SCOTUS & Same-Sex Marriage: Reflections on Christianity, Psychotherapy, and Fatherhood

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  To date, I’ve not spent much time publicly discussing my thoughts regarding the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality.  This is true because it is my general opinion that this kind of meta-discourse can be unproductive at best, and destructive at worst.  The last time I wrote about it was this piece for the Huffington Post over two years ago. 

<SIGH> Yet, the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across all fifty states has littered my news and social media feeds with so little worthwhile, I didn’t feel right sitting idly by.  What I ended up writing below is a brief history of the development of my perspectives, followed by a short reflection of the impact of the SCOTUS ruling on me personally.  It is long, but I hope it is as worthwhile for you to read as it was for me to write.


Some History…

I was a Christian before I even knew what “gay” meant – one of those Evangelical kids that got “saved” in something called “children’s church,” an environment I look back on very fondly.  Puppets, singing, flannelboards??!  What’s not to love?!

True to Evangelical form, as a child and young adult my spiritual and religious identities were merged with political conservatism (read: Republicanism).  That much is sure.   And yet, in later years, I was able to clearly see by contrast that my church had not been “fundamentalist,” or at least, my family and I hadn’t within it.  That is, we were not encouraged to sacrifice common sense, scholarly merit, or goodwill at the altar of rigid groupthink.  I remember my father repeatedly telling us not to “check our brains at the door with our coats” when we went to church.  I am immensely thankful for this.

I don’t remember a lot of talk about homosexuality at all, certainly not in my home, and not much more in church, except for the passing scriptural references that (apparently) so many evangelicals know by heart.  But even those were never overly emphasized or explained.  When St. Paul would go on a rant about all those folks that weren’t getting into the kingdom, you just sort of nodded your head and understood that you weren’t supposed to be on the list.  But no one ever did any exegesis about what was meant by the terms used to describe the out-group folks.  They were just listed as self-obvious, as if the text we were reading had been written the day before by the pastor himself, rather than thousands of years ago in two or three different languages and then translated over and over again by people with varying agendas and motivations.

Blue Oyster Bar Police AcademyIn fact, about the only references to homosexuality in my life at all were in popular media growing up. Something about the AIDS virus, the Olympic swimmerGreg Louganis, and that scene from the Police Academy movies where the unwitting Lt. Harris was lured to the Blue Oyster Bar.

Then, somewhere in my teen years, I met my first card-carrying, out-in-the-open, no shame in his game, gay man – my hairstylist.  Cliché, I know.  He was funny, likable, and fashion-conscious.  I reasoned that all of these were desirable characteristics, I suppose, as ironically any degree to which I might embody them myself was no doubt more likely to make me more popular with the opposite sex.

When I got near to and of drinking age, I discovered that my hairstylist tended bar at a local gay club or two, and some friends of mine and I hung out in them a good number of times knowing that we could drink a lot for a little with his help.  Plus, being a student of social dynamics even at that age, I understood that gay men often kept the company of heterosexual women.  So, I reasoned that gay clubs were a spot where my chances of success with women were exponentially increased simply by virtue of the fact that I was one of just a few default options for them if they were sexually interested.  I’m not proud of this, per se, though I do think it was a rather astute observation.

I was hit on quite a bit by gay men in those clubs, and while I perhaps enjoyed the attention at some level, it never registered for me to view their advances as sexual. You know, because I’m straight.  It just didn’t interest me.  There were no “near-misses,” and in fact, there are a few funny stories I can recall where it is painfully obvious just how oblivious I was to the whole thing.

At any rate, my Christianity during these times was intact.  I was reasonably certain that God didn’t like the drinking and carousing I was doing, but I assumed that he loved me unconditionally anyhow.   I actually was injured by my behavior – my heart was profoundly broken by some of the women with whom I became sexual, I did a fair amount of heart-breaking myself, and I eventually developed a drinking problem.  So, I always understood God’s dislike of my behavior as being in my best interest, rather than out of a need to ruin my fun like some absentee landlord.  I reasoned he was more like a good father who tries to keep his kids out of harm’s way.

Stuff Gets Real — Into the World of Psychotherapy.

In hindsight, all of this seems to have been necessary grist for the mill.  I was trying to understand myself and people, trying to understand life and sexuality, and trying to understand God.  Or perhaps, trying to be understood by all of these.  And I’m thankful not to have had an overlay of condemnation or a need to tell everyone else how they ought to be living that was somehow supposed to have been informed by the fact that I was a Christian.  In fact, I would submit that it was at least partially the fact that I felt well-loved by God and many Christians that I could live as best I knew how at that time.

It wasn’t until five or six years later after I’d finished a Bachelor’s degree in Religion, that I began seriously considering the church’s teachings about homosexuality.  This was about the same time I began pursuing a Master’s Degree in Marriage & Family Therapy at an evangelical Christian university.

