On Straight Fragility

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Sometime last year, I began reading about White Fragility. The phrase was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, an accomplished academic whose work has been featured in various publications over the years. You can read her seminal piece on White Fragility here.

Below is a synopsis of White Fragility taken from DiAngelo’s aforementioned paper:

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium…”

Learning about this helped me to understand what so often happens when conversations about race go awry. Many white people of upstanding moral character, even many whose religious convictions lead them to abhor racism, quickly become defensive at the slightest suggestion that they may be – even unknowingly – morally culpable for or benefiting from societal racism, to one degree or another. And I came to see that White Fragility explains, in part, the inability of many to even consider the idea of White Privilege.

This helped me in very practical ways. Not only was I able to identify this phenomenon in other people, I could see it in myself as well, and understanding a little about it, I was better able to stay grounded in conversations about race that got pretty tense and uncomfortable.

But it helped me in other, unexpected ways too. Just as I was now able to recognize White Fragility at play when conversations about race ran up against brick walls, I was seeing a lot of parallels in conversations with straight people about sexual orientation. The concept of fragility helped me to make sense of what was happening when many straight people became defensive, angry, or disengaged when homophobia entered into the discussion.

I reasoned that, just as “white” isn’t the only variety of privilege, it’s not the only variety of fragility either. So I began referring to this phenomenon, jokingly at first, as “Straight Fragility.”

I googled the term to see if it was already in use. I found an article that was mostly about the trans-bathroom controversy that had “Straight Fragility” in its title, and another about homophobic violence that alluded to the term. But they both came at it from a somewhat different, albeit related angle.  So it seems at present, this isn’t a thoroughly explored concept, but I think it’s one that will resonate with many lgbtq people right away, as they’re likely intimately familiar with its outworking.

It’s true that many Americans today have shifted in their thinking regarding gay marriage, trans rights, etc. In fact, the majority of Americans now support gay marriage as well as other lgbtq rights. Many conservatives would point to this as evidence of the nation’s continual moral decay. I disagree. I think it is evidence of growing empathy.

Most Americans have had an unbiblical sex ethic for a long, long time. The only thing that has changed now, is that many of them have come to see the hypocrisy in the double standard with which lgbtq people have been treated. Gay people, and increasingly, trans people are more visible than ever, and it’s much harder for the dehumanizing stereotypes that have been so prevalent throughout much of history to stick.

Likewise, many Christians are shifting to a gay-affirming theology (sometimes called Side A). I’ve made it clear that I believe them to be in error. But I don’t think the shift can be chalked up simply to a caving to societal pressure to adopt worldly beliefs. There are many  thoughtful Christians who are willing to stand opposed to the culture on a number of other issues who have come to believe that God blesses monogamous same-sex unions.

There are many elements that lead some Christians to adopt the Side A position. It’s a complicated issue made all the more complicated by our cultural and historical distance from the biblical authors. And it’s not just a matter of simple right vs. wrong. There are some serious problems with much of the conservative church’s approach to homosexuality, and really, to sexuality in general. And it’s not just a lack of empathy. I’ve said before, that it seems a lot of Christians’ sex ethic is just the world’s sex ethic with a ring on it. In many cases, the journey that leads Christians to switch to gay-affirming theology begins with the lack of empathy they often see from those who hold the traditional view, and it is helped along by these other discrepancies.

Fortunately, many conservative Christians are starting to realize this. And they are ready to have conversations. This is great news, but there’s a long way to go. Because while they are ready to extend long-overdue empathy and compassion to the gay community, they’re not always ready to hear some of the hard things.

They’re not always ready to hear that some of their biggest heroes in the faith have caused deep pain and damage to gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that the political leaders they’ve always respected and the likes of which they wish we had in office again, were startlingly indifferent to the horrible deaths of huge numbers of gay men, and in some cases were actively opposed to helping them, determining that it was God’s judgment. They aren’t always ready to hear that this shocking animosity, or close affiliation with it, on the part of evangelicalism’s favorite politicians isn’t entirely a thing of the past. 

