Tip-Toeing Out

What has changed?┬áIt has been a question I’ve asked myself so many times on this journey over the last few years. What has changed?

I feel guilty sometimes. Guilty that I have had it easy. Guilty that my life is so comfortable. Guilty for desiring something I shouldn’t. Yet I also feel envious sometimes. Envious of people who seem to, well, feel more than me. Envious of people who have got to a place of knowing themselves better and sooner.

Strangely, there have even been times when I have envied those who went through some traumatic and transformational experience. I have envied the impetus to change that might have proved for them. Of course, this is an utterly ridiculous thing to want, not to mention insulting to those who have been through so much pain. I think it just indicates that I want something that is hard won. From my place of comfort and ease it’s easy to glamourise the ‘struggle’ when I have no idea how hard and isolating it is.

‘Struggle.’ Interesting word. In Christian culture, struggle has taken on a particular meaning. It is a word I have used a lot in the past decade to describe my experience and I want to explain what it used to mean and what it means, perhaps, now. For a long time, struggle was the most appropriate word for me to use to describe my experience of sexuality. My go-to phrase when ‘going deep’ with someone was ‘I struggle with same-sex attraction.’ Struggle suggests an attempt at rejection. A process of moving beyond and putting something behind you. An attempt to overcome. This was how I saw my sexuality. Something to overcome. To move on from.

Now, I didn’t grow up in a Christianity of exclusion, where anyone was praying away the gay or rejecting those who didn’t conform. I grew up in a very British, slightly nominal, definitely relaxed, environment of suburban Anglicanism. Hardly a progressive bastion, yet neither a place of hellfire and brimstone teaching that you might imagine as the backdrop for a ‘gay kid growing up christian’ drama.

A question that I’ve come to dwell on more and more is ‘Why then, did I reject my sexuality?’ No one was telling me it was wrong at church. My parents were particular to avoid discussing relationships at all most of the time, in a way that I came to experience as respectful and freeing. I was under no particular pressure. So what was it that made me spend many teenage nights pacing my room, obsessively calling out to God about this thing I wanted to reject? That I could just about come to accept as a reality, but which surely must be a passing phase? Something to be struggled with and defeated.

As a teenager in the early 2000s, I was mostly incredibly fortunate in the era of history I was growing up in. I think for many British millennials, there is this time in our memory when the government was good (or at least not impacting our daily lives very much), social media was simple, and we had ‘Snake’ on our phones. Yet my experience as a kid also, as it does for so many, taught me that I had to fit in. That avoiding difference at all costs was a goal. In my case, that staying at home and keeping my head down was the best way through.

This natural reserve, and fear of discovery, meant that when I came to understand the gospel for the first time (and I mean here, the more literal, evangelical gospel of my university years), I had found the perfect reason to keep on avoiding discovery. A system of belief that validated my self-denial and fear, labelled my experience as Christian ‘struggle’ and encouraged me to keep going, with the vague hope of change in the future. And this was enough. This was more than that. I found meaning, joy, community in the church. For these things and these years I am thankful. I was able to shed layers of fear and become more confident and open. I felt loved and accepted. Powerful and good things. Even if, looking back, some hard lessons hadn’t really been learnt and some future pain was being set up.

The first time I came out to anybody, in snatched half-sentences, became a model for my subsequent comings out (is that the plural?) It was a confession of sin. An admission of a stain on my heart and character that I felt could never be removed. I remember it viscerally. The stuttering conversation went from talking about struggling (there it is again…) with porn, to admitting I was looking at gay porn and was attracted to guys. It was an experience that was both thrilling and mortifying. My friend, a fellow Christian, was kind and loving. I never felt rejected. Our friendship grew as a result.

It is my fortunate testimony that every time I have come out to someone, it has been a positive experience. I have never known rejection or condemnation. I never felt, nor was I encouraged to think, that ‘being gay’ was sinful. But I very quickly learned to talk about my struggle (!) in the sense of it being a struggle with sin. And yes, lust is sinful, it is degrading to all involved, but I saw any expression of my gay sexuality as sinful. From how I thought, to the films I let myself watch, to how I acted and spoke.