Professor FarnsworthThe program I was a part of at that time had a number of older professors at the helm who were dangerously close to retirement, and a few younger ones known a bit for their whipper-snapper-ishness.  That mix lead to what was in that environment, a very clinical, very provocative mix of teachings that tended to stand in opposition to much of what might’ve otherwise been considered normative for the rest of the university whose orientation to psychotherapy was something different altogether – a sort of, “take two scriptures and call me in the morning” approach.

I learned as much from what they taught as from what they did, as I watched several of them to whom I am still close being repeatedly injured by a dysfunctional Christian university system (another matter that has had a lasting impact on me).  These professors were real people with real life experiences, and not a whole lot to lose, so they encouraged me as a scholar and a therapist to wrestle with the important issues of life and faith, haters be danged.

And that I did.  The primary emphasis of my graduate research was in gender identity and sexual orientation.  I was submerged in scholarly literature, trying to synthesize that data with what I knew of the Bible, church tradition, and my own personal spiritual experiences.

By the conclusion of that program, I began seeing clients in our program’s “counseling lab” – a place where undergraduates could come for free counseling provided they understood it was being provided by amateurs under supervision.  And it was there that I began working in therapy with a number of college-age men who were reasonably certain they were homosexual and trying to figure out just what the heck to do about it.

At that time, at least in theory, I suppose I supported the particular perspective that scripture affirmed that homosexual “behavior” was sinful, but that “being” homosexual was not.   That is, as Christians we knew that we had all sorts of desires that fell outside what God would have for us, but the desires in themselves weren’t sinful, but human.  And on top of all of this, again, I firmly believed that God loved us and wanted what was best, not to ruin our fun.

But, perhaps like my church upbringing, I didn’t emphasize my thinking about all of this too much.  I could tell that what these men needed was someone who loved them unconditionally.  Someone who could say, “I see you – everything that you are. And I love you.”  I reasoned that if I couldn’t make that axiom align with my theology, the problem was with my theology.

I lingered in these murky waters well into my early years of being a licensed counselor, where I continued to work with more and more gay men as I began to be known as a “go-to” therapist in the relatively small, conservative area where I lived.  But the more time I spent with them, the less I was convinced that I could go on fully loving them if I didn’t reach more clarity about what I thought.  Up until that point it had seemed sufficient to show radical grace, radical love, and radical inclusion, even if somehow I didn’t understand how that merged with what I’d been taught.  But I had the sense that wherever I was headed in the future, I was going to need more clarity.

So, for the next two years I did at least as much praying, reading Scripture, and researching as I had during graduate school, purely out of motivation to reach a more congruent way of thinking and being.  As conflicting sections of culture continued to wage war, it seemed more crucial than ever.

A Season of Searching.

Having already been familiar with evangelical literature that I could never quite follow from organizations likeLove Won Out and Exodus International, I read more scholarly works from Christian psychologist, Dr. Mark Yarhouse, currently chair of the task force on LGBT issues for Division 36 (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association, as well as scholarly works from the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC), a division of the American Counseling Association.

I also dove head-long into explorations of the myriad ways my therapeutic work with real, living and breathing human beings (gay and straight) didn’t jibe with much of what I’d been taught in church, both explicitly and implicitly.  I was influenced by a great many writers and books during this time frame, but in particular by the works of Henri Nouwen, St. Therese of Lisieux, Brother Roger of Taizé, Shane Claiborne, Jim Wallis, Parker Palmer, Wendell Berry, Brian McLaren, Rowan Williams (in particular, The Body’s Grace), Joan Chittister, andRichard Rohr – all Christians, and all radical in their own way.  Regarding approaches to psychotherapy and existential crises, I was also during this time very influenced by the works of Irvin Yalom, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, and the author of more than 13 books, including texts used as the gold standard in graduate counselor education.  He is an atheist.

Time to EmbraceAnd then I read two works that greatly influenced my thinking about homosexuality and Christianity specifically –  A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, by Princeton Theologian William Stacy Johnson, and (much more recently), Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays v. Christians Debate, by Justin Lee, founder and executive director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN).  The latter is a memoir of an evangelical gay Christian, as well as a practical guide for a better approach to conversation surrounding these issues.  The former is the most succinct and intelligent discussion I’ve ever come across of the seven possible positionsChristians can hold about homosexuality (rather than the two we’re usually offered — “for” or “against”).

The net outcome of all of this soul-searching and scripture cross-referencing and praying was as follows:

In light of certain interpretations of Scripture and reinforcing indoctrination, I understand how some Christians can come to the conclusions they do about homosexuality that leave them thinking gay = sin.  But a great many learned, wise, and indeed, deeply thinking and devout Christian persons disagree with them, and with reasoning that was just as sound and just as likely to withstand scrutiny.

