Born in East Texas and raised as a Southern Baptist, I’d only heard one side of the story.
If you came out to me as gay, I would’ve told you that while God loves and accepts you, but He doesn’t want you to be in same-sex relationship. Love the sinner, hate the sin, you know?
I told myself homosexuality was “just another sexual sin,” like my struggles with pornography or fooling around with my girlfriend after a date.
It probably didn’t help that during all this time I didn’t actually know any gay people.
Honestly, it wasn’t a topic I was particularly keen on exploring or investigating. The Bible appeared pretty clear on the subject, and I’d seen what happened to people in the Church who started poking around issues related to sexuality and gender.
My beliefs about same-sex relationships were initially formed in a cultural vacuum – different voices reinforcing the same message over and over again. As my social circles expanded and included more gay people and couples, I knew I had to disengage from autopilot and start asking serious questions that would lead to some very uncomfortable places.
But, as a straight man living in America, I’ve never once had to think or worry about how my sexual orientation would affect my day-to-day life or my relationship with God. Therefore, I knew I couldn’t embark on this endeavor alone.
Life in Technicolor is a three-episode blog series, and each “episode” includes a testimony from a gay Christian I know personally and interviewed for this project.
The goal of Life in Technicolor isn’t to change minds, but to soften hearts. It’s an invitation to see the world, your church, and this topic from a completely different perspective.
This is an emotionally volatile and complex issue. However, we must not forget that the questions and ideas we’re exploring impact the lives of real people in incredibly personal and visceral ways — and to speak callously or carelessly runs the risk of inflicting irreparable harm on those most vulnerable to our ideologies and beliefs.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Homosexuality
A rudimentary understanding of homosexuality (and, by default, heterosexuality) was developed in the late-1800s by a group of psychiatrists, lawyers, and doctors in Germany. It was this loosely-connected team that paved the way for our modern perception of human sexuality as an orientation that exists on a diverse spectrum.
Prior to this breakthrough, sexual orientation was thought to be role-based, rather than attraction-based. Sexuality was not thought of in terms of “straight” or “gay,” but “masculine” and “feminine.”
Currently in the United States, only about 5% of the population identifies as gay, lesbian, or bisexual – a percentage included in the 11% of the population that acknowledge an attraction to the same sex.
So, why are some people gay and other people straight?
Short answer: We don’t know.
Long answer: It’s very, very complicated.
Growing up, I was told a gay person was probably a victim of childhood sexual abuse which led to their “disordered” sexual orientation. However, the only major study on the topic found that those who identified as gay were only 2% more likely to have been victims of childhood sexual abuse than those who identified as straight.
Or if it wasn’t sexual abuse, homosexuality was a consequence of an absentee father or clingy mother in the home. But no studies have conclusively linked a person’s home life with changes in their sexual orientation.
Just like straight people, some gay people had great parents; some had awful parents; some were physically or sexually abused, and some grew up in safe and loving homes.
However, it is also not true that homosexuality is exclusively genetic. Contrary to popular thought, scientists have yet to uncover a “gay gene” that predetermines sexual orientation.
For most people, sexual orientation emerges in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. Same-sex attractions and feelings typically develop at about the same time other adolescents began developing sexual desires – at the onset of puberty.
In 2008, a study conducted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that brain scans of gay people reveal structural similarities found in straight people of the opposite sex. But there is still much we don’t know.
According to the American Psychological Association, “there is no consensus among scientists about the exact reason than an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation,” but conclude “most people experience little to no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”
Our sexuality can’t be reverse engineered to reveal the contributing factors that make us straight or gay, and the bottom line is that a majority of people are not able to consciously choose whether or not they’re attracted to the same sex. However, even the act of trying to “figure out why some people are gay” can be viewed as problematic as it lends itself toward a diagnosis-like mindset when it comes to homosexuality.
But, for a lot of Christians, the root of homosexuality is a moot point: Even if you can’t choose your sexual orientation, you can choose your behavior. After all, if we’re all born with the stain of original sin, then our inborn sexuality could just as easily be corrupted.
Enter “same-sex attraction” – a catch-all term that equates homosexuality with other sexual sins like pornography and adultery.
In other words, while it’s not a sin to be gay (or bisexual), it is considered a sin in most Christians circles to engage in any form of sexual behavior that exists outside the bounds of a heterosexual marriage – and has been for a couple thousand years.
Therefore, gay Christians are often left with two options if they wish to fully participate in most Christian communities:
1) Try to overcome their same-sex attraction and become straight, or
2) Commit to lifelong celibacy.
