Quick note: I changed the title of this series from “Open Letters” to “Love Letters”. Initially, the word Open meshed well because it flowed with my original post “Open Letter to the Closeted“ I now know that the term “Open Letter” can carry some negative connotations. A lot of times it is a public indictment of someone or some institution that is meant to point out something the recipient of the letter has done wrong. And many times, they are justified.
But that doesn’t really fit this series at all. This is about loving others as you love yourself, empowering individuals to love themselves. That’s what this is.
Nathan Kennedy is an incredible writer. He is gay and he loves Jesus. I met him through twitter and then got to hang out with him over G + Chat. The piece you are about to read is both emotional and intellectual. It is understanding and poignant. It is one of my favorite reads yet. Seriously.
To read more from Nathan, check out his blog Petrychor.
A middle school civics project once had me research the life, teaching, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was then that I had met one of my personal heroes, someone with whom I could identify, emulate, and look to for guidance. His ideals and his witness for the cause of racial and social justice seared into my imagination indelibly; I had found my first instance of an ideal of moral conviction and action. This project culminated when a local minister, the pastor of one of the community’s chief African American congregations, invited me to give a speech at his community’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. The invitation and the experience humbled and exhilarated me. At age thirteen, a lily-white, nerdy little middle schooler stood before a thousand strangers and preached about Dr. King’s legacy of love, tolerance, and peace.
What nobody knew was that I had barely begun wrestling with the emergence of my gay sexuality. It terrified me more than I could say; growing up deeply religious in home and community, the tension was incredible. While I loved the experience of preaching to that congregation, it was the beginning of my feeling caught between two worlds, two equally distinct subjective realities, of being gay and Christian.
As long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve had at least the intuition that being Christian involves aspiring to be the best version of myself possible. Dr. King is simply an example of someone who modeled for me (and still does very much) how to become my best, fullest self through the Christian Way.
Therein was the dissonance. Being gay, you see, had nothing to do with my best self. My sexual orientation was “intrinsically disordered” away from Christlike, life-giving love and toward selfish, self-indulgent desires. I lost my faith as a teenager because I couldn’t reconcile these two worlds. I knew that being gay wasn’t going to go away. It seemed surer and truer than the platitudes preached in church. Thus, I decided late in high school that being Christian had nothing to do with my best, truest self.
I’ve since come around and reclaimed my Christian identity, and that is a story that is both very long and very much still in process. I wish to leave out a great portion of my story of struggle, not because there’s anything I wish to hide, but because to tell it would be to write an autobiography when my purpose is to share encouragement. My story’s filled with enough twists and turns to distract from that purpose, so forgive me if I leave my personal “testimony” unfinished. What my testimony strives toward is articulating how I came to see being gay as being a true and constituent part of my best and truest self – how my gay sexuality has moved me toward being more selfless, Christlike, authentic, and compassionate – and to help you to do the same.
In the years before my coming out, I wasn’t “gay”: I struggled with same-sex attraction. Nobody in my church community could know about it. I would bring it up in confession but that’s where it stayed. If I needed to “come out” to any of my church friends, we wouldn’t discuss it much for fear of “dwelling” or “identifying” with my flaw. Love isn’t self-indulgent, I would tell myself using different thoughts and different words every time. If you want to love, you have to hate yourself. Love is tough. Love will kill you. Love doesn’t look for self-serving affirmations.
The problem with struggling with being gay, all in the confines of my nice little closet, was that, in making it a “struggle”, I couldn’t see any value in it. It was a flaw. It was extrinsic to my true identity as a Christian, as a human being. It was a patch of mold on an otherwise good loaf of bread. Being closeted – feeling like I had to hide it – reinforced this idea. This is called “shame”. “Shame” is feeling like there is something wrong with you – not with your decisions, behaviors, or attitudes, but you yourself.
Coming out gave me the freedom to stop “struggling” with being gay and to start struggling with being human. Once I let go of shame, I was free to start focusing on becoming who I actually want to become.
For me, this means finding the confidence that being gay is no flaw at all. I’m sure many of you might disagree with that; acknowledging you’re gay is one thing, but acting on it through a romantic partnership is another. Who am I to second-guess your conscience? Who am I to tell you that what your faith tradition has taught you is wrong? If you have chosen the path of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage you have my support, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye about the acceptability of same-sex partnerships. But I want you to know, that even if you believe that sexual or romantic actions with a person of your same sex is sinful, your attractions themselves aren’t. It is very important that you should know this. Consider it a challenge to Christians of either side of the debate to understand how if Christian tradition is correct, being gay is even then not a flaw.
It’s important, understanding how completely okay it is to feel the way you do, to have the attractions you have, and to want to love the way you want to love.
It’s important, because I’m sure that you have an idea of who you really want to be, the “best version” of yourself. You see this person hinted at in the heroes you have chosen and in the ideals to which you strive. You see it through Christ himself. And your sexuality is important to becoming that person.
Your sexuality comes from the deepest, most intimate center of your being. It’s the part of yourself that stretches out in search of connection, in search of intimacy, because that part of yourself knows that you have something to give. Your sexuality exists because you have something to give – and in giving that, you make the world the better place. You bring about new life, regardless of whether or not you have ever or will ever have children. You should never fear it, be ashamed of it, or want to get rid of it, because your sexuality is a part of the gift you have to give to the world.
Your sexuality exists because God made us to need people and to be needed by people.
This is true whether you realize that your best self should arise through a romantic partnership, or if you realize that your best self should arise through celibacy. Every relationship you have, whether it is family, friends, teachers, employers, coworkers, etc., is in a very broad sense “sexual”. “Sexual” doesn’t mean “genital” or “having sex” – it means “relational” and “reaching out for the other”. You are a creature of relationship and your sexuality is beautiful. Your queer sexuality is beautiful. It’s beautiful because you are beautiful – you are beautiful through your sexuality. Being straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a crucial part of what you have to give to the world. If you embrace it – if you embrace yourself in the very deep and intimate part of yourself – you are saying yes to what you have to offer.
It took me a lot of hard and painful lessons to realize this. It’s so easy to repress it out of fear and shame, or to turn it on itself by being a libertine. But to embrace it – to embrace your fundamental drive for love, relationship, intimacy, and connectedness – is to embrace your identity as a person of love.
Because, in those moments when we’re told by our own self-criticizing voices about the toughness and painfulness of love – sometimes given us by our own churches and families – we absolutely must remember that love is patient, and love is kind, and it keeps no record of wrongdoings (1 Cor. 13).
Love does not default to pain and suffering, but it goes there if necessary.
This is my challenge to you, whether you are in the closet or not: be who you know you are. Be everything you are. Being yourself takes courage, and it means discovering things about yourself that will shock and amaze you. You are stronger than your realize. You are more beautiful than you think you are and your sexuality is a part of that beauty.
Be brave. Be strong. Be who you know you are.