Happy Pride everyone!
Four years have passed since I came out to my wife; three years since I started writing this blog. And through much of that time I’ve felt like things were moving excruciatingly slowly. In comparison, though, the past 12 months have been a whirlwind. Highlights:
- Last summer I came out to each of my four kids and was overwhelmed by their love and support. More than anything, I think this step is what set in motion the further changes to come. Once my kids knew, I no longer cared who else might find out.
- Last fall, I attended a conference by the Reformation Project, and for the first time ever found myself surrounded by LGBT people. I never realized the weight of the burden we carry living in a world where heteronormativity is always assumed, until I found myself in a place where it wasn’t. It was beautiful.
- In January, attended my first Gay Christian Network conference, where I met two other guys in similar situations to mine. We shared a lot in terms of our religious and family backgrounds, and getting to know one another and sharing our stories was incredibly powerful.
- In March, I found a local gay volleyball club (they have them all over the US – check out nagva.org) and started going to their open gym night. Coming out to my kids last summer gave me the freedom to begin pursuing friendships with other gay people.
My involvement with this volleyball club has been completely life-changing. They welcomed me warmly, and in a matter of weeks, I found that I had more gay friends than I could have ever dreamed of. When I’m with them, I feel I can let down my guard and just be me. The pretense drops away and I no longer feel the urge to “act straight” – a self-protective mechanism I’ve carefully cultivated over the years. And it feels wonderful!
My blog posts may have become less frequent, but that’s not a sign of anything bad. Instead, it’s because I’ve found richer and better ways to process my thoughts and feelings as I continue along this unpredictable and adventurous path.
I’m not sure why anyone reads my blog. Maybe it’s like watching a train wreck as it occurs – it’s just so hard to look away. I had thought things were going so well recently. In the weeks since I posted This is my story, new levels of communication have opened up between my wife and me, and some new friends have helped me to shake some of the destructive patterns of thought and emotion that I’ve learned over the years. Thanks to these friends, I’ve noticed signs of past progress that I hadn’t seen before; and I’ve also experienced new breakthroughs in my journey to fully embracing who I am. You know, I still can’t quite fathom how it has taken me so long to accept the utterly obvious fact that “I am gay.” I know people my age who came out in high school or shortly after. They grew up in the same world and culture that I did, and yet somehow they were able to make peace with who they were decades ago; and here I am… still slogging along.
So the last couple of weeks have been punctuated by the highs of embracing new friends, finding new depths of communication with my wife, and experiencing new milestones of self-acceptance. But those new highs were precarious, and one painful conversation was all it took to topple the scaffolding beneath me and send me plunging. It was just before bedtime last night, and my wife and I were revisiting things that had come up in prior conversations over the past week. I should say from the outset that my wife didn’t do or say anything wrong; the conversation wasn’t painful because she had been malicious or cruel. But in the course of our talk I suddenly realized how utterly I have failed to communicate to her what I am feeling and experiencing. Despite the fundamentally queer dynamic of a mixed-orientation marriage, for better or worse, she has been with me and for me more than anyone else, and more than I could have expected or imagined. So to suddenly discover how much of my experience she hasn’t yet grasped left me feeling lonelier than ever.
We were discussing wants and needs – a perfectly reasonable and even critically necessary topic for conversation. What do we each need to survive and to thrive? What are the things that we want over and above that. I have shied away from using the term need to describe how I feel about having an intimate relationship with a guy at some point in the future, reserving that word for things like air and water and food. We clearly NEED those things; without them, we will undoubtedly die in the very near future. So I haven’t felt like that. Like if I don’t sleep with a guy in the next week or month or even year that I would literally DIE. So I’ve always stuck with the words want and desire to describe what I’m feeling. But in the course of our conversation it suddenly struck me that she was thinking of wants as being things like “I want to go to Europe in the spring! I want to learn Chinese! I want to buy a new car with a 5 speed manual transmission! I want to complete a triathlon!” All of these things are wonderful and would bring me great pleasure. I want them. But I may or may not do them; and I could still live a perfectly contented and healthy life nonetheless. So if things like that are the point of reference for understanding my desire to pursue relationships with men, then it would seem impossible to grasp why I would jeopardize our family and our marriage just for that.
