This article is prompted by my own questions in the light of some recent personal experiences. How far along are we in accepting gay people for who and what they are? On the global basis, in some parts of the world it seems not so far. But in the U.S. also there are occasional outbursts of homophobic rhetoric and behavior. Here are some reflections from my own experiences and thoughts from further study of the history of homosexuality and gay spirituality.
My consciousness has been invaded by gay issues in recent months. My wife and I celebrated our son and his husband/our son-in-law legally adopting 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 earlier, 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 observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I was scheduled to give a couple of lectures on Martin Luther as seen down through the centuries. The organizers were concerned that if the people attending the conference heard about my participation in my son’s same-sex wedding, it might deflect the purpose of the conference.
Apparently, in the view of these church leaders, my expressions of love and support for our gay sons trumps anything I might have to say about worship or church history. As a result, I have experienced the cancel culture. On the plus side, however, I have also experienced the support of leaders of two theological schools who were willing to “have my back” on the basis of my assurance that I was not coming to talk about same-sex marriage but about liturgical theology. I have to say that it’s really difficult to avoid becoming a crusader when one experiences the anti-gay views of some traditional Christians.
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 taken for a drive, then 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 on and writing about the body in Protestant spirituality. Sexuality has to be included as a part of a body spirituality. For example, sexual renunciation (vows of virginity and celibacy) have been forms of spirituality. These were prized forms of spirituality in the ancient and medieval church. The Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century rejected celibacy as a requirement for priestly ordination and promoted marriage and family life as forms and contexts of Christian spiritual life, both for clergy and lay. The medieval Catholic Church allowed sex even for married couples only for procreation and excluded any experience of pleasure. Well, it’s hard to exclude an experience, but Catholics could confess that they experienced pleasure when they engaged in their marital duty. The Protestant reformers regarded sex as a gift of God and allowed that it could be pleasurable.
No church allowed same-sex behavior, although it was generally tolerated, at least up until the late Middle Ages. I purposely use the word “behavior” because homosexuality wasn’t defined as a state of being in clinical sexology until the late 19th century. The definition of homosexuality as an exclusive same-sex desire or orientation has prompted religious homosexuals to profess that “God made me this way” and to seek a gay spirituality by which they work out their relationship with God and the world as homosexuals. But once homosexuality was defined as a state of being, it produced a homophobic reaction as if homosexuality was a contagious disease.
While homosexuals are found in all churches and all religions, only a Protestant church, the Metropolitan Community Church, which is otherwise traditional in theology and worship, has intentionally reached out to LGBTQ people and affirmed as an article of personal faith that “God made me this way.” Now several mainline Protestant churches welcome LGBTQ people, ordain to their ministry candidates who are living in a publicly committed same-sex marriage or union, and allow their clergy to perform same-sex weddings. My wife and I just attended our first gay wedding in a church — the wedding of the associate rector of the Episcopal 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.)
It’s too bad that we have to use the straitjacket of sexual categories. The research of the Kinsey Institute shows that sexuality is on a continuum from those who never have same-sex desires or relationships to those who exclusively desire same-sex relationships. Most people are in between, having had both opposite sex and some same-sex desires and perhaps some experiences with both sexes also. Some boys, who are otherwise “straight,” experience same-sex activities in youthful experimentation or in an intimate relationship with a best friend. Men who regard themselves as “straight” can have homoerotic desires and have occasionally acted on them. Usually because straight men don’t want to be perceived as “gay,” they suppress their homoerotic desires. But “bromances” have always been available to men in terms of best buddy relationships. Buddies are those who can depend on each other for emotional support. Best friends can hug and cuddle each other, and even offer a kiss, but usually don’t get into sex. There’s no reason a gay guy and a straight guy can’t have a bromance if they love one another.
I think I should distinguish between homosexuality and being gay. As I stated, 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. Nor are all men and boys who engage in homosexual behavior are homosexuals in the clinical sense. Many boys and men have engaged in same-sex practices such as oral and anal sex without identifying as gay. To be gay is to embrace an attitude and life style that acts on one’s exclusive sexual desires. Gay men simply love men, and desire intimacy with them.
By the same token, being “straight” is also an attitude and life style that accentuates one’s heterosexuality with a rigidly defined set of gender roles. It sometimes results in a toxic masculinity that asserts male power over women and engages in homophobic anti-gay speech and behavior. This “fear of men” (that’s literally what homophobia means) may be a defense by straight people against their own suppressed same-sex attractions. Gays, on the other hand, have no hidden desires; they are unabashedly attracted to other men. They admire male bodies and desire to connect with what is beautiful in their eyes. It is also about an attitude toward sex that sees it as pleasurable, not utilitarian. For gays sex is obviously not about procreation, and this is what has made same-sex “sinful” in the light of Christian teachings about the purpose of sex.
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 churches and religions are opposed to homosexual behavior, including same-sex marriage, surely also has some affect on the spirituality of gays and lesbians. Some reject religion entirely. 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 Frank Answers About Gay Pride, Homosexuality, and Homophobia.)
