I’ve been reading a book recently. It’s called “Unconditional” by a guy called Justin Lee. He’s an American, Christian, gay man, and his book is about the struggle he had with the juxtaposition of his sexuality and his faith. As a teenager, he very much loved the church he was raised in, but as he began more and more to realise that he was gay – and that there was nothing he could do about it – he was terrified about how the church would react if they found out. He was scared he’d be outcast. Rejected. Branded “a sinner” and condemned for all eternity.
Justin’s experiences throughout the book, at the hands of fellow “Christians”, are frankly appalling. Although the reactions he gets are perhaps slightly more exaggerated due to it being in an ultra-conservative part of America, there are plenty of churches here in the UK that still wrestle with the whole homosexuality issue.
I’ve been going to the Salvation Army my whole life. As a kid, I was a “junior soldier”, wearing a kids’ version of the uniform and signing a promise that said I wouldn’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or do anything else that wasn’t clean in “thought, word or deed”. And I was a really good kid – probably a bit boring by most people’s standards!
But there was this niggling doubt in the back of my mind that I was somehow a little different to the other boys that I was friends with. This seemed to be confirmed around the age of 11 or 12 when my friends started to “notice” the girls in our school in a different way – girls were no longer smelly things to run away from or throw things at – now they were objects of attraction, intrigue and desire. And I found myself joining in with some of those discussions – “she’s hot” etc, but, in truth, I was play-acting the whole time. I didn’t really find the girls attractive in that way…they were friends and I loved their company, but there was nothing else there. More disturbing to my young, Christian mind was the fact that I was actually experiencing similar feelings towards some of the other boys. Ummm, that can’t be right!?
But, I tried not to worry about it. It was probably a phase, and I was just a late developer which is why I didn’t find girls attractive. Perhaps I liked the boys because I wanted to be like them, not with them?
In my teens, I “experimented” with another guy my age – nothing serious really, and I still tried to explain it away as a phase, and just “trying some new things”. It was lots of fun, but I knew in my heart that it didn’t fit well with my promise to live a life that was clean in “thought, word and deed”, so I felt suitably guilty and asked for God’s forgiveness and help to resist that temptation.
And you know what? It seemed to work! I got a girlfriend, and we hung out together and did lots of couple stuff – going on dates, holding hands, and cuddling. We didn’t do much kissing though – I thought it wasn’t appropriate to do that because I was a good Christian boy. Looking back now, I just wasn’t actually attracted to her in the right way, just playing the part of boyfriend without wanting the physical element (if the thought of kissing her made me sweat, there was certainly no chance of anything else, so at least it helped me to stay “pure”!)
All through those teenage years I was wrestling with this nagging voice in my head, saying, “you’re gay. Just admit it, you’re gay. You like guys, therefore you’re gay. It’s obvious, why can’t you just accept it?”. The other part of me would argue against it: “don’t be silly – I’m not gay, I just haven’t met the right girl yet, and the thoughts about guys are just teenage sexual frustration and stupidity. I’ll grow out of it!”. This was an inner monologue that repeated itself over and over.
I eventually went off to university and again, play acted at “being a lad”. I loved all of my uni housemates and friends to bits – we had some absolutely awesome times together – but whenever we talked about girls, I was definitely saying what I thought I should be saying rather than what I actually thought. I still had the thoughts about guys, and I still tried to convince myself that they would go away once I met the right girl.
I thought I had met the right girl in my third year, when I met a bubbly, fun person who matched my sense of humour and who I really enjoyed spending time with. I introduced her to my family and my friends and we were together for five years. During that time, we finished uni, survived a longish distance relationship and eventually moved in together. I was in a committed relationship, and the physical element all seemed to work without a hitch. So I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Finally, I have confirmed that I’m not gay. I’m in a relationship with a girl and it’s great.
My smugness was short lived.
I found the thoughts about guys creeping back in. I hadn’t been attending the Salvation Army since I left for university at 18, but I was still very much living the lifestyle – I didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs and I tried to be a good guy. I treated my girlfriend with the utmost respect and I would never have done anything physically with another guy (or girl) while I was with her. But the thoughts were there. The temptation persisted and the nagging “you’re gay” voice was back with a vengeance.
