Christianity & Homosexuality

Written as a personal email to a Christian friend who is struggling with his sexuality, the following is an informal, conversational examination of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and whether or not it’s possible to be both gay and Christian. In honor of Paul’s epistles, I begin the letter with a personal greeting before going deeper into the issue.

Subject: Re: Does God hate how I love?

I’m honored that you trust me enough to discuss this incredibly personal – and incredibly important – topic of whether it’s possible to be gay and Christian at the same time. But before I put on my more formal scholar cap and discuss the Bible more specifically, I feel like I should be open about my personal stance. After all, you’ve always been honest with me, so I’d like to show you the same respect, even at the risk of being a bit too blunt.

Since we’ve discussed what the Bible seems to say about slavery before, you might remember the quote of an abolitionist: “Prove to me from the Bible that slavery is to be tolerated, and I will trample your Bible under my feet, as I would the vilest reptile in the face of the earth.” In the same way – from my perspective, at least – I personally find it easier to reject the Bible because of its homophobia (or what I interpret as homophobia, but I’ll go more into that later), rather than try to reconcile the idea of a ‘loving’ God with a homophobic God. And I’m not alone on this, a Public Religion Research Institute survey earlier this year found that nearly one-third of Millennials (ages 18-33-years old) who left their faith cited “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of the LGBTQ community as a significant factor in their decision to leave organized faith. Additionally, the survey found that 58% of Americans – and 70% of Millennials – said that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” Even without facing the struggle that you’re going through, I’ve come to terms with my lack of faith, and I have no doubt that you could find such comfort as well.

Again, I don’t think you should feel obligated to hold your faith if you don’t feel your religion accepts who you are as a person. After all, religion is much more of a choice than sexuality. However, I understand that that’s simply not the case for everybody, as I understand and respect how important your faith has been to you.

With that said, I’d like to discuss what exactly the Bible says about homosexuality, why some people think you cannot be both gay and Christian, why some people think you can be both gay and Christian, and, in the end, why it’s your decision more than anything else.

For all the attention and controversy surrounding Christianity and homosexuality, the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, rarely discusses homosexuality, only mentioning the topic in fewer than ten passages. Additionally, given the time when the Bible was written, the Good Book has many questionable (to say the least) ideas about sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., so we shouldn’t take the passages about homosexuality without thinking about them critically. But, yes, at face value at least, the Bible seems to consider homosexual actions to be sinful; homosexuality as a sexual orientation (as we understand it today) isn’t discussed in the Bible.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 in the Old Testament is sometimes cited as an indication that God condemns homosexual activity. Specifically in Genesis 19:5, the men of Sodom demanded Lot to “Bring them [the male angels] out to us, so that we may know them.” In that context, “to know” means “to have sex.” Later in the chapter (Genesis 19:24-25), “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.” It seems clear that God wasn’t happy with them. Many have interpreted God’s actions as a result of their homosexual activity. Even in today’s world (although the term is fading), non-procreative sexual activity is often negatively referred to as “sodomy.” Furthermore, while noting that it’s “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1986, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there [in Genesis 19:1-11] against homosexual relations.” However, a few things should be noted when discussing this passage. First off, even if you believe that God condemned the cities because of homosexual activity, it’s important to understand that their actions are not the same actions as the way that most people practice homosexuality today. In contrast with today’s world, sex in Biblical times was usually for procreation or to show dominance over another person. Far from looking for a consensual and meaningful relationship that happens to be between people of the same sex, homosexual acts during the time period, such as the intended gang rape in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, were often intended as a way to humiliate and dominate another man. Additionally, not all scholars even agree that it was the homosexual actions that led to the cities’ downfall. Some, such as Jennifer Wright Knust, claim that the intended homosexual gang rape was one of Sodom’s many sins – such as pride, hatred, injustice, oppression, inhospitality, etc.

In Leviticus 18-20, also in the Old Testament, homosexuality seems to be denounced even more explicitly than in Genesis. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” As if the verses alone aren’t clear enough in their disapproval of homosexual actions, such verses are seamlessly intertwined with verses denouncing other sexual interactions, such as prohibiting sexual relations with any animal – a comparison that’s often made today (unfortunately). However, while the verses about homosexuality seem pretty clear, other Leviticus verses, which we often reject, seem pretty clear as well. For example, Leviticus 20:9 says, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death,” and luckily I don’t know of any Christians who suggest the death penalty for disrespectful children. Later passages in Leviticus seem to condone slavery, such as Leviticus 25, yet we’ve blatantly rejected that as a society anyway. Furthermore, thinking more critically about the rules laid out in Leviticus, recognizing that the Jews were a relatively small group, it would make sense for them to condemn non-procreative sex in order to promote a higher birth rate, especially with the high infant mortality rates.

