coming out, homosexuality, same-sex marriage

Frank Answers About Gay Integrity


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 posed 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. They apparently also saw online the homily I preached at our second son’s same-sex wedding three years ago. Photos from that joyous event posted on Facebook resulted in a phone call asking me to withdraw from speaking at a theological conference about Martin Luther. Same concern on the part of the organizers.

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 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 — our church. (Our second son’s same-sex wedding, at which I officiated, was in a restaurant with a large outdoor patio.)

“I do.”

Homosexuals are conscious of their sexual orientation simply because it is contrary to the dominant heterosexual orientation in human societies whereas 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.

Anti-gay demonstration in Seoul, South Korea. It could have been in Chicago at the annual Gay Pride Parade.

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.)

The major instances of assumed homosexuality mentioned in the Bible include the presumably heterosexual men of Sodom desiring to have sex with the angels in disguise (they actually didn’t go through with a gang rape of the angels since the angels blinded them) (Genesis 19); the Jewish male cult prostitutes working for pagan temples in ancient Israel who might have had sacred sex with men as well as women (an “abomination” in the Old Testament usually signaled idolatrous practice)(Leviticus 18:22); the presumably heterosexual Greek men in ancient Corinth having sex with young male prostitutes or the boys they were mentoring (1 Corinthians 6:19); the presumably heterosexual Roman high society men and women “exchanging their natures” (physis may mean cultural custom here rather than biology), thus reversing male-female dominant-submissive positions, which scandalized the stoic Romans (Romans 1:26-27). In these texts, the sexual actors being condemned are probably heterosexuals, but the later church interpretation condemned homosexuals on the basis of these texts. If it’s about sodomy, that’s also practiced by heterosexual couples. (See Frank Answers About the Bible and Anal Sex.)

The figures on this ancient cup (the Warren Cup) in the British Museum illustrate St. Paul’s use of the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which have been been translated as “sodomites” and “calamites.” They represent the dominant (top) and submissive (bottom) sexual positions. The Greeks especially practiced male pedophile same-sex activities. But were the men and boys homosexuals in the modern understanding? Only if the entire Greek male culture was homosexual. In other words, not likely.

However, 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 biological factors 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 the same 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 but also environmental. For example, 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 why heterosexual men 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 connections is easier. Sex is phenomenological in that we have experiences of it and feelings about it that encourage repetition or aversion. Gay 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 prohibit it and cause youth to feel bad about doing it. Yet for homosexuals mutual masturbation is a joyful sexual pleasure that often eludes heterosexual couples whose conventional views of sex denigrate any sexual arousal separate from coitus.

So how should I feel about doing it?

Coming Out

Homosexuals say that their sexual attraction is not a choice any more than heterosexual attraction is not a choice. This is expressed most often in “coming out” stories. 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 gay while in college or university, which would seem like a safe place to “come out.” 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. We took off our 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, his hands everywhere. We ceased abruptly when others arrived in the apartment from the pub. But the next day we discussed what had happened and reached a willingness to continue our friendship even though, as I explained, I couldn’t love him the way he wanted to love me.

Gay guy comes out to his straight roommate. Will this be a false move?

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 sex as well as a consequence of experiencing an intimate sexual relationship. This is true for gay men and women as well as 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 young 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.

Boy Erased is an adaptation of the 2016 gay conversion memoir by Garrard Conley, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. Garrard had an experience with a fellow student during his first year in college and came to the realization that he was gay. When he told his conservative Baptist parents that he was gay, his father (a car dealer and Baptist preacher) enrolled him in a gay conversion therapy program. This true story exposed the horrors of this pseudo-psychological attempt to ween gay youth away from homosexual desire.

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 gay, but didn’t come out 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.

TV news personality and commentator Anderson Cooper is married to Andy Cohen

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” professions, but have not had to go through it 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.

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. Other comments are also welcome.

Pastor Frank Senn

Even for gays life isn’t sex all the time.

3 Comments

  1. Frank Senn

    Here’s a comment sent to me via email from a gay college student.

    “While I’ve had intimate relations with girls in high school, I’ve discovered I’m gay as I really prefer the company of men, going back to days of experimenting with friends. “

  2. Frank Senn

    I wrote to a gay college student who has written to me before about how it was when he came out to his family. He replied in an email:

    “Regarding my family, I am an only child and while being gay was difficult for my father to accept at first, he eventually did. My mom was fine the entire time, and has always been my greatest support system. I’m lucky — wasn’t too tough..”

  3. Avatar

    Thanks, Frank, for your blog post and your thoughtfulness through it and all of this blog. I’m not sure whether I have a coming out story or not.

    “Coming out” is a complicated concept and has meant different things to different people and at different times. When I hear the phrase “coming out story,” I expect a certain narrative starting with some level of realization, then repression or denial (“the closet”), followed by self-acknowledgement, followed by social acceptance or rejection (or both from different people), followed by a sense of life-long identity. “Coming out” is a phrase that grew with the possibility of social revelation and even celebration that grew slowly in the 1970s. For many men of my generation, the experience “coming out” at college (for instance) really varied, but generally occurred only with others who were receptive –others of the same age cohort self-identifying as gay, with a few from older cohorts (a gay professor, coach, etc., often non-disclosed or closeted). “Coming out” at home was a whole different thing, or in a place of employment, where it could result in swift firing –or not, less often.