Interlude I: David
“I didn’t accept I was gay until I was a junior in college.”
Prior to that realization, David could’ve easily been described as a poster boy for modern evangelicalism.
He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and attended a private Baptist school in the city. At school, David attended a daily Bible study class and a chapel service once a week.
“When I was five years old, I watched The Jesus Film by myself,” David said. “I got on my knees my bedroom and asked Jesus into my heart without being prompted by anyone.”
But David didn’t get serious about his faith until he was in middle school. When he was fourteen, David went on a mission trip to China. The trip changed his life. Afterward, and with the help of his youth pastor, David cultivated a desire to bring the Gospel to unreached people groups in Southeast Asia. He began learning Mandarin in preparation for a future stint overseas.
When he arrived at Texas A&M University, David immediately plugged into the Christian community. He went to Impact, a Christian summer camp for A&M students; joined FLIC, a freshman leadership organization; and became a covenant member at a local church.
At the same time, David began to nurse a sinking suspicion that he was different. For starters, he didn’t seem to struggle with lust in quite the same way as the other guys he knew, and his personal experiences weren’t lining up with the expectations being established by his Christian community.
“People probably don’t realize this, but Christians talk about sex, dating, and marriage a lot,” David said. “And I just thought I was really good Christian because I didn’t lust after girls like all my friends.”
David poured himself into his academic pursuits, but never neglected his missional calling. He served as an intern at his church and began to develop an interest in professional photography.
David went on a few dates with a couple of girls, but found himself unable to muster the desire to do anything more than hold hands. Not quite sure how to process his thoughts and feelings, David ended each relationship respectfully, but kept his fears to himself.
“I had been raised to think homosexuality was a choice, so I just assumed I would choose to marry a girl and it wouldn’t be a big deal,” David said. “And part of me really wanted to believe the reason I wasn’t sexually attracted to girls was because I hadn’t met ‘The One’ yet.”
However, during his junior year of college, David came to a stark and dramatic realization.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks in the middle of one of my classes,” David said. “I was gay, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something that was just going to go away.”
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed “homosexuality” from their listing of mental illnesses. It was a long time coming.
In the decades prior, mental institutionalization, prefrontal cortex lobotomies, chemical castration, masturbatory reconditioning, and electroshock therapy were all considered acceptable “treatments” for same-sex attraction and behavior.
In the wake of the APA’s decision, two very large Christian organizations that specialized in “reparative” or “conversion” therapy were formed: Exodus International and Love In Action.
These organizations promoted the idea that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” through a combination of Christian discipleship, modern therapy, and strong willpower.
The “Ex-Gay Movement” was born.
And it was far more widespread and influential than anyone could’ve anticipated.
For a community left reeling from the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s, the Ex-Gay Movement was viewed as the front line of defense by the evangelical community against the shifting cultural acceptance of same-sex relationships.
Founded and led by men who claimed to have been cured of their homosexuality, ex-gay ministries hosted conferences, retreats, workshops, revivals, and summer camps all across the country – and the world. Exodus International, for example, claimed 250 local chapters in the North America and over 150 ministry partners in 17 countries.
After announcing his constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2006, President George W. Bush welcomed and honored staff members from Exodus International at the White House.
However, in the midst of the sold-out conferences, book deals, and media appearances, cracks began to form in the bedrock of the Ex-Gay Movement.
Exodus co-founders Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee quit the ministry after they fell in love with each other. Bussee later admitted, “I never saw one of our members or other Exodus members become heterosexual, so deep down I knew it wasn’t true.”
While discussing his experience with Love In Action, Smid said, “I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.”
John Paulk, a chairman for Exodus International and former head of The Homosexuality and Gender Department at Focus on the Family, was another vocal spokesman for the ex-gay community. Paulk wrote the memoir Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcome His Homosexuality, which validated many people’s beliefs that a gay person’s sexuality could be reversed through heterosexual marriage.
Paulk left Focus on the Family in 2003 and was later seen frequenting gay bars in Washington D.C. In 2013, Paulk released a public apology, divorced his wife and renounced his involvement in the Ex-Gay Movement, saying, “I am truly, truly sorry for the pain I have caused. From the bottom of my heart, I wish I could take back my words and actions that caused anger, depression, guilt, and hopelessness.”
Referring to the effectiveness of gay-to-straight conversions, Paulk added, “I do not believe reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”
While decisions to abstain from sexual intimacy – whether gay or straight – for religious or personal reasons should be respected, testimonies from ex-gay camps and ministries reveal that attempts to “cure” homosexuality are sometimes fraught with pyschological torment and abuse.
