Being Fully Present

The next post in this series on identity in relation to faith and sexuality is from Kevin Harris. Kevin is the Director of Community Relations and the Administrative Assistant at The Marin Foundation.

What? Why do you identify as gay? Aren’t you a Christian?

Bring up the topic of homosexuality and identity (or gender identity that does not adhere to the norm) with Christians, and you may feel like you’re talking about spam. Like the meat, it’s either a mystery to many Christians since our identity is to be in Christ, or it’s met with aversion out of contempt for the unpalatable matter being presented before them.

I fully believe that the redemptive story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has implications for our identity that are to supersede any other competing claims vying for the foundational basis upon which our identity is to rest. I also fully believe that followers of Jesus have been grafted onto the body of Christ that transcends any other identifier or label (generation, nationality, race, ethnic identity, gender, sexuality, occupation, etc.). However, I do not see how that rules out the use of secondary identifiers. I feel it is very important to root our primary identity in Christ (which I have written about here) and, while I see myself as God’s beloved, I have also seen the need to name and identify my reality as a gay man.

Functioning in a heteronormative society where heterosexual individuals do not have to identify themselves as such or announce their sexuality because it is the norm to which everyone else is compared (and individuals are assumed to be such unless noted otherwise), I have found that it is easy to become invisible as a queer person and have my reality silenced. This is especially true in many Christian circles where sermons and discussions are littered with language that assumes heterosexual and cisgender (assigned gender at birth matches current gender identity) identity and only acknowledges the realities that are deemed as acceptable. A disappointing exception to this is where the LGBT community is mentioned in the context of being solely looked upon as a mission field or ministry project that is deserving of compassion. Attentiveness to such language stemming from a place of heteronormativity and the labels we employ within language are important as they have the capacity to make individuals outside of the heterosexual mainstream feel like outsiders or that they do not belong if we are not intentional about the language we utilize. You can read more about straight privilege that is a byproduct of heteronormativity here. While labels used in regard to sexuality can be limiting and restrictive, I have found that they can be helpful in filtering information, navigating the world, and simply being present in relationships. But if we are going to use labels in regards to sexuality, it is important that we start allowing individuals to define the labels they claim rather than allowing labels to define individuals. The inherent challenge in this is that we are called to invest in conversations and ask individuals what they mean when they use certain words and how they experience the realities they name and claim.

Rather than allowing labels like gay and lesbian to be descriptive and relate reality as it is experienced, belief systems are often attached to them or the labels become sexualized. One such belief paradigm is revealed through the fact that homosexuality is often only spoken of in terms of attraction and desire, or it becomes only sexualized where sexual activity is primarily presumed to be present, being viewed as genitalized behavior. In her book, The End of Sexual Identity (which is a really well written book that I would recommend even though I personally disagree with the main conclusion inferred by the title), Jennell Williams Paris makes the case that sexual attractions and desires are not a trustworthy indicator of human identity and they should not become a part of our identity since they merely refer to attractions as she states that “The sexual identity framework fixates on who people want to have sex with (p 93).” Such a view is a rather simple and reductionistic take on sexuality. Sure, when I talk about being gay that includes being mentally, emotionally and physically attracted to other men. But it goes beyond that to describe how I long to experience the fulfillment of my desires for intimacy with a partner in a more holistic sense than just a physical relationship. Beyond desires, it is indicative of the type of person that I would compliment in a relationship, for the purpose of sacrificing for them and striving to encourage and build up their relationship with God. And while it does not define my experience, it influences how I navigate the world around me and how I interpret some experiences and information. Being gay has an impact on how I relate my personhood to those around me and even the social circles I decide to invest in and surround myself by. The way that I express myself cannot be detached from the reality of being same-sex attracted, at least not in a healthy way. It is interrelated with things like my creativity and other aspects of my personhood. It reaches all the way to my relationship with God since being gay is one of a number of lenses through which I approach and seek to interact with God (regardless of what is correct about etiology and theology).