    In no way do I disparage those who “came out,” especially in 1970s-1990s, and faced severe negative consequences. My only point is that under this very loose phrase were grouped a lot of differing and contradictory experiences. I believe that quite a number of men over time came to adjust their stories not because they wanted to lie, but because conforming to other gay men’s ideas of “coming out” assured a degree of acceptance in the group, when actual circumstances and events might have been quite different in reality.

    In my own generation –born in the early 1950s– I came into my sense of sexuality before the word “gay” had any real currency; in the 1960s I experienced it as a code for “I’m gay, I’m entrusting that and someone else’s identity to you, because you’re gay, so we are all in the group.” “Coming out” (of the closet) was sharing a secret in that group. That secret simply could *not* be shared outside the group. Those lines were really clear –and it was rarely necessary to point them out. In a culture where many could laugh and sing along with Liberace and openly deny that he could be “that way,” (homosexual being nearly a dirty word), one could be gay, other gay men or boys could know, and our secrets were safe. Unless, of course, somehow police or prosecutors got involved.

    I grew up in enormously privileged circumstances, so police or prosecutors never threatened. The well-off families of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, would *never* admit that any boy or man was gay, and if something happened, it was hushed up in any way possible. If the situation became too hot for a boy, he could be sent away to school –far away. (A friend of mine was sent to an English school in Switzerland, where he joined other boys from around the world and they were all gayer than ever before.) This privilege had a small down side: I knew I could never reveal anything if a man ever had sex with me against my will, because the power machinery would move to protect him and move me out of the situation. I know that this privilege was not available to just about everyone else, in small towns, or racial or ethnic groups, or other economic classes. I’m not defending it, just saying it was there and I did not really realize how privileged I was until decades later. At Princeton the administration held an official anti-gay bias (definitely) that was matched by protection from a substantial number of gay students, faculty, and powerful alumni.

    From a very early age I grew up “different.” I’m sure I was on some kind of ADHD spectrum, one symptom of which was that I really did not like to wear clothes (some kind of tactile or sensory sensitivity). My mother was a child psychologist with very “advanced” ideas and if I had grown up anywhere else I probably would have become intensely unhappy. She was used to Scandinavian “nakenkultur” and simply let me go nude in the house. As I grew I became less tactilely sensitive, but continued to go nude in the house because I liked it. (I’ve written about this elsewhere; there were rules but I had a lot of latitude.) I started to swim very early –nude of course, as was the custom of the time. (I have written about this elsewhere.) Naturally I touched my genitals a lot because it felt so good, and no doubt I was predisposed to developing a very high sexual drive.

    This led in time to me posing for artists and photographers, and from the time I was nine a lot of sexual activity with other boys (some a few years older), and then (from age eleven) older boys and men. I realize that the inter-generational element here will turn off a lot of readers. At that time, being a boy model usually meant having sex with the photographer after a session, and maybe other boys as well as the photographer’s assistant. I enjoyed it. I’m not advocating any point of view: just saying this was my experience, and I do not believe I was particularly damaged by it. I only had sex with a man against my wishes a couple of times, and never violently. We were all brought up then to do as we were told, and I behaved, and did not feel guilty or abused afterwards. I acknowledge that others had very different and more negative experiences.

    With my uncles help, I became skilled at navigating a complicated social reality. Only a few boys at school (on the swim team) knew how I lived at home, and that I was being photographed. So I appeared as pretty normal there, and even gained a vague reputation for “getting girls.” They had no idea about the extent of my other life, even when one boy or another saw a photograph of me. (That happened a few times.) Meanwhile, with my uncle I travelled a sort of national circuit of photographers and artists in Michigan, Canada, New York, New England, Florida, and California. Many of the boys and men I met had previously seen photographs of me nude, nearly nude, or explicitly sexual before they actually met me in person, so “coming out” to them was after-the-fact.

    In short, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know I was “different” although that meant different things as I grew up. By the time I actually formulated the phrase, “I am gay” in college, a lot had already changed, and I had a lot of experience (social and sexual) with boys and men. By that time, also, I did not want my sexuality or sexual experiences to form the basis of my personal identity. It was important, but not the only or even the most important part of me; I wanted a career as a scholar (which later I earned). I was “in the closet” only in the sense that everyone else was as well; my identity was never denied and I never had to deny it –though I certainly learned to be careful about it.

    In the end I did learn to live with integrity, and that involved a lot of self-work in therapy and some writing. I never developed any addiction, thankfully, but I have tended towards depression, partially an inheritance from my father, I am sure. Living with integrity in America of the present day is a tall order for anyone. I learned a certain clarity from an early age, and then had to learn to hold onto it. I have come to a point where I know: I would not have had any of it be otherwise, the good and the bad. It simply was, and my job is to live the rest of my life in service to others as happy and fulfilled as I can. (I could express that in the language of faith, but that’s another post.)

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