So I struggled to find a better analog. Air, water, food – let’s call these fundamental needs. They are clearly in a class of their own – necessary for even the most basic continuation of existence. And then we have vacations and hobbies and social relationships – call those wants. I want them, I enjoy them, and they make life better and more fulfilling. But I won’t die without them. So it feels like there’s got to be some intermediate category – things less urgent than the fundamental needs, but nevertheless substantially more important than the wants. Healthcare? Nutrition? Meaning in life? I think it could be argued that these are higher priority than wants, even if they may not rise to the level of needs. But for me, even these fall far below my desire to pursue relationships consistent with my identity as a gay man. If I never saw a doctor again in my life, I could still get lucky and might have a long and healthy life. But every fiber in my being tells me that if I forego emotional and relational and physical intimacy with guys, for the rest of my life, that I will be bitter and miserable and lonely.
I’m not sure that there’s anything comparable that a straight person could relate to. Nothing that adequately conveys the feeling of being a 50 year old man who has, for my entire life, turned away from the intimacy I’ve so deeply desired, all because of stupid and damaging beliefs I embraced, at an age when I couldn’t have known the consequences. And then, to experience the glorious healing of throwing off those oppressive beliefs, and for the first time seeing myself as an OK person – not despite being gay, but because of the totality of who I am – a part of which is gay. Screw that – I’m not ‘OK’ – I’m pretty damn awesome! And then, having experienced this liberation from a lifetime of self-recrimination and regret, to be asked to, nevertheless, continue to forego that intimacy that I’ve desired. It feels like death.
I suppose that most of my blog posts aren’t written for the readers. They’re just a way for me to clarify my own thoughts and to express my emotional turmoil. I’m really not looking for answers – I feel like my wife and I need to write our own narrative; find our own path forward. But god, how I long for someone to just understand what this feels like!
I’ve been writing this blog now for almost three years, and it’s been nearly four since my coming out 2.0. Just yesterday I returned from the GCN Conference 2017, so I’ve been reflecting on my journey so far, re-reading old posts, and taking stock of where I am today. After reading the coming-out story of a new friend, I was inspired to start fresh and write my story from scratch.
Gay, Christian, and Out 1.0
I grew up the youngest of six children in a Christian household with loving parents and a large extended family. I can picture little five-year old Greg sitting with my dad as he shared with me the message that Jesus loved me. How wonderful! With simple child-like trust, I felt the flood of God’s love as I asked Jesus to come into my heart. I was nothing if not sincere as a child. Throughout my childhood, I always strove to be good, wanting to please my parents and God.
In retrospect, I’ve known I was gay since childhood – well before I ever experienced any feelings I would identify as sexual. But I never would have used the term ‘gay’ to describe myself. In my family, my church, my social surroundings, there just wasn’t any connection between what I was feeling and the word “gay” – a word that described really bad people who hated God and did disgusting things.
But nevertheless, from about fourth grade onward, I had the growing sense that there was something different about me, and as puberty approached it became clear what it was. I was attracted to guys, and not girls. I remember in fifth grade finding a Playboy magazine (in a church parking lot, of all places…), and wondering what the other boys were feeling and why they were so interested in the pictures. And then about a year later stumbling across a Playgirl… aha! I started to understand.
But as I said, all that I knew about gay people was that were bad and disgusting and definitely didn’t love God, so I couldn’t be that. So how could make sense of what I was feeling throughout my teen years? My church provided me with a framework to understand it: Satan must be tempting me with these homosexual feelings, and so clearly I had to resist with all my might.
