Today (May 17) is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. To help TGCA readers reflect on a constructive Christian response to these realities, Akos Balogh spoke to Sam Wan about the experiences of same-sex attracted people and how churches can be better at showing them love.
TGCA: What can you tell us about the journey of those who experience attraction to the same sex?
Thanks for beginning with this question, because it is so important. Sometimes the topic of sexuality can be treated as a theological debate or shibboleth for orthodoxy and we forget to take into account what affect our discussions can have on people for whom this is their daily reality. Ministers, leaders and siblings in Christ can only begin to connect the gospel and the cure of souls when we seek to understand with the deep grooves that run in people’s hearts, mind and faith.
We can only begin to connect the gospel and the cure of souls when we seek to understand with the deep grooves that run in people’s hearts, mind and faith.
The thing is, when you’ve met one person who experiences attraction to the same sex (and really, any experience of sexuality), you’ve met one person who experiences attraction to the same sex. Each person’s journey is marked by their own internal thoughts, upbringing, the era they’re in, cultural, religious and community experience. Having said that, there is a common shape in the formative journey that begins with Difference followed by Closetting.
Many people grow up with a sense of difference when compared to their peers. In contexts where there are rigid cultural gender stereotypes, non-conformity may be met with reprimands by parents, stares by strangers, calls to “man up,” and slurs like “gay” or “f*****t” by peers. Especially when attractions have not developed, confusion arises as to why gender nonconforming behaviours are immoral or associated with a sexuality. Shame begins to be internalised, “I am wrong,” “I am irredeemable,” or “I am unworthy.” In order to be ‘normal,’ gain parental approval and avoid possible bullying, children may begin to build a more acceptable persona. This persona is the beginning of The Closet.
As we are all aware, adolescence is a crucial period for physical, psychological, spiritual and identity development. It is also a period of sexual development which floods the body and mind with changes and hormones. Now, imagine in this highly formative developmental period, that to be accepted and loved you have to put on a persona. You then begin to develop unwilled strong romantic, sexual, emotional or physical attractions that confirm your worst fears, that you are incredibly different. You’re unable to process this to anyone because you are wrestling with shame and you fear rejection by those closest to you: your friends, family and faith community.
You begin to develop unwilled attractions that confirm your worst fears … You’re unable to process this to anyone because you are wrestling with shame and you fear rejection by those closest to you.
All this, while your brain is forming, your processing is wiring, your faith is developing, your body is changing. The teenage developmental period normally occurs between 12 years to 18 years; and generally identity synthesis occurs between 18-21 years old. Many don’t even express their sexuality until mid to late twenties. That’s 6+ years of wrestling in silence, crying out for God to help you, coping with feelings of shame, repressing emotions and desires, experiencing the grief of falling in love with your best friends, living in fear of being found out that you are different when you go to a social situation, acting like a different person, and panicking when someone accuses that you may be “gay”.
Six plus years of internalised shame, repression and silence for anything (not just sexuality) is not healthy. The closet is not a neutral space. The closet is not a safe space. You could even say, the closet is a traumatic place. The closet should not even be a place. But this is the real experience, real trauma, real pain of real people; people exhausted from keeping up a performance, tired when they’re talked about derogatorily in community. They may not have experienced “capital-T trauma,” but every single gay joke, every single time sexuality issues are wrapped around “us and them” (with “LGBTQIA+” people seen as an enemy) adds another extra pebble (little t-trauma) for this person to carry. And when you carry enough pieces of small pebbles you’ll start to crumple under the weight.
TGCA: What is it like to be a follower of Jesus who experiences attraction to the same sex?
In the musical Hamilton, George Washington sings the line, “dying is easy, living is harder.” In my experience, when I came to Christ I didn’t question dying for Jesus; but then Monday morning came, followed by temptations, frustrations and mental health issues. Having the courage to live for Christ is hard for every Christian. Having described to you the common experience of the closet and the collection of trauma, you can imagine what courage it takes for brothers and sisters who experience attraction to the same sex, to live?