There was a point in time during college with regards to my sexuality and relationship with God where I prayed on a nightly basis for weeks on end that God would take my life in my sleep since I did not want to be gay. As I sought to push forward from that point and to seek God, I have found (over years) that my experience as a gay man has played a significant role in helping me to develop certain attributes and to further step into caring more about some of the things that I perceive God caring about. Sifting through my own journey over time with faith and sexuality has contributed to developing patience in general and compassion for individuals wrestling with different issues. Being able to have some experience as an ‘other’ in the Christian world (as small as that experience has been at times considering I still possess immense amounts of privilege as a middle-class college educated white cisgender male who can pass as heterosexual without too much difficulty) has helped to deepen my concern for those who are oppressed and marginalized. I may not have been as motivated to seek out the heart of God or learn about how God views me if it were not for the need for support that arose out of living in a heteronormative society. I’m thankful for the ways that my sexuality has influenced my relationship with God and I would not change it to become heterosexual if I could. While my sexuality has not been the only factor in this process by any means as other experiences and people have played significant roles in my journey with God, it has nevertheless been an important factor. Even though I am not currently pursuing or engaged in a romantic or physical relationship, I am very much a “practicing homosexual” as some Christians might say. Thus, in a more comprehensive sense (at least as it relates to my story), sexual identity is more encompassing than who someone is attracted to and wants to have sex with.

I have experienced what it is like to operate out of a compartmentalized and fragmented sense of self as it relates to things like disassociating myself from being gay or “struggling with same-sex attractions” as if they are another occasional temptation as opposed to something intertwined with how I experience, interpret and navigate the world. After experiencing such a divided sense of self and fragmented reality, I want to bring my whole self into my relationships with vulnerability and authenticity. Part of that journey has included reclaiming my identity as it relates to sexuality. Churches are big on being authentic…..except when it comes to naming your reality if you happen to be queer. As I pursue authenticity and sexual holiness, I want to seek that holiness (like any other Christian regardless of their sexual orientation) as Paris describes in her book as seeking to give and receive love with God and with other people in and through my sexuality (p 83). God, the Church, and those that I love do not deserve any less, and certainly do not deserve just a fragment of me.

Much love.

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  • Drew

    Boy, you’ve nailed it on the head again.

    Brings to mind the phrases “I don’t need to know what goes on behind closed doors” and “You don’t see my parading my heterosexuality around.” In fact, the kiss at the airport, the ring on your finger, your child’s baptism, holding your wife’s hand in the hospital waiting room while her father is in surgery, etc are all very public evidence of your sexuality.

  • Andrew

    Kevin, thanks for posting this. In some ways it sums up the last year for me in trying to be authentic and wrestling with what it means to “identify” as gay. In other parts, it is challenging me to keep moving forward on my journey.

    • Kevin Harris

      I’m glad to hear you got something out of it Andrew. While I definitely don’t have all the answers, feel free to shoot me an email at kevin at themarinfoundation dot org if you ever want someone to bounce ideas off of as you continue to move forward in your journey. I hope things are going well with you.

  • Kevin,
    I am really thankful to have read this today. I’m working on my Master’s in gender studies and often feel alone in the intersections between gender, queer issues, and Christianity. As it turns out, and obviously you know this, most Christians don’t like talking about it, or don’t know it exists. It’s almost impossible to work through, for example, some of the truths in your post without first explaining a lot. I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining and not a lot of time connecting with other Christians over gender and queer issues. I am not able to attend many Marin events due to school and work but just knowing that these types of conversations are regularly happening, eases a lot of stress in my heart and reminds me that I am not alone in what I care deeply about. Thanks so much for your honesty and thoughtfulness. Thanks for seeking to love God with all parts of you.

  • Seth

    Thanks for sharing this, Kevin! You have described some of my thoughts and experiences to a tee. I remember talking to a friend of mine (similarly situated in the church) about this issue and he said, “So, you have a tendency. You don’t have to give in to it.” I remember thinking that he just didn’t get it, neither about me nor about himself. We shortchange ourselves immensely if we reduce ourselves to what (or whom) turns us on.

    And you are absolutely right; it is very difficult to parse ourselves between “church” people (i.e., where being gay doesn’t really work), “family” people (i.e., where being gay may not work either), and “workplace” people (ditto). We need to be whole people wherever we are, and integrate our orientation with the other aspects of our lives. Some of the most powerful occasions in my life have been where I am among gay brothers and sisters, and worshipping, ministering, and sharing the sacraments.

