I’m not answering a question in this article, but I will be asking one at the end.
My consciousness has been invaded by gay issues in recent months. We celebrated our son and his husband/our son-in-law being able to legally adopt the toddler twins they have been foster parents of since their birth. There are still some states that don’t allow adoption by same-sex parents. Photos of the happy event were posted on Facebook. (Who’s not happy about their grandchildren!) Shortly thereafter a worship symposium in Indonesia for which I was to be the main speaker was cancelled. Reason? Their constituents are of Chinese ethnicity with strong traditional family values and if they knew about my involvement in my sons’ same-sex marriages, that issue might derail the topic of the conference. The organizers were apparently also alerted to the homily I preached at our second son’s same-sex wedding three years ago, which had been posted online. Photos from that joyous event were also posted on Facebook and that resulted in a phone call asking me to withdraw from speaking at a theological conference about Martin Luther. The same concern was expressed by the organizers. So I have been cancelled and asked to withdraw as a speaker.
Recently my wife and I attended a performance of the cantata, Considering Matthew Shepard, by composer Craig Hella Johnson. This musically eclectic work for choir, solists, and instruments commemorated what happened to Matthew Shepard in October of 1998. He was a 22-year old gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was kidnapped, severely beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in a lonely field under a blanket of stars. Five days later, when Matt passed away, the world was watching and his horrible death led to passing anti-hate laws. I was shocked by the event at the time and concerned because our two sons had both “come out” as gay. The oldest was away from home at college, the second was in high school, and homophobia was still pervasive in our society, especially among men whose acting out against gays probably reflected an insecurity about their own masculinity.
In the meantime, since returning from Jakarta I’ve been doing research and writing about the body in Protestant spirituality, which would have to include sexuality as a part of spiritual reality. Protestant sexual spirituality would have to include acknowledgment of gay spirituality. It’s not that there aren’t gays and gay organizations and practices of gay spirituality in other churches (e.g. Catholic Dignity, Methodist Affirmation, Mormon Affirmation) and also in other religions (there are homosexual Buddhists, Jews, and Sufis, among others). But only a Protestant church, the Metropolitan Community Church, which is otherwise traditional in theology and worship, has intentionally reached out to LGBTQ people and proclaimed as an article of faith that “God made me this way.” Several mainline Protestant churches welcome LGBTQ people and perform same-sex weddings. My wife and I just attended our first gay wedding in a church — the church we attend. (Our second son’s same-sex wedding, at which I officiated, was in a restaurant with a large outdoor patio; it was not a church wedding.)
I think on the basis of my reading in gay spirituality, I should distinguish between homosexuality and being gay. Homosexuality has been defined in clinical sexology as a same-sex orientation. “Gay” has emerged as a life-style, a way of being and acting in the world. All gays may be homosexual, but not all homosexuals are gay. They don’t embrace the gay life style.
Homosexuals are conscious of their sexual orientation simply because it is contrary to the dominant heterosexual orientation in human societies. Heterosexuals can take their sexuality for granted. Realization of their same-sex orientation cannot help but affect homosexuals’ views of their relationship with God, especially vis-a-vis the traditional view that homosexuality is not what God intends for human sexuality. The fact that most of the churches and religions are opposed to homosexual behavior, including same-sex marriage, surely also has some affect on the spirituality of gays and lesbians. Yet many homosexuals I have known desire a relationship with God within a religious community. But Christian churches and other religions don’t make it easy for them.
Homosexuality in the Bible and Classical Culture
Churches turn to sacred scripture for guidance in their teachings and practices. For Protestants it’s “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura). But even a literal exegesis of biblical texts would indicate that the Bible doesn’t address homosexuality as we understand it today in the clinical sense as a same-sex attraction. (See my Frank Answer About Gay Pride, Homosexuality, and Homophobia.) I won’t restate here my summary of what the Bible doesn’t say about homosexuality in that article.
However, I will add that male lovers were known in ancient Greece. In his Symposium Plato proposed an army of male lovers because they would protect each other in combat. In fact, a band of 300 same-sex couples were added to the army of Thebes ca. 378 BC. They were called “the sacred band of Thebes” because they made solemn vows to each other before a deity — a kind of same-sex marriage. In accordance with Greek practice the couple consisted of an older “mentor” and a younger soldier. They saw combat and were heroic in battle. Between wars they kept themselves in fit shape through gym activities like wrestling.