So I was left with a choice — what did I think?

And here’s what I thought (and still do think):

  • While it is undoubtedly helpful in forming a basic ego structure, it is difficult to conceptualize mature Christianity as that which is consumed with “externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, correct rituals, Bible quotes, and special clothing, all of which largely substitute for actual spirituality (Mt 23:13-32).”  Moreover, “being preoccupied with titles, perks, and religious externals… law, ritual, and priestcraft…becomes a compulsive substitute of actual divine encounter or honest relationship.” (Quotes from Richard Rohr’s, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life).
  • On the other hand, authentic and mature Christianity understands fully that God loves people unconditionally (that means no conditions), and that in turn, people need God’s love.
  • However, authentic and mature Christianity also recognizes that fleshing out what “love” looks like is difficult, because people and God are complex.  Certainty about most matters is dubious at best.
  • The least likely place from which we could draw reasonable and well-balanced conclusions is the discourse in popular culture, which, for example, tell us that sexual orientation is binary.  It is not.   Kinsey tried to teach us this a while ago, but if you don’t already know — some people are very gay, some people are very straight, and the rest are somewhere in between.
  • Thus, in any given (psychotherapy) situation, it may reasonable that a number of different outcomes are possible and/or desirable.  For example, my work with a single, twenty-something male who identifies as exclusively attracted to men will be different than working with a forty-something, married (to a woman) male with three children, who has discovered later in life that he is attracted to both men and women. There is no one-size-fits-all resolution to what a person ought to do in light of his or her sexual orientation, wherever it falls along the wide spectrum – the answer is contextual.  Thus, rather than telling people what they ought to do, we ought to help them discover their context, including when that context involves Christianity.
  • What is never appropriate is to hide, cover, or shame that orientation or pretend it isn’t there, especially to one’s self and one’s God.  And to attempt to “make it go away” is obtuse and potentially harmful.
  • But in all of these cases, there is no necessary and fundamental Christian imperative that forces me to conclude that certain desires, behaviors, and identities are once and forever sinful or pathological — at least not one everyone agrees upon.  They only are if they are.  And even then, this isn’t about the extent to which any of these is homosexual, but the extent to which their fruit is God-honoring.
  • “God-honoring” bears in mind that human sexual desire reflects God’s own desire for God’s people, with whom he has made a covenant.  We should therefore order our sexual relationships in committed, covenantal ways that give glory to God, and allow others to do the same.  Thus, our focus should be on relationships (again, relational contexts, such as consecrated marital relationships) rather than sexual acts. (paraphrasing here from William Stacy Johnson’s take on Rowan Williams)
  • Moreover, it is possible to conclude that there is an at-large LGBTQ-affirming biblical perspective.

change-square2I have been living and practicing psychotherapy in light of all of this for some time now, and it feels good.  I don’t write about it often because I don’t particularly care what anyone else thinks anymore.   This is partially informed by the notion that I don’t (personally) know a single person who has undertaken the amount of actual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual time and energy I have in deciphering all of this, so anyone who wants to tiff with me over it will have to give me their resumé in that regard before I’ll even entertain the discussion.  If that sounds pompous, I don’t mean it to.  It’s just where I’m at.  I can talk with someone about this all day long, but I have no interest in talking at someone or being talked at by someone.

Fatherhood Brings it Home to Roost.

All of this brings me finally to the SCOTUS decision.   To anyone who felt this was shocking, I would sincerely like to know what rock you have been hiding under.  Even while I did all of my hemming and hawing and soul-searching, it was evident that this day was coming.  In fact, that belief was at least part of my motivation to decide early on what I thought before the tide of public opinion thought it for me.  As MLK said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  And baby, it has bent.

Serendipitously, I had preemptively been reflecting on all of this in the days and months that lead up to the decision as I have a daughter who is approaching six years old and is beginning to ask interesting questions.

Through no influence of our own (if anything, we’ve tried to move in other directions), she is as traditional, American gender-stereotypical as they come.  She loves pink, purple, frills, unicorns, royal kingdoms, and the idea of big weddings.  She’s always talking about marrying me or one of her kindergarten classmates.  I don’t know where she comes up with it, but it aint’ from us and it ain’t from TV.  We don’t even have basic cable.  I suspect it is just who she is.  She is a wonderful little person.  I love her very much.

But in the middle of all of this girly-girl-ery, she recently began asking questions about the nature of relationships.  Something she picked up at school, perhaps?  I don’t know.   But I wanted to find a way to talk with her about the nature of relationships without getting into a protracted discussion of adult sexuality, sexual identity, and orientation constructs.  Call me old fashioned, but I like the idea of kids being kids for a while before we go messing them up with our complex ways of conceptualizing how not to hate people for who they are.

