There he sits, in the chair that seems to be reserved for this purpose, the one in my office where time and time again they offer up their secrets. Sometimes they do it as though I’m a priest hearing confession – solemnly without the least bit of drama. Sometimes, the secret comes bursting forth, loud and accompanied by tears. Sometimes they hang their heads, ashamed and yet pleading for acceptance and absolution. And again and again I am astonished that they carry such heavy secrets at such young ages. But I am always glad to have them in that chair. Today, he sits there saying, “You know I’m gay, right?” Outwardly composed, if you didn’t notice that his eyes weren’t quite meeting yours, he offers up his biggest secret; the same secret that that got him dismissed from a church planning team and with which he’s struggled for years. I smile and nod. Of course, I knew this. I’ve known most of the year, simply waiting for him to decide if it was worth sharing. Importantly, it’s not the being gay that bothers him anymore; he’s done the research, knows the responses to the “clobber” verses, and that he is beloved in the eyes of God. What bothers him is that along the way to peace, he feels as though he’s made some bad decisions, “slept with everyone,” and is somehow caught up in the sexual purity issues with which his hetero peers struggle. And while I have this conversation with straight students all the time – most often with young women – I am caught up short in this instance, it never having occurred to me that an LGBT student might have embraced his or her true self without also jettisoning the purity mindset that surrounds church-speak about sexuality.
Purity culture, an attitude toward sexuality most often embraced by evangelical Christians, posits that the body is itself an instrument of temptation. Sexuality should only be expressed within the confines of heterosexual marriage, and until then, all good Christians should consider their souls at war with their bodies, insisting that any sort of sexual contact prior to marriage is inherently sinful. There is, of course, little grace in this position and even less reality. But there it sits, made manifest in silver rings, and pledge cards, and Sunday school curricula. And even if your denomination doesn’t use the language, in the south, the tenets live in the water.
And this student, the one in the chair, still thinks it applies to him. And, just like when his straight friends sit there, my heart breaks, pushing me to say what I always say: “I think God has bigger things to worry about than if or how often you have sex.” I want him to see that his body is a good creation, meant for pleasure and grace. But I also want him to know that sexual encounters are a path toward intimacy, made more rewarding in the context of some form of committed relationship, a way of honoring the divine spark in each of us. I want him to value himself as a child of God, created in the image for abundant life, but I also know that lectures, even ones meant to liberate, automatically shut college students down. And so little by little, as the weeks pass, we’ll have a series of conversations; ones intended to reassure him, to bolster his shaky sense of confidence, and with any luck, he’ll come to know the purity paradigm as yet another teaching as false as the one that makes his sexual orientation a sin.