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GCN Conference 2017

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.

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Queer Bird

Queer Bird

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?

Coming out as Ex-Side-B

StillGayI recently started writing a post titled “when sadness is only a step away,” about how sometimes it feels like the smallest thing can plunge me into a downward spiral. Even came up with a nifty little graphic for it. But then I realized it wasn’t just sadness that was so looming, but also anger, anxiety, and resentment. Many of us have emotional sore spots where our emotions are near the surface – quick to be inflamed by the slightest provocation – an opinion, a phrase, or sometimes even just a word.

Upon reflection, I realized that one of my sore spots is what is called Side-B among the gay Christian subculture. For those who may not be familiar, a brief primer on Side-A and Side-B. First of all, both sides agree that there is no contradiction in the term “gay Christian.” There is no sin, and should be no judgment in having a gay orientation. A small concession, yet way ahead of many fundamentalist Christians who condemn those who even identify as gay, regardless of their actions. But the two sides differ in an important way:

Side A adherents believe that God blesses same-sex marriages. They believe that the Bible passages that have in the past been used to condemn gay relationships have in fact been misinterpreted. These passages either do not refer to gay people at all, or they apply only in a lost cultural context that no longer exists. Read more about Side A or about why the Bible does NOT condemn same-sex relations.

Side B adherents believe that, while there is nothing wrong with a gay orientation, the Bible teaches that gay sex is wrong, and therefore God calls all gay Christians to abstain from sex with people of the same sex. Read more about Side B.

So why am I so sensitive to Side-B thinking? Why does it elicit such a powerful response of hurt, anger, shame, and anxiety? Well first, I’ll note that I’m not alone in this. Stephen at Sacred Tension wrote about it poignantly back in 2013 in When Side B is the New Ex-Gay (which was recently reblogged by Susan Cottrell at Patheos). I love Stephen’s gentle and vulnerable yet clear-spoken style:

Sometimes, your heart starts to break, and you don’t know why. You catch yourself emotionally limping through life, or angry and explosive at the drop of a dime, or feeling like a small, wounded child, and not understanding why.

Such has been the case recently. I’ve been struggling with very deep feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal – feelings that have made writing, rest, and engaging with other people in productive, peaceful ways very difficult. When I finally noticed these powerful feelings, I sat with them, trying to understand their origin. In a moment of clarity, I suddenly said to myself, I know these feelings. I’ve felt them before. 

It’s taken the past few month of processing and writing about my recent fallout with Side B (the conviction that while a gay orientation is not in and of itself sinful, expressions of that orientation in sex or gay marriage are sinful) to unearth a subterranean monster of overwhelming hurt, guilt, and rage. As is often the case, such huge emotions can influence our behaviors and thought patterns, but it can take time for us to see them clearly.

I realized that the story I’ve been living recently is a story I’ve already walked, many years ago.

Stephen goes on to describe how he was once part of the cruel and misguided “ex-gay” movement. How he once bought into the lies that assured him that he could be “cured” of being gay. But as you might guess, over time he came to realize that it was a house of cards. Though I never went the ex-gay route, I can relate to so much of the emotion that Stephen expresses.

I was Side-B before there was a Side-B. Since I was a young teen, and up until far too recently, I believed exactly the same as many in the Side-B camp. “There’s no sin in being gay in orientation, as long as you don’t ‘choose that lifestyle’ ” <ugh – excuse me while I go clean the vomit out of my mouth>. I sincerely believed that God loved me, and not just intellectually. I felt his love for me. I experienced it each day. And because I believed, as side-B adherents do, that the Bible unequivocally prohibits same-sex relations, I “chose” to forgo romantic relationships with men. Instead I “shared my struggle” with my closest friends, prayed earnestly, and resisted temptation.  I read everything I could find about homosexuality and the Christian. I sought the counsel of pastors and religious leaders. I dated women, and eventually met and fell in love the one who would become my wife. The whole story is throughout this blog, but especially at Greg Comes Out and Not Chipper, and Gay Man, Straight Wife. A regular Side-B poster-boy! I abstained from gay relationships, and God rewarded me with a wonderful and supportive wife who knew of my “struggles.”

For me, the problem with Side-B is that it underestimated and even trivialized the very human, physiological and psychological need for sex. It treated being gay at an intellectual level, while doing nothing for underlying human need. As if finding and embracing the right understanding would then somehow do away with the need. But of course it didn’t. Stephen captures it well:

Like several years before, though, I slowly became disillusioned. I watched many people lead anguished lives of compartmentalization or promiscuity, never attaining a joy that makes vocation sustainable. Many of the leaders were able to find genuine love with celibate partners, but I realized celibate partnership, while potentially very good, would hardly be workable for many people under similar circumstances. Nine times out of ten, I watched Side B people jump ship before their lives went dark.

In the same way that the promise of orientation change fell apart in my hands, the promise of sustainable and life-affirming celibacy for everyone who pursued it fell apart, too. I never believed it would be easy, but discipline is self defeating if it ends up killing you. I was left feeling crushed, helpless, betrayed and lied to all over again.