In 2001, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer published a controversial research paper claiming conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality was possible. The study was widely cited by ex-gay ministries and organizations like Focus on the Family as inconvertible proof that reparative therapy worked.
A decade later, Spitzer confessed to errors in data collection and formally recanted his study, saying, “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.”
In a letter to the scientific journal that originally published his study, Spitzer wrote, “I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works.”
In 2001, Alan Chambers, an “ex-gay” success story himself, took over as president for Exodus International. During his tenure, Chambers called homosexuality “one of the many evils this world has to offer” and lobbied for President George W. Bush’s ban on gay marriage.
After an Exodus International board member spoke at an anti-gay conference in Uganda, the country introduced the “Anti-Homosexuality Act” in 2009, which made same-sex relationships punishable by death. Though the bill failed to pass, it was reintroduced in 2013 with an updated provision that sentenced gay people to life imprisonment.
Also in 2009, Chambers released a self-help book, Leaving Homosexuality: A Practical Guide for Men and Women looking for a Way Out. The back cover advertised “a new life of freedom beyond homosexuality.”
However, in a shocking turn of events, Chambers shut down the Exodus International in 2013 and admitted, “99.9% who went through therapy to change their sexual orientation were not able to do so.”
In an interview with The Atlantic in 2015, Chambers remarked, “As I heard more stories and evaluated my own realities, I realized change in orientation was not possible or happening.” Dedicated to bridging the gap between the Christian and gay community, Chambers marched in the D.C Pride Parade in 2016 and spoke at the National Cathedral in support of marriage equality.
In 2014, nine former founders and leaders of multiple ex-gay ministries released a joint statement, saying, “As former ‘ex-gay’ leaders, having witnessed the incredible harm done to those who attempted to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, we join together in calling for a ban on conversion therapy.”
As of 2019, conversion therapy is universally condemned by all major psychiatric and mental health organizations in the United States. Multiple states and counties ban any spiritual or psychological attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Despite the scandals, setbacks, and criticism, the Ex-Gay Movement is far from a relic of the past. The Restored Hope Network, an ex-gay ministry based in Oregon, was born from the ashes of Exodus International in 2012. And, most recently in 2019, Bethel Church launched their CHANGED Movement, an ex-gay ministry that frames Christianity as an “alternative” to the LGBTQ+ lifestyle.
Interlude I (Continued): David
“I would intentionally lower my voice to make it sound deeper,” David said. “After thirty minutes of talking with someone, I would be hoarse. It was stupid. I don’t even have a high voice, but I didn’t want to give anyone any reason to think I was gay.”
In desperation, David attended one of the last conferences hosted by Exodus International, the prolific ex-gay ministry that closed down in 2013.
“At first, it was refreshing to be around so many people who ‘struggled’ the same way I did,” David said of the experience. “But the longer I was there, the more I realized how sad everyone’s lives were — including my own. And all because we were trying in vain to fit a mold placed on us by our social communities.”
Following the conference, David began to tell people about his struggle with same-sex attraction. He was careful who he told, and he always made sure to include the caveat that he was “working on it” and would one day marry a woman. David’s faith became his lifeline, and he prayed continuously for God to intervene and fix his sexuality.
After college, David spent a year living in China working with missionaries to reach unreached people groups and volunteered at a local orphanage. When he returned from China, he took a job at a Baptist Student Ministry in Texas. During all of this, David’s sexual anxiety hummed in the background, a constant presence that haunted every interaction.
“It gets to a point where you hate yourself for a part of you that’s never going to change,” David said. “It’s not just about sex — you’re at war with your basic desires for companionship, romance, and intimacy, and your ‘victory’ is ending up alone. Straight married people would tell me, ‘Jesus should be enough,’ but He didn’t seem to be enough for them.”
City of Black & White
In 2007, Barna, a Christian research firm, commissioned a study to discover what members of the Millennial generation thought of when they heard the word “Christian.”
Perusing through a list of positive and negative descriptors, 90% of the non-Christian respondents selected “anti-homosexual” as the phrase they most closely associated with Christianity. It was also the phrase chosen by 80% of Christian respondents.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Of course, perception isn’t necessarily reality. All sides of the debate believe their stances are rooted in a Christ-like love – and this is where everything gets particularly thorny. But the more I dive into this topic, the more I realize that most gay people are just really tired of being talked about by people in the Church who have zero intention of getting to know them.
Unfortunately, the Church’s well-documented fumbling of this issue in the past (and present) has created an unwelcoming environment and a perception of hostility that is unlikely to fade in the near future – if ever.
