When gay men marry… women

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.

“The Talk”

Update / Correction: I have changed this post slightly from when I first posted it in 2013. I have replaced previous instances of the word “breed/breeding” with “mate/mating,” which is more accurate. Otherwise, the piece is just as originally posted.

Several years ago, a friend of mine spent the summer in South Africa.  She stayed with a family in a small town where, as in so many other small towns all over the world, the houses each consisted of one large common room.  After a couple of weeks of sleeping in a room with several other people, she summoned the courage to ask a young unmarried woman about her age, “When do your parents get any… umm… privacy?”  The young woman laughed, “You mean sex, right?  They are modest, of course, but they don’t really get true privacy the way wealthy people do in some other places.  I understand that there are children who have to be told about sex!  Not here.  No matter our parents’ best efforts, most of us have seen them having sex by the time we are 5 or 6.  It is no big deal.”

No big deal! Contrast that with the Kia ad that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl, in which a dad and mom anxiously avoid their child’s question about where babies come from, making up a ridiculous fairy tale, and then drowning out his rejoinder with the car stereo.

About a year ago, my husband and I took the baby monitor out of my daughter’s room, but she still wakes up in the middle of the night about 1/3 of the time, so we leave the door to our bedroom a little bit open, so that we can hear her if she calls.  But she doesn’t always call out, especially in the morning — sometimes she comes to our room instead.  In the past, I had considered the monitor and our doorknob’s creaky turning to be our early warning systems.  Instead, over the past months, I have been trying to work out what we are going to tell her if she walks into the room when we are having sex.

I had been a bit anxious about it, honestly.  More than once I have paused to check the clock and done some calculations about when she would likely wake up that morning before deciding whether I was comfortable having sex right then.  But in the past few days I came up with something to say that has me almost hoping that she does walk in on us one morning in the next year or so.  Remembering my friend’s story – that for many children all over the world, having seen their parents have sex is “no big deal,” I wondered about the difference between that attitude and the conviction of my friends when I was a child and teenager that the mere thought of their parents’ having had sex was “gross!” In movies and on television, I have “walked in on” countless young, beautifully airbrushed couples having sex – but rarely married couples, and never  in real life.

But back to what I would say to my six year old, if she were to walk in on my husband and I having sex in the next several months, and were to ask what we were doing:

1) We’re mating…  This might sound like a weird thing to say, but I would be beginning here by placing what she had seen in the context of what vocabulary she already has.  My daughter LOVES animals, and has been checking lots of books about animals out of the library – and a word that comes up a lot is “mate.”  She doesn’t know what mating entails precisely, but she knows that it is something that two animals do together in order to make a baby (or lots of babies).  So by saying, “We’re mating,” she knows right away that what she saw is related to how humans make babies, without me having to go into a lot of age-inappropriate detail.

2) … but unlike most other animals, humans don’t mate just to make babies.  This is important for three reasons.  The first is because it is true, and I want her to learn what other things sex is for from me, not her peers.  The second is because it is the necessary thing to say before telling her anything else sex is for.  And the third is because, as a family that has been trying to adopt for a few years, my daughter is aware that, “Mommy can’t grow any more babies in her belly.” So if Mommy and Daddy are mating (doing something that makes babies), then already that raises several questions in her head.

3) When humans mate, we call it “sex.” And couples have sex to strengthen the bond between them.  This is the critical part right here.  Too often, “the talk” includes (or even begins with) “when two people love each other very much.”  This can be very confusing.  Love can mean a lot of different things to different people.  Talking about love – about what comes before sex – tends to endorse anything that might happen when swept up in an emotional moment.  Instead, I feel like it is important to frame sex in terms of strengthening of a bond between two people – the results of sex.  Unlike “making a baby,” which only results from sex sometimes, “strengthening the bond” happens every time.  It can strengthen that bond in good or bad ways, it can strengthen that bond with a person who is good for you or bad for you, but it makes the bond stronger each time.  My daughter already knows (from us telling her, and from her observing us) that Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, that we respect one another and trust one another, so there is really no need, if she walks in on Mommy and Daddy having sex, to tell her that it has something to do with love.  But as parents of her friends divorce, I imagine the idea of sex as strengthening commitment will be reassuring to her.

