A Different Sanctifiable Grace of “Gayness”

Nicolas Regnier, 1590-1667, Saint Sebastian.

Saint Sebastian, Nicolas Regnier, 1590-1667.

One debate about homosexuality is summed up nicely by Wesley Hill’s question and blog post “Is being Gay Sanctifiable?” The question takes the premise that gay sex is sinful in a conservative Christian ethic, but wonders what parts of “being gay” can in fact be helpful in pursuing Christian community and morality. Most of the writers at Spiritual Friendship, like Wesley, seem to suggest that there’s a lot of rich gifts that sexual minorities can offer their communities by sharing and reflecting on their experiences as sexual minorities. In other words, what is there to being gay that helps me build the Kingdom of God? If there are good answers to the question, this defends us from the Christians who seem to wish that gay people would stop wanting to be patted on the back and either cease to exist or at least admit being gay is so messed up that we should shut up about it.

Most of the voices in this discussion seem to focus on the close same-sex relationships–potentially approaching the eponymous spiritual friendship–that they see connected to their homosexuality. Wesley, for example, suggests that he prefers male company, felt a special not-genital-but-vaguely-sexual-orientation-related connection with his male dorm-mates, and consequently finds himself drawn to (healthy!) intimacy more readily with men than women, thanks in part to the natural spark or chemistry that seems related to being gay/homosexual/same-sex-attracted or whatever you want to call it.* Jeremy Erickson elaborates this same idea a little further in a recent post (again on SF) about his tendency to think about men when listening to music, and and an “energy” in getting to know another man that’s related to sexuality without being reducible to simply mentally undressing him. The relationships that can bloom from these experiences are good, and help suggest that yes, being gay is sanctifiable. These two pieces (along with their extensive comments sections) motivated me to chime in with this blog post.

I see a lot of talk about chaste same-sex relationships and intimacy in the discussions on Spiritual Friendship, but sometimes I leave scratching my head when I compare it to my experiences. When I think about my relationships with other men throughout my adolescence and into college, especially in conjunction with realizing I’m gay, the picture is anything but rosy.

In my small elementary school I always felt profoundly different and excluded from the core group of “guys,” largely stemming from my disinterest in sports and love of things like reading, computer games, and playing with the girls at recess. I felt profoundly distant from all but two of my male middle school peers, most swim-team mates in high school, and my single-sex college dorm neighbors. Each of these groups made me increasingly aware of how I wasn’t like them, and in turn I felt uninvited or at least very timid about forming serious bonds with them. It always seemed that really fitting in would demand that I pretend to be something I wasn’t–whether that was being physically aggressive and competitive in contact sports, being captivated by particular female classmates and rumors about their body parts or underwear choices, or narrating or alluding to sexual exploits with women (or at least their pursuit) as a means of influence within the group. In those times and places of my history, the general lack of alternative visions of masculinity and male bonding caused me to seek relationships elsewhere–sometimes unconsciously, and other times very deliberately.

My most intimate friendships and the groups of people in which I feel most comfortable often star women. My tight-knit group of best friends that survived and strengthened through the transition from middle school to high school was overwhelmingly female. The same was true with the close group of friends I was blessed to fall in with throughout college–so much so that we would joke about what an accomplishment it was when we achieved an even gender balance at any particular gathering. And when I think of the people who have most openly shared their lives with me, and whom I trust with anything and know will always be there for me–perhaps 8 or so relationships that at times have truly approximated spiritual friendship–the short list has only one man. And those friendships don’t just make me one of the girls–these friends say that they value having a close male friend who sees the world through different eyes. And their boyfriends and future husbands are never challenged by our relationship. In fact I believe that some of our deepest conversations may have strengthened future marriages.

In college, I had a totally unrelated conversation (or so I thought) with a female acquaintance about my sense of vocation to the priesthood. I was speaking about how I had really enjoyed the opportunity to have close friendships with women without romantic tension thanks to my forthrightness about my interest in religious life. “Oh,” she said, having an a-ha moment, “I guess it’s kind of like they have a gay friend.”

With what might be fairly criticized as internalized homophobia, I felt a very strong negative reaction to the comment. I didn’t go shopping for shoes with these friends, call them “girlfriend,” or do any of those other token gay friend things. Having the mess of my feelings about my sexual orientation dragged into something I thought I already figured out was not welcome. I think I carried on the conversation politely, but I left it resentful. “I’m not their ‘gay’ friend,” I thought, even though I knew I was each of those things independently. “That’s not our relationship at all.”

But in the years since that conversation I’ve come to accept that my homosexuality is in fact a significant part of these friendships. Not the defining element a la “Will & Grace,” but an essential piece. It was somewhat naive of me to assume that anyone who felt called to religious life would be incapable of mutually complicated feelings and attractions toward a female friend–feelings that I never needed to deal with in my most privileged and beautiful friendships because I’m not attracted to women. Once I acknowledged my desires for romance and physical intimacy with men and wanted to pursue them, it was shockingly easy to forget my sense of a celibate vocation and plunge into ill-guided, friendship-corrupting relationships. And, senior year of college a close female friend fell for me, hard, and I absolutely despised how uncomfortable our interactions became, how guarded I instinctively became around her, not knowing how to be nice without leading her on, and not wanting to be mean and simply stop spending time with her, and also resented that because I was 90% out of the closet at the time, her cluelessness was staggering. I guess my point here is simply that I learned the hard way that sexual attraction can and does goof up friendships–and so you’re probably wishing you’d simply re-watched “When Harry Met Sally” instead of reading this paragraph.

But I don’t necessarily agree with Harry that people who find each other attractive cannot be the most intimate of chaste friends. I just think that there can exist an additional blessing in the friendship between to people who enjoy the security of their sexual attractions playing no part in their relationship.

In conclusion, I have a hard time characterizing my attraction to men as being helpful to me in developing strong same-sex friendships the way it has for Wesley and Jeremy, at least in the first chapter of my life. Of course their experiences are equally valid, and I’m actively reflecting on their ideas through the opportunities I’m finding for same-sex friendships as I establish a social life in a new country.** I’m confident that they are on to something, and optimistic that it will become increasingly relevant to my life as I build relationships from a more self-aware and mature place than in previous chapters.

Yet I consider noteworthy the lack of mention of intimate relationships with the opposite sex in the discussions on Spiritual Friendship about what spiritual goods can come from homosexuality.*** Testimonials on Spiritual Friendship demonstrate that the spark of attractions associated to homosexuality can be a powerful force for developing intimate and healthy bonds with those people who draw us in through their attractiveness… be it their eyes, their talents, their humor, etc. However, somewhat ironically, I credit being gay as a prerequisite part of my life’s most intimate relationships, with my (fine, I’ll say it) “girlfriends.”

So I would like to add to the list of sanctifiable elements in being a gay man: the opportunity for a privileged, intimate relationship with women–which have been profoundly life-giving and mutually nurturing. One more thing the Christian world would lose if we gay people could just shut up already and stop existing.

*He, like the other bloggers linked to here are much more articulate about his own experiences than I am in goofily paraphrasing him, so you should really check out the links.

**Hopefully more posts on that to come.

***Maybe I just haven’t found it in the archive yet?


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