The Bible doesn’t know the modern clinical definition of homosexuality as a same-sex orientation. The word “homosexual” is not used. It only mentions certain homosexual acts such as sodomy, which in the story about Sodom is actually desired by heterosexuals who never get a chance to carry it out. The Bible refers to practices of cult prostitution in ancient Israel, which is called an “abomination” because it comes under the category of practicing or supporting idolatry. In his letter to the Romans St. Paul also places his critique of sexual behavior in Rome (men and women changing their natures) under the category of idolatry. He refers to sodomites and catamites in 1 Corinthians 9:6 in his long list of those who won’t enter the kingdom of God, which could be referring to man-boy sexual relations (whether in cult prostitution, ordinary prostitution, or older man/youth mentoring). There were Greek philosophers and Roman Stoics who discouraged the pursuit of man-boy relationships. To what extent were Christians influenced by this Platonic and Stoic views?
We know that man-boy relations were very much a part of ancient Greek society and culture, as has been the case in many other societies around the world. Men mentored boys and initiated them into sex. While pederasty was practiced (more accurately ephebophilia — love of post-pubescent boys), this wasn’t expected to last into the boy’s adulthood. He would eventually marry, acquire a position in society, raise a family, and perhaps acquire a boy of his own to mentor as an adult.
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.
To be sure, there is no command or promise about same-sex marriage in the Bible, only male and female becoming one flesh (Genesis 2:24) and being fruitful and multiplying. 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
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. Mark Johnson points out in The Meaning of the Body that the body itself is not just one thing. (See Frank Answers About the Meaning (s) of the Body.) The body is at least five things simultaneously. It is biological, ecological, phenomenological, social, and cultural. Let me give examples of these meanings and their impact on our understanding of the gay body.
Biologically sex is about procreation. Certainly the survival of the species is an important biological issue. Yet same-sex behavior has been observed in many animal species, including mammals and the higher primates. Since same-sex behavior exists in the animal world we cannot say that homosexuality is “contrary to nature.”
Homosexuality has certainly been practiced among humans. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have provided for what we call homosexuality within their social structures. All older boys and young men in those tribal societies have engaged in homosexual behavior, usually with older youth or adult partners who serve as mentors. It seems that the purpose homosexual behavior serves in traditional societies is to allow for hormonal-driven males to have sexual release while waiting until they are more psychologically mature for marriage and child rearing. But it is still expected that mature males will mate with a female and produce offspring for the tribe. Even so, some males continue to enjoy sexual relations with other males.
Biologically we have sexual urges, but we must have the opportunity to express them. This is where ecology or environment affects sexuality. For example, heterosexual men notoriously engage in homosexual acts in prisons where no women are available. Boys in all-male environments such as boarding schools engage in homosexuality exploration. Men in male only environments (even in the military) will find sexual release by having sex with other men. Men who are seeking same-sex connections congregate in urban environments where making those connections is easier. Gay bars are prime places for cruising and socializing.
Sex is phenomenological in that we have experiences of it. Feelings about those experiences encourage repetition or aversion. Some homosexual men have had intimate relations with women and have even gotten married and fathered children. But he finds opposite sex unfulfilling. He has homoerotic urges that have been suppressed but really desires a same-sex relationship. He find s it pleasurable to be in the company of another man who understands his needs and desires and to have sex where negotiation is minimized in comparison with an opposite sex relationship.
Sexual practices are both socially controlled and culturally conditioned. Homosexuality has been both legally tolerated and severely persecuted, sometimes by a change of administrations in the same society. Same-sex marriage existed in the Roman Empire since the time of Nero (ca. 65 AD) but was banned in 342 by the co-emperors Constantius and Constans under pressure from Christian bishops. Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Central America found same-sex relations taken for granted among indigenous people and put to death those who engaged in these “abominations,” just as often happened in outbreaks of anti-sodomy crusades in Christian Europe. Yet even communities in the same country have responded differently to sodomy. Late medieval Venice burned sodomists at the stake; late medieval/early Renaissance Florence gave them a wink and a nod. In many Western or Westernized countries today same-sex marriage or unions are legalized. In other countries, especially in the Middle East, homosexuals may still be publicly flogged or put to death.
Culture refers to what is acceptable practice in societies and it has been at the mercy of custom and science, which have often joined forces. 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. Masturbation is a common, safe activity that can offer many sexual health benefits. Yet some religions and cultures continue to try to suppress it and cause youth to feel guilty about doing it.
Many sexual practices are accompanied by guilt and shame because of Western sexual mores, sometimes even on the marriage bed. Homosexuality is most counter-cultural in its guilt-free, shameless approach to sex. As Toby Johnson wrote in Gay Perspective (Austin, TX: Peregrine Ventures, 2008), “Our homosexuality tell us that sexplay is a much richer experience than just fucking. Because there is no clear purpose to homosexual sex—no ‘natural goal.’ such as the insemination of the female—all of it is sexplay (p. 137). This isn’t to say that some vestiges of guilt and shame don’t linger in the homosexual’s mind, or that sexual performance standards aren’t ever an issue. But in principle gay men are free to indulge in the joys of sexplay.
