I Will Make Him a Helper: Homosexuality and Erotic Union

2 silhouetted figured look into a starry expanse

As I’ve told my story of failure and wounding within a commitment to lifelong celibacy – and how I have eventually walked away from it – the most common response from conservative Christians has been withering. The vast majority of them who have responded on social media and the blogosphere have been singing variations of, “so what you are saying is that you cannot live without sex.” When they hear me say that Side B (the traditional view of gay marriage) crushed me, they assume that’s because I can only conceive of intimacy as a sexual act, that I have an idolatrous view of romance, and that I see sex and romance as the most fulfilling experience on earth. They also assume that I have a misplaced understanding of community and friendship.

This reductionist view of gay love is described well by my friend Aaron who commented on my blog,

In college I once expressed doubts about the feasibility of the Side B position, to which one of my fellow students responded, “Really, Aaron? What you’re saying is you can’t live without sex?!” At the moment I felt so dehumanized. I know for a fact that she had long desired to have a husband for reasons that I’m sure went beyond mere carnal pleasure. But when it came to my desires it was just sex. I think many conservatives think of us this way; as sinners addicted to sex. From that perspective we are little more than animals in heat who are unhappy we can’t indulge ourselves. It reminds me of a question posed to a lesbian from a woman grieving over the recent death of her husband: “Do your people feel sad when your partner dies?”

To which she responded, “You see me as a little less human, and for me to realize it, breaks my heart.”

While I understand where these assumptions are coming from, they are all wrong. I voiced such opinions myself, once upon a time, but I now believe they are deeply destructive in our conversations about sexuality. I believe they are fundamentally reductionist, dehumanizing, and belittling to something I now recognize as central to human experience and representative of God’s image.

When I say that the commitment to lifelong celibacy crushed me, I am not saying that the prospect of never having sex crushed me. Frankly, that was, for me, always the easier part of practicing celibacy. I’ve never lost sleep over never having sex, because I believe sex to be just one of a myriad of beautiful  experiences we can have in this life (but there is no shame if you have lost sleep over that w.) Don’t get me wrong – sex is awesome, but no sexual experience I’ve ever had has  compared to that time I heard Ombra Mai Fu performed by a children’s symphony choir.

Romance is similar. While “being in love” is a magnificent, dazzling, astonishing experience, it is not the be all and end all of life. It is a priceless gift, but no more than the gift of music, or the gift of solitude, or the gift of literature, or the gift of fatherhood. I love being in love – I love the oxytocin and dopamine, I love that God gave it to us as one of the most powerful drugs on earth, but I also recognize that the greatest temptation of romance is idolatry. Its sheer power in the moment tempts us to let it eclipse all other loves and pleasures. While I would be a bit sad if I never experienced that rush of romance again, that lack would not make my life any less meaningful, beautiful, or livable.

I believe that, when we reduce someone’s struggles with lifelong celibacy to sex or romance, we are missing the mark. We are also guilty of reinforcing our culture’s over-preoccupation with sex and romantic experience. I believe the struggle of mandatory lifelong celibacy reveals a much deeper place within the human heart – a place established by God in the beginning, that is inseparable from what it means to be human.

In the creation account, we are told that God recognized that it was not good for man to be alone, so He declared, “I shall make him a helper.” From Adam’s rib, He crafted Eve – his companion and help. I believe that the need for a helper goes deeper than sex, and the volatile and temporary cocktail of chemicals we call romance. When I tell the story of how the prescription of gay celibacy crushed me, I am not telling the story of how I was finally crushed by the prospect of never again experiencing romance or having sex. I am telling the story of how I recognized that my burning passion for a helper was not something I could ever “get over”, but was something put there by God Himself as he crafted the human spirit. I was crushed that I would never, ever be allowed to experience it, or pursue it. I believe when many people say they are not “cut out for celibacy,” this is what they mean. I also believe this might be what Paul meant when he said it is better for a man to marry than to burn with passion. It certainly has to do with libido, but I also believe it has to do with a deeper need for a help-mate.