Sacred band of Thebes. Decorative fresco from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum, Italy. Source: (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Archaeological Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images). Notice the younger clean shaven men tending to the older bearded men. They are depicted as pairs and nude.
To be sure, there is no command or promise about same-sex marriage in the Bible, only male and female becoming one flesh. Churches may conclude on this basis that they have no authority to solemnize same-sex weddings. But could there be pastoral reasons to do something that is not explicitly forbidden by Scripture and is an example of love and commitment of two persons for each other? (See Frank Answers About Same-Sex Marriage.)
The Meanings of the Body and Sexuality
Then there’s the issue of whether homosexuality is based in biology or influenced by culture. Nature vs. nurture. The scientific hunt has been on for a “gay gene” or maternal chromosomes that biologically determine homosexuality but so far the search seems elusive. So the mystery of why one identical twin is hetero and the other twin is homo, since both were raised in the same way in the same family and presumably had the same formative experiences, remains a mystery — as does sexuality itself.
Sexuality is not just one thing because, as philosopher Mark Johnson points out in The Meaning of the Body, the body itself is not just one thing. (See Frank Answers About the Meaning of the Body.) The body and sexuality is at least five things simultaneously. It is biological, environmental, phenomenological, social, and cultural. Let me give examples of these meanings.
Biologically we think sex is aimed at procreation. Yet same-sex behavior has been observed in many animal species. It has certainly been practiced among humans. Biologically we have sexual urges, but we must have the opportunity to express them. This is where environment affects sexuality. For example, heterosexual men notoriously engage in acts regarded as homosexual in prisons where no women are available. Men who are seeking same-sex connections congregate in urban environments where making those connections is easier. Sex is phenomenological in that we have experiences of it and feelings about it that encourage repetition or aversion. Homosexual men have often had intimate relations with women and even gotten married, but find opposite sex unfulfilling and desire sexual relations with men. Sexual practices are both socially controlled and culturally conditioned. For example, a little more than a hundred years ago “modern science” was waging a war on masturbation and claiming negative physical and mental health consequences of doing it that are now totally discredited. While masturbation is a common, safe activity that can offer many sexual health benefits, some religions, social views, and cultures continue to try to suppress it and cause youth to feel bad about doing it. Yet for homosexual couples mutual masturbation is a joyful sexual pleasure that often eludes heterosexual couples whose conventional views of sex denigrate any sexual arousal separate from coitus.
Homosexuals say that their sexual attraction is not a choice any more than heterosexual attraction is not a choice. I don’t think homosexuality as clinically defined is a choice, but being gay is definitely a choice. It is a choice to publicly “come out” as a homosexual with same-sex attractions. “Coming out” stories indicate how transformative this kind of announcement is for oneself and can be for those with whom the gay person relates, including family, friends, associates, and, in some cases, the public.
The greatest coming out story of all times is the story of the resurrection of Jesus after three days of being buried in the tomb of death. Gay artist Douglas Blanchard painted 24 scenes of the Passion of Christ from Palm Sunday through Holy Week (last supper, arrest, beating, crucifixion, burial) and Easter (resurrection)to the ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and a gay/queer version of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Blanchard’s portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection (see below) is one of the most striking scenes of the series. Jesus is coming out of a prison, not a cave-like tomb. Blanchard’s Jesus is no isolated individual experiencing a one-of-a-kind miracle, but first in the resurrection of the diverse group that will become the body of Christ in the world. Jesus leads an uprising, as much insurrection as resurrection. The scene Blanchard paints is like the “harrowing of hell,” a central motif of Jesus’ resurrection in Eastern Orthodox iconography. It imagines Jesus leading Adam and Eve and the Old Testament figures into new life in God’s kingdom. These particular “prisoners” are the dead, but the prison can stand for any kind of limitation, including the closets of shame where LGBT people hide.
The struggle to reconcile the resurrection with harsh reality can be especially tough for LGBT people who have endured hate crimes, discrimination, and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. The risen Christ leads the way to a new state of being where hate does not always lead to more hate, and anger becomes a motivation for life, not destruction, and love lasts. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. — Romans 6:5 (RSV)
“Coming out” of the closet can be like a spiritual rebirth. But the birthpangs can be painful. My sons came out when they were sixteen and thirteen, respectively. They had the love of their parents and the support of their school, community, and church. But it wasn’t painless. The oldest son had to tell his girlfriend that he was gay and nearly lost his best buddy over the revelation. The younger son was just starting high school and didn’t have to deal with a girl friend (although a number of girls latched on to him as a friend) but had to negotiate his way through boys who were straight and boys who were just coming out as gay.