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 and admit that one has a same-sex attraction. “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. But it is seldom an easy thing to do.
Unfortunately, not all comings out to parents is without trauma. Many religious parents who regard homosexuality (and not just homosexual acts) as a sin throw their teenage gay sons out of the house. These boys have nowhere to go and end up on the streets. Homeless, they inevitably they end up in prostitution to make money and be able to provide shelter and food for themselves. Their stories don’t always have a happy ending because they can get into drugs or contract a sexually-transmitted disease.
“Coming out” of the closet as gay can be like a spiritual rebirth, but the birth pangs 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 summer night and my room was stuffy. I took off my t-shirt, 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 and 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 because 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. Perhaps this attitude, as well as the fact that same-sex couples don’t have to deal with opposite-sex men-from-Mars/women-from-Venus conflicts, augurs well for the success of gay marriages.
Because I have gay sons, I’ve felt comfortable asking gay 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 may reject their advances or just their being as gay. “Coming out” can sever friendships.
Some homosexuals don’t come out until they are adults. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, IN who launched a campaign for president of the U.S., went through the university and the U.S. Navy probably knowing that he was a 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. Some prominent TV network news reporters and hosts have come out as gay, like Anderson Cooper. Seeing gays and lesbians in positions of public responsibility may help to make homosexuality more socially accepted.
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.
We should also recognize that gay persons don’t “come out” just once. There are further experiences of “coming out” as the gay person professes his homosexuality to others (friends, extended family, professional associates, etc.). I met a gay seminarian in Indonesia who had recognized his same-sex orientation as a young man and acted on his desires. After a few years he settled down with a job, became involved in church, and decided to go to seminary. He felt that honesty required him to admit his sexual orientation to the seminary authorities. Initially they said he would have to leave the seminary. But he argued his case that he was called to ministry and was no longer sexually active. The faculty decided that he could stay but should receive continuing counselling while he was a student in the seminary. He told me that he found the regular sessions with his sympathetic counselor helpful. (I think every seminarian should have a spiritual director.) He outed himself to the seminary administration not as an act of defiance but as an act of personal integrity.
It is possible to be openly gay and sexually continent and live celibate (unmarried) lives, as some Roman Catholic priests are trying to do. The widespread child sexual abuse by priests in the global Catholic Church has not helped the gay cause or self-identified homosexuals in the priesthood. (It hasn’t helped the reputation of priests generally!) The reality is that men with a secure sense of their own sexuality, including homosexuality, are not likely to sexually abuse youth. The real cause is the formation of priests who were not allowed, much less enabled, to deal with their sexuality, and whose acts of sexual molestation were swept under the carpet to protect the institution, thus enabling their behavior.
Gay artists have to come out in their work. The Australian gay artist Michael James O’Hanlon was raised as a Roman Catholic and displays an interest in religious subjects (with a queer twist). He has been able to set up shop in a Catholic convent. The following triptych called “Republic of Australia” (Australia is not a republic; it has a monarch, governor general, and prime minister) superimposes a model in the five-pointed star yoga pose over the five-star Australian Eureka flag. The Eureka flag goes goes back to the Eureka miner’s strike in the 1850s and symbolizes human aspirations. The cruciform figure on the cross perhaps represents the aspirations of the artist who has had difficulty publicly exhibiting his work in a repressive society. The figure on the viewer’s left seems defeated but the figure on the viewer’s right is reaching toward the cross and its cruciform figure. What does the stance of the model represent? He is in the pose of Leonardo daVinci’s Vitruvian Man, which demonstrates the geometric perfection of the human body. Perhaps this stance expresses aspirations for the acceptance of the male body in all its reality. The gay artist loves the human body, especially the nude male body, and likes to represent it in various poses (much as Michelangelo did with nude male figures on the ceiling of the Vatican Sistine Chapel). This artist signs his work “Eurekaartist.”
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, resurrection, and the ascension), as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit and a gay/queer version of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Blanchard’s portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection 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. The “prisoners of Hades” Jesus leads out are the dead, but the prison can stand for any kind of limitation, including the closets of shame where LGBTQ people hide.
The struggle to reconcile the resurrection with harsh reality can be especially tough for LGBTQ people who have endured hate crimes, discrimination, the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, and the disowning of families and friends. 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)
Since homosexuality defines a state of being with a same-sex attraction and we live in a dominant heterosexual society, homosexuals feel a need to “come out,” at least to themselves, and probably to others as well — family, friends, social groups (like churches), and associates. Those who do so have “coming out stories” to share. And, as I said, they have to “come out” over and over again as they find themselves in new social contexts.
I have been on the receiving end of “coming out” stories, but have not had to tell one myself. Since I’m not gay I can’t feel the internal emotions that those who identify as gay feel when they “come out” to themselves and others. My question to gay readers is: if you had a “coming out” experience, are you willing to write it up as a story and send it in the “Comment” feature at the end of this article? If you want to remain anonymous, you can send your story to me using the “question” feature (which comes to my email inbox) and I’ll share it in the Comments 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 of your announcement? What further “coming out” experiences did you have? 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