Further Reflections on “Washed and Waiting” — Part One Prelude

I’ve now ventured into the meat of the book, where Hill begins to tell his story.

Remarkably, Hill’s story bears a lot of similarities to mine.  And I suspect that it bears certain similarities to the stories of a lot of gay men growing up in the church.  Again, I think that age makes a difference.  When I was growing up in the 80s, the prevailing stereotype of a gay guy was a flamboyant, girly-man who worked in some kind of an artsy profession (hairdresser, artist, entertainer, etc.), engaged in frequent sexual trysts with other guys, and used intravenous drugs.  It never occurred to me that I might be gay.  The gay script, at least as I understood it at that time, lay worlds away from anything I knew or ever would know.

I still recall the anxious thrill I felt upon visiting P-town for the first time.  Some friends and I had driven out to the Cape to spend the day at Nauset Beach.  As we headed home, my friend turned north, instead of south, onto Route 6, and proclaimed, “We’re going to P-town.”  So, we barreled past Wellfleet and Truro, those last outposts of civilized respectability.  We were going to see what “the gays” looked like in their natural habitat.  It never occurred to me that I might be one of them.  Sure, I sensed that I was a bit different from my other guy friends.  They sensed it too.  But we all wrote it off as a personality quirk.  Besides, I had great guy friends in high school and college, and never felt the least bit of sexual attraction toward any of them.  Still, a nagging question lurked in the back of my mind: Why was I much more fascinated with Marky Mark in his CK briefs than with the women of Playboy and Hustler?  As the 90s progressed, the old stereotypes began to fade.  Elton John was no longer the face of the gay man in America.  This was probably good for gay rights in general, but it was terrifying for me.  For a number of years, I’d just thought that I was quirky.  Now it was clear to me that I was actually gay.

I tell that story because I think it’s germane to my reaction to Hill’s story.  It strikes me that Hill and I are a lot alike.  We both grew up in pretty normal conservative Christian homes with loving and supportive parents; we both excelled academically; and neither of us see ourselves as fitting into the more common narratives that explain how gay men are to situate themselves in our society.  But we grew up 10 years apart.  So, unlike Hill, I lived through most of my teens and 20s believing that I was straight.  And it’s not because I was in denial.  The stereotypes of gay men at that time were so outlandish that there was no way that I could reasonably conceive of myself as being gay.  It wasn’t until around the year 2000 that people began to entertain the wild notion that there may be millions of “normal” gay guys roaming the streets of our fair Republic.  So, Hill and I probably realized that we were gay at roughly the same time; I was just 10 years older.

That probably explains why I’m a lot more skeptical of the bipolar gay-straight narrative than Hill is, and why I’m much more willing to reject it as an artificial social construction.  After all, I spent the first decade of my adult life believing in good faith that  I was straight.  Then, the goalposts began to shift, and I suddenly went from being a nerdy straight guy to being gay.  By that time, many of gay Gen Xers were already married and had kids running around the house.  I didn’t, but only because I’d spent a decade collecting graduate degrees (MS, PhD, JD) instead of settling down. So, I’m skeptical of the notion that being gay is a big deal.  I suspect that there were countless “quirky” guys like me who grew up in the 80s, got married in the 90s, and are still happily married, as they contemplate sending their oldest kids off to college.  The Millennial-dominated “gay Christian” narrative that has emerged out of groups like the Gay Christian Network (GCN) strikes me as a bit flawed.  It provides two options: same-sex marriage or celibacy.  It implicitly rejects as fraudulent the narrative of the 40-something gay guys who settled down, got married to women, and had kids.  But I don’t see this as a fraudulent option at all.  To the contrary, I see it as the option that the church ought to be promoting, although without the secrecy.

We easily forget that it’s only within the past 15 years that we’ve come to recognize publicly that many men have generalized attractional preferences for the male form over the female form, and that the overwhelming majority of such men otherwise appear to be fairly normal.  The culture is still adjusting to this shift.  Male swimwear presents a benign lens through which to view our haphazard way of coming to terms with this change.  Until the late 90s, it was quite common for guys to wear brief-style swimwear (Speedos) when engaging in water-related activities.  These suits weren’t merely confined to lap pools.  Guys wore them to the beach, to the water park, and even to youth-group pool parties.  No one ever thought that these Speedo-clad teenagers were closeted gay guys.  To the contrary, such guys were viewed as confident, if not a bit narcissistic.  But once the culture began to awaken to the fact that there could be closeted gay guys roaming the streets of even the most quiet, family-friendly suburbs, confident men everywhere threw their Speedos into the trash and replaced them with ridiculous-looking baggy board shorts.

