Constantino and I recently returned from a much-needed vacation to celebrate the completion of our book on marriage (or, perhaps more accurately, to celebrate having survived co-writing a book on marriage). We spent a couple of weeks in Europe, which afforded us the opportunity to visit some of our friends who now live there. One of them is a good friend I’ve had since middle school, who is gay and has been partnered more than 15 years. The visit was not only a chance to catch up, but a chance to apologize for how I failed him years ago when he first came out to me.
My friend came out to me in our early twenties, when I was neck deep in my own reparative therapy experience. Not only had I drank the Kool-Aid, I was swimming laps in a pool of it. My beliefs in the theory behind reparative therapy and its power to “cure” me held me in a suspended state between feelings of tremendous hope and utter brokenness. This therapy told me I was fundamentally flawed, and yet it promised to offer me something close to a “normal” existence.
So, when my friend told me he was gay at a party one summer, I felt compelled to share the “good news” with him. I’m typically not so outspoken about my beliefs, but this was someone I loved and someone I was willing to risk sounding foolish for. I even felt as if God had put me there, in that moment, to give my friend the answers he needed. “It’s like being an alcoholic,” I told him. “You’ll never be cured of your desires, but you can learn to manage and suppress them.” Try putting those words on an inspirational poster.
“Manage and suppress” was a tactic employed by reparative therapy, but its roots are in the church and the church’s approach to sexuality. I grew up in an era of “purity culture,” in the heyday of conservative “family values” organizations. In our book, we write about the way the church stunted and warped the sexuality of our generation:
The conservative church’s solution to sex has been a three-pronged attack: ignore, suppress, and distract. It ignores the issue of sex as if the elephant in the room were not stomping about, knocking over lamps and chewing on the furniture. Many of our friends who come from homes more religious than ours grew up utterly ignorant about sex. No one ever gave them “the talk.” One straight friend’s father only offered to tell him about sex as he and his wife were about to leave their wedding reception to spend their first night as a married couple—too little, and much too late. If and when the church reluctantly recognizes sex, its solution for young adults is to suppress it: to chain the elephant up, starve it, and hope it withers away before it breaks any of the fine china. Young adults who can’t tear their eyes away from the starved, chained beast are then distracted with Bible verses, prayer circles, and visualizations of the “reward” of a future spouse, when the beast can finally be unchained.
As twisted as that model is, there is at least a kind of logic in it for straight Christians: they are promised an idyllic union blessed by God. LGBTQ Christians, however, are never promised a future spouse or the joys of building a family. If God doesn’t change their sexual feelings and ignite a (safe, controllable) desire for the opposite sex, they are ushered into the next room, that of celibacy. There is no elephant in that room, only white padded walls with no windows. The problem is that the church confuses the elephant for sin when really it’s just sex. Sex is not a transgression against God but rather a divine desire built deeply into the core of our beings. If we are forcibly separated from our sexuality, it’s not the elephant that will wither and starve, but us. Celibacy in the Bible is always framed as a gift from God, not a sentence handed down by the church. We respect and honor those who feel moved to celibacy and choose it freely for themselves, but treating it as a lifelong solution to “aberrant” sexual desire is a flawed premise from the get-go.
[Excerpted from Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, © 2019 David and Constantino Khalaf. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.]
For years, I had tried to ignore my sexuality. My youth was full of chaste school dances, immortalized by awkward photos posing at arm’s length with female “dates.” When I faced my sexuality head-on in college, reparative therapy taught me to suppress it. It promised to alleviate my desires if I could bond with men in healthy ways — as if the good friendships I already had weren’t healthy enough. When that failed, I jumped into a frenzy of church service, trying to distract myself from myself.
Back at that party so many years ago, I must not have sounded like the posterboy of healthy living, because my friend wasn’t buying the “manage and suppress” approach. My proselytizing sounded less like good news and more like a terminal diagnosis. Fortunately, he had the good sense to avoid contact with me for the next few years while he continued on the journey of discovering his own sexuality. I’m glad he distanced himself during that season, and I’m glad we were able to reconcile years later.
There may have been others I tried to convert using the gospel of reparative therapy but, I don’t think I ever succeeded. I squirm whenever I recall the me of that era, but I also know I need to give myself grace for where I was at. I was genuinely trying to find out the truth about myself, even if it led me through an unhealthy detour. But that was part of my process, and I have to honor that season and the lessons learned from it. When we are on a journey of self-discovery, there are no wrong turns.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by CEBImagery, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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