What Does It Mean to Be Gay … and a Christian? An Excerpt from All But Invisible
“Christians who aren’t straight but who also observe a traditional sexual ethic are some of the least acknowledged and understood people today,” writes Nate Collins. “They don’t fit into the mainstream gay culture, but neither do they feel entirely at home in your typical evangelical church.”
All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality “is a book about people, like myself, who don’t see themselves as heterosexual or straight,” writes Collins, who explains: “much of what follows is, unavoidably, the result of my reflection on my experience as a gender minority who is also a conservative Christian with traditional views on sex and marriage.
Hear more from Nate Collins in today’s excerpt from All But Invisible.
I was twenty-three years old and one month into my first semester of seminary when I heard several Christians engage in one of the worst gay-bashing conversations I had ever heard. I was sitting with three other seminary students in an empty classroom. We had been sent there by our Hebrew professor to review for a quiz, but after about fifteen minutes, the conversation shifted to the topic of homosexuality. This is when the comments began, piling up one on top of another during the next thirty minutes until we had finished our assignment and left the room to rejoin the class.
For those thirty minutes, I sat there, numb. After we were dismissed from class, I made a beeline for a bathroom stall, and then the tears fell. Three months prior to this experience, I shared before a group of fifty guys, some of whom were my closest friends, that I had “struggled with homosexuality” (the phrase I used at the time) for as long as I could remember. I told them how I had spent my entire childhood feeling different from other boys. I described how at first it was only a vague feeling, but as I entered my teenage years, it became both undeniable and surreal. I explained that my homosexuality (again, the words I used at the time) had been a constant source of shame in my life and that detachment from reality was the only way I had found to cope. As I look back, I don’t have many first-person memories of those teenage years. I observed my life instead of living it. For the most part, I wanted to be invisible, and I was.
This is a book about an invisible people, people who find themselves at the center of a cultural debate about what it means to be human, to be a person, and to be a sexual being. You can’t escape the debate—it’s everywhere. It unfolds in public places like workplaces and restaurants but also in the private spaces of our lives, at family gatherings and in our living rooms and bedrooms. Some in this group choose to remain invisible, fearing rejection and judgment. They keep their orientation private and bear their burden alone. Others are invisible because they don’t want to rock their social boat and be an inconvenience to others. They soldier through the awkward comments and the myriad other difficulties that gay people face in struggling to fit into a straight world.
But even more specifically, this is a book about our people. When I say “our,” I speak as a Christian believer. Christians who aren’t straight but who also observe a traditional sexual ethic are some of the least acknowledged and understood people today. They don’t fit into the mainstream gay culture, but neither do they feel entirely at home in your typical evangelical church. According to most studies and the smart people who interpret them, gender and sexual minorities account for about 3 to 5 percent of the general population, but there is no reason to believe that this statistic is any different inside our churches. Gay people are the greeter who hands us a bulletin with a smile when we enter the sanctuary, they are the usher who passes the offering plate, they are the single man who sits alone in the same pew Sunday after Sunday, and they are the teenage girl who is the twinkle in her father’s eye and has a scary secret. Gay people are us.
For some, this might seem too outlandish to be true. Some might think this is an overstatement at best, an extreme and unwarranted accusation to make about the spiritual health of churches I’ve never attended. In his book Us versus Us, however, Andrew Marin presents the results of an extensive study conducted by the Marin Foundation on the religious backgrounds of people in the LGBT community. His findings were eye opening, particularly the following statistic: 86 percent of people in the LGBT community reported a significant level of church involvement at some point in their childhood or teenage years. Whether or not we see gay people as our people now, at some point they certainly did. Many of them grew up in our churches. But not only is this a book about our people; it is also a book about my people. It is a book about people, like myself, who don’t see themselves as heterosexual or straight. Because I happen to be one of these persons, much of what follows is, unavoidably, the result of my reflection on my experience as a gender minority who is also a conservative Christian with traditional views on sex and marriage.
Before we get started, this is a good place for me to make one thing clear: gay people are not monolithic. My experience cannot stand in as the universal gay experience. Gender minorities are found in all walks of life, in all socioeconomic strata of society, and in every culture. They have a wide variety of personalities, likes and dislikes, and character traits. Some are married to an opposite-gender spouse (as I am), while many others are not. The personhood of gay people is as multifaceted as the personhood of straight people. If I strike up a conversation with a lesbian couple holding hands in line at the grocery store, I know exactly nothing about their lives except that they perhaps live together. Gay people are just as diverse as straight people. As my friend Stephen Moss once said, your grandmother and Kim Kardashian might both be heterosexual, but the similarities probably end there.
Likewise, conservative Christians who have non-straight orientations are also quite diverse. Writer Eve Tushnet highlights a few ways these individuals vary that are especially important to keep in mind. First, we do not all agree on whether it’s important to discover the origin (or cause, if you prefer) of our orientation. Some of us resonate with one or more of the various theories from pop psychology about how we came to be gay, but many others don’t. We’ll talk about some of these “origin stories” at greater length in later chapters. Another difference Tushnet mentions is that Christians who aren’t straight use different metaphors when they talk about their orientation. If you spend time around some of these individuals, you might eventually hear one of them refer to their “struggle with same-sex attraction.” Others, including Tushnet, don’t resonate with the language of struggle and prefer to think of their orientation primarily as something they submit or surrender to God. This also will make more sense as we move into later chapters of this book.
Finally, let me also add a word to those looking for in-depth exegetical engagement with biblical teaching on homosexuality. There are many books available today that look at how to interpret the six verses in the Bible that explicitly mention same-gender sexual behavior, but that is not the focus of this book. In this book, I won’t be interacting in great depth with any of the widely cited exegetical arguments about the ethics of same-gender sexual behavior. This should not suggest that the way we interpret the Bible is unimportant or that where one lands in interpreting texts that refer to same-gender sexual behavior is inconsequential. As I said, I firmly and unapologetically believe the traditional position on sexual ethics: that Scripture prohibits sexual expression outside the context of a self-giving, monogamous marriage of a man and a woman.
But debates about the meaning of the six verses in Scripture that mention homosexuality aren’t the only kind of response that Christians can, or should, provide when participating in conversations about gender and sexuality, especially in our current cultural climate. According to Christian psychologists Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, “part of the ineffectiveness of traditionalist or evangelical voices in the public sphere can be attributed to their . . . focus on making negative claims . . . instead of embedding rightly negative condemnations in a positive ethic.” I want to unpack that claim a bit more in this book and push this conversation forward in more positive ways.
Professors, this might be a great fit for your class. Find out if it is by requesting an exam copy here.