I graduated from high school and went off to college, where I got involved with InterVarsity – an interdenominational Christian campus ministry. I suppose college is a common time for faith transitions, and for me that meant a renewed fervor, a deeper personal commitment, and a growing faith in God. I got involved in leadership, and for my remaining college years, IV was the home of my faith development.
It was in this context that I “came out” for the first time. Of course I could never have uttered the words “I’m gay” at that time (hence the scare quotes), and the extent of my boldness was to highlight passages dealing with “homosexual temptation” in a book on Christian sexual ethics, and then giving it to my staff worker. It doesn’t feel quite right to call it “coming out,” so I’ve taken to calling it Out 1.0. But nevertheless, it led to further conversation with my staff worker, and then subsequently to my coming out (still “1.0”) to several others – my closest friends, my parents, my sister, and eventually, my future wife. All were loving and supportive in their responses. But of course all of them also reaffirmed my own internalized belief that the only good response was to fight against these temptations.
Naive, Hopeful, and in Love
When my wife and I first met, we were both deeply committed to our faith, confident that God could do anything, and hopelessly naive. As I mentioned above, I was out (1.0) to her before we even started dating, and both of us were convinced that same-sex attraction was a temptation to be resisted at all costs. So we entered into our relationship cautiously, but optimistic that God would use our sincere love for one another as a part of my future “healing.” We dated, married, and started our family together.
Disillusioned and back in the Closet
Throughout all the years of our marriage, and especially in those early years, most things were pretty good. We had four beautiful, healthy children, a nice home, good jobs, and the love and support of our families. In most areas I was happy with how my life was unfolding. But my attraction to men never diminished, and my attraction to women never increased. As the years went by and it became clear that God wasn’t “healing” me, I began to lose hope. I internalized an unarticulated but persistent feeling that there must be something monstrously wrong with me. I still had every confidence that God could do anything, so if He wasn’t doing this thing for me, it must either be because He didn’t love me enough, or else I was SO inherently wicked that I stood in the way of my own healing. Too broken to be fixed. I experienced repeated bouts of depression over many years, and became withdrawn from friends and family. On the outside I tried my hardest to put on a happy facade, wanting to forestall any probing questions about why I might be feeling sad. But on the inside I felt alone, unloved, and unlovable.
Still Gay, Desperate, and Out 2.0
I spent too many years hiding and merely surviving. Moving from Gay 1.0 (recognizing that I was attracted to guys ) to Gay 2.0 (accepting that I am gay) took over thirty years. Moving from Out 1.0 (“I struggle with homosexual temptation”) to Out 2.0 (“I. AM. GAY.”) took a couple more after that. Maybe I’m just a slow learner… But I eventually got there. It’s been a little over five years since I first uttered those three small but powerful words to myself. I am gay. I am gay. I am gay!
But dammit! what lousy timing to finally arrive at Gay 2.0! My wife and I were approaching our 20th anniversary, we had four kids, and I was working for a non-affirming religious organization. And so it took me another year before I was finally ready to come out to my wife. We sat on the floor of our living room in front of the fireplace, and tears flowed freely as twenty years of pain and loneliness came pouring out. The depth of her love for me was revealed that day in that her tears were genuinely for me. She was profoundly sad that I had felt such condemnation and unworthiness for so many years, and especially that I had suffered alone. She told me she loved me just as I am. And I was undone.
While coming out to my wife marked the end of my suffering alone, it also marked the beginning of a period of pain and questioning for her. Has he ever really loved me? What do I mean to him? Has our entire marriage been a sham? How could I not have known? Why would God do this to us?
Change has not come quickly in the four years since I came out to my wife, but it has come in fits and starts. We started out by reading everything we could find on mixed-orientation marriages, learning a whole new domain of vocabulary. We’ve discovered a surprisingly large community of couples in similar situations, and among them a wide range or paths forward. We’ve been in counseling, both together and individually, and I started this blog as another place to process my thoughts and feelings. I’ve come out to a dozen or so other people, including close friends and family, and most significantly to our four children (read about When I Told my Kids I’m Gay). I’ve also attended two conferences for LGBTQ people and allies, focusing on faith issues and advocacy in the church. Even without the content of the conferences, the experience of being surrounded by so many LGBTQ people – amazing, beautiful, kind, and compassionate LGBTQ people – has been transformative.
