“I have something to tell you,” Jeff began. It was a warm spring afternoon near the end of my freshman year in high school. We lay outside on the trampoline in my backyard, staring at the sky through the tree branches overhead.
“Mmmkay,” I said.
“I’m gay,” Jeff said in a rush. We both continued to stare at the sky as a heavy silence settled over us.
I’d met Jeff the previous fall shortly after the beginning of our freshman year. Both of us were new to the private Christian high school. Neither of us felt like we really fit in well. We became fast friends, spending time outside of class together whenever we could.
Dozens of questions flooded my mind. What does he mean he’s “gay?” Doesn’t he know what the Bible says about that? Why is he telling me this? Does he “like” me? Does he think I’m gay too? What does he expect me to say?
I settled for, “Oh.”
Jeff continued, “I’ve never told anyone before. Please don’t tell anyone yet. It’s not like I ‘like’ like you. I mean, you’re my best friend, but I don’t ‘like’ you that way. I just had to tell someone.”
“Ok,” I replied, still fixated on the branches above us. I don’t remember any more conversation on the subject after that.
The spring term concluded a few weeks later. Jeff and I continued to spend time together throughout the summer. I’ve never been one to have a lot of friends. Instead, I usually find a couple people who I feel an affinity with and we develop a deep relationship. That’s the way it was with Jeff.
I was experiencing some serious cognitive dissonance, however. The Christian tradition within which I was raised was clear on homosexuality: it was a sin. Yet my relationship with Jeff was no different from any other relationship I had with a Christian peer. He believed the same things I did, read the same Bible, worshipped the same God, saved by the same Christ.
I found it incredibly difficult to reconcile my friendship with Jeff and the picture in my mind of homosexuals as defiant sinners who continually made the choice to thumb their nose at God. I’m not sure where I got that image from. But Jeff certainly didn’t fit it.
When school began the following fall, Jeff and I worked our schedules so that we would be in many of the same classes. We’d survived freshman year and entered our sophomore year confident and sure.
I was much more comfortable with Jeff sexuality than I’d been when he came out to me earlier that year. Jeff was still Jeff. He’d turned 16 over the summer and I started catching rides to school with him. We made ritual of leaving early on Friday mornings to go have breakfast at the Waffle House across the street from the school. I still remember the pre-dawn rides in his gray Volvo 240, Meatloaf blasting from the speakers.
In October of that year, things changed quickly and drastically. I was still one of only a few people to whom Jeff had confided his sexuality. There was another guy in our grade who, it was thought, was also gay. He was a loner, saying very little in class and sitting by himself most of the time.
Jeff felt compassion toward him. Thinking he knew something of what this guy was experiencing, Jeff wrote him a note and slipped it in his locker. In the note, Jeff took the bold step of telling this guy, who he didn’t really know, that he was gay and that if he ever wanted to talk about it, Jeff would be happy to listen.
That didn’t go over too well. The guy took the note to the principal. By the end of the week, Jeff was expelled from school for “unwanted sexual advances toward another student.” Though the content of the note contained no such advance, the school defended its interpretation and sent Jeff packing.
Several friends and I set up a meeting with the principal and passionately defended our friend (as teenagers are wont to do). The administration would not be swayed. They had a zero-tolerance policy for “these kinds of things.”
I’m still not sure whether the other guy was offended by the note, scared, or both. He transferred out of school a couple weeks later.
Jeff and I continued to grab breakfast on Friday mornings, while he and his family tried to appeal the school’s decision. When it was clear that the school was not going to budge, Jeff enrolled in the public high school. Our Friday breakfasts came to an end shortly afterwards, as our schools were on opposite sides of town.
Our friendship changed when we were no longer classmates. We made new friends, were busy with different activities, and slowly saw less and less of each other. We kept in touch until we both left for different colleges. After that, we would see one another only occasionally.
My friendship with Jeff, though brief when compared to other friends I’ve had since, was an important one for several reasons. He was the first gay person I’d ever known. The response from the school was the first sexual discrimination I’d witnessed. My relationship with him was the first time that my personal experience ever contradicted the conclusions of my tradition’s interpretation of the Bible.
Andrew Marin, in his book Love is an Orientation, shares many stories similar to my own. Marin is a self-described “straight, white, conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical male [who] was raised in a Christian home in a conservative suburb of Chicago . . . grew up in a large evangelical church. . . . [a]nd wanted absolutely nothing to do with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community” (Kindle loc. 108). Yet after having several experiences in college that were not unlike my own, where Christian friends came out to him, a confused Marin decided to immerse himself in the LGBTQI community in order to become, “the most involved, gayest straight dude on the face of the earth” (loc. 147).
Out of those experiences, he created the Marin Foundation, which works in the LGBTQI community and in evangelical churches to create places of loving, humble conversation about sexuality and Christianity. I had the opportunity to attend a conference breakout session led by Marin a few years back. This is a guy who loves God and loves the LGBTQI community.
His desire, one I share, is that Christians of all stripes would seek to love people into a reconciled relationship with God. And by that, Marin is not speaking about hatred and bigotry disguised as “tough love” which is predicated on “changing” one’s sexual orientation in order to come to the throne of God. No, as he explains, “[e]ven if Christians don’t agree with the GLBT community of what they might stand for, believers in Christ are supposed to know how to find real empathy for those who are going through things we can never understand” (loc. 329).
My life has continued to be blessed with deep relationships with people of all different sexualities. Some of the most intimate community I’ve ever experienced involved a great neighborhood in Philadelphia. We became fast friends with a wonderful lesbian couple who lived on our block and celebrated the birth of our second daughter with us (we had the opportunity to celebrate the birth of their first daughter a short time later!). Also in that neighborhood were two friends in a monogamous gay relationship. They adopted a wonderful son not too long ago and are great parents. Some of the most challenging and honest conversations I’ve ever had happened with these friends as we sat on the stoop of our rowhouse whiling away July evenings.
The fruit of my relationships is a deep appreciation for the complexity of sexuality and spirituality, especially Christian spirituality. Historical and cultural differences between the context of the Biblical authors and our present landscape make the interpretation and application of Biblical texts tricky. For instance, the word “homosexual” or “homosexuality” never appears in the Greek or Hebrew manuscripts from which the Bible is translated. Not once. There is no indication that the Bible ever addresses issues related to monogamous, loving same-sex relationships.
Marin’s book may not convince the conservative Christian reader to reassess his or her understanding of what the Bible says (or, rather, doesn’t say) about sexuality. But it will cause the reader to seriously question whether their views on sexuality justify the the hatred that is perpetrated against the LGBTQI community in the name of religion. Our call is to love God and love others, deeply and with humility. That much is clear. That much is not complicated. That much I hope I have done.