This article is a general response to the plight of queer Christians who think their same-sex attraction is sinful. There’s a middle place between the hateful and loving versions of Christianity where they treat same-sex attraction as an unfortunate character flaw to overcome (just like we atheists must fight the urge to murder random people because life is meaningless without a genocidal God looming silently over the universe). In such churches, gay people may be accepted but with conditions: they are expected to either force themselves into an approved heterosexual union or remain celibate for life.
I want to address this notion by referencing the article Confessions of a Recovering Lesbian, written in 2012 by a Catholic woman named Dawn Wilde. The first thing I noticed is that she talks about having crushes on boys when she was young and being happily married to a man for fifteen years, so she sounds more bisexual than lesbian to me. Keep that in mind–it’ll be important later.
1. We were taught to be afraid of ourselves.
It makes me sad the way many young religious people respond to feeling attraction to someone of the same sex. Having grown up completely surrounded by numerous but different conservative Christian communities, most of the people I know either were Christians or still are. I’ve listened to the stories of those who are gay or bi, and Dawn seems to fit right in with them:
One day a few months later, however, a startling thought crossed my mind: “I’m in love with Nora.” It frightened me badly to have that thought. I cried for hours, trying to figure a way out of the conundrum of being in love with a woman. It was all there, just as it had been with men: the emotional and yes, even the physical attraction.
Love should never cause fear, nor should being in love be a conundrum to escape. I never experienced that particular fear, because the only close friendships I managed to form during my teenage years were with girls. Aside from my brothers, I simply never had an emotional bond with another guy, so I was spared the fear and confusion of falling in love with a man at a time when I still believed the very negative things about homosexuality with which I’d been indoctrinated. When I finally realized I’m bisexual, I was in my early twenties and was already questioning everything, so I had an easier time of it than many of my friends.
But for people like Dawn and my gay and bisexual friends who grew up in strict religious homes, recognizing their same-sex attraction can be very frightening. Even for people who don’t grow up religious, cultural pressures still promote the idea that it’s an evil thing. Everyone responds differently to that pressure; some leave their religion behind, some move to a more liberal version of it, and some have been so thoroughly conditioned to hate homosexuality that they treat it as an illness, or part of their “sin nature” that needs to be overcome.
Dawn seems to have chosen that final option:
We both felt an enormous sense of shame about our behavior, though most of our friends were liberal and would never have judged us. Half our friends were even gay or lesbian themselves. Yet we instinctively protected our images as heterosexual women.
She doesn’t say whether or not they grew up in religious homes, but again, just a couple decades ago the anti-homosexual sentiments introduced by Christianity were still very prevalent in the general culture of America. I doubt many gay kids at the time grew up without encountering pressure to be “normal,” subsequently internalizing some level of shame for being different. Even now, with a majority supporting the rights of gay people, the shaming force of religion has a lot of power and a lingering effect on secular culture.
2. We learned to see ourselves as damaged.
She does mention some other details about their childhoods:
I know some of you may be thinking, “What do you mean, you just ‘woke up’ one day and fell in love with a woman? Can that really happen??” Not really. There were many factors in both our pasts that made us vulnerable to same-sex attraction. Nora had been repeatedly molested by a male cousin as a child. I was abandoned by my birth mother and grew up being physically abused by my mentally-ill adoptive mother. For Nora, I was safe. For me, Nora offered the nurturing bond with a female I’d never had. Neither of us had had any guidance about sexuality other than “don’t get pregnant.”
I remember wondering, as I struggled with serious mental issues and realized I was attracted to guys, if there was some abuse in my past that I’d blocked from my memory. I’m quite sure there wasn’t, but that’s the sort of misinformation Christians love to spread. The myth that abuse is what makes people gay has been studied and turns out to be unfounded. There is some evidence of a link, for men only, between childhood sexual abuse and having at least one same-sex partner at some point. But that is sexual behavior, not sexual orientation per se, the latter of which has no association with childhood abuse. There is also no association between childhood abuse and same-sex relationships among women.
That’s not to say an individual person couldn’t possibly be influenced in that way. Our behavior and desires are affected very much by our experiences, not just the genetic information we were born with. In fact, I think the whole argument about whether or not gay people are “born that way” is missing the point. It doesn’t matter who you were when you were born, you still have the right to be who you are now. Some traits that we are born with may change, while some traits caused later by environmental factors can be unchangeable. But the things that shaped who you are don’t determine the morality of what you do.