Even as I write this, I can remember on an intellectual level how my sexuality at one time inspired such fear and self-loathing. But by and large, the emotional power has been broken. I can feel sad for that person (the younger Greg), but the thoughts and attitudes that caused him so much pain are being continually exorcised. Most days, most of the time, I can look in the mirror and say “I’m Greg. I’m gay. And I’m really glad that I am!“
Later this week I’ll be attending my first GCN conference – an annual meeting organized by the Gay Christian Network. As with any conference there’s a full slate of speakers and break out sessions, and I’m sure they will be good. But even more, I’m looking forward to meeting with other gay people who haven’t yet given up on organized religion. I honestly don’t know where my personal beliefs will land, only that I’ve thrown off so many layers of crap I’d been taught by the church that had been weighing me down through most of my life. Of course, excising bad doctrine isn’t an easy, straightforward thing. It’s not like the “bad” doctrine resides in its own little drawer, to be neatly removed and replaced with “good” doctrine. No – it’s all much more organic than that. Beliefs – good and bad, right and wrong – are mashed up with feelings, thoughts, and habits. The process of cutting out deeply ingrained beliefs is messy and painful. So part of the reason I’m looking forward to the conference is the chance to meet other Christians who have gone through and are going through some of the same things.
There will even be a sub-group of people who, just like me, are in mixed-orientation marriages. I’ve interacted with some of these people online, so it will be good to meet them face-to-face.
Last week it happened again. A prominent Christian organization drew their line in the sand against the apparently looming threat of homosexuality. If you didn’t catch the news, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, “an inter-denominational, evangelical Christian campus… working with students and faculty on U.S. college and university campuses,” announced that they will fire any of their staff workers who hold affirming views of LGBTQ relationships (first reported in Time Magazine).
When I heard the news, I took to Twitter to express the pain I was feeling. I must have struck a nerve, as the subsequent thread generated over 35,000 hits – this from a guy whose typical tweet attracts two or three courtesy ‘likes.’ 😅 I’m reproducing it here in serial form:
InterVarsity responded the Twitter backlash with a series of tweets to quell the response, claiming that the Times article was inaccurate (it wasn’t), lamenting the pain LGBTQ people have experienced at the hands of Christians (you think?), but doubling down on their insistence that their non-affirming stance is the only one that is scriptural. The coup de grace – referring to LGBTQ people who agree with their theology, as if that’s the end of the story.
Well, not for me. Seriously – are they implying that those who DON’T embrace their theology are somehow taking the easy way out?
My InterVarsity staff worker was the first person I “came out” to – scare quotes because it wasn’t exactly “I’m gay,” but rather “I struggle with homosexual temptation” (the “struggle” phrasing apparently was a common trope). His response was compassionate, reassuring, but ultimately conditional based on me embracing their LGBT ideology. As long as I toed the line, they were happy to have me. I served as a small group leader and in several leadership positions, including chapter president, during my undergraduate years, and after graduating committed myself to pursuing full-time Christian work. And while that didn’t go so well (as detailed in My World Vision), I did nevertheless end up married, with kids, and working full-time for a Christian organization. So I think from their perspective, they would say that “things worked out.”
It’s ironic. One of the main things that drew me to InterVarsity in the first place was its broadly ecumenical nature. Having grown up in a particular strand of evangelicalism, it was eye-opening for me to meet Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and generally Christians of many different faith traditions that agreed on one thing at the core: we loved Jesus and wanted to be transformed by knowing him. It didn’t matter that we disagreed on a whole host of theological points; what we had in common was more important.