They’re not always ready to hear that the church’s exaltation of the nuclear family isn’t biblical, but cultural. They’re not always ready to hear that the importance we place on marriage and the relegation of celibacy to an afterthought is expressly unbiblical. They’re not always willing to hear that the systems we have in place and our preoccupation with the nuclear family and marriage make celibacy (which is something that many, if not most gay Christians feel obedience to God looks like for them) seem like a bleak, lonely road – a being left behind, so to speak.

They’re not always ready to hear that Christians have been grossly hypocritical in their treatment of divorce and remarriage and of heterosexual sin. They’re not always willing to hear that many straight Christians enter into marriage with a sinful, self-gratifying attitude toward sex, and it’s often glossed over because it’s seen as natural, and as long as it’s in the context of marriage, perfectly acceptable.

They’re not always ready to hear that the church – not just fringe groups and cults, but the mainstream church – has a history of propagating outright lies and dehumanizing stereotypes about gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that, even if they weren’t the ones saying those things, they were complicit by their silence. It was as much as approving what was said.

And they’re not always ready to offer love and compassion without qualifiers. They’re certainly not always ready to offer apologies without qualifiers. “I love you but… I’m sorry for how you’ve been treated, but… I grieve with you in this horrible tragedy, but…” is never appropriate. But Straight Fragility, perhaps more particularly religious Straight Fragility demands it. And when a straight conservative Christian does show unqualified remorse and compassion to the lgbtq community? Well, it’s time to reel him back in and get him back in line and demand more clarification.

In short, there are many, many Christians who are happy to adopt a kinder, gentler conservatism. But when the conversation turns to things that may be uncomfortable, things that require some self examination, some reassessing, and perhaps some painful changes on the part of the church as a whole, and straight Christians individually, that number drops considerably.

But if we Christians really want to make things right, it’s going to take action, not platitudes. It’s going to take some owning up to our huge failures, and to the really bad things that we’ve done, and our leaders have done in the name of Jesus. It’s going to take repentance, patience, and humility. And it’s going to take a change of course.

To my straight Christian friends who’ve been trying to navigate this conversation that’s been thrust upon you by the changing tides in our culture: I know it’s uncomfortable. But I’m asking you as your friend and a fellow believer, to step into that discomfort and stay there for a while, knowing that those of us who are gay and Christian have been living in it for most of our lives.

Please hear me when I say that I’m not trying to demonize or vilify you. Instead, I’m trying to do the painful, difficult job of showing you that that is exactly what so much of the conservative church has done to gay people. And people like me can write article after article, give talks and lectures, and have conversations with straight people until we’re blue in the face. But it’s going to be up to people like you to affect change. So I have a vested interest in your hearing me out. And that’s why I’ve highlighted this thing I’m calling Straight Fragility.

My hope is that if you are aware of it, you can recognize it when it surfaces, and you can resist it, choosing instead to remain humbly engaged, moving toward real progress and reconciliation. And when you recognize it in others, you can humbly come alongside them and help them do the same. I know that it sometimes doesn’t feel this way, as you’re increasingly harangued by our culture for some of your deeply held beliefs (beliefs that, by and large, I share with you), but you are in a place of privilege in this situation. And your voice matters. Please use it responsibly.

To Those Queer and Dear To My Heart: An Apology

1024px-Rainbow_flag_breezeHi there. Remember me? It’s been a while. At least ten years.

This is a difficult post to write. More often than not, the audience I have in mind when writing about faith and sexuality are conservative Christians. And even though I use words like “gay” and “sexual minority” that make so many of them uneasy, I’m typically careful to avoid certain other terms and ways of talking about things that they may find deeply troubling or could lead to substantial misunderstandings.

But this post isn’t for them. It’s for you. It’s for those of you in the lgbtq community whose paths crossed with mine sometime between 2004 and 2006. It’s for those who knew me well and were friends, as well as those who were only acquaintances. By extension, it is also for the gay-affirming straight people from whom I distanced myself or whom I otherwise alienated. And ultimately, I suppose it may even be for the greater lgbtq community, whether or not we’ve met.

