This is the question I often get asked when I come out as gay. In many ways it’s impossible to answer, like determining the very moment that the sun has risen. As with any journey, there have been milestone moments, memorable events that helped to mark out the course as it’s gone by, but at no particular instance was there a flash of revelation. Rather, it was a more arduous trek of continuous self-discovery as the light began to dawn.
It’s also a journey that’s been inseparable from my experience and understanding of faith. It was not on account of this alone that I’ve been led to leave behind my previous beliefs, but it was a major catalyst. It forced uncomfortable questions onto me that I did not have the luxury of shrugging off.
Because of this I’ve thought it necessary to share my story, in the hope that others out there might recognise some of it in themselves. Or at the least, understand a little more about why I’ve arrived at where I now stand.
To begin with, faith wasn’t really a problem for me, school was the real trouble. It’s a disappointing irony that the time in your life when you’re being formed the most is also the time when you have the greatest pressure to conform. Being different at school is not a good thing. No one wants to stand out, and for the most part I managed to survive my five-year sentence by floating along in the background. Add to this the fact that the only time you would hear the word ‘gay’ was when it was thrown around as an insult; never really defined, but synonymous with all the things that you wouldn’t want to be.
It was different at church. Being gay was just never really brought up. The annual talk on relationships – or a whole teaching series if we were lucky – was predictably heteronormative. I was aware that a good Christian guy shouldn’t go too far with his girlfriend, but the idea that he might have a boyfriend didn’t even seem to be an option.
Between the disregard of the church and the oppression of school, the feelings that I had towards others of the same sex were buried so deeply I’d forgotten where I hid them.
When I was around fifteen, the current Youth Pastor at my church was due to move on, and the youth were given an active role in interviewing his potential replacements. It was also around this time that same-sex marriage and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community rose to prominence in our community’s consciousness. As a result, I was spurred on by some friends to pretend that I was gay in order to ask controversial questions and really put the candidates to the test. I donned a silk scarf and did my best impression of Jack Sparrow with a lisp, asking whether I would be allowed to bring my boyfriend to the youth group. The candidates squirmed a little, my friends found it hilarious, but for me, the realization was growing that perhaps I was not really pretending at all.
In time, I was gradually able to come to terms with the reality that my feelings were not anomalies, and they were not going to go away, no matter how much I wanted them to. I was gay. And I had to tell someone.
It was not until Christmas Eve, aged eighteen, that I uttered the words out loud. I was back home for the holidays after my first term on a church youth work internship. I’d arranged to meet up with one of my closest friends for a coffee - or more likely a hot chocolate – and I told her everything. Later that day I also told my family, and throughout the rest of the holiday I had gotten around most of my inner circle. The floodgates had opened.
In time, I was gradually able to come to terms with the reality that my feelings were not anomalies, and they were not going to go away, no matter how much I wanted them to.
I would like to acknowledge at this point how fortunate I am. I’m aware that the rejection of family and friends is a feared reaction of coming out, and for many it is the reality. This was not the case for me. For the most part I was met with nothing but love and affection, which I still hold as a testament to the character of those I surround myself with. On the few occasions in which I’d witnessed people’s hostility first-hand, it has always been the case that they were oblivious to who I was.
I always find it curious how people are quite happy to take a stand against people until they meet them.
When I returned to my church in January, I decided that I should be honest with the team I worked with. So I met up with the Youth Pastor and explained all that had taken place over the holidays. He was very supportive but with an air of nonchalance which assured me that it wasn’t really a big deal. In fact, I felt I had to justify the fact that I’d brought it up, so I explained to him that it seemed a necessary thing to do in our line of work. ‘Why?’ he answered. I wasn’t really sure. It hadn’t changed our friendship, our professional relationship, or the nature of our work. And yet it felt as though I would have been dishonest keeping it to myself.
It’s odd really. Those who are attracted to the opposite sex never have to build up the courage to say, ‘I’m straight’, with the fear that everything could change.
Nonetheless, we both thought it may be wise to have a chat with the vicar. The Youth Pastor had a word with him and sorted out a time for the three of us to meet together. I walked into his office, and after some pleasantries, the vicar asked me to tell him what I had told the Youth Pastor in my own words. Feeling the need to break the tension, I responded, ‘I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I just told him that I was from Uruguay.’
Working for a mid-sized Evangelical church in a village community didn’t afford many opportunities for same-sex relationships. In the early stages after coming out, it was more a matter of understanding the nature of my feelings rather than their practical outworking. However, over the following years, with the discovery of dating apps and an expanding network of friends, it became an issue I couldn’t ignore.
It was also around that time that I started my Theology course at a Christian Bible college. Unsurprisingly, same-sex relationships were not the done thing in such an institution. More surprising to me was the fact that the role of women in leadership was a contentious issue; I’d supposed that this has been settled decades before. It alerted me to quite the Conservative environment that I had stepped into.