    A year or two ago I met up with that friend one evening, and he related how he had been “delivered” of his tendency and healed of some abuse and secrecy he experienced as a child. I have no reason not to believe him; he is a man of demonstrated faith. Nor will I underestimate what God can accomplish in anyone’s life. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine, after all the time and effort spent recovering my identity as a gay believer, ever asking God to re-orient me.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    • Kevin Harris

      Thanks Seth! As it relates to the friend that you mentioned that told you that you have certain tendencies but do not have to act on them, that is something that I have found both frustrating and interesting at the same time. It’s obviously frustrating when individuals reduce being gay to fleeting attractions or sexual activity as if “not giving into those tendencies” would change anything or disassociate us from being gay. But, I feel that a majority of the ideas that I was thinking about in relation to this piece are also true for heterosexual individuals as their sexuality is intertwined with how they experience and navigate the world. While I may be off, one of the problems seems to be that many heterosexual individuals do not take much time to think about their sexuality and how it intersects with other facets of self and the multitude of ways that it plays out (outside of physical sexual activity) and is manifested and represented since focus is not ever really put on heterosexuality (as it is typically not even seen as a sexual orientation but just the norm) and it is never contested……it simply is. Part of the privilege of being heterosexual in a heteronormative culture is that you have the luxury of just ‘being’ and credibility is granted to you by default. So it can be frustrating, but at the same time it’s interesting and I would say even makes sense when individuals talking about sexuality ignore its complex and interconnected nature, reducing it to attraction and genitalized behavior since they have not had to reflect on their own sexuality (generally speaking).

  • Skandar

    Your friend believes he’s been delivered now, but I wonder how he’ll feel the next time a particularly attractive man crosses his path? Every ex-gay story I’ve ever heard is an essay in self-deception. Some believe it more than others, some snap out of it more quickly than others, but none of them are ever “re-oriented”.

    What I can’t really relate to in the OP here is this longing for acceptance. It seems slightly demeaning. Your church doesn’t accept you because you’re gay? Your church doesn’t deserve you. You’re too good for your church. Find another church that does accept you. There are plenty that will. It doesn’t have exactly the same liturgy or ritual as the one you’re leaving behind? So what? I can’t eat Macadamia nut brittle icecream any more after developing a nut allergy in my early twenties. It was my favourite flavour but if I eat it, it”ll kill me. So guess what? I don’t eat it. I tried other flavours and found something I like just as much. Icecream is icecream, after all. And church is church. We’re all part of the Body of Christ whether we label ourselves Catholic, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Mormon or whatever. Get a new church, one that deserves you, and be part of the Body. That’s all that matters. Leave your old church to its unChristian prejudices. They’ll have to answer for them one day.

    • Kevin Harris

      Skandar – My comments about churches were not directed at the particular church that I attend as I have felt accepted at the church community that I am currently a part of (and I am a part of a LGBT faith group also that I have found beneficial in walking out my faith with queer brothers and sisters in Christ), but rather at conversations and attitudes that I have found to be present in Christian circles/churches in general along with some past experiences. For brevity I could not dive into specific occurrences of the issues that I brought up, but rather decided to talk about them in general. Addressing any problems that I might have with my personal church community in a public blog post would be rather passive-aggressive and tacky, so I will not do that in a blog post but will rather address the pastoral staff in confidence if any problems arise.

  • Thank you for this! It really resonated with me in areas of my life that I haven’t wanted to think about lately. But it’s worth thinking about these issues. I ought to confront them openly so that 1) I can take agency of the labels (“queer”, “Christian”, etc.) that I choose for myself and that 2) others won’t just reduce me to what they believe those mean. “But if we are going to use labels in regards to sexuality, it is important that we start allowing individuals to define the labels they claim rather than allowing labels to define individuals.” <– yup!

  • Skandar

    “I may not have been as motivated to seek out the heart of God or learn about how God views me if it were not for the need for support that arose out of living in a heteronormative society.”

    My experience is that being gay in a heteronormative religion alienates us from God rather than bringing them closer to him.

    I left the Church and completely rejected religion for nearly 30 years because of the homophobic attitudes I encountered from priests, many of whom were gay themselves but in a state of denial so profound that they could only function by projecting their self-hatred onto me and others like me.

    I reasoned that if God really existed and allowed his own Church to peddle such hatred and bigotry then he must be evil. But the idea of an evil God when considered against the backdrop of a world where so much good and beauty exist just didn’t make sense. So if he wasn’t good and he wasn’t evil then he just wasn’t.

    I was perfectly satisfied with this explanation until a few years ago when a series of events made me start questioning my logical certainties about God’s non-existence. The breakthrough came when I started to realize that I’d been conflating the ideas of God and the Church. The Church isn’t divine. It isn’t his Church. It’s just a group of control freaks determined to tell other people how to live their lives and claiming divine authority to do it.

