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.