(Content notice: Homophobia.)
His name was Wayne and he was a shockingly handsome young man: tall with a slim build, a shock of pale blond hair, striking birdlike Jodie-Foster blue eyes, angular features, high cheekbones, and sensitive hands. He dressed preppie–beige pants, never jeans, with crisply-pressed dress shirts or, if he was feeling especially informal, plaid button-downs with sweater vests. He was one of my best friends in college and one of the large circle of evangelical and fundamentalist friends I had in college. A Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, he was friendly but reserved, clever but shy.
One summer night as we walked through a courtyard back to the dormitory buildings after a library jaunt, he suddenly asked if he could talk to me.
The last thing on my mind was a fear of Wayne saying anything inappropriate to me. He’d always been extremely respectful both of me and my engagement to Biff. That said, it was obvious to me that he had something really big on his mind, something he’d been dying to talk about all night if not for days, so naturally I was concerned. We stopped under a courtyard lamp and he looked at it for a long time before blurting out his big secret.
He suffered from “same-sex attraction,” it seemed, and he couldn’t seem to change no matter what he did.
You might be shocked to learn that this scene occurred in the late 1980s. By then most people knew about AIDS and HIV and that hugging didn’t spread it, so I offered and he accepted a hug, but I was just reeling. I really hadn’t seen his confession coming at all. At the time, I didn’t know anybody (that I knew of, anyway) who was any letter of the LGBTQ acronym–except Wayne, obviously.
But I did know that gay people were demonized. They were considered less than human and my religion didn’t approve of them at all. The little Jack Chick tracts I read made them look a lot different than Wayne looked, though–the drawings were of men who were sloppy, nasty, evil, debauched, dissolute, and depraved on a scale I couldn’t even believe. Wayne, by contrast, was one of the sweetest, most meticulous, most moral young men I’d ever met. I couldn’t reconcile the sudden dissonance I was experiencing.
His story poured out of him. He hadn’t told his folks yet. I was the only person who knew and the first he’d told. He’d always felt attracted to men. He was approaching despair because he had no idea what to do to fix this problem. His voice shook; he trembled all over. He took my hands as he spoke. He’d prayed every day–oh, many times a day!– to try to rid himself of this unwanted attraction. He’d tried dating young women to see if maybe he just needed more experience with them, but he hated living a lie because he just wasn’t attracted to them, so he’d stopped doing that a year or two ago. He was desperate–pathetically desperate–for me to believe him. And to my shock, I knew that I did believe him.
I wonder how how many similar scenes have played out across the country? A lot, I bet. So much agony, so much trauma, so much humiliation, so much emotional pain, so much fear–it floors me to think about it. Now imagine living it.
The conventional wisdom at the time–and to a certain extent at present as well–was that gay people had just decided to be that way. For whatever reason, they’d chosen “the homosexual lifestyle” and just gotten accustomed to doing homosexual things. In reality, Wayne didn’t actually remember making that sort of choice; he’d always felt this way, just as I’d always been attracted to people of the opposite sex and had never consciously decided to feel that way. And to be sure, most of my religion’s conceptualizations of “the homosexual lifestyle” existed only in our imaginations and in lurid comic books and tracts; in reality, Wayne’s dream life probably looked exactly like mine in a lot of ways: romance, marriage, maybe a family, a fulfilling job, a stable home, and growing old with someone he loved.
The conventional fix for this “choice”-that-wasn’t-a-choice was a lot of prayer and various sorts of so-called reparative or conversion therapy. All the gay person thus afflicted had to do was want to change desperately enough and maybe go through therapy, and our god would magically change them and erase those gay feelings. So by definition if someone was gay, it was because that person just didn’t want to change. It shames me now that I bought into that thinking.
The flaws in this false wisdom are so glaring that in retrospect it’s shocking that anybody ever fell for it. Nobody even wondered why someone would choose a “lifestyle” that entailed as much stress and maltreatment as being gay. Nobody even wondered what the mechanism of that choice even was or why straight people just assumed that gay people had made a choice that straight people themselves had never made. Nobody ever listened to gay people to find out that they sure didn’t remember making any choices about who to love. And nobody actually looked at the efficacy of reparative therapy or prayer to find out just how useful these strategies were at doing what they claimed to do.
Most importantly, though, conventional Christian wisdom then as now was that the Christian god never gives one of his children more stress and trouble than that person can handle. Here’s a good takedown of this trite old saying, but for now, just know that I really believed this saying was true–and more importantly, so did Wayne. We both thought that there was no way our god would ever let us go through trials so serious we just couldn’t survive under them.