In the New Testament, Romans 1-2 have often been cited to support homophobic interpretations of the Bible. Specifically in Romans 1:26-27, Paul seems to suggest that, as a punishment for worshipping idols, “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” To some, this passage is clear; Dale Martin quotes Robert Gagnon who claims that Romans 1 “makes an explicit statement not only about same-sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism.” However, as Martin notes, this passage, while seemingly a denunciation of homosexuality to some, seems to suggest that said homosexual actions were not deliberate choices, but punishment from God for their idolatry.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, also in the New Testament, Paul writes, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Even if you do think that homosexuality is a sin, it seems extremely unreasonable and unfair to lump “sodomites” together with “thieves” and “robbers.”  While there are questions over the translations of “male prostitutes” and “sodomites,” I don’t think any interpretation of this passage can justify its flaws.  For example, Martin argues that malakos, translated above as “sodomites,” actually has various meanings, and arguably refers most widely to the “entire complex of femininity.” Taking the phrase this way, rather than simply condemning homosexuals, it would seem to condemn “effeminate” males; and considering how the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, seem to portray women, this would seem to be a blatantly sexist insult. Additionally, the following verse, 1 Corinthians 6:11, has been used to justify “ex-gay” “conversion” therapy, which aims to ‘free’ people from their homosexual desires – which many professionals consider to be extremely demeaning and harmful. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, used the idea that despite “what some of you used to be,” such as a homosexual, you can be “washed” and “sanctified” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” Having interviewed multiple people who went through various ‘pray the gay away’ programs, some of what they went through is absolutely horrifying.

To be clear, no one has the right to tell you what you can or can’t consider yourself. If, after examining the various arguments, you do consider homosexual actions to be immoral, some people would suggest simply remaining celibate. After all, the Bible does seem to denounce homosexual actions, but homosexual attractions wouldn’t seem to be any more ‘sinful’ than heterosexual lust, which is also denounced in the Bible. It’s also extremely important to recognize that the Bible’s discussion of homosexuality doesn’t even touch on the possibility of a consensual, loving and supportive homosexual relationship, so it’s quite possible that you could remain a Christian even while living “a homosexual lifestyle,” as many gay Christians do today. As I’ve told you before, while writing about a variety of Dallas-Forth Worth churches last summer for the Dallas Observer, the church that I thought was truly the most “Christ-like” was the Cathedral of Hope, which is one of the largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches in the world, with thousands of members and almost 80-90% of their congregation identifying as LGBTQ. In the end, it comes down to whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.

No matter what you decide, know that I will support your decision, and I’m always here to help if you need me.

Sincerely,

Mac McCann

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Fixing the Unbroken

DISCLAIMER: Names have been changed and I was unable to verify some of the claims. Still, I think it’s a powerful personal story that needs to be shared to illuminate some of the hardships of the LGBTQ community.

* * * * *

One of the center’s staff members told Caleb Kent, then a 16 year-old junior in high school, to take off his pants and underwear and sit down in the chair.  Kent already knew from experience that it wasn’t his place to question orders.  He knew to just do what he was told.

The staff member then strapped Kent into the chair and attached electrodes to his genitals, one on each testicle and one under his penis.  The man then stood behind Kent as the silent, dark room was lit up with the images projected onto a screen.  But they weren’t just any pictures; they were of semi-nude and completely nude males.  With each slide, Kent’s genitals were shocked.

While it seemed to last forever, each electroshock therapy session lasted for about fifteen minutes, and they occurred about twice a week for the six months that he was at the center.  Afterward, little, if anything, was said.  He was simply told to get dressed and go back to group therapy.

The humiliation was agonizing.  The pain, of course, was beyond excruciating.  Still, he went along with it, too afraid to complain about it to anyone.

And that wasn’t even the worse experience that Caleb Kent endured during his time in conversion therapy, also known as reparative or ex-gay therapy.

* * * * *

Caleb Kent is now 31 years old and works as a landscaper.  He grew up in a very religious family, being the fifth generation to attend the Church of Christ, which, by Kent’s account, was very fundamental in many ways.  The services included no music and all dancing was considered wrong and unbiblical.  Women were not permitted to speak in church and were expected to conform to household roles.

Kent’s father worked in construction for most of his life, until 2003 when he started working in ministry.  Kent’s grandfather was a minister at the Church of Christ, and his grandfather’s brothers were leaders or ministers in the church as well.

Between construction and ministry, Kent and his family moved around quite a bit.  While he was born in Washington state, he also lived in California, Portland, Oregon, Dallas, New Mexico and Idaho while growing up.  For a little kid, Kent told me, “It’s always tough at first because you get attached to an area and attached to people, but I took it in stride.  I didn’t have much choice about the matter.”  Most of his childhood was spent in Idaho, where he moved around 6th grade and where he eventually graduated from high school.

Around the age of 12 he started having his first same-sex attractions.  He didn’t really understand why he felt that way and he kept it to himself, especially given that his family, like many people he knew in the conservative, religious Idaho, never really discussed sexuality at all, let alone homosexuality.  When his parents did happen to talk about homosexuality, it was exclusively negative, putting down or bashing gays.  For Kent, it wasn’t shocking to hear his parents say hurtful things about homosexuality because that’s what he expected from them.  After all, he was always taught that homosexuality was wrong.