In short, society maintained its strong preference for “heterosexuality” over “homosexuality” even while massively broadening the scope of what it means to be homosexual.  Zach Howe addressed this phenomenon a few weeks ago in an article in Slate, which can be found here.  In the 80s and early 90s, being straight was just taken for granted.  As long as you didn’t conduct yourself like Johnny Weir, you got the benefit of the doubt, even from yourself.  After all, “the gays” were in P-town, Key West, and places like that.  They weren’t living on the tree-lined streets of quiet suburbs, wearing a Speedo as they lay by the backyard pool memorizing SAT vocabulary.  That’s not so today.  In fact, the opposite may be true: the culture suspects nearly every guy of being gay, unless he succeeds at proving everyone wrong.  Enter the baggy board shorts.  Meanwhile, the stigma of being gay has largely persisted, and has only begun to subside within the past 2-3 years.

The church handled the issue in a similarly clumsy way.  Many denominations had drafted screeds against “homosexuality” back in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.  Hill provides an extended quote from one such screed in his book, which was taken from John Piper’s denomination.  My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), has its own similarly vicious screed, passed in 1977.  In the ensuing years, conservative Protestant churches have largely followed the culture’s lead in accepting that millions of “normal” guys may actually be gay, even while maintaining their extant condemnations of “homosexuality.”  Thus, harsh, uninformed statements against “homosexuality”–statements that were adopted with 70s and 80s stereotypes in mind–were now routinely applied to otherwise normal guys like Hill and me.  But we weren’t without hope.  Reparative therapy, which had been around for a number of years, could fix us, or so we were told.  In the early 2000s, I studied the literature related to reparative therapy, including the proponents’ own studies that purported to show successful outcomes, and determined that the whole movement was a sham.  Instead, I spent the next 13 years living an agonizing hell.  My “straight” life had been taken away from me, and I now found myself in a world that, if I were honest about myself to the people around me, would view me with the same uneasiness with which I had once viewed the denizens of P-town.

Hill doesn’t react the same way or with the same anger that I do.  I suspect that’s because he never had his “straight” life taken away from him.  He never had a “straight” life.  I appreciate that he recognizes that being gay isn’t a choice.  It’s not, at least insofar as we’re talking about a generalized attractional preference for the male form over the female form.  But I grew up in a world where that alone didn’t make one gay.  I think it’s good that we have better understanding of the complexities of human sexuality and the role that sexual attraction may play in it.  Ignorance is rarely bliss.  But we still seem to be working through the social implications of our increased knowledge.  Trying to fit our new understanding into outdated categories has led us down a perilous course.

I agree with Hill when he encourages gay people (as the term is construed today, i.e., as referring to generalized attractional preferences) to be honest with people.  I say this for three reasons.

First, we live in a world where we’re inundated with soft-core porn.  From a very young age, kids know whether they’re gay or not.  Further, we swim in cultural waters that define “gay” far more broadly than in the 70s and 80s.  We can’t properly address this issue if we’re simply trying to hop into a time machine and transport ourselves back to a more innocent (and ignorant) time.  Guys like me who are entering adolescence today won’t grow up with the benefit of just thinking that they’re quirky; rather, they’ll grow up thinking that they’re gay.  We have to accept that, and provide a way for people to acknowledge how they feel.

Second, we have to deconstruct the ignorant ways in which we addressed this issue in the past.  Our pre-2000s experiences demonstrate that most gay guys are perfectly capable of becoming good husbands and fathers, and can do so without reparative therapy or any other Dobsonesque prescriptions.  After all, these guys grew up in a world where they believed themselves to be straight.  Only in the past 10-15 years did they get the memo informing them that they’re actually gay.  So, it’s important for us not to discount our experience–experience that demonstrates the relative unimportance of generalized attractional preferences to marital success.  Hill touches on this issue as he describes his relationship with Tara.  If Hill had been 10 years older, and if Tara had obliged, they may well have married and been quite happy.  But because the cultural goalposts have moved in terms of defining who’s gay and who’s straight, Hill’s relationship with Tara takes on a complexity that would have been absent just a decade before.

