Reasonable people are frightened by scary things. It’s healthy to be afraid of pain. But sometimes, we can’t stop thinking about the possibility of pain. Our minds ruminate on fear, particularly when the risks seem too great and healthy fears grow into debilitating anxiety.
We grew up in different spaces: Brenna in the post-Christian Pacific Northwest and Pieter in Bible-belt Tennessee. We’ve arrived at very different destinations: Brenna is a married mom and Pieter is celibate starting a monastery. But we both grew up in spaces where God’s love and wisdom for gay people weren’t spoken about.
Except for conversations about politics.
We can both remember moments when our families were watching cable news in the 2000s, pundits debated the legalization of gay marriage, and family members commented about their disgust for gay marriage. With frustration, family members would bemoan cultural decay and the gay agenda’s attempts to undermine the institution of marriage.
The few times gay marriage came up in church, Christian leaders offered a simple statement, “God is against homosexuality.”
So when each of us realized we were attracted to people of the same sex, we ran quickly into the proverbial closet, slammed the door, and deadbolted it from the inside. The closet is the metaphor gay people use for the time during which we’re aware of our sexuality but hide that reality from the rest of the world in a dark, lonely closet—hoping others will instead assume we are straight.
Crossing the Closet Threshold
Why did we run and hide? We feared if people knew we were gay, we’d be associated with the gay agenda and disgusted alongside them. We feared how pastors and parents who preached that God was against homosexuality would treat us when they realized we were homosexuals. We were afraid of getting sent to gay conversion therapy or shipped off to pray-the-gay-away camp or kicked out of our house. In short, we were afraid that if we were fully known, we would not be loved.
Just before Brenna entered her teen years, the sights and sounds of Westboro Baptist were seared into her mind. Although the infamous picketers only existed in her world through the news, the lack of nuance from her own church eventually led her to question her salvation and ability to live in faithfulness to Christ. Without an invitation to struggle in the light, she hid as best she could for fear of hate and mistreatment.
For fear of being outed and tormented, we resolved to live in the closet. The risk of pain was scary, and we found ourselves constantly afraid and looking for threats. A thick air of anxiety hung in the closet.
Life in the Dark
That pressure cooker of worry and suppression reached a breaking point during Pieter’s first year in college. He was a music minor and often used the soft-proof practice rooms in the basement of his dorm to hone a difficult section. Other times he would carry his instrument down the stairs and pass friends studying at tables with no intention of practicing. Instead, he shut the door, turned off the lights, lay on the ground, and cried. He exhausted himself screaming and cursing at himself and God. And no one heard.
We tried to soothe our anxiety and reduce the risk of pain by becoming straight (or at least convincing the outside world and even ourselves that we were straight).
For a decade Pieter daily pleaded with God to make him straight, attended 100+ hours of gay-conversation therapy and retreats, and completed a nine-month internship with a charismatic ex-gay ministry—all hoping to change his sexual orientation. While he waited (unsuccessfully) for his straight conversion, he hoped to convince others he wasn’t gay. Pieter analyzed how he spoke, walked, and gestured. He rehearsed mental scripts for joining in when straight guys objectified female classmates. Pieter forced himself to date girls. Despite having back-to-back lead roles in school plays, he quit theater when the gay theater kid stereotype began circulating. He argued vehemently against the legalization of gay marriage in history class, hoping no one would suspect that the super-Jesusy guy who played soccer and dated girls and spoke critically of gay people could possibly be gay himself.
Brenna resorted to sharing her attractions secretly online in an attempt to feel known but instead, her anxiety grew. She became restless over the idea that if found out by her community, she would be rejected. These thoughts, compiled with her struggle with depression, pushed her closer and closer to contemplating suicide. As her prayers to “be made straight” failed, she felt as if her options for living a life fully known were fading fast.
In short, the closet was catastrophic.
The Unsafe Space
Some might be comforted that the cultural environment has changed in many communities. Today, when a preteen or teen shares they are gay, they are celebrated in many schools and churches. They are affirmed that we’ve been made for romantic love and have a right to romantic love with those we are most drawn to. They’re encouraged to get the love they want (with consent) and realize the American dream of Disney channel romance.