Over the course of the three years, I shared a little of my story with those closest to me. As I’d anticipated by now, I received love and acceptance, and yet, in many instances there was an apparent assumption that my feelings were not something that I was going to pursue.
This is fairly typical of British Evangelicalism. Fortunately the more egregious practices of conversion therapy have been, for the most part, left in the dust where they belong. There is a greater acceptance in today’s Western faith cultures that those who are attracted to people of the same sex have not chosen these feelings, any more than one chooses to be hungry. It has been replaced instead with a more subtle condemnation. ‘You may not have chosen to be gay, but that doesn’t mean it’s right,’ usually followed by equating a same-sex relationship to the act of murder.
The arguments both for and against biblical same-sex relationships are long-winded and complex, and I can give no more than the briefest of outlines here. Through conversations and browsing online, I came across a number of hostilities wrapped in theological cloaks, and none of them approached the realms of convincing in my estimation.
Most commonly, people would point to the fact that two people of the same sex cannot procreate. Regardless of the fact that keeping same-sex couples apart will not lead to any more babies, this line of thought completely disregards the legitimacy of childless opposite-sex couples, and seems to betray obliviousness to the current overcrowding of our planet. From a biblical perspective, ‘go forth and multiply’ may be a sensible instruction when the world population is in the single-digits, but less so when millions go starving, and there is a rising need for adoption and foster care.
Besides this more pragmatic consideration, most arguments largely boil down to the vague notion that same-sex relationships are simply not a part of God’s design. Being gay is outside of the divine order, and so the consequence is that God would prefer that you remain alone. After all, isn’t a relationship with him sufficient? Well, not for straight couples obviously, they still needed romantic companionship.
It became clear to me through both conversations and in my wider reading that no one could provide a reason for God’s apparent disregard for gay relationships without reverting to a slightly more wordy version of, ‘because he said so.’ The gay Christian is thus faced with a choice between a romantic relationship and the life of faithful obedience to their saviour, a dichotomy never imposed on their straight neighbour who may nonetheless be kind enough to offer the consolation, ‘oh yeah, that’s difficult.’
For a time, I accepted this with a heavy heart, resigning myself to a life of imposed singleness. These felt like dark times, and I was faced with a future that looked incredibly bleak. I was sentenced to a life without intimate companionship, with the one consolation that at least God would be happy. A God who had become increasingly distant; if he was pleased with my decision, he certainly made no effort to let me know.
...no one could provide a reason for God’s apparent disregard for gay relationships without reverting to a slightly more wordy version of, ‘because he said so.’
I couldn’t sustain this for very long, however. Not wanting to give in to the incompatibility of these two worlds, I decided to use all of my theological training to figure out how both could be faithfully held together. Before leaving university, I downloaded around a hundred articles to help me explore the ‘clobber passages’, (the handful of verses explicitly condemning homosexuality), the wider biblical narrative, and some historical and contemporary responses to the problem. I read books such as Justin Lee’s Unconditional and Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, both of whom provided noble and compelling arguments for God’s acceptance of same-sex couples.
However, the more I read, the more I became disheartened.
Despite the appeals to Hebrew grammar, cultural context and contemporary misinterpretation, the arguments in favour appeared increasingly tenuous. I’ve never been a particularly sporty person, and I was certainly not up to the hermeneutical gymnastics which this required.
Looking deeper into the problematic texts was getting me nowhere, and it was not until I took a step back that things started to become clear. For so long I had wanted to believe that the biblical God could affirm the relationship that I so desired, but it was becoming more evident that he would not. If the Bible was to be taken seriously as a divine revelation, its author was unlikely to vote in favour of same-sex marriage.
The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it became.
And very human.
I could understand the biblical texts as a result of the cultural climate of the ancient-near East. I could not reconcile them with the enduring commands of an omniscient, omnibenevolent creator.
My exploration into the biblical understanding of same-sex relationships had set me face-to-face with the stark humanity of a book I had regarded my whole life to be divine.
These thoughts started to go beyond the question of same-sex relationships alone, but bled into issues such as the treatment of women, slaves, and the wider cruelty and violence exhibited throughout Christian scripture. Like a lighting strike, this brought together what I had gradually begun to realise over the four years of my study, but had never truly managed to articulate.
The Bible was human.
Not fully-human and fully-divine as I’d been taught, but simply human.
My exploration into the biblical understanding of same-sex relationships had set me face-to-face with the stark humanity of a book I had regarded my whole life to be divine. The issue was far greater than I had originally thought.
Coming out the first time was far from easy; it meant coming to terms with who I was, and making the uncomfortable step of admitting and embracing the feelings that I had tried to bury for so many years. Coming out of Christianity was just that bit more difficult. I could no longer lean back and find something certain waiting to catch me. There was nothing solid against which I could measure everything else. This coming out affected not only how I saw myself, but how I saw the very world around me. Existence was that little bit less sure.
But a lot more hopeful.