So, for some time, I gave flat and benign, though earnest and thoughtful answers to some of her more pointed questions:

Lily: “Daddy, what does it mean to love someone?”

Me: “Love is about what you do as much as how you feel.  I love mommy in my feelings but I also try to love her with my words and with my actions.”

Lily: “Can boys love boys and girls love girls?”

Me:  “Yes.”

Lily: “Why do people get married?”

Me: “In some places, people marry who they love.  In other places, they marry for different reasons.” 

Lily: “Daddy, I can marry who I want, right?”

Me: “Yes.”

Lily: “Even if I want to marry Remy and not you?” [Remy is a boy in her kindergarten classroom.]

Me: “Yes.  Even if you want to marry Remy and not me.”

That sort of thing.

On the “boys-boys/girls-girls” question, I’d wanted to give her something more concrete so that in the event it turns out that she, or her brother, or one of her cousins, or her kindergarten classmates, or her teacher, or her pastor, or her college roommate is gay, she’d have some solid footing to stand on from the get-go.  But I couldn’t find the right words, and the timing just didn’t seem right.  Again, I didn’t want to force all of this on her unnecessarily, when the nature of her questions was really quite simple.  Profound.  But simple.  And cute!

mike and ellisBut then the most wonderful thing happened.  A friend of mine, the Reverend Mike Angell, invited me to his wedding.   His wedding to my other friend, Ellis Anderson.   (NOTE: Ellis is also a man, in case you are slow on the uptake.)

I met Mike while practicing Bikram Yoga on Grand.  I noticed he was new to class, and introduced myself.  When I found out that he was gay, a priest, and liked beer and pub theology, I invited him to hang out with a group of soul friends here in St. Louis.  I count it a blessing to have gotten to know him since.

At any rate, since Lily loves weddings, it seemed like this was my moment.  I knew this gave me an opportunity to expand upon the idea of “boys can love boys” without having to wait for her to watch Police Academy re-runs with me, as if the Blue Oyster Bar is somehow the most accurate representation of gay culture (a notion which many Christians seem to believe).

And that’s just it – I wanted to put forth a picture of gay relationships that showed how very similar we are.  You know, like, how we’re people who love God and one another and get married and stuff.

So, here’s how that conversation went recently while driving in the car:

Me: “Lily, we’re going to go to a wedding in a few weeks!”

Lily: “We are?!!”  [IMMEDIATELY] “Yay!  I’m so excited!!!”

Me: “Now, you’ve been to weddings before, but I want to talk with you about this one because it will be a little different.”

Lily:  “Different how?”

Me: “Well, do you remember Daddy’s friend, Mike?”

Lily: “No.”  [Kids don’t remember your friends]

Me:  “Well, Mike is daddy’s friend and he’s a priest, kind of like the priest at St. Margaret of Scotland where you used to go to school.”

Lily: “So it’s different because he’s a priest?”

Me: “Sort of. But it’s mostly different because Mike is going to marry another boy.  His name is Ellis.  You’ve met him too, I think.”

Lily: “Oh!  Okay!”

Me: “How does that sound?”

Lily: “Exciting!  Some of the boys at school said boys couldn’t marry boys, but I knew they were wrong.”

Me: “Yeah, they didn’t know what they were talking about.  Boys are like that sometimes.”

And the day of the wedding, Mike and Ellis got married before God and everyone else, Lily loved it (and so did we), and we tried to go out to two different restaurants afterward, but one had too long of a wait and the other was closed.  It was pretty ordinary, really.  But good.  And I had the distinct sense that God was there.  And that God was pleased.

And I think that same thing now about SCOTUS.

I have avoided posting about it in social media, because I didn’t want to co-opt the joy and pain of the gay community as my own.  I have enough of both to go around.

But as a bystander, sometimes participant, and always supporter of the lives of my gay friends and clients, the SCOTUS decision is a metaphor for the culmination of a process that has been at-play for some ten or twenty years in my life.  A process that has entailed earnest work through my own issues and my own Christianity, their intersection with other important matters in life, my psychotherapeutic work, and the interplay of all these things with with my own fatherhood, and the values of love, justice, and charity that I want to instill in my little ones.

lily and mayaAs for the continual dissenters, I love you in Christ.  But I do not want to argue with you, and I do not intend to spend my time refuting your Facebook posts and Tweets.

Instead, I simply invoke the wisdom of my six year-old:

Some of you said boys couldn’t marry boys, but I knew you were wrong.


 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under creative commons license.

Police Academy image courtesy of Youtube,  used under creative commons license.

A Time to Embrace image courtesy of Amazon.com,  used under creative commons license.

Mike & Ellis image courtesy of Mike and Ellis!

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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