That became my struggle. I didn’t speak about it that much. It was the kind of thing kept for the dark, for those ‘real talk’ conversations with friends. The light at the end of the tunnel was undoubtedly marriage. That I would be attracted to a woman, that I could make it work. That was something that I wanted, that others wanted for me, but that also made lots of friendships complicated.

Often, my comings out (I’m rolling with it) were with girls in the DTR (define the relationship) context. My view of my sexuality was causing me to hold back so much of myself, except for in these most personal moments, when I was forced to expose this wound so that it wouldn’t hurt others too. I never really dated a girl. It just never felt right. Looking back, I can say with confidence that my attraction has always been for guys and guys only.

So how do I view my ‘struggle’ now? What did change? It’s hard to put my finger on when it started to be honest. I can’t point to one traumatic incident or irreconcilable difference. I think I have always been pretty liberal, my evangelicalism never more than skin deep in most things, so why did it take so long for me to be open to pursuing for myself what I never begrudged others? I think it comes down to understanding. Understanding and community. I have always been someone who likes to understand what I’m doing and why. I’m also someone who is powerfully impacted by the stories of others. It is easy to live a single life when most around you are single and when your choice matches well with that of those in your community. That was the case for me in my twenties; it was pretty easy being single. I think I never really faced up to the fact that logically, my desire for relationship could not be fulfilled if I kept pursuing the non-affirming path I was on.

I don’t think I ever really admitted to actually wanting a relationship with a man. That a good and healthy thing could come from this desire that had so far been reserved for the darkest corners of my world, was too much for me to comprehend.

The last few years have been a time of frustration and perhaps some of that hard-won growth. Of facing up to the logical conclusions of my feelings and beliefs. There have been many times when I have felt like I had to choose; faith or sexuality. I hope that I have started to move beyond that lose-lose situation, that I can have peace with both. Yes, understanding has been key. I have read a lot of writing from a lot of people with a lot of different opinions, stories and perspectives. But also vital is my own conviction. Ultimately, it is my future. Under God’s guidance and protection I want to be fruitful. I want to have peace. I feel closer to that than before, even if I know that I am not at the end.

I think an important moment for me was a recent realisation in answer to the question ‘What stops you from saying you are affirming of same-sex relationships?’ I felt like I understood a logical support for such relationships, had overcome some of my doubts, and was already living as openly gay with those around me. So what was holding me back? It was like realising that the wall that had held me back for so long was just no longer there. It wasn’t so much a falling down, as a realisation that maybe there was simply no wall at all.

I don’t know what the future holds. I know that if all this has just been for me to get to experience romance, then it is ultimately pretty empty. I know that Christianity, and society generally, needs to validate singleness more. But if it has been me facing up to core pieces of my humanity, which God made me with, and gaining a greater peace, then it will have been worth the rambling road it’s taken me to get here.

These years of struggle (…) don’t feel like they’ve been very fruitful. I believe that a key part of our faith in Jesus is that we should bear good fruit. I pray that I am able to bear more fruit now, to be more open to Jesus’ leading, and to be free from the oppression that ultimately came from my own fearful heart. I am no longer a prisoner of fear, and that at least feels like growth.

 

The Grey

I wonder if my dream will come true this side of heaven. I wonder if heaven is there to be honest. I understand more than ever the desire, both inside and outside the church, to bring ‘heaven on earth.’ To make the world a more happy and tolerant and loving place. I see how this desire leads to people idolising marriage or rejecting it as an outdated thing, I see how it leads to people having babies or choosing not to, I see how it leads to people becoming missionaries in far flung and dangerous places or to take to the streets in a pride march in a place where they might face similar danger. We all want to make the world a better place. What would that better world look like in my dream?

I think it might be something like this. So many of my insecurities, both self and other inflicted, come from expectations. Expectations from my own heart, from the church, from the world, from movie, hell, from Instagram. I expected my life to go a particular way until, well, it didn’t.

Perhaps the biggest area this has been hard for me is in relationships (of the romantic kind.) Everyone, myself included, is just obsessed. Everywhere you look, from the most conservative Christian, to the most postmodern atheist, the focus is on just the one thing, or so it seems. My perception, as someone looking in from the outside, is that the one thing everyone values highest is the thing I don’t have. So dramatic, I know.