This is not to say that this help-mate love – what I will call Eros – is any greater or less than any other love, because all the Loves are representative of how God loves us. I believe friendship holds just as important a place, and can be just as great an experience of intimacy. It is a different kind of intimacy, though. I no longer believe that one can replace the other – that is like saying our need for food can satisfy our thirst for water. In their most transcendent states, Eros and friendship and motherhood or fatherhood are transfigured into selfless, agape love, and in this way they are all similar. I no longer believe, though, that transcendence rids us of categories – those categories are there for a reason.

A cursory look at history will tell us that Eros love is as old as humanity and part of our nature: what is a central theme of almost every Shakespeare play? Eros love. What has inspired wars and blood feuds and betrayals? Eros. What has given inspiration to some of the greatest poems, songs, plays and novels in our history? Eros. What has an entire book of the Bible dedicated to it? Eros. What has been the catalyst for some of the deepest anguish men and women have ever experienced? Eros. We sing for Eros, we break for Eros, we create for Eros, we fight for Eros. We have since our beginnings, and we expect we shall till our end.

So when we deny Eros love to a population the size of a country, let’s not deceive ourselves. Let’s not say it’s simpler or easier than it is, by reducing the human experience of companionship to sex or romance.

“But there is no guarantee of success, or fulfillment within Eros,” I’ve heard many people say, “there is no guarantee of finding any happiness in partnership. It isn’t an escape to a life of fullness and pleasure. Marriage is very hard.”

This is true. I no longer believe, though, that when people long for the opportunity to be Side A, that they are merely searching for an escape hatch into a painless Elysium. When I hold someone’s hand and listen to them weep over how deeply they wish they could allow themselves the opportunity to experience gay love, I don’t think they are weeping for the opportunity to have a beautiful romance and an awesome sex life.

I believe they are weeping for the opportunity to have a broken heart as well. I believe they are weeping for the risk of failure, for the risk of devastation. They weep to have the opportunity to experience both fulfillment and suffering within the context of Eros love. Because Eros isn’t just about living happily ever after, it’s about waking up after a breakup and wondering if you will ever live again. It’s about searching and searching, but never finding someone to spend your life with. It’s about watching your marriage rip apart at the seams.

If that sounds crazy – who would ever wish such pain upon themselves? – I think that speaks to the nature of the human heart. People want to live, and living means the risk of tragedy. I believe it is human nature to want to live within the context of Eros, and living means shattering anguish as well as joy. In the aftermath of my breakup – a breakup that tore my entire life asunder and forced me to take two months off – I grieved for the fact that Side B theology denied all gay people this sort of crucible. It was a horrible experience that I would not wish on a single human soul, but I also recognized that to deny any human being such experience was wrong.

It is one thing to be offered the opportunity to live within the context of Eros, but then choose to deny it. We call this celibacy (which is different from chastity or singleness) and it is a good, beautiful, and vital thing. Like the martyr, the celibate person chooses to die to Eros love so that something else may live. It is an entirely different experience never to have the choice.

I can only describe this experience of prescribed celibacy as being drawn and quartered. Without even a moment to discern whether I was called to celibacy or not, it felt as though this part of my being – the burning passion to live within Eros love – was ripped from my soul and put in an inaccessible place, because it was too sinful, too dangerous to touch. I did everything I knew to do to cope with that pain – I prayed, I studied, I exercised, and I developed intensely meaningful friendships with people who became like family to me. I armored myself in an impenetrable intellectualism that could justify what I was doing against every pang of hurt, loneliness and confusion. I developed a prayer life, knowing that only my Father in Heaven could fulfill me and empower me to live a life of celibacy. I told myself that I was denying myself romance and sex, and that of course I could live without those things.

In such an experience, the line between God as horrific abuser and God as loving disciplinarian faded. It became impossible to tell one from the other. It also became hard to trust God as good, to rest in Him, or respond to Him as a loving Abba. How do I throw my burdens on Him when He was the one who gave the decree for my drawing and quartering in the first place, apparently out of love? How can I rest in His love when His love commands that I experience such deep  tearing?

I don’t believe God is a cruel abuser anymore. I believe he is a good father. I believe he is a good master. I believe the fruits of following Him are wholeness, because He is Himself whole.