Somehow THIS has become their test of orthodoxy. Not views on war or life or charity or compassion; but only what you think of gay people. How did it come to this?
Big news! Last week, I came out to my kids! Their responses could not have been more loving, more supportive, or more awesome. I started with my eldest son, after spending the day together getting him moved in to his new college apartment. We went out to do some shopping, then caught a late lunch together. On the way back to his place, I asked if there was somewhere we could stop to talk, and he suggested a park near campus. I joked that it might be funny to make him guess what we were there to talk about (knowing he was probably thinking it was something he had done – let him sweat it out), but concluded it would be better to just come out with it.
Me: I’m gay. Mom has known for as long as she’s known me, though back then we wouldn’t have used the term “gay.” We both sincerely believed that God didn’t want me to be gay, and we thought he would “heal” me. It’s clear to us now that that’s not how it works. I am who I am, and there’s nothing to be healed… Are you surprised?
Son: Yeah, I’m totally surprised. I had no idea. But before I say anything serious… you know when you got an earring a couple of years ago…?
Me: …hahaha. Yeah. No that wasn’t me announcing to the world that I’m gay. But looking back I realize that marked the beginning of a change in my attitude. I had spent my whole life so ashamed, so fearful that people might figure out that I was secretly gay, and I did all kinds of twisted things to avoid suspicion. Pretended I didn’t like songs by Bette Midler. Clamped down on my emotions when watching a heart-wrenching movie. Practiced mannerisms that would make me look “straight.” So then the earring thing… it was really just a spontaneous urge, but one that I would definitely have shut down for most of my life. But at the time, I realized “SO WHAT if people think I’m gay. I AM gay! Why should I care if they suspect something that’s true?” Anyway, I’m kind of running on here. What are you thinking?
Son: Well – like I said, I’m surprised. But it doesn’t change anything for me. It doesn’t change what I think of you as a man or how I view you as a dad. You’ve always been a great dad, and I love you. Thanks for sharing this.
Heart melted, tears in eyes. Cue Bette Midler music… There was plenty more to the conversation, but that was the gist of it. The next day it was eldest daughter’s turn. She had to get her new phone activated, so I told her we would go by the phone store and then go out to lunch. Phone activated, we headed downtown to a little Greek restaurant with outdoor seating. It was a hot day, and all the other patrons were sitting inside, so we had the patio to ourselves, fountain splashing behind us, Mediterranean music playing.
Me: I have something important I’ve been wanting to tell you – that mom and both have been wanting to tell you… I think the easiest way is to just come out and say it. I’m gay.
Daughter: (her face an expressive hurricane of surprise, pride, and love) REALLY? Dad I’m so proud of you! Can I give you a hug? (Which she did… for the next several minutes, until our gyros were delivered.)
I should mention that this particular daughter has always loved celebrating the differences in people. She is not one to simply “stick with her own kind.” Her circle of high school friends includes devout and nominal Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Atheists; some from the US but many from other countries; some cis-hetero and others gay, questioning, or asexual. Even though she is quiet in personality, she is quick to stand up to bigotry and small-mindedness.
We continued with a long conversation, in which she reaffirmed her love for me and her support. As we were leaving the restaurant she came up with this little gem that left me smiling:
Wow, I thought that getting my new iPhone was going to be the highlight of my day, but then this happened!
Can you tell that I like my kids? My conversations with the younger two followed in the same vein. Surprise, love, affirmation, questions about mom, about me, and about the future. But underlying everything was a sense of closeness from sharing and a strong, reciprocal love.
Gay or straight. Homosexual. Same-sex attracted. Queer.
Language is powerful. Words are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our perceptions, our interactions with one another, and even our day to day decisions. Our choice of words reveals how we conceptualize the world and relate to everything in it. Through the words that we choose to describe ourselves, we disclose our allegiances and aspirations. Or maybe we reject labels, and thus confound other people’s attempts to categorize us.