I am ashamed that it took the shooting in Orlando to finally prompt me to write these things. I do hope that if you see this, you’ll take the time to read to the end. I can’t anticipate what anyone’s reaction may be. But I’ve never needed to express these things more than I do now. Perhaps I’ve not been ready to before now.

In my freshman year of university, when I first saw real-life lesbians, gays, and bisexuals daring to live unashamed and to throw off self-loathing, who dared to think that they were worthy of the same dignity as other people, and who lived in a level of freedom that I had never known, I wanted what they had. It was like the “Jesus-shaped hole-in-your-heart” narrative I’d always heard, but instead of straight-laced guys and gals with polished Christian smiles, those who had that special something were strong, proud queers who were living their lives rather than doing their best to be invisible. And they, as a community, were reaching out to those of us who hadn’t yet found the strength and courage to do so. Some of you were among them.

I remember the first time I shuffled into the back of the room at a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. The atmosphere was so much more welcoming and so much more genuine than that of many of the campus ministry worship services I would go on to attend. Certainly more than many church gatherings I’d been to growing up. The people there knew that they were a family and that they were a haven, and that if someone new walked through the door, they were likely coming in as emotional and psychological refugees from a culture war zone, trying to find respite and peace and a solid footing. Some of you were there that night.

And even outside the safety of their own gathering, at an open-forum debate about gay marriage, I saw these young people defiantly standing up for themselves in the face of vile comments from several members of a certain campus ministry. Some of you were among those courageous enough to defend your own worth and dignity. I was there. But I was in hiding.

I was scared and insecure and still living with a lot of shame. But I was hopeful about what life might look like if I stepped out of the shadows and into the welcoming arms of the gay community and their allies. Slowly, I began taking steps in that direction. This is when I met some of you.

And then, I became a Christian. I mean, really became one. Though we weren’t a church-going family when I was growing up, it was still small-town Georgia, and I was influenced enough by devoutly Christian relatives for one to consider me “churched.” But I don’t know that you could’ve honestly called me a Christian any more than you could’ve called me a football fan, despite the Georgia Bulldog paraphernalia that I owned, and my periodic trips to Athens with my uncle’s family to see the games. (I never really had any idea what was going on and had to feign excitement when everyone around me started standing and yelling – it was an exhausting experience.)

So now that I was a Christian, it immediately complicated things. I set out to find Christian friends, a task I found somewhat difficult, but I managed. But I still needed my gay friends. I still needed people like you who understood. And it was at this time, after I’d already become a Christian that I met most of you. And I brought into our friendship, from the very beginning, the internal conflict I was experiencing between my faith and sexuality.

There I was, now with these two identities, and I just didn’t know how to live into them both well. So for a while, I just vacillated between the two.  I knew I couldn’t continue on that way. And the only thing I knew to do at the time was to just pick one and abandon the other, and every remnant of it. And if I had to pick one, however painful, I knew which one it had to be.

And so I unceremoniously exited people’s lives. Gay friends. Gay-affirming friends. I just left. And I surrounded myself only with people who I felt would reinforce my faith in God.

In truth, some version of that really was the necessary thing for me to do at that point in my life. But the way in which I did it was cowardly and hurtful to some. And it communicated something that wasn’t really true: that I no longer valued any of you,that you were expendable, and now that I had my little God squad, you were nothing more than interesting characters in my “testimony.”

I don’t regret everything. I don’t regret placing faith in Jesus and in submitting to what I believe his will is for sex and marriage. I don’t regret marrying my wife. Though we’ve gone through some very dark times, I wouldn’t give up our life together for any other life. But I regret that I swallowed all the false dichotomies and all the implicit homophobia and heteronormative assumptions that informed so much of the church’s posture and position on so many things beyond a prohibition on gay sex. I regret that I acted as if I was not, in any way, one of you.