As Christianity becomes increasingly more known for who it excludes than for Who it represents, we should seriously consider what type of faith we’re leaving behind for future generations to inherit.
An honest pursuit of the truth should always begin with a humble admission that we could be wrong. And even after reaching our final verdict, we should always hold at least one hand partially open for the inclusion of new stories, experiences, and information.
There is something to be said for holding fast to the traditional interpretation of Scripture and personal conviction. But equally honorable is the willingness to step into the ambiguity and beauty of other people’s stories in an honest effort to understand them in an act of unconditional and sacrificial love.
It may just be enough to soften your heart.
And, more importantly, it may save someone’s life.
Interlude I (Concluded): David
As David resigned himself to a life of celibacy, it became increasingly difficult to make friends or build meaningful connections. The moment he’d mentioned he struggled with same-sex attraction, the entire paradigm and tone of the relationship changed.
“A lot of Christians will say homosexuality isn’t an identity, but when you admit to struggling with same-sex attraction it becomes the only thing people know you for, ” David said. “You just regret being open and vulnerable in the first place.”
As loneliness and depression became frequent houseguests, David’s commitment to a celibate lifestyle began to take its toll.
“I’d put on a happy face at work, but I’d come home to an empty house at night and just weep,” David said. “You just want someone to be there for you and to cuddle on the couch and watch Netflix after a long day. But I’d been trained to believe that even those desires were sinful because they went against God’s plan for my life.”
One afternoon, while walking with a female mentor from the Baptist student ministry where he worked, David confessed his struggles with same-sex attraction, but quickly included his obligatory caveat that he was going to marry a woman one day.
“She stopped and asked me, ‘Why would you marry a woman if you’re not attracted to women?’ and then she told me to be who God made me to be,” David said. “It was the first time I had ever been told I didn’t have to live this way, and I just broke down in tears. Through her acceptance, God rescued me that afternoon.”
After that night, David slowly started coming out of his shell. He began quietly dating, but continued to wrestle with residual shame and guilt. With the support and encouragement of his little community, David publicly came out through a social media post a year later.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like I didn’t have to live behind a mask,” David said. “A huge weight just lifted off of my shoulders.”
David and his partner currently reside in Austin, Texas, and he still considers himself a Christian. Currently, he’s exploring opportunities to leverage his testimony to let other gay Christians know they’re not alone.
“I know a lot of Christians think I’m living in sin, but I’ve never been more spiritually alive or mentally healthy,” David said. “My relationship has made me a less selfish and more loving person. I don’t know if you can point to another ‘sin’ that can produce such good fruit in someone’s life.”
Exitlude I: Bibles Bent Like Shivs
Every Christian generation tends to assume they’ve been born into the fullness of Biblical knowledge and orthodoxy and that any deviation from accepted cultural practices are dangerous and heretical.
- In 1616, the Roman Catholic Church denounced Galileo’s theory that the Earth revolved as the Sun as “formally heretical, because it explicitly contradicts sentences found in many places of Sacred Scripture according to the proper meaning of the words.”
- Martin Luther, the famed Protestant Reformer, wrote, “The word and works of God are quite clear, that women were made to be wives or prostitutes.“
- After slaughtering more than 700 Native American men, women, and children in an attack of a Pequot village, Puritan Captain John Underhill remarked, “Sometimes the Scriptures declareth women and children must perish with their parents…we had sufficient light from the Word of God to justify our proceedings.”
- Reverend Leonard Bacon, in defending the institution of slavery to his congregation prior to the Civil War, said, “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.“
- In his 1869 treatise against granting women the right to vote, Reverend Justin Fulton wrote, “Three facts stand in the way of Woman’s being helped by the Ballot – God, Nature, and Common Sense…those who ask the ballot for women practically ignore the teachings of the Bible.”
We’re quick to distance ourselves from these views today, but these were not fringe beliefs at the time. Those people were making rational and well-intended arguments, and they thought they were being faithful to the Bible’s clear teachings.
We like to say “the Bible is clear” when discussing homosexuality, but our consistency on Biblical clarity begins to wear thin when we start looking at other problematic passages in the Bible.
For example, the New Testament is very clear that women should keep silent in church, divorced people who remarry are committing adultery, slaves should submit to undeserved beatings from their masters, women shouldn’t wear jewelry or braid their hair, men should keep their hair short, we should submit to all governing authorities, and women are saved through childbirth.
As all of these verses can testify, context matters – a lot.
In the next episode of Life in Technicolor, we’ll be addressing the elephant in the room – the Bible’s apparent universal condemnation of same-sex behavior.