With the existence of the closet, it means that there are few safe spaces for the parsing out of sexuality. In the past, when brothers and sisters have sought help they may have been silenced (“we don’t talk about these things”); dismissed (“it’s just a phase,” “you don’t actually know what you’re saying”); condemned and rejected (“you’re dangerous to the purity of this group”); expelled from church (one of my friends was escorted out of the church premises after disclosing to a pastor) or harmfully directed towards heterosexual behaviour as a solution (conversion and reparative therapy). The few spaces that do exist are ones of accountability, which often assume that your greatest need is help in resisting pornography usage or promiscuity. There have been few safe spaces for Christians who experience different sexual attraction to be honest, real and truly heard. As a result, a part of the body of Christ is gagged and wrestles alone—and, if Paul is right (1Cor 12:26), then the whole body is suffering, but we don’t know why.
Mental health issues are more prevalent in those who experience attraction to the same sex not because they are weaker, but because there are deep scars in their experience.
In a romance infused culture (like ours), to conceive of singleness as good is near impossible. To watch friends and family around you enter into stages of life that you may never experience (e.g., dating, engagement, marriage, children) is incredibly heart breaking and lonely. For many straight Christians, unless you have chosen to be celibate for life, there is still a potential, however limited, to achieve those milestones (bar having biological children after a certain age). The loss experienced by someone who chooses celibacy is similar to the loss that some may feel when they cannot have biological children; it’s not a loss of the tangible but the intangible: it is a potential loss. Grief occurs when there is a reminder of the loss. Someone once said to me that at times when they are present at another person’s fulfilling a developmental period (weddings, baby showers, christenings etc.) the grief cycle may be triggered.
Mental health issues are more prevalent in those who experience attraction to the same sex not because they are weaker, but because there are deep scars in their experience. Continued internalised shame is more prevalent not because they are delighting in the gospel less, but because messages like “you are shameful,” “you are unworthy and unloved,” “you are the enemy” have run deep grooves into the vinyl of their hearts. Suicidal ideation is more prevalent not because they are seeking attention, but because there often doesn’t seem to be a way out.
To our brothers and sisters who quietly remain in the church, thank you for persevering. I thank God that your love of Jesus is mightier than the hurt that you’ve experienced from without and within your community. I thank God for your courage and resilience, despite all that has happened around you. You stand with the cloud of witnesses who embody the call to trust in the promises of God. Your presence speaks a lot; because “dying is easy, but living is harder.”
TGCA: How have churches been helpful to Christians who experience attraction to the same sex?
Thanks for asking this. I don’t want to paint a dire image because there are beautiful glimpses of love in the bride of Christ.
We have been helpful when we have seen the true humanity of people who experience difference.
Did you know that the Christian Reformed Church of North America was one of the first evangelical churches in the western world to write a position statement on sexuality that was not homophobic or political but biblical and pastoral? And this was in 1973 (so when you read it, excuse the archaic language https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/position-statements/homosexuality). We can learn something from that. The CRCNA held the high esteem of God’s word, the experience of their sheep, and the need for nuance in writing a doctrinal position.
During the AIDS crisis, it was the nuns at St. Vincent Hospital in Kings Cross, Sydney, who opened up the first AIDS ward in Australia. When a young social worker broke down in front of Sister Margret Mines at the death of another patient, he said to her: “Sister I don’t think I can do this anymore, it is too hard.” She replied, “It is because it is hard that we should do it.” Around the same time, another St Vincent’s in New York opened its doors to AIDS victims; a survivor reflects: “The only people to stay behind and take care of the dying and the sick at that epidemic were the Sisters of Charity, following their Christian mission.”
We have been helpful when we have seen the true humanity of people who experience difference. We have been helpful when we’ve shed the image in our minds of a LGBTQIA+ person as the stereotypical “loud and proud” activist or cross-dressing drag queen and entertained the possibility that they may be the person sitting next to us listening to this week’s sermon. We have been helpful when we were not only hospitable, but received the hospitality of those we disagree with (Mark 2:15). We have been helpful when we not only spoke the gospel of grace, but embodied the gospel of grace.
