I Didn’t Choose This
“If there was one thing that you would say to the church or if there was one thing that you would want Christians to know about your experience as a gay man, what would it be?” This was the question that I recently put to a friend on a warm summer evening near the end of a wide-ranging conversation that had covered everything from his experience of coming out to the controversies around Pride celebrations in our community to the sexualization of identity more broadly to his experience growing up in a conservative evangelical church. His answer surprised me a little, both for its content and for its brevity. He needed little time to think before saying, simply, “I didn’t choose this.” I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t say much more. I had asked for one thing and one thing was what I got.
My friend probably wouldn’t check off many boxes for what you might assume about a “typical” gay man. I know, the word “typical” is fraught with all kinds of dangers, but we all have stereotypes bouncing around in our heads, don’t we? Well, he wouldn’t confirm many of them. Politically conservative. Not terribly interested in or well represented by some of the more ostentatious displays of gay pride that many associate with Pride week. Not prone to flag waving or protesting or marching. Deeply suspicious of the way in which Pride celebrations are becoming increasingly driven by corporate and political interests that seek to profit in various ways by attaching themselves to the movement. He is someone that I have many things in common with.
Another thing we have in common is the belief that social media can be among the worst places to have meaningful conversation. This is true of virtually any temperature-raising issue, but seems acutely so when it comes to sexuality. Things can go from zero to throwing around toxic epithets in no time flat (this is true, obviously, at all points along the spectrum of beliefs about sexuality). Assumptions are piled upon assumptions, human lives and experiences dissolve into bloodless abstractions, things like nuance and clarification lie gasping for air in the ditch along the superhighway to vindication or theological accuracy or whatever. We’ve all seen this. Perhaps we’ve even participated in it.
Ah, but at our best we can still engage in personal conversations, personal interactions, personal stories. This is where the action is, this is where truth is encountered, this is where understanding is built. Not in slinging mud on social media, not in throwing around inflammatory articles about the evils of the other side, not in using our little soap boxes to fuel the passions of the already convinced. There’s plenty of that out there already and the results are predictably uninspiring. What the world needs more of are people willing to enter into the lives and stories of others, to ask good questions, to share from their own experiences. And, perhaps most importantly, to listen.
These conversations are regrettably rare. Maybe it’s because they require a great deal of us. But they also offer the simple, but desperately necessary reminder, that behind all of our preferred abstractions there are unique people and unique stories. It’s easy to look at a conservative church building and assume you know what “those people” are like and how and why they think the way they do. It’s easy to look at a rainbow flag or a Pride parade and assume you know what “those people” are like and how and why they think the way they do. But if you’re not prepared to listen, you actually don’t. Not really.
Personal conversations are where you can talk about hard things without getting shouted down by the righteous mob (again, it’s worth repeating that righteous mobs come in multiple shapes and sizes). You can take time to clarify, to back up and try again, to smile and nod, to laugh, to not really know what to say. You can say things like, “I don’t know.”
(Could there be anything that plays worse on social media than, “I don’t know?”)
You can hear what it’s like to spend confusing and conflicted decades thinking that God doesn’t love you, about agonized and fruitless efforts to “pray the gay away.”
You can ask questions like, “What do you think God-honouring human sexuality looks like?”
You can hear what loneliness feels like.
You can talk about what it’s like to be reduced to your sexual orientation.
You can talk about the Bible, about what it is and what it isn’t, about how it’s used and how it isn’t.
You can debate the question of whether or not our political and social life is rapidly degenerating into a naked competition of identities scrambling to claim the moral high ground.
You can ask hard questions like, “Does the church exist only to affirm us but never to call us beyond our present experience (in sexuality, yes, but also in every other area of life)?”
You can talk about the church and its many failures. You can be shaken anew by the unspeakably awful reality of someone spending years wondering if God hates them.
You can think that if theological convictions about the nature of God and God’s purposes could ever lead to a human being thinking God didn’t love them, then things have taken a horribly wrong turn. You can recall Jesus’ words about piling burdens upon the already overburdened, about millstones and necks and the bottom of the sea.
You can be left with a simple sentence like “I didn’t choose this” lingering in your head as it hits the pillow.
Hey Ryan, your conversation partner in this blog tipped me off that you had written this. I’m so glad you know one another. This is pastoring at its best.
Thanks very kindly, Beth.