Our relationship ended after 5 years – her choice – and it wasn’t related to anything going on in my head. She wanted something new and exciting, I was a bit plain and boring. With hindsight, perhaps she knew, deep down, that I wasn’t as fully engaged in the relationship as I should have been. For my part, I thought we were going to get married and have a family, so I thought I was 100% committed to it, and that my inner temptations with guys were just a challenge I was going to have to deal with/suppress in order to make that happen.
But I suddenly found myself alone, and devastated by the break up in our relationship. I’d never been hurt by anyone like that before, and I didn’t know what I had done to deserve it. My family and friends picked me up and I ended up in a new job in a new town a few weeks later and compelled to visit my new local Salvation Army centre one Sunday to see what it was like there.
As I sat there that Sunday morning, having been spoken to by lots of people who came to welcome me and ask me questions about who I was and what brought me there, I felt surrounded by friends – even though I’d only just met them all. As I got to know them, I told them about my relationship break up and they were all incredibly sympathetic and caring, and I started a new life at this church in this town, getting more and more involved in church activities and enjoying the fellowship of friends.
Internally, after the break up with my girlfriend, I did a lot of self-evaluation. I took a good look at the evidence before me – the thoughts about other guys, the experimentation as a kid, the fact that girls still didn’t seem to provoke much of a reaction in me, and came to the realisation that I was, in fact, gay.
Damn you inner monologue – you’d been right the whole time!
I actually dated a guy for a while. He was very sweet, and very understanding of my situation. I didn’t tell anyone about it though – no family, no friends, and certainly no-one at my church. And I went on like that for a few years – avoiding questions about my relationship status and dating a few guys “in secret”.
Again, hindsight is marvellous. I realise now that my behaviour wasn’t that of a good Christian boy. I was lying to pretty much everyone, although, in my defence, I was doing it for what I thought at the time were the right reasons. I wasn’t doing it because I enjoyed going behind people’s backs – I just thought it would save my family the pain and anguish of knowing I was gay, and rocking the boat at church.
Eventually though, the situation became unsustainable. I met a guy who I fell completely in love with and realised that I wanted to properly be with him. I didn’t want to hide it in secret (and he wouldn’t have stayed around for long if I’d tried that anyway!) so I bit the bullet and, with his support, told my closest friends. Their reaction? “Yeah, that’s fine, no dramas” and, “we just want you to be happy, it makes no different to us”.
Phew! I obviously know my friends very well, so I knew deep down that their reactions would be nothing but supportive. But that still didn’t stop it being one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. Imagine telling your best male friend, who you’ve been friends with since the age of 4, that you actually fancy guys rather than girls!? What would they think? Would they be freaked out because they might think that I was after them all these years?! Thankfully, none of that happened and I am immensely grateful to have had such a supportive bunch of people around me.
Who else then? Ah, right. The family. Yep, probably need to tell them. Again, there was nothing but positivity and support. Hands down the scariest thing I’ve done in my life was telling my parents, but they just said they wanted me to be happy, and if I’ve found someone who does that then it makes no difference if they are a guy or a girl. Incidentally, my whole family is in the Salvation Army, so I was relieved at such a liberal response.
I was on a bit of a roll, but I was nervous about telling people at church. The SA doesn’t have particularly good press when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. A quick Google search returns some frankly horrendous headlines that must give the PR department nightmares. But the headlines aren’t entirely without justification. The fact remains that you can’t be a full member of the SA (a “soldier” in their terms) if you are homosexual, and in a relationship. That’s fact, which was confirmed in the documentary that Paul O’Grady made about the Salvation Army. Paul was told that, under the rules, he wouldn’t be allowed to become a soldier because he is a gay man. He can volunteer, attend the services, become an “adherent” member, but just not go the full way to be a soldier (in the same way that you can’t be a soldier if you won’t give up alcohol).
But I knew my local leadership were loving, caring people, so I decided to tell them. I poured the whole story out – having doubts as a kid, trying desperately not to be gay during my teens and the first half of my twenties, until finally accepting it and now being in a committed relationship with a man. They showed me nothing but love, acceptance and understanding. It actually makes me a little emotional to think about how kind they were – and I don’t really ever get emotional, so that’s quite a feat.