Some young men admit to themselves that they are homosexual while in college or university, which would seem like a safe place to “come out” and embrace a gay life style. Sexual exploration might then take place before they tell their parents that they are definitely gay. Before gaydar is developed enough to be able to sense other gay men, there might be some false moves with a roommate or a friend on whom they have developed a crush. That could freak out the straight guy who is the object of the gay guy’s affections.
That happened to me in the summer of 1966 when a classmate came onto me one night when we had returned from drinking in a local pub. It was a warm night and my room was stuffy. I took off my t-shirts, turned on a window fan, and laid down on my bed to let the breeze blow across us as we continued talking. Suddenly he reached over and kissed me on my mouth an chest, his hands traveling everywhere on my body as he told me that he loved me. We ceased abruptly when others arrived in the apartment from the pub. He left immediately. But the next day he sought me out and we discussed what had happened the night before. He insisted that he loved me. I told him that I couldn’t love him the way he wanted me to. We reached a willingness to continue our friendship and I hugged him. Our relationship didn’t continue beyond that summer since he went on to an internship.
This was an important experience for me because up until that night I had never thought about homosexuals needing love as well as sex just as heterosexuals do (I had just finished reading John Rechy’s City of Night, about the lonely life of a gay hustler), and that love can be a reason for having gay sex as well as a consequence of experiencing an intimate relationship. This is as true for gay men and women as for straight men and women. Love and sex go together, and for gay men it has not been tied to the need to procreate. The witness of homosexuals is that sex is also for pleasure and expressing love.
Because of having gay sons I’ve felt more comfortable asking men about their stories, particularly if “coming out” had unfortunate consequences. One young man told me that when he came out at age thirteen, just after his confirmation, his stepfather wanted to send him to a Gay Conversion Therapy Camp. He refused to go and his step-father, who was on the church council, accused him of disobeying the fourth commandment (Honor your father and mother). Because he wouldn’t repent he was excommunicated (barred from receiving communion). The pastor said he nevertheless hoped to see him in church. Not likely! Many gay youth have had to deal with conservative families, communities, and churches.
Other gay youth have to deal with exploring their sexuality with friends who reject their advances and it severs their friendship.
Some homosexuals don’t come out until they are adults. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, IN who is running for president of the U.S., went through the university and the U.S. Navy probably knowing that he was homosexual, but didn’t come out as gay until he was mayor, risking his political career with a public announcement that he intended to marry his same-sex partner. Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson had been married, the father of two daughters, and a church official when he finally came out, precipitating great controversy in the church.
No two “coming out” situations are the same. But from testimonies I’ve heard, down deep there is an awareness that one is gay and that to live some other life would be untrue to his or her deepest being. Almost always it is not easy to make this profession of true identity to family, friends, colleagues, and associations, even if they might be supportive. But having made the profession, the person feels a great liberation. After claiming their gay identity homosexuals have to rise above what other people think because they consider their integrity more important. Besides which, they can’t disown who and what they have claimed to be. I think a consequence of this is that homosexuals (at least some I know) tend to be very forthright with their views, for example, about politics and sex — especially about sexual practices, and especially when they are young and exuberant about the new world of sexuality opening up to them.
Coming out is a matter of claiming integrity — of being a whole person. It would not be wrong to say that it’s a spiritual rebirth.
So here is my question to readers.
I have been on the receiving end of “coming out” stories, but have not had to tell one myself. My question to gay readers is: if you had a “coming out” experience, are you willing to write it up as a story using the “Comment” feature? If you want to remain anonymous, send your story to me using the “question” feature and I’ll share it under my name. Or send a comment using a pseudonym.
Some questions to prompt your reflections: what brought you to the point of telling yourself and then others that you are gay? How did you feel once you “came out?” What were the consequences? I promise protection. I will not approve of any comment that attacks you or your story. But your story may be edifying to others — not only helping others to “come out,” but also helping straight people to understand what it means to be gay. Other comments on this article are also welcome.
Pastor Frank Senn