Truth be told, I’m not very comfortable with absolutes. I suppose that is in large part due to my personality type (for you Myers-Briggs junkies, I’m an INFP). I love to live in the world of grey, even though at times that raises tension and challenge. But besides my personal bent, I think I have had too many experiences where I’ve seen the use, or misuse, of absolutes cause hurt and pain and exclusion. I often feel like an absolute disallows room and space for that one (or many) possible exceptions. I’m always looking for the uniqueness in a person’s story and expect that I will encounter people and situations that don’t fit the formula.
Recently¸ in another forum, I was asked if I could unequivocally state that I would never refer someone to an ex-gay program even if they indicated that was what they desired. The context for this query came around the issue of trust – and whether gay Christians could, or should, ever trust a straight leader like me who had been part of the ex-gay paradigm.
Trust is a big question for me. I well understand that once trust has been broken, it is no small matter to restore it. I don’t think that just because someone says they are my brother or sister in Christ I should carte blanche extend untested trust. While I believe God challenges us to learn to restore trust, and to begin anew with people, trust, to some extent, does need to be earned. But trust will always be a leap off the cliff too. You can’t guarantee that trust will be kept. There is no formula – including the exertion of absolutes – to ensure that trust will be perfect and that pain can be completely avoided.
The absolute that was asked of me in that particular question is understandably asked from the perspective of suspicion, caution, and the desire to protect vulnerable individuals from the pain the questioner has experienced through ex-gay ministry. The risk of this kind of desired protection, however, is that it robs individuals of the autonomy and opportunity to make their own choices and decisions. Because of this, my stance has always been to put individual autonomy as a priority – even as I fully believe we are called into community.
My role, as I see it, is to the best of my ability describe the various options, to be honest about “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the options, to be careful to explore realistic expectations with the individual, to try to help them clarify their beliefs, values and goals and then make a choice that is most congruent with these factors, and to help individuals work through any fear or shame so that ultimately their decisions arise out of a place of love and security. For those who fear that I am not presenting the truth, that I’m just being a relativist, that I’m presenting all the options as equally valid – I think you miss the point. I seek to listen with people to the ways God is leading (if they are followers of Christ that is). Part of that listening is testing options in light of Scripture, wrestling through prayer, considering what other Christians have discerned in the past, and asking God to enliven discernment. But at the end of the day, I don’t need to fear exposing people to different options – because I can fully trust that the Holy Spirit is more than able to lead, guide and direct. I do not have to be directive in people’s lives. I simply have to be present – staying in step with the Holy Spirit and obeying whatever he asks me to do.
At the conference I attended in Denver there was a sharing time on the final evening. A young man stood up and spoke of his painful experience with ex-gay ministry and that he had been recently suicidal. He then named the ministry as New Direction. My stomach dropped and I felt ill. I did not recognize this young man – but he looked about 18 years old so I assumed it must have been during my time with the ministry that he had had such a difficult and painful experience. When he returned to his seat, I gently approached him. I said that I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was, but that I was the current director of New Direction and that I wanted to apologize on behalf of the ministry for the pain he had experienced. We embraced and he wept. It turned out that he was quite a bit older than he looked and that his time in the ministry was seven years before I took on my role. He knew that his difficult experience was a combination of a number of factors – and was able to extend grace. It was a healing moment for both of us as we, together, received God’s grace in our moments of conversation.
Last week I had the opportunity to have coffee with another man who had previous interactions with New Direction. He has gifts in music and a worshipping heart – and I had asked him to lead worship for a number of events that we’d hosted. His main ministry experience was in Living Waters – which is separate from New Direction. Some years ago, after his honest reflection that his orientation was not changing, he experienced a painful parting of the ways with the LW team. I was grateful for his openness to have coffee with me. And we both reflected on our journeys and the ways that God has continued to lead and grow us. It was good to reconnect. It was good to be honest with one another – and extend grace to one another.
