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:
- Does this person want to kill me or hurt me in any way?
- Does this person want to hurt my partner?
- Does this person have the ability to limit my freedoms?
- 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.