Third, honesty helps the church do a better job of developing a more comprehensive theology of marriage and family.  In conservative Protestant circles, we’ve too often had a love-hate affair with modernism.  We are often willing to appropriate a fair number of modernist assumptions into our theology, often unwittingly.  In many ways, that explains the numerical success of pietistic Protestant Christianity in America.  We just take what people already believe, and then we recast it in a moralistic framework.  Voila.  It’s orthodoxy.  But this practical approach can get us into trouble, leading us to do harm when we’re actually intending to do good.  I think that’s the case here.  Human sexuality is a lot more complex than our 1970s suppositions allowed.  Instead of recognizing this and modifying our views, we tried to find a practical fix, wherein we could help people while leaving our former pronouncements undisturbed.  We tried denying the existence of sexual orientation.  When that failed, we tried denying its permanence.  Now that that’s failed, we just tell gay people to be celibate, single, and lonely.  And as that approach is starting to look cruel (which it is), more and more evangelicals are ready to consider the propriety of same-sex marriage within the church.  Somehow it never occurred to us to acknowledge the legitimacy and permanence of sexual orientation, while simultaneously denying its importance for structuring our social identities.  Doh!

Well, actually, it probably did occur to us.  But we elected not to pursue that path.  And why not?  Two words: Culture Wars.  We were more interested in fighting the so-called secularists in the political arena than we were in ministering to gay people in our churches and the world around us.  If we acknowledged the legitimacy and permanence of sexual orientation, it would undercut the arguments we’d been proffering against gay rights in the public square.  Now that the Culture Wars are a lost cause, perhaps it’s time to get back to being the church again.  And perhaps we can start by taking a more thoroughly Christian approach to the complexities of human sexuality.  Hill starts that discussion.  But we have to go further.

Catholic writer Michael Hannon recently penned an awesome article that skewers evangelicals for their anti-Christian way of addressing issues of heterosexuality and homosexuality.  He hits the nail squarely on the head.  I’ve been forwarding it to everyone I know.  Incidentally, Hannon’s article has caused something of a stir among hardened Culture Warriors like Denny Burk, Russell Moore, and Matthew Anderson.  They recognize that Hannon’s thesis undercuts the syncretistic pietistic/Kuyperian assumptions that undergird the Culture War.  And they’ve opted to keep fighting the Culture War instead of pursuing orthodoxy.  But I see no reason why the rest of the church needs to run after them in their folly.

Reflections on Wes Hill’s “Washed and Waiting” — Introduction

I’ve recently begun reading Wes Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting, and figured that I’d share some of my reactions to it here.  These relate to the Introduction.

I want to start by noting the appreciation I have for the book and for Hill’s decision to write it.  I certainly won’t agree with him on all points.  Still, too many gay Christians have been silent for too long.  I yearn for the day when, as a culture, we can appreciate the full complexity of human sexuality and free ourselves from our captivity to sexual attraction.  After all, marriage has to rest on something far more solid than sexual attraction.  Our bodies grow old; our youthful sexiness fades.  Even our physical enjoyment of sex diminishes.  Meanwhile, the challenges of raising a family, achieving career success, and saving for retirement make sexual intimacy all the more difficult.  If we’re trying to fuel marriages on nothing more than sexual attraction, we’re in for some deep disappointment.  But one need look no further than the divorce statistics to diagnose that ailment.  Still, our society (including the church) remains enamored with sexual attraction, and with the idea of categorizing people based on it.  So, I welcome the growing chorus of writers, including Hill, who are advancing narratives that push back against our culture’s (and the church’s) perilous captivity to the fleeting sexual attractions of youth.

