An Open Letter to My Non-Open and Affirming Friends and Family
Note: I originally posted this letter as a Google doc in October 2016, during my sophomore year of college. I’m re-posting it here as I attempt to gather the things that I write in one place, and as I continue to write about similar topics.
When talking to most of my friends at Princeton about my experiences around some Christians, they’re shocked to find out that there are still people whom I personally interact with who think homosexuality is a sin or “condition,” that same-gender relationships are inherently sinful, and that marriage is and can only be between a man and a woman. If you’re one of those people who is surprised to hear that, I want to make it clear that you’re not the target audience here — instead, I’m hoping to address those in my faith community who still maintain a traditional, Christian outlook on marriage and romantic/sexual relationships.
Let’s put it out there — I’m a tall, white, economically well-off cisgender man — I have a lot going for me in the privilege department. Pretty much all the privilege you can think of. And if you’re aware of those dynamics and the privileged intersectionality of those identities, you may not be interested in reading about the struggle that I have experienced because of what is pretty much the only marginalized part of my identity. And I totally get that! This letter may also seem selfish, because I’ll only be talking about my own experience and pain — that’s not meant to erase any one else’s experience, but merely to recognize that I can only speak for myself. All these disclaimers are simply meant to place this story inside my privilege and my experience, and to clarify to whom I’m writing.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Micah. I love my family, I’m passionate about social justice, I’m super into my home city (Buffalo, it’s the best and I’ll work it into any conversation), and I also happen to be gay. It’s important to get that last part out there, because it’s relevant to this conversation. I grew up in a largely white, conservative suburb of Buffalo, NY, in a very evangelical Christian context. Buffalo is a liberal place, but my bubble certainly was not. My family went to two church services on Sundays, had bible study during the week, and prayed before meals, bedtime, and leaving for school. We did family devotionals and personal devotionals. I’m grateful for a lot of those things. Although I’m not quite sure where I am with faith right now, I know that I love my family a lot, and I feel really connected to them through all the things that we’ve done together, including faith-related things. Also, because I know they’ll read this and may be horrified if I don’t clarify, my parents are open and affirming and just in general amazing people, so I’m not addressing them here either!
My sophomore year of high school, I began to become aware of my sexuality, and it was hard. I pretended that it wasn’t real for a long time. Christianity was in many ways my native tongue, and I found that it was suddenly rejecting me. My denial manifested itself in different, recurring phases: I would spend a while convincing myself that it was just temporary, then I would move on to trying to pray it away, then I would deny it altogether, and then I would think about the fact that I had a girlfriend so I couldn’t possibly be…gay.
I wouldn’t actually say the last word out loud or even in my head because it was too scary.
Then I would rinse and repeat, going through those same stages. I thought I would go to hell, I thought I was being punished for something, and I developed a strong sense of self-loathing and shame. Brené Brown gives an amazing definition of shame, relative to guilt: “Guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort . . . Shame [is] the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do [that] makes us unworthy of connection.” In other words, guilt is feeling that you’ve done something wrong, and shame is feeling that you are something wrong. I felt for a long time that I was something wrong. And I felt that way because of what I had learned from Christianity.
I picked up that shame every time someone made a homophobic comment in church, every time I probed the subject of whether it was okay to be gay and was shut down. I externalized my shame as I simultaneously allowed it to burrow deeply inside of me. Externally, I argued with friends and told them that even though Jesus loves gay people, he still thinks that they’re sinners and need to change. Internally, every time I heard that being gay was a choice, I cringed. My shame grew. It took over, and it turned to secrecy. I began looking at porn, starting off small and innocuous and then letting the desire take over as it became my only outlet for any sexual energy I had as a 16-year-old going through puberty. That led to a whole lot more shame, and a bunch more tears. I did this all while telling myself that I couldn’t possibly be gay, of course.
Some moments were darker than others. I sometimes felt hopeless, and at some of my lowest points, I definitely had some suicidal thoughts. I was fortunate enough to not experience thoughts that were strong enough for me to consider acting on, but they certainly existed. Sometimes I thought that I would never, could never, find love. Or that I might just have to marry a woman and enter into what would be a lie of a relationship for me. Or that maybe I would move away from my family after college and just never see them again so that they didn’t have to know. That last one was the worst. All this is to say, it wasn’t easy. You wouldn’t have known that from looking at me — I got pretty good at disguising pain and being secretive — but it wasn’t easy.
Then, I graduated high school. I took a gap year, and went to Peru. Before leaving, my mom sat me down and said to me, “Mike. You don’t tell us anything. We want to know you.” That jarred me, and was enough to make practicing vulnerability a goal for the year. Around the same time, I began to read books written by Christians who were gay, and who had some different things to say about the morality of same-gender relationships and marriage. It was a glimmer of hope, for the first time! I was too nervous to truly buy into it then, because I was sufficiently trained to believe that my eternal salvation rested on the one moment in which I decided whether being gay was okay or not. I spent the year processing, and coming out to myself. If my sexuality was something just to the left of my field of vision, I would say I spent the year slowly and cautiously pivoting to see and accept it.
