person's life an abomination.

I take it on faith today that God and I share a peace in the choices I've made in my life, and the choice I've made to live as a gay man. It's not about a life free from sin; we all "struggle" with that. It's not about a life without consequences for my actions and poor choices; we all face and endure the ramifications of the decisions we make.

For me, it's about trusting that God is OK with me. It's about accepting that God is about love and grace. And that there's nothing I can do, or not do, that will change his ever-present, enduring love for me. Gay or straight, we embrace the same truths about God's love and grace.

Yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times, Neela Banerjee's story on gay Christians shed light on where we are today—we, gay and Christian.

December 12, 2006
Gay and Evangelical, Seeking Paths of Acceptance

RALEIGH, N.C. — Justin Lee believes that the Virgin birth was real, that there is a heaven and a hell, that salvation comes through Christ alone and that he, the 29-year-old son of Southern Baptists, is an evangelical Christian.

Just as he is certain about the tenets of his faith, Mr. Lee also knows he is gay, that he did not choose it and cannot change it.

To many people, Mr. Lee is a walking contradiction, and most evangelicals and gay people alike consider Christians like him horribly deluded about their faith. “I’ve gotten hate mail from both sides,” said Mr. Lee, who runs, a Web site with 4,700 registered users that mostly attracts gay evangelicals.

The difficulty some evangelicals have in coping with same-sex attraction was thrown into relief on Sunday when the pastor of a Denver megachurch, the Rev. Paul Barnes, resigned after confessing to having sex with men. Mr. Barnes said he had often cried himself to sleep, begging God to end his attraction to men.

His departure followed by only a few weeks that of the Rev. Ted Haggard, then the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and the pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, after a male prostitute said Mr. Haggard had had a relationship with him for three years.

Though he did not publicly admit to the relationship, in a letter to his congregation, Mr. Haggard said that he was “guilty of sexual immorality” and that he had struggled all his life with impulses he called “repulsive and dark.”

While debates over homosexuality have upset many Christian and Jewish congregations, gay evangelicals come from a tradition whose leaders have led the fight against greater acceptance of homosexuals.

Gay evangelicals seem to have few paths carved out for them: they can leave religion behind; they can turn to theologically liberal congregations that often differ from the tradition they grew up in; or they can enter programs to try to change their behavior, even their orientation, through prayer and support.

But as gay men and lesbians grapple with their sexuality and an evangelical upbringing they cherish, some have come to accept both. And like other Christians who are trying to broaden the definition of evangelical to include other, though less charged, concerns like the environment and AIDS, gay evangelicals are trying to expand the understanding of evangelical to include them, too.

“A lot of people are freaked out because their only exposure to evangelicalism was a bad one, and a lot ask, ‘Why would you want to be part of a group that doesn’t like you very much?’ ” Mr. Lee said. “But it’s not about membership in groups. It’s about what I believe. Just because some people who believe the same things I do aren’t very loving doesn’t mean I stop believing what I do.”

The most well-known gay evangelical may be the Rev. Mel White, a former seminary professor and ghostwriter for the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Mr. White, who came out publicly in 1993, helped found Soulforce, a group that challenges Christian denominations and other institutions regarding their stance on homosexuality.

But over the last 30 years, rather than push for change, gay evangelicals have mostly created organizations where they are accepted.

Members of Evangelicals Concerned, founded in 1975 by a therapist from New York, Ralph Blair, worship in cities including Denver, New York and Seattle. Web sites have emerged, like and Mr. Lee’s, whose members include gay people struggling with coming out, those who lead celibate lives and those in relationships.
Justin Cannon, 22, a seminarian who grew up in a conservative Episcopal parish in Michigan, started two Web sites, including an Internet dating site for gay Christians.

“About 90 percent of the profiles say ‘Looking for someone with whom I can share my faith and that it would be a central part of our relationship,’ ” Mr. Cannon said, “so not just a life partner but someone with whom they can connect spiritually.”
But for most evangelicals, gay men and lesbians cannot truly be considered Christian, let alone evangelical.