But powerful as it is, language is also imperfect. Descriptors are approximations. Words carry baggage – denotations and connotations. Sometimes too much baggage, sometimes not enough. Language is an imperfect representation of reality, often close enough to get the job done, but sometimes just plain wrong.
Take an example: when I say the word “bird,” what do you think of? A small flying animal that has wings, lays eggs, and builds nests? A prototypical bird likely matches all of these descriptors, but lots of birds do not. Some birds aren’t small (emus, ostriches, condors); some don’t fly (penguins, kiwis, cassowaries); and some don’t lay eggs (male birds of any species!) Are penguins, condors, and male sparrows not birds? Of course they are, but just don’t expect any of them to fly into your tiny back-yard bird house and lay eggs.
Gay or straight. Homosexual. Same-sex attracted. Queer. Which label fits? Any of them? All of them? None of them? Does it matter who is applying the term, and to whom? I definitely don’t label myself “straight,” even though to an outsider, my life would seem to best match that script. I won’t use “homosexual,” as it strikes me as too clinical, as if describing an illness. I reject “same-sex attracted,” even though it literally applies. The denotation is right, but the connotation seems belittling, as if my attraction to men is analogous to a straight guy’s preferential attraction to blonds. It’s like describing humans as “food-oriented” because we’re attracted to eating food. That leaves “gay” and “queer.” I feel like either one or both of them apply.
I’m curious readers (all three of you), what term or terms do you use describe yourself? Is there one in particular that really seems to fit, while the others do not? Do you use more than one of them interchangeably? Or perhaps you use one term for certain situations and audiences, and another for others? I’m not really looking for definitions, which I can find all over the internet, but rather personal responses – how do you relate to these words or how do they relate to you?
A beautiful and touching song by two beautiful guys: Eli Lieb and Steve Grand. Enjoy!
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. (Genesis 2:18, NRSV)
For some Christians, the account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis chapter 2 is foundational to their understanding of sexual ethics. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” OK, sometimes they’re not quite so impudent, but that’s the general idea. The account in Genesis is taken as normative for sexual relationships, and since it involved one man and one woman, that’s how every sexual relationships should be. If that’s your perspective, this post is for you.
And my purpose is NOT to try to convince you that you’re wrong. (While I do, in fact, believe that way of thinking is wrong, I’ll save that for another post). For now I’m content to say that you’re entitled to read and interpret the passage in accordance with your knowledge and beliefs.
But I would like you to own up to the repercussions of this belief, especially in the context of the passage quoted. Chapter 1 of Genesis includes a series of mini-creations, all punctuated with the assessment “and God saw that it was good…” Then we work through chapter 2 down to verse 18, where for the first time, God notes “it is NOT good…,” in particular, not good for the man to be alone. That’s why God made a partner for Adam.
Is it relevant that God made a woman as a partner? I guess one reading of this passage might be that it was the creation of another person that was significant. Adam was no longer alone, because there was now another person. If you read the passage that way, you might take it to just mean that we need relationships with other people to be healthy. In that case, then it wouldn’t seem that the passage was saying anything about sexual relationships at all, but rather just about relationships in general.
On the other hand, maybe Eve’s gender was relevant to the story, and I think many Christians assume that to be the case. God created a sexual partner, a mate for Adam. But why? Because it was not good for him to be alone. In this case, it is a passage about a special kind of relationship – a sexual relationship. And from that we would conclude that sexuality is by default a pretty important thing for human beings.
So do you see the problem? If sex was an important part of the equation when God made Eve to address Adam’s need, then what does the church have to say to gay people? “God admits that it’s not good for us to be alone, but in your case we’ll make an exception”? “God provides a way for us straight people to have a special bond of intimacy with another human, but not for you gays”? It doesn’t exactly convey “God loves you!”
And granted, plenty of straight people may not have such a partner in their lives, in some cases for a season, in others for entire lifetimes. But “wait” and “someday if” are very different from “never” and “even if.” That’s a heavy burden to place on someone.