So there it is. My emotional sore spot for Side-B thinking is there because of my own experience. So when I hear young Christians embrace Side-B thinking, it makes me sad, and angry, and sincerely concerned that they don’t know what they are getting into. Now the Side-B thinker might say “That was only your experience; not universal truth. My situation is different. I’m entering into this with open eyes.” But don’t you see, your knowledge isn’t going to save you? I had all of the knowledge available to me; the support of my friends and religious leaders; and ultimately the love and support of my wife, who knew and understood things in the same way that I did. But knowledge isn’t enough. Knowing about food won’t take away your need to eat. Knowing about air can’t take the place of breathing. Knowing about intimacy won’t satisfy your need for relationships. And knowing about sex won’t meet your need for sex.

If you’re considering Side-B

Whether you plan to remain single and celibate, or marry an opposite-sex partner with their full knowledge, consider this. You may have addressed your need for spirituality; your need for openness; your need for emotional intimacy; for logical coherence. But how will you address the underlying basic physiological and psychological need for sex?

You say “I will remain celibate, just like many other people throughout time and even today remain celibate.” A practical question then: how do you plan to deal with the visceral urge for sexual expression?

  • resist and push down: very difficult, perhaps impossible, and likely with severe psychological repercussions.
  • masturbate with porn: if it’s your only sexual expression, it is extremely isolating and ultimately unsatisfying
  • masturbate without porn: still isolating, and what the hell are you going to think about? Corn flakes?

If you choose to marry an opposite-sex partner, you have additional things to consider. Are you planning to have a chaste celibate sexless marriage, focusing on all of the aspects of a wonderful relationship that you can have, even if it doesn’t include sex? Then you BOTH have to answer the question above: how will you each address your sexual needs? Or perhaps you’re planning for your marriage to include sex. This certainly seems like it could work if you are bisexual. (Or maybe not. I’ve heard from other bloggers like BellaElena that it remains a huge issue for them as well.) Even if you’re the gayest of gay, perhaps it can still be made to work. I don’t want to go all TMI here, but my wife and I enjoyed a good if not great sexual relationship for many years. Sex can meet all kinds of real needs – affection, physical intimacy, touch, expression of love. But if you are gay, even if it meets all of these needs, even if it is completely pleasurable, it  still will ultimately fail to meet your basic human need for sexual expression. So we’re back to the same question: how will you meet that need within your marriage?

These are honest questions! If anyone has answers, please share. I’m sure my readers who find themselves already in mixed-orientation marriages would love to hear. And I want to continue to believe that it can work. But if you are not already in that situation, why choose a path so fraught with danger and the risk of pain?

Religious counseling makes things worse

depressed

I’ve been in therapy a number of times in my life. The first time was when I was in college, at the strong recommendation of the missions organization that had just rejected me for experiencing “homosexual temptation.” The referred me to a good Christian counselor in my area who probed my relationship with my father, and with my mother, and my feelings of inadequacy. Blehhh!

The second time was when I went away to graduate school. I was stressed about living in a bigger, progressive city, and fearful that I might falter in the “progress” I had made in my fight against the aforementioned temptation. Well, I call it “the second time,” but it probably really shouldn’t count. I went to just one appointment at the university counseling center, and quite logically and eloquently (I’m sure…) explained how and why I was experiencing these errant impulses. When my counselor revealed that he was gay, I elected not to return.

And more recently, since my second coming out to my wife, I’ve been working with a good individual therapist. So I was quite distressed (though not surprised) to hear of a recent study assessing the efficacy of mental health treatment in reducing the risk of suicide among LGBTQ people.

The study finds that seeking treatment from a mental health or medical provider did not reduce the odds of a suicide attempt. Respondents who sought mental health or medical treatment at some time prior to their suicide attempt (or, among those who did not attempt suicide, prior to the age when suicide might have been attempted) were as likely as respondents who did not seek any mental health treatment to have a suicide attempt or serious suicide attempt after this time. However, counseling from a religious or spiritual advisor was associated with worse outcomes. Compared with individuals who did not seek help at all, those who sought help from a religious or spiritual advisor were more likely later to attempt suicide.

“The findings are troubling because seeking treatment is a recommended suicide prevention strategy and this study’s results show no more positive effect for people who sought treatment. More troubling is the finding that individuals who sought religious or spiritual treatment had higher odds of later attempting suicide than those who did not seek treatment at all,” said co-author Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., Williams Senior Scholar of Public Policy. See more at: williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu

Did you catch that? Seeking help from religious or spiritual advisors actually increased the risk of suicide for LGBTQ people. Shocking, right? As I said, not surprising based on my own personal experiences, but nevertheless so very disappointing.

Signs of progress, though. Exodus International, one of the leading organizations advocating faith-based reparative therapy for gay people recently disbanded and issued an apology for the harm they have caused.  And a group of former leaders of the ex-gay conversion therapy movement have joined together and come out against conversion therapy.

If you are depressed, please don’t suffer alone. Reach out for help – but be careful who you reach out to!