Another character quality I would like to change is my fearfulness of and lack of love towards my brothers and sisters in Christ in general. I don’t mean that I’m generally especially unkind or cruel or uncaring towards other Christians, or that I don’t cherish my few Christian friends. But I have a tendency to be “pathologically shy” (as one of my friends put it) around straight Christians…This fear keeps me from getting connected to the body of Christ, which I think is essential to my healing and growth, not to mention being essential to my obeying God’s commands to show love and kindness to my fellow believers. My hope would be that in a safe and loving community environment where I wouldn’t be terrified of judgment all the time, I could begin to overcome this.
–from DM’s application to the residential program
Reason #2: My gay identity got in the way of my loving the church, and my identification with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
(Okay, the length of this discussion got too unwieldy even for me, so I’m splitting it in half. This post is about how my gay identity, my particular understanding of and attitude toward my sexuality, kept me from loving and identifying with the church. The next post (WIFGI 4.2) will be about how I came to realize that this was a mistake.)
Pre-emptive clarification: I’m NOT saying we should abandon solidarity and empathy with gay people.
I believe that God has mercifully left us a blessing of common grace, in that we naturally feel a bond of empathy and connection with those who have life experiences and characteristics similar to our own. It’s almost as though our fallen selfishness is tricked and cheated into loving and caring about others when we recognize something of ourselves and our experience in their lives. I think it is a mistake to ignore or devalue the bond of common experience that we feel with other people who have homosexual attractions, and the fact that this will make us feel closer to them, and help us to more easily develop a comfortable rapport with them. Am I so wonderful at loving others that I should forgo this instinctive, natural help?
So I find heinous the suggestion that homo-attracted people seeking to live chastely should cut off all feelings of empathy and solidarity with unrepentant gays. Sometimes it sounds like conservatives would consider it ideal if we felt nothing towards gay people, if we just kind of looked past them with a glassy stare of non-recognition. Or, worse, ideal if we primly cringed with disgust whenever we encountered someone or something gay, just like “normal” Christians would. The thoroughly repentant homosexual, on this account, would react toward gay people and gay culture exactly like a straight person from the heartland who has never encountered either before in his life and is completely freaked out by both.
I have tried to be adamant here on this blog about the importance of not denying reality—the reality of our past, present, and likely future. Based on the experiences that we have had, are having now, and are likely to have more of in the future, as human beings we are going to feel intuitive empathies towards some people more than others. I don’t see the point in trying to destroy those, and moreover I believe it would be downright evil to do so. If I have been blessed with insights into certain aspects of what it’s like to be human in this crazy fallen world, I shouldn’t try to blind myself to them in order to “normalize” myself.
So, when I loved gays more than my Christian brothers and sisters (yeah I know there’s overlap, but I’m talking about groups here!), my problem was not that I loved gays too much, but that I didn’t love Christians enough. Picture me jumping up and down and waving my arms over this point: This post is not about loving gays less or cutting oneself off from them, this is about me removing barriers in my heart that kept me from loving hetero Christians, from embracing my Christian family and my identity within the covenant people of God, within the church.
Background–my feelings about the church, and how they got there
I hardly knew anything about evangelicals when I became one.
I had grown up occasionally seeing them on TV and reading about them in the news, usually with a bug up their rear ends about “homosexuals and lesbians.” They had their own funny way of saying it which I can’t really imitate, where they packed the words with maximum disgust, sounding meaner than the worst antigay slur, and yet at the same time they savored the words, like they were rolling them around in their mouths and finding them delicious. I thus had rather strong impressions of them as this frighteningly vast but largely invisible population of stupid fanatics, perversely and creepily fascinated by gay sex, who had declared themselves My Enemy. I had literally no idea what they believed about Jesus Christ, except that it seemed that being “born-again,” whatever that meant, was very important. (But not, apparently, as important as not being gay!)
