This article was first published on the now closed Affirming Christianity blog, on 22 July 2012. But the story it tells follows chronologically from the blog entry immediately previous to this one: my childhood scripture reading primed me for the insights that my teenage self drew from my older relative’s story of her first marriage.
I was fourteen years old when an older female relative took me aside to give me some advice: “You are going to start dating soon. And when you do, do not trust any boy who does not try to get into your pants!” Not the usual advice you expect an adult woman to give a young teenager who hasn’t had her first serious boyfriend yet – unless, perhaps, that woman has been married to a gay man, which my kinswoman had done.
Over the years, I learned more and more of her story – how she had dated a young man for many years, but they had never been more physically intimate than to exchange a brief kiss goodnight. “I just figured he was a good Christian boy,” she said. I learned about the call she received during his last year in seminary, asking her to marry him. She said yes, married him shortly afterwards, dropped out of college, and moved to another state with him. It was only then that she found out that rumors of him having a boyfriend prompted seminary officials to demand that he marry if he expected to receive a diploma from their school. After several years of marriage with no sexual relationship (“we were like roommates…”), one of her family members learned of it, and persuaded her to leave. Her husband begged her to stay. It was no longer a matter of concern for his ministry – he had only been a pastor for the first year of their marriage, because the double life he was leading was so stressful for him – particularly giving marriage advice to others. Instead, he wanted her to stay to spare himself and his family the shame of a divorce… and to prevent any embarrassing questions from his family, who had suspected him of being attracted to men for a long time.
At the time, I remember thinking this was the most outstandingly bizarre story I had ever heard of church discipline gone wrong. But since then, I have heard variations on this theme over and over again: the first husband who was gay and had not known it, or had known it and hidden it, and the shame of the woman for having had been divorced – not to mention the damage of the years spent with someone who was not at all attracted to her. I can tell you from personal experience, having had a long-term closeted gay boyfriend – despite my kinswoman’s warnings – that it is impossible not to take it personally. And, as I have learned from a handful of the many other women I have met over the past 20+ years who have similar stories to tell, sometimes the boyfriend/fiance/husband encourages the girlfriend/fiancee/wife to take it personally, in a sub/semi-conscious bid to remain in the dark about his own desires.
After all, these relationships are not part of some nefarious gay plot to keep both gay men and their unwitting female partners unhappy. Instead, they usually arise out of the man’s own conservative Christian upbringing: he is devout, he is faithful, he is a good person… ergo, it is inconceivable that he could be gay. Oftentimes, he really does not know that he is attracted to men. Or he doesn’t at first. Or not until after he is married. Or if he does, he thinks he can put a stop to his “sinful desires” through distraction – “Look here! A naked woman!” It works for so many other men, why not him? The ongoing torture of unwanted desire that will not go away can be excruciating – and a challenge to his faith in God.
I learned this last part in seminary, where I was thrown together with intelligent faithful people of many denominations from all over the U.S., some of whom prayed every day to be released from their attraction to people of the same sex. One of these individuals was finally reconciling herself to her sexuality after praying that prayer for seven years. On the other end of the gay seminarian spectrum was a friend who did not know until he was in the parish and married that he was attracted to men. After all, he had always been told it was a choice, and he would never choose such a thing! Even after the marriage ended, it took him a couple of years to traverse the distance between, “I was not in the least sexually interested in my cute, smart, funny wife,” and “I actually am interested in a sexual relationship with someone – but only if it is a man.”
I met friends in seminary who switched denominations so that they could be ordained when they finally accepted their sexuality, as well as other friends who dropped out of the ordination process because they felt so strongly about not leaving the denomination that would not fully embrace them. I met a number of people who were so extraordinarily gifted for ministry that they seemed to glow when they were ministering to others – preachers who would vibrate with Gospel Truth like a struck bell when they preached – but they are not serving churches today because they are gay, and so they are in exile.
I remember having trouble sleeping the night after that relative of mine first began to share the story of her first marriage. I was so angry at the man who had hurt her. But that didn’t last long. My anger rapidly turned to the seminary officials who had pressured him into a marriage that they themselves had reason to believe he was ill-suited for. And then I was angry at the church in general for caring more about outside appearances than how a person felt in their heart. No wonder so many of us were white-washed sepulchres – it was what was demanded of us! That was when I began to wonder – if the only thing that made him unsuitable for ministry was who he wanted to date… how much did that matter? The church had, by this time, given up on disallowing ministers to divorce, in order to prevent them from staying in sham marriages for the sake of appearances. But they had made no effort to prevent this other kind of sham marriage – in fact, they had even legislated in a way that would encourage it.
I began to become disillusioned with the church that day, though I did not see it until years later, when God had shoved me back into congregational life after some years of trying to live a Christian life apart from the church. (When I start to despair of the difficulty of working out Christian community in the church, I remind myself that it is nothing compared to starving for Christian community outside of it.)
As I grew older and came to understand the value of a loving partnership, I had another reason to be in favor of openness and of embracing gay marriage and gay pastors – loving partnerships between two adults that support one another and up-build one another are a means of grace – in loving companionship, we draw one another closer to God. A relationship of this kind is rare enough that it should be celebrated between any two adults who find it.
I understand that there are many faithful, thoughtful people within the church who disagree with me on this issue. Each of us has our own story, and none of our stories are exactly alike. But I am beginning to think that the gay man married to a straight woman is one of many archetypal stories of life in the church, and I wonder how many straight Christian women either have a woman like my kinswoman in their family, or have been that woman themselves.
Maybe you disagree with me about how best to extend Christian love to gay men and women. But the policies that exclude same sex loving people also have harmed many straight women who have suffered lasting impacts from being married to gay men. “One man, one woman” marriage did not spare them.