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.

Unity and Schism

I am posting this as part of a synchro-blog on the topic of schism in the UMC. This synchro-blog was organized in honor of the first anniversary of Dream UMC.

For my friends who are not United Methodist, I apologize. I am keeping the tone of this piece “inside baseball,” because I didn’t allow enough time today to revise this for a wider audience.

I remember about five years ago, talking with a friend about how frustrated I was with the failure of the UMC to make any forward progress on inclusivity at General Conference. She pointed out the problems that the Episcopal church was having within the Anglican communion because of choosing to ordain gay priests, and said to me, “Doesn’t it pose an ecumenical problem? Because there is so much disagreement about this issue across denominations?”
She and I were both on track to be ordained, each in different denominations. I replied, “Ordaining women is an ecumenical problem, by those standards. Do you think that we shouldn’t be ordained?”

The dilemma in debates about what makes schism worthwhile and what does not is that it so often neglects the reality that the church is already in schism. Many times over the past centuries, Christians have decided that they could not in good conscience continue under what they saw as a corrupt, or unfaithful, or simply ineffectual system. It happened over indulgences, over communion, over pastoral authority… In the U.S., nearly every Protestant denomination split over slavery, including the Methodists – who splintered into not two, but at least five different denominations over the slavery issue.
The Church is already a fractured family. There are those who say that we should always try and stick it out, but given our history, this seems arbitrary. Why is this iteration of our church more sacrosanct than others? For others who vaguely assert that of course there is a line that they are not willing to cross, I would like to know: where is that line, exactly? And how did the failure of General Conference to even name that we disagree not cross it?

I have to admit, I have been hoping for a split. I see the seeds of a split in the actions of the Northeastern and Western jurisdictional conferences – if the jurisdiction can vote to ignore actions of the General Conference, then it is only a short step to having a whole jurisdiction brought up on charges for failing to uphold the Discipline. Which might be the best kind of split, because then churches don’t have to decide where they stand, initially. Instead, the church would split along geographic lines initially, but individual congregations could hash out different positions over time.
I like the idea of a split because I think that we could all benefit from having scaled down operations – from not being such a major player in everything from lobbying to relief to publishing. Yes, we do great stuff with the money and members we have. But we have turned our denomination into an idol, so conferences and bishops and publications all put too much energy into increasing everyone’s anxiety about how many people we have as compared to fifty years ago, and how relevant we are, and what is our brand, etc. Which leads to some truly awful ad campaigns (Remember the one with the dandelion? “If you can wish, you can pray.” Um, no. Way to trivialize church, guys!), and worse – to pastors whose ministries are driven more by fear than by love.
I like the idea of a split because it lets so many pastors off the hook. By and large, pastors in the U.S. are opposed to the restrictions on ministry by and to gays and lesbians, but leaving the church (or even putting themselves in a position to be kicked out) means losing a job with health benefits in a bad economy – usually a job that is the only one the pastor has any interest in having. And let’s not forget how many pastors marry young – which means that they have families to support. Splitting would allow pastors who oppose the restrictions to stay pastors and live into their convictions about gay marriage.
And I like the idea of a split because it would show gay and lesbian United Methodists that they have not been forgotten or abandoned – that they are as important to the church as the bullies are.

But admittedly, I have a much more selfish reason to like the idea of a split: I have already split. No longer clergy, I don’t have a voice at annual conference or the ability to get kicked out for defying the rules that bind clergy only. And after more than 20 years of following these issues, I am tired of waiting for things to change at General Conference. Or, more accurately, I have stopped believing that things ever will change at General Conference. So I find myself in an Episcopalian congregation, but every time I come close to joining, I come up against a reservation that is strong enough to keep me on the margins. I am realizing that I still want to be a Methodist – I am a Methodist without a Methodist congregation, until my gay friends can be Methodist pastors, until they can be married in a Methodist church. Until there is a Methodist option for them, there is no Methodist option for me, either.

Maybe you feel that by leaving, I have forfeited my place at the table. I get that – you are sticking it out, and that is not easy. But the voices of the Methodist diaspora need to be heard. There are many pastors and would-be pastors who were driven out of the church because of who they love. There are many laypeople who cannot be a part of a church that half-heartedly welcomes them. In this sense, the question of whether or not the United Methodist Church should split is moot – the church is already split. There are many Methodists who are sitting in UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches – or even not in church at all – who would happily return to a Methodist church that truly welcomes them.

Or, you know, keep trying to win over the people with the loud and angry voices, if you think it might make a difference. Give the whole Central Conference strategy a try, if you think they won’t see through it. I’ve shaken the dust of that town off of my feet, and walked on.