I never met any evangelicals personally until college. And even then, as you can probably imagine, I didn’t really move in the same circles as they did. With the exception of a small number of ssa (affirmingly gay, celibately gay, and exgay) believers I met on campus and online–the people who actually led me to Christ–most of what I knew about evangelicals came from horror stories told by gays. So my conversion meant joining a group that scared the !@#% out of me. Despite the sameness of our faith, I was always conscious that I wasn’t one of them, that I was Other, a stranger in a strange land. I felt doubly alienated, piling exile upon exile, not like a long-lost child who had found her way home.
Was some of this straight evangelicals’ fault, their failure to sufficiently welcome me, include me, reassure me, and respect me? Perhaps. I will say that the reception I got walking into gay campus activities for the first time as a freshman was far warmer than the one I got walking into Christian campus activities for the first time (or the second, third, fourth, or fifth times) as a junior. There’s no getting around that.
But in hindsight I’ve come to see that a sizable chunk of this alienation was self-inflicted. My gay identity hardened and thickened from social exposure to straight evangelicals. I became extra-mindful of my differentness in their presence. Hanging out with them provided me with endless opportunities to feel misunderstood, to get offended, to bristle with indignation on account of my gayness, and I rarely passed up any of those. If they misstepped in their interactions with me and offended me, they were to blame for being such dumb bigots; if I misstepped in my interactions with them and offended them, they were to blame for being so incomprehensibly weird and oversensitive. Heads I won, tails they lost.
I got into a feedback loop of refusing to give straight Christians a chance. It went something like this.
- I’d start out with a suspicion/dislike of heteros.
- As a result of (1), at predominantly hetero Christian activities, I’d be closed off and aloof, maybe even disdainful. But with queer people, I’d be warm and friendly, feeling at ease. (Well, relatively speaking at least. I’m socially awkward whoever I’m with!)
- As a result of (2), I’d get to know the gay people much better than the straights. I’d know about their troubles and burdens and joys and complexities of life. In contrast, I wouldn’t know much about the heteros, because of the distance I’d helped to put between myself and them.
- As a result of (3), I’d conclude that gay people had rich inner lives, and were authentic and friendly, while hetero Christians were simple, shallow, fake, and probably homophobic, reinforcing (1), which would start the loop again.
Many ssa Christians have painful stories of rejection by the straight church. I have no such story, because I never gave them a chance to reject me, but I didn’t hesitate to assume that they would if they could. I was constantly judging the Christian community like this, comparing them to the superior instances of gay community I had known. Of course, all that did was make me miserable about being condemned by my conversion to spend the rest of this life and all of eternity (!!!) with these people.
I couldn’t let go of seeing them as The Enemy–wasn’t that my birthright as a dyke? I couldn’t let go of being an outsider looking in (and down!) on them–wasn’t that another birthright, another privilege of my kind? I groaned at the thought of having to trade my sexy queer alienation for lame-o Christian alienation–not being of the world, being hated by the world, having my citizenship in heaven. Going from dyke to Christian (and the tackiest kind of Christian to boot!) was taking a huge step down in the eyes of those whose opinions mattered to me.
You might think that connecting with the homo-attracted believers who had led me to faith in Jesus would have gradually warmed me up to the broader church, so I could make the transition to general Christian fellowship. But you’d be wrong. In fact, the same-sex attracted Christians, in my experience, were almost always communally seething about the foibles and failures of the straight church, which actually made me more rather than less scornful and distrustful. Not having any fondness for straights or Christians in general to begin with, I joined right in their seething with them.
To hear us talk, you would’ve thought we were all the older brother, the “good son” in the parable, the less-enlightened heteros all prodigal sons. Look at how those straight Christians screw it all up. Look at what hypocrites they are. Look at the rampant rates of divorce and adultery among them. Look at how greedy and materialistic and selfish they are. Look how they fail to love as Christ loved. Look at their ignorance and bigotry.
