For a boy who grew up in a home that forbid the Disney movies containing witches, I learned about homosexuality at a very young age. My parents objected to Power Rangers and The Little Mermaid, but about sex they were progressive. They explained intercourse, even oral sex, to my sister and me before our peers had a chance to, and I always felt comfortable asking them things like what “fuck” meant. Raised in the North Texas Christian culture, this was rare, and good, and I knew it.
Looking back I doubt, though, that they expected to have to address homosexuality very early in their children’s lives. My older sister’s books were to blame. I used to borrow and read them before falling asleep, and being something of a spiritual child instead of Nancy Drew or cowgirl novels I chose her Christian devotionals. The books were “age appropriate” for my sister not—by the standards of Focus on the Family—me. Usually that standard entailed content no racier than dilemmas about cigarettes or puberty, but one night I read a story in which children on a bus passed two men holding hands. They laughed about how it was gross, and the bus driver reprimanded them, saying there was nothing wrong with being gay.
The story was a page long, and everything resolved as a Focus on the Family narrative would: the protagonist child went home, asked his parents whether it was right or wrong, and learned in a sentence, maybe two, the truth that it was a sin. I must’ve been eight or nine. I went downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and asked what gay meant. My dad wanted to know where I heard about it. I explained, and we had a conversation as short and final as the story I’d just read. Being gay was when two men or two women had sex with each other and, my dad confirmed, a sin. He didn’t explain the specifics. He looked too uncomfortable for me to ask more.
This all happened so long ago I hardly remember it. The event didn’t catalyze my sexual awakening, but it did begin the pattern of how I would hear homosexuality discussed: rarely, briefly, and conclusively. When my friends also discovered what gay meant, it was joked about with disgust; when my family’s church touched on the subject, it was only allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah; when Rush Limbaugh said “homosexual,” he followed it ominously with “agenda.” Some years after our short conversation, my dad told me I could tell him anything because he had experienced it too. By then I knew I was gay and knew he, like everyone around me, could never empathize with something so monstrous.
That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s honest. Pages of anecdotes could explain my isolation and terror. The heart of them all would be the same. I felt like a monster because I never heard my sexuality discussed as what it was: innate.
I wasn’t molested in preschool or raised by a single mother. I liked dinosaurs more than my sister’s Barbies. I had countless healthy, normal friendships with other boys, and I never drank too much and “experimented” with them. I, like most of the gay men I know, didn’t experience any of the causes Christians use to explain homosexuality, which is what frightened me most. Being raised in a culture that could only fit attraction to the same sex into a tiny box, I couldn’t see myself as anything but freakish for standing outside of it. A psychological disorder didn’t make me this way; spiritual forces didn’t possess me; I simply existed like some creature in medieval literature, and it didn’t matter that hick town Christians wanted me dead, because I wanted myself dead too.
I had no explanation for my sexuality, so I felt hopeless to change it. I read the verses about gouging out your eye if it causes you to sin quite literally. I considered maiming myself for years. Without context, without a family or church or friends who could empathize, suicide and castration are tempting for a fifteen-year-old who thinks of himself as a monster. I’m grateful it never came to that. The first time I encountered God was the first time I viewed myself as intentionally and lovingly made, even in light of being gay. The experience led to my survival, which is part of why I created this blog.
I love that my parents were so open about sex, and I don’t resent them for being closed about homosexuality. In 2010 I finally came out to them, and they spent a year thinking it was just a phase, or that my taste for women—like for whiskey—still needed to be acquired. I understand why. Their church had a small, comprehensible box for sexuality, like it had for suffering, predestination, Hell, and every other incomprehensible piece of Christianity. To break out of that box could demolish their faith. I never want that to happen, but I believe we need to abandon some of our neat classifications, to understand the components of life may only fit into a box as expansive and complex as the universe itself.
To stand for a minute on a soapbox, I think the box Christians have made for sexuality isn’t just theologically foolish, it’s dangerous. By even the most conservative reckoning it’s clear a huge number of gay men and women live in this world. Few of us can be neatly classified as depraved or psychologically damaged. To ignore such a population is, as someone dear to me described, oppressive: a deadly silence. Gay individuals amount to much more than male rapists in the Old Testament, emotionally wounded youth, or activists dismantling the tradition of marriage. Homosexuality is a complex, I think unknowable, fact of our world, and it won’t go away with a sermon or therapy. The more we address sexuality with grace, the more we humbly understand it might not fit into a small box or one at all, and the more we realize those people are our children and classmates and lonely uncles, the more we’ll humanize it, and the more lives we’ll save.