The first time I heard of “homosexuals,” I was completely confused.
I was a sheltered Christian kid and I’d never heard the term, so I asked a more worldly friend about it.
As my friend explained it, homosexuals were men who put their you-know-what in another man’s you-know-where, which was probably the grossest thing I’d ever heard.
“BUT WHY?!” I wanted to know. Why would anyone want to do such a thing?
“I have no earthly idea,” my friend replied.
For many years, that’s what I thought homosexuality was. I thought gay men were perverts who weren’t content with God’s design—and had therefore decided to push the sexual envelope by engaging in male-male sex. (Why? I didn’t know. Maybe for the sexual thrill? Or to rebel against God? I wasn’t sure.)
In my mind, “homosexuality” was some form of bizarre, kinky sex for crazy people.
But then something happened.
When I’d hit puberty and all my friends had started to feel attraction to girls, I hadn’t. I had started to feel attraction to guys instead. For years I’d denied it to myself or written it off as a phase, but finally, I had to face the truth: that in spite of my strong faith and the fact that I was dating girls, I had never been attracted to women, no matter how hard I tried.
It took me many years and many prayerful, tearful nights to admit that my brain is wired differently from most guys’. What they feel for girls, I feel for guys. And what they feel for guys, I feel for girls. I can be great friends with a woman, but I can’t fall in love with her. A close female friend feels like a sister, not a lover.
And that’s when I realized:
So that’s what people mean when they say they’re “gay.”
It’s not about sex at all.
It’s about what you feel inside. It’s about how you relate to other people. It’s about who you’re attracted to—not just physically, but romantically and emotionally. It’s about who you could—or couldn’t—fall in love with.
And this is why people fight so much about homosexuality.
As I’ve written before, “homosexuality” isn’t a helpful word, because it’s far too vague. If you believe, as I did, that homosexuality is something people do—a sex act—then a lot of stuff about gay people seems silly or senseless. Of course you wouldn’t compare a sex act to marriage. Of course you wouldn’t talk about a sex act around children or in polite company. Of course you wouldn’t ask for public endorsement of a sex act.
This is how I saw the gay rights movement for many years: It made no sense to me, because I thought homosexuality was about a sex act. And lots of people still do. You can tell because of the comparisons they make—comparing it to sexually abusing animals or children, for instance—and because of the questions they ask, like, “Why can’t you just keep it in the bedroom?”
They’re not trying to be mean. They’re really, genuinely baffled by it all. Just like I was.
But here’s the truth: I’m gay, and my life isn’t about sex. Some of my gay friends are having sex, and some aren’t. What we have in common isn’t sex; it’s that our brains are wired differently from our straight friends’ brains. We didn’t ask for it. Some of us fought for years—even decades—to try to become attracted to the opposite sex. Others accepted themselves early on. All of us are faced with the same situation: We can fall in love with the same sex, but not the opposite sex. We could choose to be celibate, but we can’t choose to be straight.
Is it any surprise, then, that most gay people—like most straight people—want to fall in love and have a romantic relationship with someone? Is it any surprise that physical intimacy, including sex, is usually a part of that relationship?
“But Justin,” some Christians say to me, “maybe you didn’t choose your feelings, but can’t you just treat them as a temptation and abstain? I chose to abstain from sex until I got married.”
Well, yes, of course I can, but that’s exactly my point. Even if I abstain from sex for my entire life, I’m still gay, and I’m still alone.
Let me say that again: A celibate gay person is still gay, and still has to figure out how to live the rest of their life. So yes, I could choose to be celibate, but that still doesn’t solve the question of how I live the rest of my life as a gay Christian.
As a gay Christian, I have a lot of questions about my future: What if I fall in love some day? What if I don’t? If I end up alone—by choice or by chance—what happens to me if I get sick and there’s no one to take care of me? And if I do fall in love with a guy and decide to build a life with him, I’m pretty confident that 99% of the questions and challenges I’ll face will have nothing to do with sex. Relationships are hard, no matter who you are. So if your only concern about my life is whether I’m having sex, it sure doesn’t seem like you’re thinking very much about me as a person.
Yes, sex and sexuality are part of life. But now I understand something I didn’t understand before: Gay, straight, or bi, a person’s “sexual orientation” isn’t just a sexual orientation. It’s how you’re wired: sexually, yes, but also emotionally, romantically, relationally.
Homosexuality isn’t about a sex act any more than heterosexuality is. Some gay people never even have sex, and those who do, don’t all have it the same way. But we’re all human, we all feel loneliness, and we all crave love.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people out there who think homosexuality is a sex act. As long as that misconception exists, they’ll keep right on being baffled by my calling myself a gay Christian, and my gay friends will keep right on being frustrated at what seems like a total lack of human compassion.
And me, I’ll just keep right on saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Read more about this in my book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, available in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.