Churches have been helpful when they have not put down someone with attraction to the same sex or raised them on a pedestal as ‘the prime example’ of sacrifice and commitment. Churches have been helpful when they treat their same-sex attracted members as a fellow sibling in Christ with their particular life experiences and are willing to walk with them. Churches have been helpful when they recognize the gifting of those with different sexuality and place them in positions of service to the church.
Churches have also been helpful when we have followed Paul in not holding marriage in higher esteem than singleness; when we’ve been self-reflective on whether we communicate explicitly or implicitly that singleness and celibacy is the poor person’s choice; when we include special celebrations within our year that don’t only revolve around marriage and family (e.g. valentine’s day, weddings, mother’s/father’s day).
TGCA: What are some helpful ways for Christians to relate to LGBTIQ+ people in the wider community? What are unhelpful things to do?
I think the most helpful way for Christians to relate to LGBTQIA+ people is simply to be authentically and consistently Christian.
If we believe in the image of God, then all LGBTQIA+ persons have dignity and deserve respect. If we believe in the common grace of God, then those in the LGBTQIA+ community are capable of doing (common, not salvific) good to each other, to Christians and to society. They do love, share, care, speak truth. They do contribute to society. We don’t show respect if we caricature, manipulate or defame. We do show respect by listening, trying to understand, and moving to relate with the aim of loving. And when we listen, we may come to realise the hurt that they have experienced from the church or the perceptions they may have of Christians.
And here’s the thing that I always try to communicate in pastoral care and interpersonal communication. I may not agree with someone’s experience, their perception of things or interpretation of it, but I have to work at understanding why they think as they do and how they got there. Because whether or not I agree with their interpretation of reality, that is the reality they are experiencing; it is real to them. The hurt, the joy, the pain … all these things are real. If I don’t understand that, then I’ll be speaking over them. If I don’t affirm that these are experienced realities, then I am not addressing the person. Dialogue means humbling myself and truly listening and making sure that I understand.
We cannot move forward and expect to communicate a gospel of grace, until we have actually reckoned with our past rhetoric and postures.
The perceived reality of the church by many in the LGBTQIA+ community is tainted by the long shadows of old sins (to use the words of Peter Adam in a past TGCA article). During the AIDS crisis, the late Richard Lovelace, professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary, said in a TV interview: “Most of the repenting that needs to be done on this issue of homosexuality needs to be done by straight people, including straight Christians. By far the greater sin in our church is the sin of neglect, fear, hatred, just wanting to brush these people under the rug.” We cannot move forward and expect to communicate a gospel of grace, until we have actually reckoned with our past rhetoric and postures: homophobia, conversion therapy, placards, AIDS rhetoric. Whether or not we have personally partaken in these things, they may be our perceived actions. We are not responsible for other’s perceptions, but if we wish to be truly missional, then we will work to break down these perceptions in order for the gospel to go forward.
And, if what I said about the past trauma of the closet is correct, then we need to tread gently. I used to be a primary school teacher in a refugee thick area of Sydney. There was a boy there in my year six who came from a war-torn part of the Middle East. Whenever a plane flew overhead he would visibly shake, because ingrained in the groves of his experience the sound of planes equated to an air strike. I could say to him, objectively you are safe; there is no possible way an airstrike will occur in Australia. But subjectively his experience was still real; he was continuing to experience the effects of past trauma. I couldn’t bash the truth into this child or keep repeating it; that would have been malpractice. The child had to process it (with professional help) and slowly discover a new reality.
In the same way, for those who have experienced the closet, and especially if the closet was because of the intentional or unintentional effect of religious teaching, there is often traumatic baggage. We cannot apply the gospel to the traumatised by just throwing the truth at them. That is malpractice. We have to tread carefully, because the hurt they’ve experienced can run deeply. We have to prove that we are trustworthy. We have to prove that we are truly followers of the one who eats with sinners and tax collectors.
Finally, if we believe that we have been called to take the gospel to the whole world, then that includes the LGBTQIA+ community. Moreover, if we believe that Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find him already at work in that community. The Christian’s task (as Eugene Peterson put it) is “to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.” This is why I said the most helpful way for Christians to relate with the LGBTQIA+ Community is to actually be Christians. To rephrase Stanley Hauerwas’ mantra, we as “the church needs to know that we are the church.”