Yet, embracing a progressive sexual ethic isn’t a solution. It’s just a risk of another kind. We’ve both experienced ignoring God’s wisdom to be pleasing in the short term but, eventually, indulging in same-sex romantic and sexual relationships brought great destruction to our lives and the lives of gay Christian brothers and sisters. We’ve watched too many of our same-sex-attracted Christian friends, once committed to God’s wisdom, move to a progressive sexual ethic, only to be unrecognizably Christian a few years later—not because God was punishing them, but because the theological acrobatics necessary to justify gay marriage in Scripture eventually led to doubt of whether the God of the Bible exists at all.
Secular spaces shout a convincing but destructive lie, “Come out and take what you want. It will satisfy you.”
That’s the double burden of gay Christians today. Spaces offering a progressive sexual ethic are still risky to come out in because too often you’ll be met with pressures to embrace destructive ideas and paths. Other spaces continue with the same homophobia and pray-the-gay-away solutions of our youth. And the rest are mostly silent. Unfortunately, most Christian teens who realize they’re same-sex attracted continue to grow up in a space where, one way or another, it’s risky to share. Uncertainty and anxiety still tempt teens into the closet. Staying hidden still feels like the least bad option for many Christians. Our pews and youth groups and Bible studies continue to be sprinkled with followers of Christ wrestling with their sexuality alone.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Rearranging the Room
Instead, our churches can eliminate the pain of the closet by ensuring that kids share with their parents early and navigate their sexuality together according to God’s wisdom. Parents and pastors can teach kids in age-appropriate ways about God-honoring sexual stewardship across the lifespan. Parents can talk to every kid before puberty about God’s love and wisdom for gay people, demonstrating safety and inviting children to share early. As a result, we hope kids share with parents as soon as they notice same-sex attractions, avoiding the anxiety of the closet, avoiding parents who will try to make them straight, and avoiding influences encouraging them to embrace the idol of romance. In short, the solution to anxiety isn’t certainty. It’s being known. And our churches should be the best place for a young person to come out and be known.
Being known helped Brenna draw closer to Jesus. Later in high school, her youth pastor asked her directly about her sexuality. While startling at first, the honesty meant she no longer needed to avoid church. It was easier for her to enjoy Christian fellowship, even though she was only “out” to a few people. Her youth pastor’s kindness made space for her to ask tough questions and wrestle with her faith in community, rather than in the closet. What if she had shared with her entire small group? How much more belonging might she have experienced? She prays the church her kids and their friends grow up in is one where they feel safe to share early and live honestly.
The biggest barrier to saving same-sex attraction teens from the anxiety of the closet might be the anxiety of parents and pastors. Many conservative Christians are afraid that talking about sexuality will encourage kids to explore outside of faith spaces and ultimately embrace ideas contrary to God’s wisdom.
By God’s grace, Brenna and Pieter stuck around Bible-believing churches just long enough to find a few pastors and mentors who could hold space for their honest questions while carefully nudging them toward God’s wisdom. Through some combination of God’s faithfulness, their stubborn obedience, and intermittently nourishing discipleship, they held on.
But too many of their friends didn’t.
Their gay Christian friends never found space to make sense of their sincere doubts with faithful Christians.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, if we’re convinced that a biblical sexual ethic is true, then shouldn’t we be confident God’s wisdom will prevail? When important questions are considered in a genuine search for the truth, his truth wins out. The biggest threat to faithful same-sex attracted teens isn’t their honest inquiries. It’s the fear and anxiety of parents and pastors that chokes out spaces for honest conversation, leaving teens to process without God’s grace and truth in the words and embraces of parents and pastors.
We’re so grateful for the divine conspiracy of love that kept each of us in God’s arms. We pray our stories of faithfulness and thriving become increasingly unexceptional because non-anxious parents and pastors make the dangers of the closet increasingly unnecessary. Reasonable people are frightened by scary things. Being the safe place for questions and conversations with same-sex attracted people—particularly teens—isn’t reasonably scary; it is an overwhelming honor. Instead of hiding from those moments, we can receive them as an invitation into the good works that Christ has prepared for us.
Cover image by Nathan Dumlao.