At 16 years old, Kent brought his feelings to the attention of his minister, who set him up with a personal counselor.  Without his parents knowing, he met with the counselor twice a week for about four months.  They would discuss his attractions and study Bible verses that supposedly dealt with homosexuality.  For the counselor, Kent’s feelings were a behavior that needed to be changed, so he encouraged Kent to do things like wear a rubber band around his wrist and when he had homosexual thoughts he was instructed to snap the rubber band on his wrist, with the intentions of associating those thoughts with physical pain.  Did the counselor help?  “Oh no,” Kent told me.

“Being the very naïve teenager that I was,” Kent started looking at the men in exercise magazines around this time.  His parents soon put the pieces together and they weren’t happy, to say the least.  “It was Hiroshima.  It was a nuclear explosion,” Kent explained.  “Mom was just beside herself and dad was just fit to be tied.  I felt like crying.  I felt like I let everybody down at that point.”

His father, who had always been very stern and at times borderline abusive, “put the fear of God” in Kent.  He went and talked to their minister and was angry when he discovered that Kent and the minister had kept the earlier counseling a secret.  Realizing that Kent had already been to counseling, his father wanted a more aggressive approach.  That’s how Kent ended up in a Christian counseling center in Boise, Idaho, where Kent would attend after school three times a week for five hours.

Kent declined to name the counseling center, which is no longer in business, because he doesn’t want any of his fellow members to have to relive the trauma of it.

Along with fifteen other kids about his age in the center, Kent participated in individual counseling, group therapy and Bible studies.

With similar aims of the previously mentioned rubber band method, the center conducted group sessions where the group members stretched out their arms and would tap their knees whenever they had homosexual thoughts.  When they tapped their knees, a staff member would prick their arms with small pins, often until the kids’ arms were spotted with blood.  If the staff didn’t think that the kids were confessing to same-sex thoughts enough, the kids would be locked into a dark, empty closet for periods of about twenty minutes – a common punishment in the center.  For example, during one group session, Kent just naturally crossed his legs.  The counselor abruptly stood up and threw him in the closet and told him that he couldn’t come out until he learned not to cross his legs, which was seen as unacceptably feminine behavior.  On multiple other occasions, he was paddled multiple times for reasons such as talking about homosexuality in a positive light or hugging other group members.

While Kent’s not certain, he assumes that his parents at least had an idea of what was occurring at the center, but they thought they had to do everything that they could to ‘cure’ Kent of his homosexuality.  Still, Kent never complained about it to anyone, and does think that if his mother, with whom he was a very close until she died of cancer in 2009, knew the extent of it she would’ve pulled him out of therapy.

But neither Kent nor his parents would have ever guessed what else Kent would endure at the center – waterboarding.  During one group session he started bawling because he was overwhelmed by what he was going through.  The staff members pulled him aside and told him to stop crying, told him that there’s pain a lot worse than what he was crying for.  So they took him to a separate room, put him on an inclined table, and poured water on his face.  “The most traumatic counseling experience I’ve ever been through,” Kent noted the obvious, “to say the least.”

While he couldn’t confirm it, staff members told Kent, very matter-of-factly, that multiple of his fellow group members had committed suicide throughout his time there.  The kids couldn’t ask any further details and they weren’t allowed to talk to each other during the sessions either.  At first, Kent didn’t know how he felt about the news.  But the more he thought about it, he admitted, “I was kind of happy that they did commit suicide because they got out of there.”  His time there was hell, so he assumed that it was just as bad for everyone else.

After about six months in the group, he confessed that he felt that he no longer had homosexual feelings.  After being questioned and grilled about the confession, Kent’s parents eventually let him stop going to the center.

While at the time he did truly think that he had been cured, about a month later, his same-sex attractions were back to normal.

* * * * *

In November of 2012, after failing again and again to change his sexuality, Kent had had enough.  While living in New Mexico, he was “very depressed, very beside myself.  I felt like dirt, like trash.”  One night, he grabbed his bottle of almost 90 pills and scarfed them down.  “I just couldn’t live with these feelings of attration to a man,” Kent sighed.  “I just couldn’t do it. I tried to be what I thought was a good Christian at that point.”  His roommate came home to find him passed out on the kitchen floor and called 911.  Kent was rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped.  That’s when he decided to move back to Dallas.

Arriving in Dallas in January, he moved in with a family friend who also happened to be a minister.  Still hoping to change his sexuality, Kent sat down with him multiple times and discussed homosexuality.  But when the minister resorted to the same lessons and same Biblical passages as Kent had heard over and over again, it finally hit him.  “I finally accepted who I am and I am gay and there’s no changing that.”

At the end of February of this year, Kent finally stopped attending sessions.  In March, after looking for churches as well as looking into the gay community of Dallas, he came across the Cathedral of Hope, one of the world’s largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches.

While he still battles with depression and anxiety, he’s much more comfortable with himself now.  His parents have made progress toward accepting him and his sexuality.

“My outlook is looking good.  There’s going to be some bumps along the way, of course, but it’s looking really good so far,” Kent smiled.  “I’m optimistic but cautious about what’s going to happen in the future.  We’ll just see what happens.”

A Thank You Note to Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) is one of the most under-appreciated figures in history. She fought for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for birth control, for free speech, for peace.

(Check out the PBS documentary with more information here)

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