In November, I took a bit of time to write about my spiritual journey and theological influences. Those posts made passing reference to my long road to affirming my sexuality, but I mostly kept that part out of the narrative so as not to distract from the post’s main purpose, and because including it would have at least doubled an already long post. And yet, as much as issues of gender and sexuality are not major themes of my blog or my theological interests (this current series will be the first time I’ve addressed them in any way here in the five years I’ve kept the blog!), I also know that my struggles with my sexuality formed one of the major arenas of my wrestling with God for two decades, and so it would be disingenuous to act like it has not been an influence on my theology. And so today I’d like to tell this side of my story. As a caveat, this is, of course, just my story. I believe that God works in people’s lives in many different ways. Other people have different journeys; my journey does not minimize theirs, theirs do not minimize mine.
Like many folk under the general ‘queer’ umbrella, my childhood was marked by a general feeling of being different and not fitting in. Despite being rather quiet and conservative by nature, I was a bit of a wildcard in my family. My siblings both easily fell into expected roles within the family, with my sister patterning largely with my mom, and my brother sharing my dad’s aptitudes and interests. But I came along and broke the playbook, far preferring to read or draw than to putter in dad’s workshop. And while I enjoyed playing with other boys, I also enjoyed playing with the girls, and was frustrated by the separation of the sexes in recess games. I was lucky in that I was only rarely made to feel shamed over gender expectations, but carried a strong sense of being a misfit.
When puberty hit, the nature of how I ‘didn’t fit’ became pretty instantly clear. By the time I was old enough to understand what sexual attraction was, it was entirely oriented towards men. This is never an easy experience, but the particularities of being in rural areas in the early 1990s made it especially confusing, since homosexuality was just starting to be discussed openly in the media but was still very much outside the mainstream. And, being a rule follower by inclination, I was predisposed to a more rigid interpretation of ‘the plain text’ of Scripture, and so when I gingerly opened up my Bible and read the end of Romans 1, I immediately thought ‘Well that’s that, isn’t it.’ It seemed that, according to the Bible, there was something very basic in me that was opposed to God. At twelve, my sexuality was certain and God felt murky and distant, and so I gave up on God, figuring God had already given up on me by virtue of how I had been made. On a lot of fronts, my adolescent years were a very dark time.
When I reaffirmed my faith at seventeen, I experienced it as a genuine rebirth. Everything in my life began to change for the better. The more I trusted and lived out the Scriptures, the stronger and more myself I became. Yet despite all this wonderful change, the one thing that remained exactly as it was was my sexuality. And so, this became the arena of my wrestling with God for the next decade and a half of my life. Looking back now, I wish I had been bold enough to take the hint that God changing everything but my sexuality might mean that God simply didn’t see the need or want to change it; but, while I would have said in my early twenties that I had investigated the beliefs of ‘affirming’ Christians and found them lacking, in honesty, I simply didn’t have ears to hear that message at the time.
I responded by just sort of bracketing my sexuality—in a flip from how I’d felt a few years earlier, the recovery of my faith had proven so transforming that I knew the Gospel was “real”; my sexuality now felt insubstantial in comparison. At first, I excitedly expected that God would change my sexuality, just as God was changing everything else in my life. After a few disappointing years without any movement, I came across the teachings of reparative therapy. This teaching told an attractive narrative of where my struggles came from, and offered hope that things could change. There were enough half truths in its story that I quickly latched on to it. But, as time went on, the bigger the holes in that narrative seemed to be: the story it told bore some resemblance to my family background, but no more than most of my straight friends’ families; and, if heterosexuality really were such a critical piece of the human puzzle, why would God make it as fragile as reparative therapy made it out to be? It was also during this period that a few high-profile ‘ex-gay’ groups changed course and became open and affirming. This seemed evidence enough that the reparative therapy narrative was a dead end. If I was going to continue on as I was I was going to need better, deeper resources and supports.
Enter Eastern Orthodoxy. I found in the Eastern traditions a strong, robust spirituality that was united to an equally robust theology. Part of that included a general asceticism — a lifestyle focused on self-discipline and a questioning attitude toward human appetites of all kinds — that applied to everyone. So, the particular asceticism required of me as a non-affirming gay man was a difference in extent, not in nature. In this I was supported by a beautiful life of community, liturgy, and prayer. It felt like the right path for me and one that I could walk sustainably for the decades to come.