Even if Dawn’s bisexuality really was influenced by childhood abuse, it would be a mistake to generalize her anecdotal experience to everyone else. She would be an exception, part of a minority so small they don’t even register in carefully controlled statistical studies.
3. We were told it goes against what’s “natural.”The worst part of the article, I think, is this:
I also have trained my imagination to avoid impure fantasies. It can be tempting to fall into old thought patterns, especially if I’m tired. But if necessary, I’ll shut down physically and emotionally to avoid offending God. No fleeting sensual pleasure is worth offending Jesus, who suffered so much to save me.
At this point I think our blog has covered the issue of repression in religious sexuality many times, but this is one of the most blatant examples of its promotion that I’ve seen. During my own time as a teenage Christian I did a lot of shutting down like that, and it was a mistake. It helped me avoid conflict with friends and family, but it also damaged my ability to understand myself, and set me up for a failed relationship by teaching me to push off my responsibility for making choices onto a deity.
When you’re taught to distrust and ignore your own thoughts and desires because you are inherently evil, what takes their place when it’s time to make decisions? You pray, and you hope for a feeling or a thought in response that you can attribute to your deity. With practice you learn to listen to “God” (a.k.a. your subconscious mind), and in an ironic twist you end up replacing thoughtful decision-making with the very same innate desires that you were trying to ignore. Now they just take a different form: the voice of your suppressed self speaks out from a subliminal part of your mind, and it becomes the voice of God.
The voice of Dawn’s God apparently manifested as a desire to have a normal life:
I realize now that despite our attraction to one another, God’s call to union through marriage was still written on our hearts. We cared deeply for one another, but we still wanted the fairy tale wedding, the marriage, the children, the white picket fence. And in our mind, none of that was possible as a lesbian couple.
Of course it’s possible. It’s reality for a lot of people, who realized that love cannot be confined to the arbitrarily small box imposed by conservative religion. Love is bigger and better than that, despite all their attempts to convince us otherwise.
The final short paragraph of Dawn’s article shows her ignorance of what most gay people actually experience:
Does God love His children who struggle with same-sex attraction? Yes, of course. But He loves us too much to leave us that way.
It’s been well established now that if this God does exist, he absolutely does leave us that way. One of the leading Christian organizations for “conversion therapy” shut down about a year after Dawn wrote her article, with several high-profile members coming out to apologize for the damage they did and admitting they were still gay all along. I have quite a few queer Christian friends, and every single one of them has been “left that way.” Most of them, I’m happy to say, have accepted who they are and follow a much better version of their religion. They are lovely people.
Not Everyone Is Like You
As I said above, it’s obvious from her article that Dawn is bisexual. And in order to pretend she’s being “healed by God,” she must actively shut down her emotions. This is a dangerous message for gay Christian kids, who aren’t bisexual and thus would be shutting down the possibility of the sort of intimate relationship Dawn has with her husband. She has that because she’s also attracted to men. What is there for girls who are not? Lifelong loneliness? An unfulfilling relationship with someone they aren’t attracted to?
She speaks from her own experiences of the happiness she has found because of who she is, but that cannot be generalized to everyone who experiences same-sex attraction. For every confused bisexual Christian who claims to be a “recovering gay person,” there’s a Christian who’s actually gay and suffering from the consequences of believing their love is evil simply because it’s directed at people of the same sex. Many of them have tried and failed to change, sometimes after spending decades in a heterosexual marriage. Some of them even worked for years trying to help other gay Christians overcome their nature, only to eventually admit that it never worked in the first place.
The good news is that religion is evolving. The closing of Exodus International in 2013 was an important step, and now more and more denominations of Christianity are starting to accept gay people. We still have a long way to go, however, and young queer Christians especially need our help to counter these misleading anecdote-based attempts at justifying hatred of same-sex attraction. Just look at this comment I got recently from one of them:
I was looking back over the past year, and noting how far I have come, and I realized that one of the major things that started me down the path to accepting my sexuality was your blog article An Honest Reading of the Bible. I didn’t completely agree then, but it cast just enough doubt on the beliefs my family had been force feeding me, that I kept digging. Thank you for writing it, it was a big help to me.
This isn’t the first comment of that nature I’ve received, and I doubt it will be the last.
Mason Lynch also blogs at castinglargeshadows.wordpress.com
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