Coming to an awareness of my sexuality was an interesting journey for me, because it happened in a number of different stages. Someone asked me on the weekend, “When did you realise you were gay?” and I realised that there wasn’t just one answer to that question.
I vividly remember having an intense crush on another boy when I was about six years old. Being so young, my experience of having a crush didn’t involve any specifically sexual urges as such, and you could even say it wasn’t strictly ‘romantic’ in the conventional use of the word. However, I was consumed by a very deep emotional pull towards this boy, so much so that I literally lost sleep over him. I had no category for understanding what it was to be “gay” back then and wasn’t even aware of the possibility of same-sex relationships, so my six-year-old self experienced this crush in rather unconventional ways. I fantasised about a future together with this guy, but not as a couple – remember, I had no category for that. Instead, I imagined us living in a house together, as best friends, sharing life together in beautiful and intimate ways as the closest of brotherly companions. I longed for his physical embrace, but not in a sexual way; I craved his arm on my shoulder, his strong, masculine hug. Because I experienced attraction to men in primarily non-sexual ways, it took me years to realise this emotional obsession had been my first real crush.
Some years later, puberty hit and I noticed I was experiencing sexual attraction to men. I was probably around 12 at the time. Even then, it took years to realise that this experience of being a man who liked men was what other people described when they used the word “gay.” I grew up in a conservative religious environment where being gay was described as a choice, a lifestyle, and since I had never made a deliberate choice, I naturally assumed it didn’t apply to me. I knew I wasn’t straight but I didn’t know what I was because I didn’t know other people like me and no one ever talked about the existence of gay Christians!
After I’d left home and matured more as a young adult, I slowly started to admit to myself and others what I’d realised about my sexuality. At first I felt most comfortable using the description of “same-sex attracted.” I’ve since moved towards “gay” as a clearer description of my experience and one which more readily connects my experience with that of others like me.
I feel much more confident in own skin now, after going through a process of coming out to myself and to the important people in my life. Even though having those initial conversations was terrifying, I feel so free now being able to speak openly about my experience. This openness has led to feeling more deeply known and understood by the people who love me. It’s also given me the opportunity to connect with others who share my experience of sexuality. There’s something really life-giving about identifying and connecting with other minorities, because being gay, celibate, and Christian has the potential to be a really lonely journey without this. I think 18-year-old Matthew would be quite surprised at the amount of openness, freedom, and support I’ve come to enjoy in recent years.
As a Christian, I’m convinced God created the world and everything in it, that he has a purpose and a design to everything he has made, and that he is a deeply loving God who wants the very best for his people. This is why when God says things like ‘marriage is between a man and woman,’ I’m able to trust him. I can’t rationalise why God would forbid same-sex sexual relationships, and I sometimes describe this as one of those issues where I would disagree with God. But because I’m convinced God loves me, even if disagree with him and don’t understand, I am able to trust him more than I trust my own reasoning. Have you ever trusted someone so deeply because of their love for you that you followed their instruction even when you didn’t agree? Often that’s what following God feels like to me.
What I find hard is the apparent arbitrariness of God’s teaching on same-sex relationships. I know that marriage’s ultimate purpose is to be a picture of God’s love for his bride – the universal body of believers – and that the complementarity of the male-female relationship reflects God’s relationship to us, but rational explanations like that don’t do much to assuage the grief of falling in love with a man I can never marry without compromising my deepest convictions. I am deeply comforted by God’s teaching on a number of other issues that actually make the whole endeavour much more plausible. For example that ‘family’ is redefined by Jesus as our church community; that the deepest sort of love is to be found in platonic relationships within community; and that no human, no matter how ‘in love’ we are with them, will ever be able to meet our deepest longings the way Jesus can; all work together to make this teaching on sexuality not just plausible but even attractive to me.
Perhaps what I find hardest is having this conversation with other gay or bi people who are considering what Jesus means to them and who are confronted with the implications for their own relationships. I grieve with those who have left partners behind to follow Jesus, at the same time as I rejoice that they’ve discovered a deeper love worth giving up anything to pursue. Most of all, I grieve when I see someone turn away from Jesus because the implications for their sexuality and relationships make them feel that Jesus mustn’t truly love them. I resonate with these emotions, and I grieve that they feel they need to choose between Jesus and their loved ones.
As I go through life in a romance and sex-obsessed world, being celibate makes me something of a freak, and I fear being misunderstood by people. To a degree, I don’t really expect people to understand me if they don’t understand my worldview, so I often avoid this conversation with people who aren’t Christian. People can be quick to form their own conclusions about my being a self-hating homophobe, and either pity me or are judgmental of my life choices (ironically). A few people have listened well and understood where I’m coming from, but I find it is hard to bridge the worldview gap. If someone doesn’t understand why I love Jesus, how can I expect them to understand why I’d devote my life to following him? Our world sees romance and sex as the meaning of life and source of happiness, so people are usually just baffled that I would voluntarily choose something like celibacy.
I’m also extremely conscious of the hurt many queer people have experienced from the Church, so I try to be sensitive in sharing my story in a way that doesn’t make them feel judged. It’s very difficult to talk about my reasons for choosing celibacy without being heard as passing judgment on them and their relationships. For this reason, I usually choose not to talk about being gay or celibate with another gay person until I’ve developed enough depth of relationship for them to know that I love them (and their partner) unconditionally. That is the best context for a tricky conversation that requires a lot of humility and trust from both sides.
Personally, I feel more at home in the church than anywhere else because it best embodies the core values that I hold myself. It’s where I feel most understood. Church to me is a genuine community where I feel most deeply known and intimately loved. When church is what it’s supposed to be – a family – then it’s easy to feel valued and loved as a single person. I have many church friends who are closer than a brother, toddlers who adore me as a kind of uncle figure and whose parents treasure the way I care for their kids, and older mentors who are like parents to me. I almost never find myself missing a romantic relationship or having a family of my own when I have the support of my church family.
At times it has been lonely being one of the few gay people in my church community, but I’m discovering that there are more and more of us hiding away. Sadly, most gay Christians don’t yet feel safe speaking openly about their stories, so it’s hard for us to identify and encourage each other.
I’m very privileged to be in a church that I think does a great job of loving gay people, both Christian and non-Christian. However, I’m frequently hurt or angered by ways the wider global church has hurt gay people. The 2016 same-sex marriage postal vote was an awful time of hearing some pretty vile things spoken primarily by Christians. I won’t repeat those things, but if you’re gay then you know exactly what I’m talking about and you likely have plenty of stories of your own. If you’re not, maybe you could consider sitting down with a gay friend and listening to what this experience was like. I think the Church has a lot to answer for in the way we’ve failed to show gay people Jesus’ love.
Overall, I think the Church in Australia is trying really hard to better understand and love gay people, but we’ve got a way to go yet. I’d love to see church become a place where queer people are spoken of as ‘us,’ not ‘them.’ I’d love to see us take more time to sit with people and listen to their stories before we jump to correct their theology. I’d love to see churches that aren’t obsessed with marriage and biological family but instead celebrate the diversity of our family and treasure each person for the unique ways they can show God’s love to each other.