This is not to say it was easy. Far from it. At every step along this history, God became a little smaller, as I came to expect less and less from God. At first, I expected God would change me miraculously; then I thought that, with God’s grace and help, I could change myself if I did the work; then I realized that any change I might experience would be very slow, like water wearing down a rock; and finally, an acceptance that I was in all likelihood destined for a life of solitude. This was all especially hard for me because through my twenties I really treasured the idea of being a husband and father; I saw my friends settle down and get married and have families and it broke my heart that it seemed that life that felt so good and true and beautiful and right for me was not going to be for me. Of course, I could have simply married a good female friend and made do — and I know a couple friends in my position who did just this, with varying results. But, this never felt right to me. Any woman I trusted and admired enough to consider building a life with was a woman I thought deserved to be cherished in a way I could not, who deserved better than to be the best of my bad options.
This time in my life felt positive and stable, but it was not to last. If Eastern Orthodoxy was the first ‘nuclear blast’ of my spiritual life, then what I’ll call my Dark Night of the Soul was the second. (See the ‘Where I’ve been‘ post for details of the story.) This extreme experience of divine abandonment revealed to me just how flimsy and unstable the life I’d spent thirteen years building was. After a year, utterly spent and facing increasing problems with my physical and psychological health, I made the decision to step away from the Church.
While it felt like this came out of nowhere, with the benefit of hindsight I can see some of the cracks that had been developing in the foundations for a while. Ironically, those cracks largely appeared because of my commitment to Orthodoxy. For example, one of the results of living a life of celibacy when I never felt a vocation to it was that I’d become very dissociated from my body. But the embodied nature of Orthodox life and practice — fasts, making the sign of the cross, bows and prostrations, and so on — brought me back into a greater connection with my body, making it harder to ignore. And, the self-examination I did in preparation for Confession eventually made me realize I’d been mis-categorizing a lot of my struggle. I’d always labeled my struggles with singleness and my homosexuality as ‘lust’, but I realized with a shock one day that the biggest aspect of what I was experiencing was not lust but loneliness, and loneliness was not a sin, not something I could ‘confess’. At any rate, I came to see the importance of these things only in hindsight. At the time, it was sudden and shocking.
As word got out within my community about what had happened, it sometimes got abbreviated to ‘Matt left because he’s gay.’ I never quite knew what to do with that; at the very least it was misleading and only hit at the truth of my story tangentially. I left because the way of life being in the Orthodox Church required of me was only sustainable with a lot of direct support from God; when that support disappeared, it was only a matter of time before it came crashing down on me. I didn’t leave in a pique or a prideful ‘Here I stand!’ moment. I had fought so hard for what I believed to be right for thirteen years. Thirteen years of warring against myself. Thirteen years of believing I had to choose between faithfulness to God and faithfulness to what my own heart was telling me. Thirteen years of holding back from being fully honest and present in my relationships. Thirteen years of holding on to myself with an iron grip, for fear of what might happen if I relaxed even just a little bit. Thirteen years of hoping and waiting and trying everything under the sun — prayer, ‘naming-and-claiming,’ charismatic experiences, rites of reconciliation, exorcism, reparative therapy, grounding myself in the ancient teachings of the Church around sexuality and gender, sacramental confession, asceticism — and nothing made any difference. The physical, psychological, and spiritual toll of those years was immense. My moment of epiphany on just how much damage my commitment to being a non-affirming gay Christian had done to me came from a comment from my massage therapist. I was suffering from increasingly severe paints in my shoulders and upper back, and during our fifth or sixth session, he stopped and said, “I’ve been doing this a long time and am very good at what I do. Normally, by now we’d be in maintenance mode, but it’s still like day one. It feels like your body has been in fight-or-flight mode for twenty years.” The truth of those words hit me harder than any in my life. I was just shy of my thirty-first birthday and it had been just over twenty years since I realized I was gay, and just under twenty since I understood that to be incompatible with my Christian faith. And I had been fighting it and fleeing from it all that time. I had everything going for me: I didn’t carry any shame around my sexuality, nor had I experienced the spiritual abuse so many young gay Christians encounter within conservative churches, and I was exposed to the whole spectrum of Christian expressions, practices, and ideas. And it still all led to a place of complete and utter desolation.
And so I found myself at the end of the road and at the end of my rope.
This would seem this story is too long for one post, so I’ll end this one here and pick up the story next time.