That being said, I’m not sure that Hill proffers the counter-narrative I was hoping for.  Or at least he doesn’t in the Introduction.  He seems to give too much credence to the concepts of “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”  These concepts are barely 150 years old, and grew out of the same sort of quasi-scientific theorizing that gave us things like social Darwinism and the eugenics movement.  These categories have long since served any utility they ever had.

Human sexuality is complex, and the effects of the Fall on human sexuality are also complex.  We can’t even begin to number the ways in which sin keeps us from enjoying the kind of two-flesh-in-one unity that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall.  Misaligned sexual attractions provide one such way that sin gets in the way of our full experience of the pre-Fall union.  But it’s only one…out of many.  And it’s not even clear that it’s all that important, at least not in the long term.  After all, misaligned sexual attractions are just not that big of a deal when you’re 40 or 50 or 60 (unless you’re Hugh Hefner).  Other factors are far more important to marital happiness at those stages of life.  We make much of sexual attraction because we live in a culture that makes much of sexual attraction.  And, instead of pushing back on this idolatry, the church has responded by accepting the faulty model and then trying to engraft some moralistic limitations onto it.  That’s left same-sex attracted people (gay people) out in the cold, both within the church and in the larger culture.

Most of us gay people are perfectly capable of forming stable, bilateral, sexually active relationships with members of the opposite sex.  After all, sexual desire draws from a variety of sources.  It’s not all about gratifying our youthful urges.  As we get older, sexual desire is kindled much more by emotional and intellectual factors.  These factors are often oriented to attract us to members of the opposite sex, even in those of us whose physical attractions may not be entirely oriented that way.  But in a culture–even a church culture–that conceives of marriage primarily as an outlet for our sexual urges, that message gets lost.  And in losing that message, we mar the institution of marriage in a way that departs from what God intended.  Further, we mar it in a way that effectively excludes gay people from participating in it.  As a result, we unnecessarily force gay people to live in shame and isolation, excluded from the institution through which most adults in our culture relate to others around them.

So, it was disappointing to me that Hill seems to have little ambition for pushing back against the church’s mangled view of marriage.  After all, gay people won’t find full acceptance within the communal life of the church until we extirpate the idolatrous view of marriage and sexuality that got us into this mess.  I’m glad that Hill has given voice to the loneliness that gay Christians often feel within the church.  But I wish he’d make more of an effort to kick butt and take names.

In the same vein, I was disappointed that Hill holds up celibacy as the only viable option for gay Christians.  I believe Scripture calls for most of us gay Christians to get married…to people of the opposite sex.  Sure, we live in a church culture that’s often stigmatized us and made it harder for us to be obedient in that respect.  But we must rage against that judgment, calling it out for the bigotry that it is (in the most loving way possible).  Every last one of us is broken in ways that make marriage difficult.  Gay people are no more broken in this respect than anyone else.  Sure, in your 20s, when your sexual desires are at their peak, it may not seem like that’s the case.  But it is!  Sexual attractions (and sexual attractiveness) fade faster than the cartilage in our knees.  If marriages are to last, they’ve got to draw on far more than a shared physical attraction to hot bodies of the opposite sex.  And who’s to say that gay people aren’t better equipped to serve as opposite-sex spouses in ways that relate more closely to long-term marital happiness?

I do appreciate Hill’s acknowledgement that sexual orientation is a real thing.  None of us probably chooses to be this way.  And it’s especially disconcerting to be gay in a society where photos of scantily clad models fill our magazines and adorn the sides of our buses and subway cars.  Because we live in a society that inundates us with soft-core porn, we gay people know who we are at a pretty early age.  But there’s so much that we don’t know at that point…and won’t know for another 15 years (if left to discover it on our own).  While our orientation may never change, we’ll come to learn that there are many other avenues by which to kindle affection for members of the opposite sex.  We’ll also come to realize that we can have fairly normal friendships with most guys because our generalized sexual attractions typically fail to translate into specific sexual affections for specific members of the same sex, especially when we have a personal connection to someone.  It’s not that we become straight.  Rather, it’s that we come to realize that we’re not as ruled by our orientation as we thought we were when we were in our 20s.