The truth is, as one writer put it, I can’t just “opt out” of the gay experience. Not wholly. And for some time now, I can say that I wouldn’t want to. I’ve come to see my being gay as a blessing in so many ways. For one, it has helped me to be more empathetic to marginalized people – something that Jesus was and is very passionate about – than I otherwise would be. Being a gay Christian in particular has helped me to see the need for and to be an advocate for the fostering of strong, intimate friendships. (I think the church could learn a lot by just observing a group of gay friends.)

I still hold my same convictions about sex and marriage. But I don’t reject the truth of my gayness; I just have a different idea about how it is best lived out than you do. I know that’s confusing, but it is what it is.

What I really want to say is that I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better friend. I’m sorry that I didn’t treat you with the respect you deserved. Some of you may have forgotten all about me. We make a lot of fiends and acquaintances in college, and inevitably, we move on or just grow apart. But I haven’t forgotten you. Because the choices I made and the way I handled my friendships with some of you have come back to haunt me.

I know that being a gay man whose convictions lead me away from gay romantic relationships puts me in a complicated position with the gay community. But I’m no less gay than others who don’t share my beliefs. And like all of you, I too felt the sting of what happened in Orlando recently, in a very particular way.

One day earlier this week, I clicked on a link to a news story highlighting some of the victims. I scrolled down, looking at each face, reading about each person, each beautiful life that was taken, and  I just sat there in front of my computer and wept. I felt a flood of emotions, and the one that was the most disquieting was anger. At myself.

I was angry that I had estranged myself from the gay community – from the gay people who were once in my life. I was angry that for so long, my life communicated, at best, indifference to the community that once stood more ready to extend love and acceptance to me than many in the community that I left them for.

In the aftermath of the shooting, I instinctually wanted to reach out to the gay people I knew. To be sure, I appreciated and needed to see the mourning and outpouring from other people in my life. But there’s just something about grieving alongside someone who is feeling it in the same way as you, for the same reasons.

I’m thankful that there are once again many gay people in my life, even if most of them live thousands of miles away. Nearly all of them are Christians, and most of them have the same perspective on biblical marriage as I do, so I can relate to them all the more. And I found solace in mourning together with them. But I also wanted to reach out to the other gay people who’ve been in my life, those of you who aren’t Christians, and those who don’t share my convictions.

I’ve lost touch with some of you completely, and I wouldn’t even know how to go about finding you. I think you may be the only two people in America who aren’t on Facebook. I still have some semblance of contact with some others of you. (Social media is weird like that.) But I know I can’t just approach you after having been totally absent from your lives, without even acknowledging it.

The reality is that at this point in my life, I don’t have a significant relationship with any of you. In some cases, I never did. For some of us, even if things had been different, we wouldn’t have any more of a real connection than we do now. But for others, the only reason that we’re not close friends with more than a decade of memories to look back on is because I chose, half-way through college, to make sure that we wouldn’t.

So I want to grieve with you over the tragedy in Orlando. But I know there are things I need to say first. And this is my attempt at doing that.

With love and a heavy heart,

Mike

In Memoriam

Don’t think I have the emotional energy for an Orlando post. Not even sure what I would have to say. But this post by Ron Belgau says so much that I want and need you to hear.

Spiritual Friendship

Sunset on a country road

A month ago, just before sunset, I was out walking along a quiet rural road near my home when my phone rang.

“Are you sitting down?” My mother asked in a voice that clearly wasn’t normal. I wasn’t, but there wasn’t anywhere convenient to sit nearby, so I asked what was wrong anyway.

“Trent was killed in a car accident tonight.”

Trent is—I typed is out of habit, but now realize I must say was—my 18-year-old nephew. He was on his way home from studying with friends, and would have graduated from high school in just three weeks.

The day he died was also, as it happened, his mother’s birthday. Two days after Mother’s Day.

There is a before and after to grief: one minute, your life, and the lives of your family members are humming along in the ordinary way; the next moment, you enter a new and very…

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Celibacy vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage: Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?