In both of these experiences, and the many other times I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with those who have had past experience with New Direction in its ex-gay years, there is the sharing of both pain and some good memories too. It is rarely all one or the other. It isn’t absolute – it is a mixed up sense of grey. Often times, the individuals say that they needed to connect first with something like New Direction to even begin to be honest with themselves. Sometimes they express that they needed to be able to look back and feel like they’d explored that option before they could move on to different options. Some reflect on ways they grew close to God – and others mourn the distance they experienced in their walk with God during their ex-gay experiences. I am amazed by the capacity for graciousness I often encounter. And where that grace is lacking, I know there is a depth of pain. And I am committed to do whatever I am able to do to try to prevent those kinds of painful experiences.
That’s why New Direction is no longer an ex-gay ministry. It’s why our postures have dramatically changed over the years. In the postures of humility, graciousness and generosity we seek to be present in people’s lives in a manner that allows them space to really explore and consider the way they will move forward in integrating their faith and experience of sexuality. For some, this may mean they want to explore the potential for bi-sexual functioning and the possibility of heterosexual marriage. I can share with them the real stories I’ve encountered – which includes stories of healthy, vibrant marriages – but also includes stories of absolutely tragic and traumatic breakdown. I can share with them the importance of really knowing and understanding your motives for wanting to explore this route. I can talk with them about realistic expectations, the importance of authenticity, and can connect them to others. But I cannot make their decision for them. Mixed orientation marriage is not something I recommend. But if someone decides to take this route, then I will love and support them and serve them to the best of my ability. And I will pray that God will bring blessing and love into their lives.
Some years ago, I asked an ex-gay survivor activist their opinion on whether or not mixed orientation marriages could ever really work. I was intrigued by how they would respond. Their response was, I thought honest and generous while being realistic. Their sense was that if the spouses were best friends, with both having a relatively low sex drive, the priority of having children and raising a family, and shared a very strong faith commitment, such a marriage might be life-giving and healthy for both spouses and their family. Now I know others will think of other scenarios in which mixed-orientation marriages can and do function in a life-giving way. That isn’t my point. My point is that this ex-gay survivor activist knew that absolutes don’t make room for the exceptions.
There can be a fluidity to sexuality – no absolutes there. The biggest question for me is not whether someone wants to explore their potential to intimately connect to a heterosexual partner, the biggest question is what is driving them to want to do so. If they are coming from a healthy place of self-acceptance where fear and shame no longer bind them – then for me to somehow seek to prevent them from considering an avenue that has caused hurt in others (who likely didn’t come from such healthy starting points) would be fundamentally patronizing. It would be to insinuate that they are incapable of making an informed and mature decision for themselves. It would be to say that I, as a straight person, know better than you do the potentiality of your experience of sexuality. That would be a travesty. Even if I weren’t mainly straight, even if I had my own experience with same-sex attraction, if I attempted to project my experience on the journey of another – how ineffective and insulting that would be. Each person needs to be free to own their own journey and make their own decisions – even when they make decisions that we sometimes wish they would not make.
I fully accept the reality that some people experience a persistent and predominant orientation to the same sex. And I fully support people living honest and authentic lives if this is their experience. What I increasingly see among young people who have experienced a very persistent sense of same-sex orientation for as long as they can remember, is that they have no desire to explore the possibility of being able to connect to an opposite sex partner. It is completely foreign to them and their sense of authenticity prevents them from even wanting to go down that path. In the last few years, I rarely encounter anyone who wants to try to experience shifts in the direction of their attractions.
But I also know, that sexuality isn’t always that cut and dried. I know that sometimes it takes some time to figure out where you land. And I know that this journey is made all the more complex when there are beliefs and values based on Scripture that, for some, will put boundaries on their ability to express their same-sex sexuality in intimate relationship with another. What we most need is space for open, honest, informed conversation, where people can experience support and encouragement to receive God’s love and direction for their lives. Externally imposed absolutes, even when established with the desire to protect people from pain, become barriers to this kind of generous spaciousness.