I am a gay man who will turn 50 this year. From my earliest recollection I was attracted to those of my gender. As I child I really did not think anything about it. It was only as a teenager becoming aware of his sexual identity that I began to understand that many in society considered it wrong. My greatest fears emerged, however, when I began to understand that men in positions of religious authority believed my feelings were not just wrong, but sinful. In an era before the Internet or even the personal computer, and in a society where homosexuality was still taboo, I had little frame of reference for my predicament. What we did in have in “those days” were the old UHF channels on television where I would hear preachers telling me I was sinful, evil, and going to hell. I cannot begin to describe the inner turmoil that this created within me. I was terrified of the flaming pit I was being dangled over, thoroughly convinced of my ultimate fiery fate. After all, middle aged men in suits speaking with God’s authority must be telling the absolute truth. And so began a decade of loneliness, isolation and depression. I begged God to heal me of the affliction that tortured me. I cried tears of sorrow and pain as I longed to be cleansed of the evil that permeated my very being. I sought the help of professional counselors that could cure me of my disease. I feared socializing with straight youth for fear of being discovered and subjected to ridicule and torment. I had no idea that gay youth could be leading otherwise relatively normal lives around me. Surely they, too, lived my tortured existence or had given into the devil’s debauchery that I saw depicted by religious fundamentalists. Had I know of gay youth, I likely would have shunned them with the loathing fear that I might become enmeshed in their sinful lifestyle, forever forfeiting redemption. Those ten years – from aged 15 to 25 – were the most miserable of my life.
In law school, however, I became mentally and emotionally stronger. I learned to question what others claimed was binding authority, and to be an advocate for those who had been treated unfairly. It was through this new thinking that the slow realization set in that what I had once believed was simply wrong. When the epiphany of that fact finally dawned on me, the resulting reaction consisted of the classic stages of processing devastating news. First, disbelief – surely I did not just waste 10 of the best years of my life in agonizing emotional torment based purely on a misconception. Second, anger – they robbed me of my youth, what should have been some of the happiest years of my life, and I will never get those years back. Third, fatalism – I was 17 in 1980 when many gay men began to receive the death sentence called AIDS, and perhaps I was lucky to be alive. And finally, acceptance – I cannot change the past but I can live the future with the knowledge that I am loved and accepted just as I am. Thankfully, I was finally able to put the pain of those years behind me. I have grown to be a happy, successful man who treasures a close relationship with the God who strengthens and sustains me. But I will never forget the tortured suffering that I and many like me experienced. The most horrific aspect of that experience was the despicable perversion of God’s true message: that Jesus lived and died to assure us that God’s loving arms are open to all, regardless of their race, gender, creed, nationality, sexual orientation or other defining characteristic.
For these reasons, my church is not just a holy site of worship or a place where people meet for Christian fellowship. It is a shield and armor that protects me from the abuse that many so-called religious figures continue to commit. It is a balm that soothes the emotional scars of my youth. It is a different face of Christ that projects not anger and hatred but kind acceptance. More important, it is a difference voice of Christ that assures me and those like me that I am loved and accepted just as I am. Sadly, many in my community are so damaged from spiritual abuse they will never again step foot in a place of worship. But the fact that at my church we are all welcome at God’s table provides hope that those like me – and others who have been disenfranchised, abused or cast as “other” – may someday find the True God. For those we wait and pray.