As much as I appreciate people like Emma Watson saying she is happing ‘self-partnered’ – and we need to value each opportunity to big up those currently single – the answer is somehow bigger. What if we could truly free ourselves from these expectations? How many sons, daughters, friends, would feel less like a person-in-waiting if they were freed from the pressure to find someone? How many people would be willing to take a risk on actually meeting someone if they were freed from the pressure of finding ‘the one’? How many marriages would be improved if we were freed from our insecurities that we married the wrong person?

I dream of a world where we are just, well, people. Each precious. Not a half-person in sight. Not a waiting person, nor one who is too damaged. Too ugly. Not cool enough. Whatever.

I have glimpsed the reasons the world, and the church, is so in love with, well, love. Of course there are so many good things; the companionship, the love, the romance, the fact that someone is there, the family life. I get it. I don’t want to tear down marriage. I want to celebrate when my friends get married. But I want to be freed from the inescapable heartache that comes for so many when that happens. Why should we feel left behind? I wish I could reset my heart and remove this part. My head knows that I am no less a person than my married or coupled friends, but I don’t think my heart realises.

I dream of a place where each one is truly valued equally, yes irrespective of sexuality, race, gender, but also ‘relationship status.’ There are so many who are in pain every day, whether that’s because they jumped at a relationship that was wrong, or were afraid to jump at all.

In so many areas I feel like we need to recognise the grey. The fact that nothing is simple and everything seems blurry sometimes. This area of life is so significant and yet so nebulous for so many. So let’s talk about it, let’s try and be better where we can, let’s speak to our hearts and our friends. Let’s try to be more comfortable with the grey, because grey can be beautiful too.

It’s People

What makes you happy? How do you relax? What’s it all about? What are you doing this weekend?

All questions of varying depth and seriousness, which I’ve come to think have one common theme in the answer. It’s people.

It’s not really about opinions, beliefs or preferences, it’s just common sense. When it comes down to it, we are made to love and to live with other people. Not just to succeed as ambitious individuals, to just look out for ourselves, or even to prioritise ‘self-care’. We’re made to be part of a community of people, some the same and some very different, taking steps along the wandering road of life together.

What that looks like is different for everyone and at different times of life. For me right now, it looks like a community of individuals, couples, families and others, doing life together. It’s frustrating in many ways, especially trying to navigate different cultural expectations and backgrounds, but rewarding in more.

I still feel lonely much of the time. Does that mean I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet, or the right community even? I’m not sure it does. I think it means that I’m learning that there is no such thing. That everyone carries with them a burden of loneliness. We’re the only ones inside our own heads and there’s no way to change that. Yes, having a significant other is good. That burden can feel lighter. But the burden can be even lighter if we have a community of people who know and love us, both friends, lovers, and family.

That’s where our cultural reverence of romantic love falls short; one other isn’t enough. We need people. Lots of people. Diverse and wonderful and difficult people.

Yes we need the friends who are easy, who don’t challenge us very much, with whom we can quote ‘Friends’ endlessly and sing along to Celine Dion, but we also need the friends who are older and wiser, who can question and confront us. Who can push us when we need it, or hold us back.

To be quite honest, I feel some pity for myself in the past. I feel my past loneliness more now that the heavy load has been shared amongst trusted companions. I wonder what my future self will feel when he looks back on me now. I hope he will feel similarly. That there is more and deeper sharing to come. I have to admit that one of my greatest fears is that this is the best it’ll get.

I worry because it’s people. The best and hardest part of life. How to love and live and relate with those so similar and yet so different from us? I am hopeful and thankful and joyful because of the people I’m blessed to know, excited about those I’m yet to meet, already mourning those I’ll lose. I’m willing to take the risks.

I take comfort in the fact that now my heart has known so many wonderful souls, there’s no way back to the loneliness I might have felt. Not truly. For as I’m known and loved and walked beside, my burdens and stories are shared, remembered, treasured.

People can move on, let us down, disappear, but we are blessed with the chance to be friends, if even for a short time. Let’s make the most of that.