Naturally, this version of “The Talk” leaves a lot out.  After all, I have thought about it with my six year old in mind.  For instance, now is not the time to get into “there are many ways to have sex, but only vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman can result in a baby, unless you take advantage of in vitro fertilization, which is a way of making a baby without sex at all,” or “There are ways to avoid having a baby when you are having sex, and some of them work better than others, and some don’t work at all, for instance…”  These matters can be addressed later, in bits and pieces, as she gets older and as she has more and more questions.  Actually answering those questions honestly (instead of trying to distract her from her questions by singing her favorite song, like the parents in the Kia commercial) will tell her that I am open to this conversation, and that will encourage her to continue asking me questions when they arise, instead of asking someone else.

“The Talk” is not one conversation, but a commitment to years of conversations.  In a sense, I already began talking with her about sex when I talked to her about marriage more than a year ago. “One day, when you are older, you may find someone who you like so much, and who likes you so much, that you want to see them every day, and help one another do everything, and be family with one another…” Liking one another, commitment, helping, family…  again, I didn’t use the word “love” because it didn’t seem to be the most helpful word in the situation.

Love is great and important!  My daughter and I use the word love a lot!  But because there are so many different ways to love people, I didn’t want that to be the only word that comes to mind when thinking about marriage.  Our culture will guarantee that it is the first word she thinks of – I can give her other words as well.  And by giving her these other words when she thinks about marriage, she will think of these words too when she thinks about sex.  As long as the first context she has for thinking about having sex is marriage, and not the sex she will see portrayed in movies and on TV time and again as she grows up — the sex that is simply scratching the inexplicable itch of desire.

Most of us will inexplicably desire many people in our lives who would be poor partners – to whom we know we would prefer not to be strongly bonded.  Respect and mutual support and commitment and enjoying one another’s company and desire? That’s what I want for my daughter.  My hope is that she is given unmistakable clarity in finding such a partner.  But because we are all fallible, because it is so easy to be deceived by our desires, shame is not on my agenda for my ongoing conversations about sex with my daughter.  If she is to flourish as an adult in a sexual relationship, if she is to continually strengthen the bond between herself and another person, I don’t want to do anything to impede her freedom to sever a bond that is better broken.  Especially if the sex was nonconsensual, for instance as Elizabeth Smart spoke about at Johns Hopkins when sharing her experience when she was abducted from her home.  But even if the mistake is hers – even if she chooses to have sex with the wrong person – telling her that she is now something like a “chewed up wad of gum” that no one will want is not simply hateful and contrary to the demands of Love, but also a way of preventing her from being equipped to form a life-giving relationship later.

So I am going to stop eyeing the clock in the morning, and not worry so much about our creaky bed frame.  If our daughter sees my husband and I having sex, it is no big deal.  It might even be a good thing.

Becoming a (paid) writer

This week, I have signed two different contracts: one to write 13 weeks of adult Sunday school lessons, and another to write a number of sermon series helps.  And about a week before that, I received news that a book that I contributed an essay to is going to be coming out in October.

I am no longer a person who sits at her kitchen table and writes stuff – I am now a person who is paid to sit at her kitchen table and write stuff.  Wow.  I am a writer, y’all!  Wow wow wow.

While I agree with Anne Lamott that “if you write, you are a writer,” it helps for someone to like your stuff enough to read it.  And it helps, too, if they like it well enough to pay to read it.

I started blogging because I needed a creative and intellectual outlet for my preacher turned stay-at-home mom self. I didn’t really have any thoughts of becoming a writer per se – I intended to get my PhD, or return to the parish.  I knew that some people who blog had gotten publishing deals that way, but I also was aware that those people were generally more disciplined bloggers than I had been – they wrote at regular intervals, or had a gimmick or at least a theme that they hewed to closely.  They had not simply written about whatever occurred to them whenever it was convenient to do so.