    Once I’d separated God from the Church then I had no trouble at all believing in a beneficent deity. But I’m not sure that most people ever have this kind of epiphany. The Church is synonymous with God in the minds of most people, so when you’re gay and the Church tells you you’re evil, pretty much your only choices are to submit to their control or reject it and walk away from God completely. Most of us do the latter, so being gay actually distances us from God.

    • Kevin Harris

      Thanks for sharing part of your story and journey with God. I’m glad to hear that despite the hatred and discrimination directed at you from individuals in the church, you were able to separate out that which did not embody the love of Christ from your concept of God and find a relationship with God.

      I completely agree that heteronormativity and discrimination that results from it inside and outside of the church is a negative thing that does not help individuals in the LGBT community to seek out and find a relationship with God. With that being said, the quote that you mentioned above from my piece is still a part of my story. While my goal was not to paint them in a positive light as there were aspects of heteronormativity and anti-gay sentiments that were not helpful in my relationship with God (and I feel they are inherently destructive), for some reason I often gravitated toward seeing God as a refuge in the midst of those things. I was not trying to project my story onto the broader LGBT community, but was merely describing a part of my experience in relation to my faith journey and God.

  • Skandar

    Oh and I don’t mean to invalidate your experience. We’re all different and we all take different paths in life. My comments were really just designed to remind people that the kind of journey you describe is the exception rather than the rule.

    If I’ve noticed one thing about Christians it’s that they can very easily become so immersed in their little world of faith with its specific rules and vocabulary and expectations that they lose sight of how the rest of the world functions. The way you’ve reconciled your faith and your sexuality is atypical for an LGBT individual, especially those of us who’ve spent the majority of our lives distanced or even divorced from the Church. There’s a gulf of understanding there which means that it’s possible and indeed even probable that someone from a secular background will read your comments above and understand that you hate being gay and view it as an affliction, but that every cloud has a silver lining and you’re trying to concentrate on the few positive aspects of your “condition” and treat the rest as part of the cross you have to bear. It feeds right back into the “objective disorder” nonsense that renders the Church such a toxic place for gay people.

    Now this may not be exactly what you mean. It may not even be close. But it’s what comes across to someone of my background and quite frankly it sets all my alarm bells ringing.

  • Mike

    I smile as read your article Kevin, and the contribution made by others too. I am now in my early 50’s, was once married and active in church life activities. At that time, I couldn’t believe that being gay, would also allow for me to be a christian. I knew in my heart God’s love, I had experienced so much of how God works in our world, yet my head would tell me the opposite. Society, believers, and living in various locations confirmed my thoughts. I gave away my bibles, stopped going to church, and went off to find out about the life I thought I had missed out on. How wrong I was. I remember thinking that “I don’t want to end up like these guys in bars and clubs, but that’s exactly where I ended up,” week-in- week-out, year-in- year-out. Something deep down inside of me just wouldn’t let go of me though and I would try to return to reading the one bible I had kept – given to me by my parents. I’d pop into churches to pray, light a candle, escape the outside world and would pray for God to help me. I even wanted to die to get away from it all. Often ending up in tears, despair, heartache. 3 failed relationships and also my one with God. I guess the fuel tank was running on air and needed refilling.

    I woke up one day and felt my world had changed. It was a nice sunny day and as I sat in the kitchen I remember thinking, “I didn’t want to meet anyone for a relationship and was perfectly happy living on my own.” How wrong I was as that was the day I met my partner and 10 years on, he has also helped to turn my life around. Its not been an easy road either lots of ups and downs, but we’ve stuck at and today I can finally believe that you can be gay and be a christian, and for me my commitment to my partner and [vice-verso] is essential. It’s so easy not to appreciate one another, perhaps rightly or wrongly judge. To be inpatient, and to miss the important things in life that have nothing to do with finances, and materialism, but has everything to do with love. Each of us is unique, each of us travels along our own journey with God. Each of us can hear His still small voice and know that He will direct and guide us, even when we might feel and think that we are so far away from Him.

    How did I come to where I am today? It’s taken me 32 years to realise many things and as society changes and the church changes too, I feel I can breathe and start to be me. I had to let my heart soften, to allow love to be where it should be and to let my head stop beating me up with its thoughts. I try to take life a day at a time, as this is the only time I really ever have to do things, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, month, year -if I have one. If not then today is the day I have to do what I am able too.

    I reflect on ‘God is love.’ I’m finding out day-by-day more about my relationship with God, some days are tougher than others, yet I now know I can live my life with my partner and still feel God’s love around me, within me and in our lives.

    I hope I have been able to contribute a little to your page.