I told some other people at church and received the same reaction. Thankfully, a lot of people are a lot more open-minded these days. But I didn’t tell everyone because I know that some of the older people have quite ingrained views on homosexuality and I know that they would change their opinion of me if they found out.
Does that make me angry, or sad? Neither, to be honest. Do I wish the Salvation Army would issue a statement saying that actually, they recognise that being gay should not preclude you from being able to serve God and the church by being a member? Yes, I do wish we could get to that point. But I also understand their position that the Bible recognises marriage and sexual union as being between a man and a woman. I don’t agree that that’s correct, but I respect that they hold true to that viewpoint. It is one of their fundamental beliefs, in the same way that lots of people wish that they were allowed to drink alcohol and be full members, but respect the rules around this.
So, what’s the point of this post? I’m over 2000 words in now, and I haven’t really done anything other that tell you the story so far. Where am I going with this? The truth is that I have no idea. I guess I want to offer some hope and encouragement to anyone out there who identifies with some or all of the above words. Maybe you’re struggling with attractions towards the same sex, wondering why it’s happening, if there’s something wrong with you or if you can force yourself to change? All I can say to that is that you are who you are – be proud of it don’t let anyone tell you that it’s wrong. Or perhaps you have come to terms with your sexuality but are now struggling with your faith.
Can you be gay and be a Christian? In my option, the answer is an empathic yes.
Can you be an active member of the church while also having a committed same sex relationship? Again, in my opinion, it’s a yes. While being promiscuous would not be Christian-like or God-pleasing behaviour, being in a committed relationship where you love each other deeply is the same between two men or two women as it is between a man and a woman.
But how can the above two statement be true? The Bible says homosexuality is a sin, therefore how can you be a follower of God – who’s truth is the Bible – if you’re doing something he says is a sin?
Look, I’m no theology scholar and I’m not going to try to dissect the Bible for you. All I can tell you is my own take on it. The often quoted passages from the Bible were written a long time ago, when people’s sexual behaviour – not just men with other men – was causing them to move apart from God. They were up to all sorts of dodgy thinks and the passages from the Bible are them being rebuked and told to get back “on the straight and narrow”.
The Bible says some pretty dodgy stuff about women too, but we don’t consider those to be relevant these days because the frame of reference is different now. It also talks about the Earth being created in 7 days. I don’t take that literally – I take it as metaphor, almost poetic, for an overarching designer who is responsible for everything from the creation of the Universe and all the laws of physics through to the processes involved in evolution and our arrival at this point in time. Therefore, it is open to a certain amount of interpretation.
I’m going to be a little controversial here for a moment.
I believe that I was born gay. Whether it’s in my DNA, or some hormone level in the womb slightly altered some areas of my brain is up for debate, but it’s likely to be one of those two things. I did everything to try to not be gay, but I just can’t fight against my natural leaning. If I also believe that I was created by God, and God doesn’t make mistakes, then I must therefore believe that God created me as gay.
I imagine Christians spitting their tea everywhere at the moment, but to me it makes perfect sense. And I’m happy with that scenario. Homosexuality appears to have existed since time began. There’s evidence of it in animals (animals don’t give in to temptation do they…they just follow their natural instincts) and plenty of evidence of it in all human civilisations. I can’t subscribe to the view that it’s a sin and that I am a sinner.
It took around 25 years of my life to reach that conclusion, but I’m glad I got there in the end through the love and support of my family, friends and – importantly – other Christians.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from Christians, and especially people from the Salvation Army to see what your take on the situation is. I think that our generation have a chance to change the narrative here to make it more inclusive of homosexual members of our churches. We aren’t the enemy, seeking to undermine the fundamentals of marriage and the bedrock of society – we’re just people, who love other people of the same sex, and who also love God and our churches, and want to serve them to the best of our abilities.
Do I think the Salvation Army will change it’s official position any time soon? I think change is coming – but it won’t be quick. But do I think it’s worth getting involved in the conversation and challenging some of the perceptions and ingrained beliefs?
You bet I do.