“If by gay evangelical is meant someone who claims both to abide by the authority of Scripture and to engage in a self-affirming manner in homosexual unions, then the concept gay evangelical is a contradiction,” Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail message.

“Scripture clearly, pervasively, strongly, absolutely and counterculturally opposes all homosexual practice,” Dr. Gagnon said. “I trust that gay evangelicals would argue otherwise, but Christian proponents of homosexual practice have not made their case from Scripture.”

In fact, both sides look to Scripture. The debate is largely over seven passages in the Bible about same-sex couplings. Mr. Gagnon and other traditionalists say those passages unequivocally condemn same-sex couplings.

Those who advocate acceptance of gay people assert that the passages have to do with acts in the context of idolatry, prostitution or violence. The Bible, they argue, says nothing about homosexuality as it is largely understood today as an enduring orientation, or about committed long-term, same-sex relationships.

For some gay evangelicals, their faith in God helped them override the biblical restrictions people preached to them. One lesbian who attends Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh said she grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family and still has what she calls the “faith of a child.” When she figured out at 13 that she was gay, she believed there must have been something wrong with the Bible for condemning her.

“I always knew my own heart: that I loved the Lord, I loved Jesus, loved the church and felt the Spirit move through me when we sang,” said the woman, who declined to be identified to protect her partner’s privacy. “I felt that if God created me, how is that wrong?”

But most evangelicals struggle profoundly with reconciling their faith and homosexuality, and they write to people like Mr. Lee.

There is the 65-year-old minister who is a married father and gay. There are the teenagers considering suicide because they have been taught that gay people are an abomination. There are those who have tried the evangelical “ex-gay” therapies and never became straight.

Mr. Lee said he and his family, who live in Raleigh, have been through almost all of it. His faith was central to his life from an early age, he said. He got the nickname Godboy in high school. But because of his attraction to other boys, he wept at night and begged God to change him. He was certain God would, but when that did not happen, he said, it called everything into question.

He knew no one who was gay who could help, and he could not turn to his church. So for a year, Mr. Lee went to the library almost every day with a notebook and the bright blue leather-bound Bible his parents had given him. He set up his Web site to tell his friends what he was learning through his readings, but e-mail rolled in from strangers, because, he says, other gay evangelicals came to understand they were not alone.

“I told them I don’t have the answers,” Mr. Lee said, “but we can pray together and see where God takes us.”

But even when they accept themselves, gay evangelicals often have difficulty finding a community. They are too Christian for many gay people, with the evangelical rock they listen to and their talk of loving God. Mr. Lee plans to remain sexually abstinent until he is in a long-term, religiously blessed relationship, which would make him a curiosity in straight and gay circles alike.

Gay evangelicals seldom find churches that fit. Congregations and denominations that are open to gay people are often too liberal theologically for evangelicals. Yet those congregations whose preaching is familiar do not welcome gay members, those evangelicals said.

Clyde Zuber, 49, and Martin Fowler, 55, remember sitting on the curb outside Lakeview Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Tex., almost 20 years ago, Sunday after Sunday, reading the Bible together, after the pastor told them they were not welcome inside. The men met at a Dallas church and have been together 23 years. In Durham, N.C., they attend an Episcopal church and hold a Bible study for gay evangelicals every Friday night at their home.

“Our faith is the basis of our lives,” said Mr. Fowler, a soft-spoken professor of philosophy. “It means that Jesus is the Lord of our household, that we resolve differences peacefully and through love.”

Their lives seem a testament to all that is changing and all that holds fast among evangelicals. Their parents came to their commitment ceremony 20 years ago, their decision ultimately an act of loyalty to their sons, Mr. Zuber said.

But Mr. Zuber’s sister and brother-in-law in Virginia remain convinced that the couple is sinning. “They’re worried we’re going to hell,” Mr. Zuber said. “They say, ‘We love you, but we’re concerned.’ ”