I once took a 30-month-long work assignment in Japan.  While I got to learn about a different culture, I also got to learn far more about my own culture.  In the US, I lived in a bubble because, without thinking about it, I chose friends who were like me.  Amazingly, everyone I knew was an educated, white suburbanite who enjoyed running and cycling and loved the Goo Goo Dolls and the Counting Crows.  But in Japan, the exigencies of being an expat forced me to meet Americans I would have never met had I been living in the US.  These were great friendships, even if they were more difficult than my usual friendships.  And they served their purpose at that time.  In some ways, that’s how I conceive of same-sex marriages: They’re a product of exigent circumstances.  Feeling excluded from the institution of opposite-sex marriage (as conceived of by our culture) and not realizing how fleeting sexual attractions can be, gay people feel forced to choose between abject loneliness and the only companionship that seems to be available.  It’s hard for me to blame anyone for that choice.  For that reason, I’m an ardent advocate of civil same-sex marriage.  Because our culture has disfigured the institution of marriage in a way that unjustly disqualifies gay people from participating in it, it owes them the opportunity to establish parallel same-sex partnerships that have the same legal standing as civil opposite-sex marriages.  That’s not to say that same-sex marriage is necessarily wise or ideal.  But it is unquestionably equitable, in view of how we have come to conceive of civil marriage in our culture.

The church, however, has to do better: It has to reject the hyper-sexualized model of marriage that it borrowed from the culture, and recreate the institution of marriage in a manner that reflects the radical, self-sacrificial giving that lies at the heart of the Gospel.  It’s not merely about one man and one woman, although that’s part of it.  In addition, the church has to recover a deeply cultic view of the institution that recognizes that we are all disqualified to participate in marriage if we have to stand on our own merits, and that simultaneously recognizes that the Father’s grace to us in Christ is sufficient to qualify all of us to do what we otherwise could not–regardless of whether we are gay or straight.

Of course, doing this requires honesty and openness.  Hill is right in advising gay Christians to stop hiding behind closed doors.  But as we come out, we cannot merely accept the bigoted judgment that stigmatizes us as uniquely broken and thereby excludes us from participating in the institution of marriage.  If we are forced to live as resident aliens even in the church, then something is wrong with the church.  Hill is a good 10 years younger than I am.  When I was his age, I thought about my fate as a gay Christian in much the same way that he does.  But in the past 10 years, my sexual drive has taken a nose dive, and I’ve matured a lot emotionally and intellectually.  When I was 30, I thought that I wanted nothing more than to find a same-sex partner and settle down.  God never provided that.  Working crazy hours as a litigation associate at a large law firm also got in the way.  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I can’t even imagine marrying a guy.  It’s not that I’ve become straight.  When I flip though the pages of Details or GQ, I still have a much stronger affinity for the male images relative to the female images.  But I’ve matured in other ways that make my gayness much less relevant to who I am, and much less relevant to the overall orientation of my sexual desires (as opposed to the orientation of my sexual attractions).  I hope that Hill experiences the same kind of maturing during his 30s.

Preliminary Thoughts & Introduction

As a new year begins, I thought I’d create a blog to record my various musings on trends at the intersection of gay culture and Reformed ecclesiology.  I don’t necessarily claim to be an expert on either.  I’m openly gay, and am a Reformed (Calvinistic) Christian.  But that’s it.  I do have a day job, however, and it has little to do with the topics I’ll be blogging about.  So this blog will be something of a night/weekend endeavor.

I’ve also decided to keep my identity anonymous for the time being.  I suspect that I’ll reveal myself at some point. But, for now, I’d prefer that the blog focus on ideas and not on me.

That being said, for those who may be interested…I’m an ordinary guy who works as a corporate attorney for a global technology firm.  I’ve spent much of my life in the subculture of Reformed Christianity, mainly in the PC(USA) and the PCA.  As I ventured out of the closet, I found that there just weren’t too many Reformed Christians discussing issues at the interface of Reformed Christianity and gay culture, especially from the perspective of someone who’s openly gay.  So, I thought that I’d try to do something to change that.

My main goal is simply to hear from other voices who have an interest in the same things.  So feel free to comment if you have something useful and thoughtful to say.  Comments that reflect bigotry (either toward gay people or Christians) will not be published.  In addition to that, I hope that others may benefit from what gets posted here.

I’m looking forward to the journey that lies ahead.