My name is Grant Hartley, I’m currently twenty-six, and I’m a Christian who is gay and pursuing lifelong celibacy.
My elementary school classmates seemed to be the first to recognize that I was different than other boys my age; throughout my school years, I was consistently ridiculed for the way I talked, my interests, the way I dressed. The most stinging of the insults I received repeatedly, long before I understood my sexuality, was that I was gay. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home in a rural community, which meant that all gay people were assumed to be living in active rebellion against God.
When I was around thirteen, the realization dawned on me that I was drawn, in a complex, multilayered way, to other boys my age, in the same way that they seemed to be drawn to the girls. At first it was difficult to discern — did I just long to be “one of the guys”, or desire an intimate friendship with them? — but eventually it became clear that my attraction, while it definitely included a desire for comradery and intimate friendship, also included the desire to kiss them, to hold them, even to have sex with them.
It felt both confusing and catastrophic, and at the time, I thought it was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to me. I began to pray in earnest that God would make me “normal”; but it felt like I received no answer. It seemed like God was either distant or angry with me. I had made a decision to follow Jesus when I was eight, and had endeavored throughout my childhood to “follow the rules”; I was crushed by the realization that, as hard as I prayed and as much as I struggled, my attraction to other guys was not changing.
My college years were a time of huge transitions. I became involved pretty quickly with a campus ministry, and my spiritual life was transformed; I started to believe that God not only loved me in some abstract sense, but also liked me, longed for an intimate relationship with me, and his love was truly a free gift. I had known this intellectually when I was younger, but it had not sunk down from my head into my heart. The fog of shame lifted, I was able to bring my full, unvarnished self into a real relationship with God and with a community of believers, and I grew tremendously.
It was still difficult not to feel anxiety about my future, however. I was taught growing up that Scripture was clear: same-sex sexual activity is off-limits for those who follow Christ. As I dove deep into research, and prayer, and discussion with trusted friends and spiritual leaders about how to reconcile my faith and sexuality, that belief did not really change so much as it deepened. I found myself believing that God did not have marriage and husband in store for me, which was painful precisely because I did not have a vision for what a good, fulfilling Christian life could look like without a spouse (and especially without sex!).
Fortunately, around this time I began to see the beauty and joy that a life of celibacy in pursuit of Christ had to offer. Contrary to the impression I got while growing up, I learned celibacy was not synonymous with loneliness or isolation, defined primarily by its lack of intimacy; it offered an opportunity for increased mobility, for unhindered devotion to God, and, shockingly to me, an opportunity for even more relationship. For the first time in my life, celibacy seemed like good news to me, and I decided, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, to pursue it.
Unexpectedly, God also began to lead me to engage deeply with the local LGBT+ community. At first, I started attending the LGBT+ organization on campus only to initiate relationships that would lead to sharing the gospel, but soon I came to realize that my non-Christian LGBT+ friends had a lot of things to teach me (about overcoming self-hatred and resting in God’s love, among other things), and that LGBT+ people have many gifts and talents to offer the Church. I began to see the LGBT+ community as, in some sense, “my people”, and that also meant a shift in how I understood myself..
I moved away from using words like “same-sex attraction” to describe my experience, for several reasons. First, for me, it seemed to give the false impression that my attraction to men was somehow separable from the rest of my experience. Second, it made my attraction to guys all about sexual desire, and not any of the other kinds of attraction I experienced. Third, it implied that the whole of my sexuality was wrong and sinful and bad, rather than a mixture of brokenness and beauty, and fourth, it was a phrase that was pretty incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
Instead, I began to call myself “gay”, which was not only understandable, but also seemed to convey that my sexuality was good and bad, a possible source of temptation, yes, but also possible source of joy, just like any other person’s sexuality. The word also allowed me to identify culturally with the LGBT+ community, to claim them as “my people”. This was a very personal decision for me, one that I definitely do not believe is best for everyone who experiences same-sex attraction.
I am still very much convinced of the goodness and beauty of what can be called the “traditional sexual ethic”: God intends for sex to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman for life, and celibacy is an equally beautiful and valid vocation alongside marriage. But there are several significant obstacles in our churches and Christian communities to me, and others like me, living out that conviction.
First, there is not often a compelling vision for singleness and celibacy, a vision that treats celibacy as a positive good and not a necessary evil. Singleness is discussed only as a temporary period that will eventually end in marriage, not a valid option to pursue for life, like many of the prophets, the apostle Paul, and Jesus himself. “Family values” has oftentimes meant an idolatry of sex and the nuclear family, which leaves single people feeling unseen, unvalued, and unsupported.
Second, friendship is undervalued or trivialised, viewed as somehow less significant or meaningful than marriage. Phrases like “just friends” and “more than friends” train us to think of friendship as unimportant, and marriage idolatry is the nail in the coffin. Oftentimes, our cultural view of friendship is wildly out of step with the biblical view, exemplified by David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and Jesus and the beloved disciple.
And third, homophobia is alive and well. Jokes and snide remarks about gay people abound, and those of us who are same-sex attracted or gay have often chosen to stay closeted, out of fear of what will happen if people knew. Conservative Christians often fall into a “culture wars” mindset in addressing sexuality, and LGBT+ people are treated as issues to be debated rather than human beings to be loved, or as enemies rather than friends.
There is little recognition of the realities: that many gay and same-sex attracted people are not “out there”, but sitting in the pews, that we long to feel included, that we love Jesus and his Church deeply, passionately.
I long for a recovery in our churches and Christian communities of the biblical vision for human relationships, including singleness and celibacy, friendship, and the image of God in LGBT+ people. The moments in which I have felt most supported by friends and family have been moments in which that vision has been articulated, defended, and lived out.
When I encounter hatred or discrimination against LGBT+ people out in the world, I have been encouraged to have friends who believed me when I shared it with them, who empathised with my anger and hurt, and who, when possible, spoke up and defended us.
When a pastor or spiritual leader casually drops a phrase like “when you get married”, or forgets to even allude to the experiences of same-sex attracted people in discussions of relationships, it has meant a lot to me when many of my friends have spoken up, validating my existence and affirming the goodness and beauty of celibacy.
When yet another news story comes out related to LGBT+ issues (another denominational decision about sexual ethics, another celebrity coming out, a report of another hate crime perpetrated against an LGBT+ person), I have been encouraged to have friends reach out to me to let me know that they heard about it, to hear my perspective, and to see how I am doing.
Perhaps the most meaningful thing my straight Christian friends (especially my male friends) have done to care for me is being physically affectionate with me. Being attracted to men has meant both that I greatly desire male intimacy, but also that I fear other men will hold me at arm’s length if they know about my sexuality, which is a catch-22 that can be incredibly isolating (and has sometimes been called “touch starvation”). I have felt very loved and supported when my guy friends have been unafraid to embrace me.
I have great hope for how the Church is moving forward when it comes to articulating and living out the traditional sexual ethic and supporting those of us who are same-sex attracted or gay. I hope these thoughts will be helpful as we continue to do that together.