This is, of course, eminently understandable. Many homo-attracted folks have been hurt and overzealously scrutinized and judged by straight Christians, and the latter surely do fall short in the above and many other ways. This makes the delicious revenge of judging them as harshly and condescendingly as they have judged us incredibly tempting. But by obsessing about the sins and the unworthiness of straight Christians–particularly those I didn’t know at all except as stereotyped bogeymen– I was making the same pharisaical mistake they do when they obsess about other people’s homosexual sin. I was succumbing to the same weakness that devoured them, that of finding another man’s sin problem more urgent and more fascinating than my own. Perhaps turnabout is fair play, but at least in my more level-headed moments, I’d rather have the gospel than turnabout.
This attitude of judging the straight Christians and dwelling on their shortcomings (while ignoring the extent to which I shared their shortcomings) was of course antagonistic to real fellowship, to my ever feeling part of the larger church. I was, after all, attempting to focus on how they were different from me, how they were worse than I was. This made identification with them as my brothers and sisters pretty much impossible.
There’s a saying I heard, adored, and often repeated to myself during this time: “The church is like Noah’s ark: if it wasn’t for the storm outside, there’s no way we could stand the stink inside.” I dwelt on the stink, on everything I didn’t like about my “normal” fellow evangelical Christians and their culture and their quirks, all the while patting myself on the back for being so humbly and graciously willing to share a church, a faith, and a Lord with them. It never occurred to me there was a problem with this attitude–in fact I genuinely thought it rather devout–until I wondered one day what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot. What if we imagine an extremely conservative hetero, homophobically uncomfortable with the repentant exgays in her church? How would I feel if she repeated that saying to herself, thinking of me? “Well, I’d get away from this nasty dyke if I could (this many years after her supposed “conversion” and she still can’t be bothered to wear makeup or proper shoes or carry a purse?!) but unfortunately, I really need the grace I can find only in Christ Jesus, so I guess I’ll just have to suffer her presence in the pew. Lord, give me strength.”
While I don’t think that sort of attitude is good for any Christian, it had an especially devastating effect on me as a new convert. See, most of these homo-attracted Christians I was hanging out with, especially the loudly griping ones, had been raised in the church. So they spoke about it as angrily as they did in part because their frustration was built on a foundation of love of the church, or if not love of it, at least identification with it. It was a conflicted relational squabble—something like a lovers’ quarrel, or perhaps a teenager’s frustration with his parents’ evident stupidity, unfairness, and uncoolness. A lot of anger and ugly emotion, but ultimately built on a sense of identification and relationship, a family fight. But for me, babe in the faith that I was, I had no context in which to put their anger and frustration in which I joined so enthusiastically. There was no foundation of love, no background of identification, no sense of family. My attitude toward the church wasn’t conflicted. It was one of frightfully pure disgust and hate, and nursing my gay grudge against the straight church only fueled that hate. Sure, I would make occasional exceptions to the rule, deeming decent those few hetero believers who bent over backwards to love me and bless me despite my frosty and prickly initial response to them. But nothing they could do changed my attitude toward “the church” one bit.
(Incidentally, this is precisely how bigotry and prejudice work. Every time you meet up with a counter-example to a generalization about a particular group, you ignore it or explain it away as an exception that doesn’t really count, rather than rethinking your generalizations. For years it never occurred to me that maybe I was slightly wrong about straight Christians, despite encountering some flamingly obvious examples of awesome ones, and despite almost never having been personally mistreated by any.)
So that was how I felt about my new Christian family, thanks to my gay identity. I’m not saying that other kinds of identities can’t have a similar effect, or that gay identity would do the same thing to everyone. But this being my story, that’s how it went.
Note: I am very much aware that much of the straight church (individually and corporately) HAS treated ssa/gay people awfully. I don’t want any of what I say above to be taken as a diminishment of that. So, please…I’m not trying to minimize or divert attention from the very real and terrible wrongs that lie behind gay anger, frustration, and bitterness with the church. That’s not what this is about. All I’m saying is that given my particular experience, the emotional atmosphere of gay/ssa Christian circles in this regard was toxic as all get-out for me. And that this is a problem. However screwed up the (predominantly straight) church is, if Jesus is our Lord, then she is our family, and somehow we’ve got to work it out.
(go onto part 4.2)