Spiritual Friendship

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about the message we send to gay people who are trying to figure out what to do with their sexuality in light of their desire to live faithfully as Christians. He, like me, is a gay man in a mixed orientation marriage. So much of what Side B writers have communicated resonates strongly with him and certainly reflects his own experience, as it does mine.

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Still, when you’re a minority of a minority of a minority, as is the case when you’re a Side B gay Christian in a mixed orientation marriage, the conversation often defaults to something that doesn’t really pertain to your situation. And my friend challenged the status quo of the Side B conversation, warning against a determinist attitude that sort of forces gay Christians into celibacy, rather than allowing them to receive it as a…

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In Search of The Decisive Christian Argument Against Ex-Gay Teaching

At the request of a friend, I recently went on a search for a good, solid Christian refutation of ex-gay theology/psychology. You know, one that breaks down exactly what is taught by the remaining, fledgling ex-gay ministries, and uses pure biblical exposition to demonstrate their errancy. And a little while into my search, when I wasn’t finding that ace-in-the-hole article to forward to my friend, a thought occurred to me. While various ex-gay ministries do use a lot of biblical language, so much of what they teach isn’t theology as much as it is psychology. And the bible doesn’t really deal with psychology directly, as the practice hadn’t been invented yet when the biblical authors were doing their inspired thing. And so I began to consider that perhaps I had sort of set out on an impossible task. I was trying to use the bible (or find someone who has) to disprove a particular developmental theory in psychology. I may as well have been trying to negate some educational or economic theory by using Genesis or Romans.

So that explains the absence (to my knowledge) of a singular, bible passage-saturated resource that debunks the ex-gay movement. That, of course, is not to say that there aren’t plenty of good resources out there that fall back on biblical principals to one degree or another, that should give one pause if contemplating participation in or endorsement of an ex-gay program. But when dealing with so much extra-biblical material (note that extra-biblical doesn’t necessarily imply unbiblical.), one has to rely more on the evidence at hand. What have been the overwhelming results of the ex-gay era?

That’s a tough one, because so much of what we have to go on are people’s stories – stories of healing and victory, as well as stories of deep psychological and spiritual damage. And well, you know, that whole “the plural of anecdote is not data” thing. But when actual studies are cited to bolster the claims of ex-gay ministries, close examination reveals just how unscientific they are, and that they much more closely resemble a collection of anecdotes, even highly questionable ones at that. On the other hand, while people’s accounts of shame and depression which they attribute to the influence of ex-gay teaching should be taken very seriously, considered carefully, and should indeed carry a lot of weight in this conversation, they aren’t, at the end of the day, hard evidence that the ex-gay thing was/is just a big flop.

But here’s the thing: the burden of proof in this situation is not on those who are skeptical or critical of orientation change and developmental theories of causation. It’s on those who promote them and make positive claims about their effectiveness in achieving a particular desired outcome. And if they cannot provide adequate proof, and there are reported adverse effects, and in fact, the only information to come out of all this that can truly be called data is that a significant number of participants in this whole ex-gay experiment did not experience the expected outcome, at what point do we deem it irresponsible to continue on with this stuff?

I know that question may seem largely irrelevant or outdated for some. The ex-gay movement, after years of crumbling, finally imploded several years back, and the remnants of it, various ministries with only a shadow of the resources and influence of their former parent-organization, Exodus, have largely been relegated to the fringes. But here in Shanghai, among the international churches, there has existed a sort of vacuum. In a country where even the secular culture isn’t very comfortable with open discussions on sexuality, the church – even the international church – has largely been silent. I think there’s been this unspoken understanding among most church leaders that “homosexuality is sinful,” but not a working out of what that actually means. And so, into that vacuum, sexual healing ministries have entered in an attempt to meet a need. (If Marvin Gaye isn’t singing into your ear right now, what kind of a person are you?) This development is why the ex-gay thing is so relevant to me right now. I’ve been able to comfortably take for granted for some time now that we all just sort of know better than treating the ex-gay narrative any differently than we treat the idea that if a frog pees on you, you’ll get warts, or that blood-letting should be a legitimate medical practice. But now that I’m faced with the reality that ex-gay developmental theories and all the ambiguous language and unhealthy introspection that go along with them are poised to be the primary approach to homosexuality for the church in Shanghai (maybe that’s a tad melodramatic, but whatever), I am forced to actually deal with the content of ex-gay teaching. And I’ll be honest, it makes me feel a little sick.