That saying was one we both knew very well as Christians and it was exactly why we were both struggling right then: we could both sense deep down that this struggle was actually too much for Wayne. We both sensed that there wasn’t a magic fix for him. This was how he was, and it was impossible for either of us to imagine how a loving god could possibly have created him to be a man who lusted after other men when that was one of the most terrible sins there were.But these were things just flashing through my mind as I tried to figure out what to say. I sensed that Wayne’s confession to me–which I did not recognize as “coming out” because I didn’t even know the phrase at the time–was important and momentous, and that it deserved respect and a great deal of delicacy. I was Pentecostal and not very well-versed in diplomacy, but I did my best. I told him that I still loved him, appreciated the trust he’d put into me, didn’t think less of him, and would not betray him or tell his secret (and I never did, not even to my fiance). I’d pray with him and help him however he needed help.
What I could not do–but what I needed most to do–was assure him that he was just fine the way he was. I didn’t have the language to offer him that assurance. I didn’t even know what to say. We both took totally for granted that he needed to choose to become straight again, and we both saw my role in his life as helping him do that.
We prayed a lot together over the next year or so, but he was still struggling. He was even exorcised once at my church, though Southern Baptists in that area and time didn’t approve much of Pentecostal exorcisms any more than they approved of our habit of speaking in tongues. Sometimes you get desperate enough to try anything. At one point he even went away to a camp that I now suspect was an ex-gay retreat, all to reprogram himself.
What tore Wayne up the most was that if some miracle didn’t happen to totally alter him, he only had two choices if he wanted to go to Heaven under his religion’s doctrines: he could stay celibate his entire life, or he could marry some poor woman and hope for the best. Either he lived without hope of a romantic relationship forever, alone and lonely, or he lived a lie and deceived someone about the most important thing imaginable.
It was a terrible choice to contemplate, and not much of a choice at all.
Neither of us even imagined there might be a third choice.
Something was seriously wrong with a religion that demanded people beat themselves up that much. Something was seriously wrong with a theology that told gay people that they were intrinsically “disordered,” to use Catholicism’s description, and that they’d made a choice that very few of them remembered actually making. And something was seriously wrong with a god whose leaders and followers alike all thought he never gave anybody more than they could handle when the simple reality that both Wayne and I could see was that this suffering was way more than Wayne could handle. One might as well hand a very small toddler a pickaxe and tell that child to go hew out a mine as endure that pain.
Over many nights of tears and anguished phone calls I saw that our god had indeed given Wayne a fight that he not only couldn’t win but one that might well destroy him. What had he done to deserve this struggle? Why would our god do this to him? Why would our god demand he be celibate or lie about himself? Why him and not someone better able to handle that burden?
Either it was totally arbitrary or it was mean, and as Hobbes said in Calvin & Hobbes, either way it gave me the heebie-jeebies. When I deconverted, I was happy to lose that bigotry immediately–it fell from me like a weight from my shoulders and thudded to the ground, impossible to lift again.
But many still are not, and the scene I’m describing here could as easily have happened yesterday as 25 years ago. A few months ago one bigoted pastor called gay-affirming churches Satan’s church, which puts a very fine point on just what he thinks of gay people. And a few days ago no less than Jimmy Swaggart’s own son declared that LGBTQ activists would behead Christians and destroy Christianity itself if they only could–making me wonder if his real fear is that LGBTQ people might one day treat him exactly like he’d treat them if he could (hint to him: they won’t). The more acceptance LGBTQ people get in society, the more outlandish the shrieks and denunciations and false persecution claims will get out of that end of Christianity.
But there’s hope: bigoted Christians talk this way because they are getting desperate. You think bigoted pastors and Christian leaders were talking like this in the 1980s, when Christians just totally took homophobia for granted? Oh no. They weren’t being this loud about it because they didn’t have to be loud about it. The harder they drill down on homophobia and bigotry, though, the faster they will lose their dominance over young hearts and minds. At this point it’s just a matter of time.
Every single confession heard, every single realization of unfairness and cruelty made, every single heartbreaking struggle shared, is another brick falling out of a wall. Every generation we get closer to real affirmation and equality of all people–and no god is required for any of it.
I wish I’d been able to be the real ally that Wayne needed that night in the courtyard, but I make up for it as best I can now by speaking often and loudly in support of LGBTQ people. I hope he’s doing all right and that he’s found love and peace. He sure deserves both. He had the kind of bravery and compassion and sweetness most of us only rarely encounter, and he could have given his entire denomination’s leadership lessons on what love really looks like.