On the other hand, I had known people who had tried to take the “conventional” route to becoming a writer – sending one unsolicited manuscript after another to publisher after publisher, collecting a hundred or more rejections on their way to (maybe) getting something published. Did I have the discipline for that? The conviction?

I spent a lot of time thinking about “what next?” but “become a writer” didn’t even make the list most of the time.

Then, a little more than a year ago, I stopped trying to look ahead and instead took a look around. I was doing or had done everything that my five year old self had wanted to do or be as a grown up. (Admittedly with the single exception of being married to Greg Brady, which could never happen, given that he was a fictional character.  And in any case, my husband is way cooler than Greg Brady.) I had been a pastor, I was a mom, I was married, I could cook and sew and drive a car. I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without anyone telling me any different. Life was good.

Context matters.  “What’s next?” became a different question when it arose out of contentment with where I was rather than out of anxiety about not being where I “ought” to have been.

“Life is good – what next?”  Write.  I wanted to write.

Now, it is only fair to mention here that I was scared to say so. I am an American, and Americans are supposed to produce stuff.  Graduate school produces a degree, and a job produces money, but writing might only produce a bunch of ugly drafts that nobody wants to see.  I was scared to tell my husband what I wanted, even though he is super supportive, and even though we didn’t need for me to make money.  And that’s the other thing to mention:  if you need to make money (and most people do, given that money is good for buying things like food and electricity and a place to stay and so on) then writing is not a particularly reliable way to do it.  Certainly not at first.  Writing is for people who are well off enough to not have to work, or who are young and don’t have children and could always crash on a friend’s sofa if it came to it. And writing is for other people too, but only squeezed in those hours when they are not doing their paying job(s). I owe it to my less-well-bankrolled writer friends to fess up to this.  It was scary for me to admit that I wanted to write, and I didn’t even have my own or anyone else’s ability to live comfortably riding on the enterprise.

But my husband was all for it, and so I came up with a plan: I would give it a year and see what happened.  The year would start with my daughter entering kindergarten, in September 2012 – which would give me a lot more time for uninterrupted reading and thinking and writing and editing.  I would consider myself a writer starting in September, and I would see how it felt and if anything came out of it.

Great plan, but things started happening long before September rolled around.  On 22 May 2012 I wrote an entry entitled The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children, and it went viral – or as viral as these things go when you are writing something that is really only of interest to Protestant worship leaders.  Within less than 24 hours, it had caught the eye of Jessica Kelley, the editor of Ministry Matters, who asked if she could blend that entry with another entry of mine into one article, and publish it on her site. Sure, I said, as long as she linked to my blog, and she did.

That was pretty exciting, but then she invited me to write more for their website.  So I did. And then, when talking to her about a book idea about sermon helps, she asked if I would be interested in writing an article for the Circuit Rider sermon series issue (Feb/March/April 2013).  Yes I was interested! And so I got my first paying gig.

This gave me confidence enough to query after other opportunities, which led to a bunch of rejections that hurt my confidence a little, but not enough to keep me from trying again and again.  And the trying again led to me landing a contract to write for a popular Sunday school series, and also to me writing an essay for the book I mentioned above (Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, White Cloud Press, October 2013.)

But the Circuit Rider job led to still another job – this time another job that came to me, much as the Ministry Matters work had come to me.  The Circuit Rider is a publication of the United Methodist church with a wide professional readership – it is sent to the pastors and former pastors and employees of boards and agencies and so on… and one of these readers was looking through the sermon series issue hoping to find a writer who could write sermon series helps while still having respect for the liturgical year. And she found me. After a couple of months of talking with one another, I am on board to start contributing sermon series helps in the next couple of weeks!!

As time goes on, I will share more about each of the three upcoming projects: the Sunday school lessons, the sermons series helps, and the book of essays.  But for now, I am feeling really grateful for having the opportunity to give writing a go.  And I am looking around me, thinking that I have done or been everything my 17 year old self wanted to be and do, including being a writer and being married to Brian McGiverin.  Admittedly with the exception of being a singer-songwriter, and knowing how to play the guitar.  But there is still time. 🙂