I’m one of those gay men who had a long journey to acknowledging his sexuality and an even longer one to coming out. It wasn’t until I was nearly twenty-two that could admit to myself that I was gay and not until I was twenty-five that I told a single person. Like so many young men growing up gay in the Christian church, I was wracked by self-loathing and a constant, nebulous guilt. Thank God, then, for the difficulties and growth I encountered at Wheaton, turbulent as that time was, and the watershed they represent.
My experience there was, in many ways, like my experience growing up in Kansas City suburbs: there was little open condemnation, but the lack of discussion was damning enough. Being anything other than straight was evidently shameful enough to be swept under the rug. That isn’t to say that being gay or lesbian was never brought up. It was. Unfortunately, those issues were found only in the more abstracted conversations of theology, sometimes amongst ourselves and occasionally superficially in class. I also can’t recall having a single discussion about being bisexual, transgender, intersex, pansexual, asexual, or any of the other variations found in humanity until I started working at a seminary. The two disciplines that I was most immersed in at Wheaton were biology and language, specifically biblical Greek and its educational satellite exegesis. I’d be a failure as a product of a liberal arts college if I couldn’t synthesize ideas relating to sexuality from those rich sources. I’m thankful, therefore, that it was in the conversations only tangentially connected to the tangled mess of human sexuality that I found hope.
I’m a biologist by training and a proud veteran of Wheaton’s biology program, which teaches scientific methodology and the conclusions about the descent of species and the mechanisms of creation derived with that. It was in that commitment to a scientific approach to understanding the world and its beauty that I wound my way towards self-acceptance. While my professors never spoke openly about the LGBTQ community, they made one thing abundantly clear: biological systems are gorgeously, maddeningly complicated. Every layer of comprehension peels back to reveal something even more difficult to fathom. My developmental biology class drove home the point particularly well.
One of scientists’ simplest animal models for research is a tiny roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans, the adult male of which has exactly 1,031 cells and about 20,400 genes that code for proteins. A human being has just about the same number of protein-encoding genes but they shape and control 10^10 times more cells. A single human has tens of trillions of cells compared to the thousand found in a roundworm without an increase in the number of genes. All our wonderful complexity comes from how those genes are regulated, expressed, and interpreted by the machinery in our cells, which itself is a product of those genes in dizzyingly recursive fashion. This is perhaps equivalent to being handed a single page of instructions which, when followed properly, lead you to derive and execute several hundred pages of directions to assemble a car starting from raw materials. Creation, biologists will tell you, only becomes more beautiful and byzantine as you search deeper.
So it was that I found myself as a student with professors in the biology department giving me a framework to understand how I am neither “broken” nor “wrong.” My reasoning is something like this: if the human brain is a fiendishly complicated organ—it is—and the product of an astounding array of regulatory mechanisms playing off each other in a delicate balance—it is—then it’s actually fairly remarkable that human beings end up with brains similar enough that we can understand each other and the world around us. How much more remarkable it is then that the vast majority of the population ends up heterosexual when sexuality is one of the aspects of human psychology that’s notoriously difficult to pin down and comprehend.
“if the human brain is a fiendishly complicated organ—it is—and the product of an astounding array of regulatory mechanisms playing off each other in a delicate balance—it is—then it’s actually fairly remarkable that human beings end up with brains similar enough that we can understand each other and the world around us”
Something about the structure of my brain is “gay” and therefore I am gay. Even if being gay were acquired or learned (which research suggests is not true for most people), this would still be the case: every experience and thought sculpts the brain physically. What I am isn’t only a possible outcome when trying to build a brain starting from a single undifferentiated cell, it’s one that would be expected to crop up fairly frequently and is well within design tolerances. My self-loathing became irrelevant in the face of knowing that I’m not what I am because of some biological error or mistake. Who and what I am is the result of the normal interplay of systems that wire up brains in approximately—never exactly—the same way. I may not be standard, but I’m normal. It’s almost impossible to overstate the value of realizing that. For a man who had spent most of his life hiding from himself and others because he was led to believe that he was broken, that’s truly a Godsend and one for which I am always thankful.
My experiences in classes about biblical interpretation and theology were similarly empowering. There was no eureka moment in a theology class where it was openly declared that being LGBTQ is acceptable in the sight of God. The professors I had, however, shied away from telling students the meanings of passages from scripture. The preferred method for raising up theologians and exegetes was to equip students with tools to understand a passage by locating it in a historical and cultural context and then to examine the language with the knowledge of why, how, when, and where it had been written. Even when done carefully and as scrupulously as possible, there will be divergent perspectives and disagreement, but the method is as sound as we mortals can manage. It was emphasized to us that because we are thousands of years distant from the language and culture there is no guarantee that our hermeneutic, our framework for understanding, will ever truly match the mindset of the author.
Learning about the manner in which the bible was composed and translated and how it has been historically interpreted, I came to embrace the belief that the past doesn’t have a stranglehold on the truth. There is room not only for some of the most revered scholars in church history to be incorrect—I’m looking at you, Augustine—but there is the potential for the decidedly human authors of scripture, however inspired by the Holy Spirit, to color what revelation they recorded with their own culture and prejudices. No one would suggest that an author like Karl Marx or Billy Graham managed to write in a way that was free from the influence of his or her cultural heritage, so why would it be said of Paul? Recognizing the humanity and context of both scripture and the giants of church history was a major step in coming to freedom from that nagging, gnawing, unreasonable guilt that comes with being a gay man in a Christianity that has historically casually associated male homosexuality with gang rape and abominations. I am not an inerrantist and that puts me in a place where I could be accused of having a low view of scripture, but I don’t know how else to honestly and humbly approach the scripture.
“Where does that leave me? With a whole slew of slightly dubious answers, really.”
Where does that leave me? With a whole slew of slightly dubious answers, really. From what I can tell, there isn’t a person on the planet who could truthfully claim otherwise without overstating their case regardless of their conclusions. I’m confident of who and what I am, but the next steps aren’t clear-cut. I think that it’s no sin to love and be loved by someone, but I can only speak to my own situation and am limited by my own comprehension. I can do my level best to interpret scripture, but there is no guarantee that my conclusions or the conclusions of others are correct. I have my beliefs, shaped as they have been by my experiences, anatomy, physiology, and the information I’ve had access to; the most I can aspire to is to live faithfully by those beliefs.
I’m here now as an openly gay man who is continuing the slow process of integrating his identity. There’s much that I already understand and much that I have yet to. It’s been a long journey so far, one that is still winding its way out of shame and guilt towards acceptance and love, and one that is far from over. With any luck and more than a little grace, it will continue to lead onward to greater things.