If you hold to the traditional perspective on gay marriage, do not reduce people’s longings for sacramental marriage to idolatry of romance or an obsession with sex. Do not belittle, reduce, or dehumanize. Instead, look Eros love in the eyes and recognize it for what it is: a facet of human nature and central to human experience, placed there by God himself. If you ask the entire gay community to throw that part of themselves away, do so with tears, do so with sorrow, and do so with fear and trembling. Anything less does not communicate love to God’s children.

A version of this article first appeared on my blog in 2013

The Good Father: Of God, Doubt, and Gay Relationships

Church against a beautiful night sky

It’s been a long, painful and perilous journey from a life of suffocating fear and self-loathing toward a life of fearlessness and love. I spent most of my teenage and adult years trapped in the impenetrable coffin of my self-loathing, absolutely convinced that I was unlovable to God.  As a young boy growing up in the evangelical world, I somehow absorbed the message that being gay makes a person loathsome and subhuman. When I started to discover that I was gay myself, I became the victim of my own undying disgust and hatred. Like a supernova, my being collapsed upon itself, the object of its own unquenchable disgust.

I was trapped in that deadly pattern for years, and it was a pattern of immense self-destruction, volatile relationships, and crushing loneliness. What I want to talk about now is how that started to change, how letting go of self-loathing began a pilgrimage from shame toward learning to accept God’s love for me.

The year it all started to shift – my 22nd year – was a dark one. Not only were the demands of my music degree beginning to crush my spirit, I had also just gone through a bloody breakup with my girlfriend of nine months.

I had tried desperately to make our relationship work. I had convinced myself that my sexuality was, at best, an unpleasant memory from my past and at worst an annoyance that needed occasional maintenance. I was in deep denial about how much I looked at guys, how much I fantasized about them, and how much I was emotionally and physically attracted to them. Even when I almost cheated on my girlfriend with another guy from my college, I was still in denial about my sexuality.

By the time our relationship fell apart, I couldn’t live in denial anymore. I had to confront that I found men painfully beautiful and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with a man. And, in my attempts to deny that part of myself, I had very profoundly hurt an incredible young woman who had been my best friend.  Despite how much I loved her, I didn’t want to touch her, hug her, kiss her. I didn’t want to hold her hand or be physically close to her. While I enjoyed her friendship and conversation, I couldn’t celebrate her beauty or femininity the way a man should, and she was left feeling broken, insufficient, wondering what she had done wrong.

I walked away from that relationship having realized two horribly painful things about myself: first, that my orientation was not going to go away, and that I had exhausted all attempts at knowing how to fix it. Second, I could never, ever put another woman through that experience ever again. It would take God writing it in fire in the sky for me to ever enter a relationship with a woman again.

I entered a very dark place. I again contemplated killing myself because, in my mind, anything was better than being gay. Every treatment had failed. I felt like I had completely exhausted all my options and there was nothing left for me to do but die. Even though I had left the ex-gay world 3 years before, I didn’t want to be gay – I was terrified of being gay. I was terrified of what that meant for me as a Christian, terrified that I was going to hell. Most of all, I didn’t want to hate myself anymore.

And then I met someone I’ll call Drew. Drew was another music student – handsome, intelligent, kind  – and I dropped into the free fall of a very intense crush. For two months I was under the influence of intoxicating romance. We went on a few dates and enjoyed each other’s company.

Internally, I was ripped to pieces. Everything I wish I had felt for my girlfriend I was now feeling for another man. For the first time in my life I was experiencing my orientation in relation to another gay man, but I felt like I had to sacrifice my soul, faith and belief in God to do so. I didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but I was afraid of even allowing myself to admit that, for fear of being expelled from the presence of God.

In my desperate search for answers, I found a little Catholic parish hidden away in a mountain valley. I started going to the parish because no one there knew me and no one would talk to me. No one would have to know about my relationship with Drew, my sexuality, or my questions. If someone started to ask questions, I could leave, because I feared that it was only a matter of time before someone would find me out and ask me to leave.

One Sunday morning, when I was at the end of my rope, I was on my knees during mass crying out to God for an answer. And then something happened.

I don’t know how, but I suddenly knew that God was there with me. I knew that His holiness was wrapped all around me, gathering about me like heavy smoke. In the midst of that holiness, I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel cast away – I felt safe. Safe for the first time in years.