One morning, a couple weeks after being home, I was sitting in church and praying: God, if this is something I should tell my family, I’m really gonna need a sign here. We got home, and I went to my room and prayed again: God, if this is something I should tell my family, I’m gonna need more than just a sign. I’m gonna need a fricken lit up billboard. I told God that if for some reason that day, I found myself in the family room with just my mom and dad, and no one else in the house, I would tell them (I don’t think you’re supposed to make deals with God, but oh well). Now, I wouldn’t say I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt God intervening in my life — or that I’ve ever even felt particularly connected to God — but this felt like one of them. Sure enough, I found myself in that exact scenario. So, I told them. I was crying, and they said “Oh Mike, we know!” and then showered me with love and hugs and tears.
I came out to my friends and family over the course of the next six months — most responses were good, and some weren’t. And this brings me to the point of what has become an incredibly long-winded letter. It’s been hard for me to connect, or to even want to connect to any Christian friends or figures who are not open and affirming (a phrase used by many to describe Christians who support same-gender relationships). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that is. I of course still disagree on issues with those who are open and affirming yet manage to be close to them, so why did this have to be any different?
I’ve spent the last year trying to be a part of the Christian communities on campus and with friends. I’ve found, however, that anytime I’m with a non-OAA person, that I just can’t focus on anything else but my sexuality (read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi or look up stereotype threat for more on this). Sitting in a church service, everything is filtered through my sexuality — and that’s not how my daily interactions are. It’s not something I think about so much, unless I’m with a bunch of people who think it’s wrong. Do I just need to suck it up? Get over it? I’ve tried, and can’t seem to. A friend recently asked me why I didn’t seem to want to open up to them. This friend is a relatively conservative Christian who is not OAA and has made it clear that although they love me, they cannot support any decision I make with regard to a relationship with another man. They just recently came around to the idea that being queer is not always a choice. I was trying to describe to them why it was so hard to open up to them, and why I had erected these walls between us, and I realized that it was because I carry with me years of emotional baggage and shame, produced by the very strand of Christianity to which this friend subscribes. As I described the pain and rejection I felt, my friend’s face contorted in pain for me. It was clear that they felt agony over my experience. I felt almost comforted by that in the moment. Then, I reflected on it, and came to some new thoughts. This is what I’ve come to.
Christians who aren’t OAA — you don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. You don’t get to maintain the conviction that I am wrong in seeking love while simultaneously telling me that you’re so sorry that I feel pain; your very conviction is the cause of my pain. Directly and indirectly. So if you’re going to continue believing what you believe, then accept that this belief has consequences, and that those consequences include inviting this pain into reality.
When a leader in the campus Christian community tells me that they believe marriage can only be in the context of man and woman but that they’re sorry for the pain I’ve felt, I can’t believe it. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s saying, I believe this. This causes you pain. I don’t want you to feel pain. I’m going to continue to believe it, and tell you about it, even though I wish you didn’t feel the associated pain. Sorry. Unfortunately, it’s hollow and it doesn’t work.
When relatives sit me down to convince me that I can’t be in a relationship and that natural law must hold true, and end the conversation by hugging me and telling me they love me, how can I believe that? Would you? This undeniable part of you is undeniably wrong, also I love you. It doesn’t work, and I’m not going to make someone feel better by telling them I understand their position and I love them. I do love them, but I won’t believe that they fully love me if they continue to believe the very thing that causes so much pain.
If you want to talk about how we all have our cross to carry (a popular phrase said to me by many a non-OAA Christian), I’ll ask you to think of any other belief that has produced this kind of “cross”. Is the sexuality a cross, or is the real cross here dealing with those who tell me it’s a cross? And if you think that you’re being more loving by pointing out my sin, as you feel is your duty as a faithful Christian, I would ask you to return to your definition of sin. In this scenario, who’s causing pain and brokenness and division? Is it the person seeking love, or the person denying another the opportunity to love? If you want to tell me that this is God’s will, not yours, I would ask you to think about the arrogance that statement implies about your assumption of understanding of God’s will. Look back to history to other things that we thought were God’s will about which we now know otherwise.
I think that this letter, while starting as an outline of part of my story, has become one more plea to non-OAA Christians — you’ve heard the logical arguments. You’ve read books that perform exegesis on the relevant passages, and maybe you’ve even done that exegesis yourself. That hasn’t convinced you. So let me make a more emotional plea — think about your faith-based beliefs about same-gender relationships. Then think about the pain that you know these beliefs cause. Then think about your faith-based beliefs about love, and grace, and mercy, and inclusivity, and justice. See if you come to any new conclusions. If you don’t, that’s fine. But own it. Own the fact that you choose to believe something while knowing that it actively causes pain. Don’t tell me you love the sinner and hate the sin. Acknowledge that at the very least, your hatred of the sin causes self-hatred in the sinner, and only comes across as hate. If you want to maintain your beliefs, you better maintain the pain they cause as well. Stop pretending to empathize with my pain; acknowledge that you’re merely sympathizing, that it’s not helpful, and move on. Accept the consequences of your actions. Weigh the value of the divides you create by maintaining this one belief. And get back to me, because no matter what you believe, I’m always down for a conversation.
One last thing: I want to make it clear that this is just my journey. I clearly have a lot of anger that has built up over the years that I’m beginning to process. Writing and posting this it is not meant in any way to shut down conversation or to say that I don’t want to talk to you anymore if you disagree with me. This is my way of processing, and I hope that it doesn’t take away the possibility of continued dialogue.