Whenever I read about the latest public controversy about gays in church, military, or courthouse, I realize that very personal and painful struggles are going on behind the scenes – not just for gay people, but for those who know and love them. I know, because I’ve been there.
Since I come from an Evangelical background, most of my good friends sincerely and passionately hold the strict conservative view on homosexuality with which we all were raised. They can’t understand why I don’t stand side by side with them on this issue any more. To some, I’ve become a traitor, to others, a casualty in the culture wars, to others, frankly, a problem and an embarrassment. I try to offer a theological explanation for the change in my view under “The Sex Question” in my new book.
But I don’t think my chapter alone will change many if any people’s minds. It may help, but the real game changer, I’ve found, occurs when someone close to them – someone they already know, love, and respect – comes out to them. The issues then goes from being theoretical to personal, and it engages their emotional and social intelligence, which then gives their rational or analytic intelligence additional data to work with.
As a pastor, I walked this path. Through the years, a steady stream of church members, their children, and their guests made appointments with me, each of which began with almost the same words: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but ….” All my life I had been told that homosexuality was simply a sinful choice, a yielding to an especially evil temptation. (Back in the 1980s, this was the standard explanation in my circles.) But not one of the people I met fit that explanation.
As contrary evidence mounted, I began to wonder which was the anomaly and which was the norm – what I had been taught by authority figures I loved and respected, or what I was seeing in people I also loved and respected?
About then, the authority figures in my tradition modified their position: yes, there was a homosexual orientation that was unchosen. Being gay was no longer simply an evil choice. But this defective orientation could and must be overcome, they said, through prayer and reparative therapy. (This became the standard view in the 1990’s and still holds with many today.)
Over the years I did meet a few people who truly experienced some degree of abatement in homosexual attraction through prayer and therapy, and some even married heterosexually and raised good healthy families. If they were the only people I met, I might have been able to hold on to this modified view. But greater numbers of people confided to me that although they had previously been members and even leaders in some of the well-known ex-gay ministries (or more painful still, their spouses had been), prayer and therapy weren’t yielding the promised results: the orientation wasn’t being healed.
With more contrary evidence mounting, I began to be afraid. Maybe I would be forced to choose between the Bible and my integrity. Maybe to be faithful to the Bible that I loved, I would have to push away these gay people who had trusted me with their stories of hope and pain – blaming them for their failure to be “healed.” Or maybe to be faithful to these parishioners whom I loved as any good pastor would, I would have to deny what my faith tradition claimed that our beloved Bible taught. To be torn between deep loves like these is not an easy choice for any Christian to face, and even more so for a pastor, rabbi, or imam who has a congregation to tend – and to keep united in fractious times.
Over time, I came to a resolution (which I explain in the book) through which I felt I could, in good faith, be true to God, the Bible, and to my gay neighbors, friends, relatives, and colleagues. But many of my oldest and dearest friends see all this with sadness, and I understand how they feel since I’ve been where they are. That’s why, behind the clamor of public debates about homosexuality, I always imagine tens of thousands of stories, each overflowing with personal pain, fear, and hope. For starters, there’s the alienation felt by many gay people, but there’s also another very real kind of alienation felt by pastors, rabbis, imams, parents, and friends of gay people who are struggling between two loves: their love for the religious authority structures in their lives, and their love for someone close to them who happens to be gay.
Loud public debates will continue to rage about gays in the military, gays in the church, and gays in the courthouse, and “the issue” will continue to be used to win elections and create voting blocs and headlines. Meanwhile, I will continue to be remember that behind the clamor, private dramas are playing out in agonized prayers and secret tears behind more closed doors than most people imagine. Whatever your position on the issue, I think these personal struggles are worth keeping in mind.