And then, in the midst of this sense of very profound holiness, a voice deep within me said, Stephen, do you remember that time when you were in high school, and your father came into your room? Do you remember how he wrapped his arms around you, held you to his chest and whispered in your ear, “Stephen, you are my son, and I will never kick you out of my house. My home will always be your home, because I am a good father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his son. You are my son, and I love you.” The voice deep within me continued, I am like your biological father in that way, Stephen. I’m not going to kick you out over this. My home will always be your home, because I am a good Father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his son.

That was the safest I had felt in years. I suddenly knew that, no matter how I failed or succeeded, no matter how right or wrong my theology, no matter how many mistakes I made in my pursuit after Him, it was ok. I was still His son. For the first time, I realized what it meant to trust God with my sexuality.

In that moment, I realized something for the first time in my life: God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. God doesn’t ask us to have perfect theology. All He asks of us is to love Him, and to try.

Try to find the answers. Try to live a holy life. Try because we are already accepted by Him through His son Jesus.

That might mean asking scary questions. That might mean falling in love. That might mean being theologically wrong. That might mean having to re-evaluate what you believe for the thousandth time. That might mean getting heart broken. That might mean struggling with loneliness. That might mean finding the love of your life. That might mean being called to celibacy. God’s love is big enough. And in that love, there is space to question, to journey, to be confused. Jesus isn’t threatened by questions, we are.

The only reason I am alive is because, three years ago in a tiny mountain Catholic parish, I started to learn how to trust, and to cling to the Cross. I learned to trust that God is bigger than my shortcomings, my questions, my capacity for rightness and wrongness. I started to trust that God has tempered justice with mercy, and that mercy covers me even when my best attempts fail in both action and understanding.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s been a hard journey since that day in Mass. There have been trials and struggles and despair and heartbreak, but I don’t think I would have survived any of that if I hadn’t first learned that God is perfect and that I am not.

For too many people, the struggle with sexuality take place in a claustrophobic and fearful place. I believe that, through His love, God offers us space. He offers us space to journey, to question, and to cling to Him. He offers us the space to experience struggle as refinement and questions as worship.

Because he is a good Father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his children.

A previous version of this article was published on my blog in 2013

On Not Being Held Captive By the Beliefs of Others

Once upon a time, there was a fast talking, chain-smoking bisexual Texan pastor named Robert who sat me down and gave me a stern talking to.

“Listen Stephen,” he said. “The world is full of assholes. And if you lose your sanity over them – if you lose your happiness because some asshole out there thinks you shouldn’t get married, or thinks of you as less than human, what then? Have you changed their minds? No. You’ve just lost your own life to them. You’ve let them win. They’re still assholes, and you’ve sacrificed your happiness to them. Why should you give a fuck what they say, man? Live your life.”

This is a condensed version of a sermon that went on four nearly 45 minutes, between long drags on cigarettes.

This conversation stands as a turning point in my life. It was hard to hear – at every turn I wanted to shout, “But you don’t understand! I grew up in the conservative church. I grew up being tortured in ex-gay ministries.” But it was a sermon I needed to hear, nonetheless.

I’d been so wounded by the church growing up, and I’d been so inflamed and angry over their views of gay people, that it never occurred to me that I could live my life fully in spite of what others thought of me. To me, living a good life meant correcting every backwards notion every Christian in the world has about gay people. Until someone’s thoughts about me were fixed, I couldn’t be happy.

This was a holdover from teenage years, where I was really was held hostage by the thoughts of the Christians around me. There was no escaping my Christian bubble, and the ministries they sent me to, the prayer meetings they subjected me to in order to rid me of my orientation.

But now, as an adult, living on my own and in a state where gay marriage was is (finally) legal, I still believed that I was held hostage. I still believed that the beliefs of other people completely determined my own freedom and happiness. Robert’s sermon was the first time in my life that I realized that I didn’t have to let the views of other people control my life. I realized that there was a word for that: codependency. I was codependent on every single conservative in the world who thought my life was sinful, and it drove me insane, sapping away all my happiness.