I tried to explain the nauseous feeling to my friend who requested that elusive exegetical resource against ex-gay teaching. I’ve found it best summed up by the anonymous blogger  Disputed Mutability (whose site has been dormant since 2010, I’m sad to report). In a reflection after attending a Love Won Out conference, she writes:
“…I found myself haunted in the days following the conference by stirred-up memories of the years when I was deeply involved in exgay stuff.  See, in the past several years, I haven’t really done any of that.  I hadn’t really heard any of those messages of brokenness and childhood roots and healing and change for a very long time–sure I occasionally read a smidgen of something online, but that’s way different from being bombarded with a day’s worth of lectures.  After the conference it all came painfully flooding back…how I agonized about this stuff, how I blamed myself and everyone in my family, how pathetic and small and less-than I felt relative to “healthy heterosexuals,” how tired and hopeless I felt after pursuing change (albeit somewhat half-assedly at times) didn’t really get me anywhere, how I obsessed about my “healing” and ignored discipleship and Christian growth, how stupid and voiceless I felt relative to the “successful” “healed” exgay superstars whose testimonies always seemed to get held up as What Is Supposed to Happen–if I disagreed with them, it was only my “brokenness” talking, and I would come to know better someday if I opened my heart to Jesus and let Him really transform me.  That old mindset came drifting back into my head and it made me even more nauseous than has been usual for me as of late.”

I was never “deeply involved in exgay stuff” like DM was. In fact, I was never really involved with it at all. But with no other competing narrative out there in the early years of my wrestling with issues of faith and sexuality, I couldn’t avoid its influence. I remember vaguely feeling some of those things. And early on in my big faith crisis that I wrote about a few times on a dormant blog of my own, I started to give the ex-gay thing another chance, and I read Andy Comisky’s Pursuing Sexual Wholeness, frequented the Desert Streams blog, and got in touch with some of the leaders and participants of a Living Waters group here in Shanghai, though I never attended. Additionally, a counselor gave my wife a book authored by Comisky’s wife which proceeded to dictate a narrative of emotional and mental health issues for any and all women who would actually choose to marry a gay man “who struggles with same sex attraction”. (It’s at this point I get a little pissy, because I think about the negative effects it was having on my wife, who was already going through a pretty hellacious time in her life as it was.) And in that brief time, I remember feeling exactly the things that Disputed Mutability describes in the above excerpt.

I’m comforted to know that others have a similar reaction – others who were heavily involved in it, yet have found more “healing” and “wholeness” than ever once they ditched the whole ex-gay thing. And more importantly, that they did that without abandoning their convictions about God’s design for sex and marriage. I think of God’s providence in all of this, and I can’t help feeling an overwhelming since of gratitude. I’m thankful that I am living in this time, that I experienced the things I did when and where I did, that when the conflict that I felt between my faith and sexuality was becoming the most toxic and the most explosive it had ever been, it was after the ex-gay movement had largely run its course, and there were these burgeoning new approaches and people who had survived the trenches of it all and had come to a better understanding, and had in fact, paved the way for a new era of writers and thinkers championing a healthier way forward for gay people who want to follow Christ. And I’m certainly thankful that, even though it makes me a little uneasy, he has chosen now, after there are voices out there to offer perspective, and to keep me from descending into a murky place of doubt and confusion, to let me be confronted more strongly with ex-gay teaching and be forced to devote intellectual and emotional energy to examining it.

So I don’t have at my disposal the decisive Christian argument against ex-gay teaching, which would be super convenient. But, as God has a way of doing for His people, He has sufficiently provided me with what I need. And that is enough.