Some people have known that they were gay from as early as they can remember. Other people become aware of it during adolescence. But for still others, especially those who grow up in a more conservative environment, it can be something that they bury deep down, as far away from conscious recognition as possible. That was the case for me. I assiduously suppressed any acknowledgement of my sexual orientation until I was 19.
Looking back, I’m grateful I was able to do that, not only because I don’t think I could’ve handled knowing I was gay when I was younger but also because it allowed me to work through my beliefs and questions about this topic on an impersonal level before confronting how it affected me directly. And despite feeling firm in my faith in so many other ways, when it came to LGBTQ issues, I was starting to have a lot of questions and a lot of doubts.
Sometimes, conservative Christians assume that any young believer who is questioning the church’s position on same-sex marriage is simply giving in to our changing culture and prioritizing fitting in over holding onto what is true even when it’s not popular. But I was no stranger to having unpopular and countercultural beliefs about sexuality. I learned at a young age that sex should be reserved for marriage. I still believed that when I was coming to terms with being gay, and I still believe that today. In college, I often felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t drink, I didn’t curse, I didn’t want to party, and I wanted to stay as far away from hook-up culture as possible.
Many of my values as a Christian were countercultural, and I was at peace with that. But what I was increasingly not at peace with was the church’s rejection of all same-sex relationships as morally wrong. When it came to other things I was taught were sinful, I wasn’t just given Bible verses to tell me that they were wrong. I was also taught compelling reasons why they were wrong. With things like selfishness, greed, or adultery, it was easy to see the harm they caused to other people. And even in other areas where Christian views were particularly unpopular, there were still good reasons for them. Sex should be for marriage because sharing all of our physical selves with someone should be matched by sharing all of the rest of ourselves with them, too. We should say with our bodies what we’re saying with the rest of our lives.
But as I got to know more gay people, I didn’t understand why my Christian values about sexuality couldn’t include them, too. Same-sex marriages embodied all of the same virtues that I had seen in my own parents’ marriage: faithfulness, self-giving love, covenantal, lifelong commitment. And not only was I seeing so many good qualities in committed same-sex relationships, I was also seeing an incredible amount of pain, hurt, and damage being done to gay people when their Christian families and churches told them that their sexual orientation was completely broken and that, as a result, it would be sinful for them ever to date, fall in love, or get married. It wasn’t just that the church was setting a difficult standard for gay people—it’s that it was setting a different standard for gay people. Dating, marriage, and sex within marriage were all fine and actively encouraged and celebrated for straight people. But because gay people were attracted to the same sex, all of those same things were rejected and condemned for them.
The negative impact of the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships
In Sunday school, we learned that Jesus was a champion of the underdog. When one out of a hundred sheep went missing, he would drop everything to find it. If one coin was lost, he would scour the house in search of it. He went out of his way to welcome and include the outcasts, and he didn’t let people slip through the cracks. But when it came to gay people, it seemed like the church was doing the exact opposite. It was creating the outcasts and then saying that’s just what being faithful to Jesus required. And that sort of rejection, more than any other single issue, was pushing away so many young people from the church, because instead of coming to know Jesus as the protector and defender of the marginalized, the message they were getting was that Jesus was the reason their LGBTQ friends were being rejected and marginalized in the first place. Seeing people not want to follow Jesus because of how much they cared about their friends who were being mistreated was heartbreaking to me, because if anything, that’s a reason people should want to follow Jesus.
But the impact of the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships on LGBTQ people themselves was even worse. Certainly, it was pushing them away from God and the church, too, but it was also leading so many Christian families to push away their children in their attempt to be faithful to Jesus. A landmark study by the Family Acceptance Project compared the mental health outcomes of LGBTQ youth who were supported by their families when they came out to those who experienced a range of rejecting behaviors from their families when they came out, including religiously-based rejection. The differences were stark.