Reality Vs. Fantasy

Let’s back up. I’ve already made this point in the previous paragraphs, but I feel that it is crucial to make it again. There are moments when we really are held captive by the toxic beliefs of others: Being a gay teenager in a conservative Baptist or charismatic family. Being drawn into ex-gay ministry. Being surrounded by people of monochrome, antigay belief, with no community to support you. Being in a region that does not allow – or even persecutes – gay relationships. These are all genuine forms of captivity.

However, many of us are not in that situation anymore. So when I encounter someone who does not support homosexuality, I ask myself a series of questions:

  1. Does this person want to kill me or hurt me in any way?
  2. Does this person want to hurt my partner?
  3. Does this person have the ability to limit my freedoms?
  4. Does this person have the power to control me?

If the answer to these questions is no, I move on. Why give my power to such a person? They may look and sound so very much like those who held me captive in my teenage years, but I am an adult now. If I give them my power and energy, I perpetuate the captivity.

People are Real, and They Can Hurt Us

None of this is to say that it doesn’t hurt. It hurts very much indeed, to be seen by other human beings as an outsider, as sinful, as broken. It hurts to be barred from rights you believe are yours, and it hurts to have your most important relationship maligned as sinful. That hurts, and it still hurts me.

I slowly came to learn that not being held hostage does not mean pretending the beliefs of others don’t hurt. Living in the south, I am surrounded by people who believe homosexuality is a sin. There’s always that twinge of shame, that little pulse of anger and hurt I feel in my veins, even if it is barely perceptible. It’s real, and I live with it every day. But I’m also learning that I can live fully in spite of it.

Solveable Problems and Perpetual Problems

A therapist once explained to me a concept that has changed my life: solvable problems and perpetual problems.

A solvable problem is just that: solvable. It is something that can be worked through, and then is resolved. But a perpetual problem is something we have no control over. The classic example of a perpetual problem are in-laws who don’t approve of the relationship.

When confronted with a perpetual problem, we have a choice. We can let it destroy us, or we can compartmentalize it and learn to live fully in spite of it.

The beliefs of others are a perpetual problem. We are powerless over the beliefs of others. There will always be people who believe that gay people are broken, evil, or sinful. That’s a fact of life, and we are presented with a choice: let it destroy us, or live life fully in spite of it.

The Greatest Argument

I’ve learned that the greatest weapon against wrong beliefs is to live fully in spite of them. If anything has the power to change minds, and to change the world, it is this: living as brightly, fully, and unapologetically as I can. There is no greater light, there is no greater argument, and there is no greater example to young LGBT people.

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On Depression and Needing Books

After years of battling depression and anxiety, I’ve learned that some weapons are more potent than others. I’ve learned that exercise is as indispensable as food, that sleep is magic, and I can’t be afraid to ask for help before depression robs me of the ability to ask. But also, surprisingly, I’ve learned that reading – what I read and how much – is an indicator of my mental health.

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Suffering and Sacrament: On Finding Connection as a Grocery Store Cashier

Every day, I go to work as a grocery store cashier at a family-owned business in a prosperous region of the more generally depressed Appalachian mountains. This work has transformed my life, not because it is the exciting, high-impact, high-power job so many of us dream about in our twenties and thirties, but because it brings me into direct contact with humanity.

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Three Steps of Healing as a Gay Person

Three Steps of Healing for a Gay Person
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I’m happy as a gay man. In fact, with the exception of when I sit down to write about it, I rarely think about being gay. It’s simply a fact, fading into the details of life. I think of myself as simply Stephen, with a myriad of interests, and I think of my partner as my partner, whom I love dearly. Very rarely now do I ever stop to consider that we are both men. I love my partner’s masculinity (I am gay, after all) but that doesn’t mean I stop to dwell on the fact. This lack of dwelling is a mark of happiness and freedom for me.

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Post-Christian: A Lament

I’m slowly coming to the realization that the faith of my childhood: the Evangelical, middle-of-the-road, straight and narrow faith that was passed down to me by my parents and community, no longer fits. My faith has gone through a myriad of transformations, and I’ve always prided myself on having an adaptable faith. But this feels different: the faith itself is no longer working. It’s an old, trusty Toyota that has carried me through forests and over deserts, but it’s sputtering now, starting to break down.

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