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First Encounters

I entered high school in the early ‘90s, at a time when gay rights was gathering momentum. I’m not sure how prominent talk about gay rights actually was, but I know that I got tired of hearing about it pretty quickly.

The phrase “gay and proud” was making its rounds, and I remember wondering why on earth people were talking about this so much. I had only heard about one gay person in our high school and I was pretty sure I would have known if there were others. Bullying is frowned upon much more strongly today than it was back then, and while it’s shameful to admit, during those early high school years, I often played the role of the perpetrator.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

All of the “gay and proud” talk was getting to me, so I decided I would take a stand of my own. Always willing to go the extra mile for a little attention, I went home one day, found a white t-shirt and some fabric markers and designed myself a shirt that I would wear to school the next day. Across the front in large, stylized letters, it read, “Straight and Proud.” On the back of the shirt, at the base of the neck, I drew a cartoon boy and girl holding hands with a box underneath marked with a bright red checkmark.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever told anyone this story, and chances are, no one besides me remembers that t-shirt even existed. But even as I finished typing that sentence, I had the realization that, of course, there was almost certainly more than one gay person at our high school of 1400 students. As much as I hate to think of it, perhaps there are others who remember that t-shirt, others for whom that kind of intolerance was just one episode of many that made their high school experience a living hell. My God, forgive us for the harm we do to people without even giving it a thought!

(Close to a year after writing this entry, my teenage children had the idea that it would be great if they could “score some sweet threads” from their parents’ past. I did some searching around the house and found a bag of old clothes in our cold room. It was musty from twenty years of neglect, but I had initially tucked it away just in case this very situation arose, so I was pretty excited to untie the knot and see what was inside. Among the clothes neatly folded in the bag was the ‘Straight and Proud’ shirt. It was just as I had remembered it, and it made my heart beat a little faster holding it there in my hands after all we had been through over the past year. My oldest son told me to get rid of it, that I should be ashamed to own something like that, but I told him it was part of my past—a part that I don’t ever want to forget—and that I thought I would hang on to it for a while longer.)

Reflecting back on this episode, I’m having a hard time placing it on the timeline of my high school years. My initial recollection was that the t-shirt had no religious motivation whatsoever, but I’m starting to second-guess myself. During my first two years of high school, I didn’t make connections between sexual behaviour and morality. Neither my parents nor my childhood church had ever suggested that homosexuality was sinful. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I don’t recall making any connection at all between sexual behaviour and morality until I started dating a Pentecostal girl who told me that she was “saving herself for marriage,” something that was clearly a deep disappointment for me at the time!

While I was pretty sure the t-shirt belonged in those first two years of high school when I would have pulled a stunt like that just to get a laugh, I realized recently that the lettering on the front was written in the same style as the cover of Counting Crows’ debut album, August and Everything After. The significance of this seemingly random piece of pop culture trivia is that this particular album was released in September 1993, which would place this event a year or two later than I remember.

Why does a detail like this matter? Because this revised timeline pushes my “creative t-shirt protest” into the next phase of my life where it’s quite likely that I did this with some form of religious motivation, and this realization makes the whole thing that much more shameful for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I met my future wife on the first day of high school. Grade nine can be a pretty exciting time for a boy: After exhausting all opportunities to date the girls in a much smaller middle school, high school suddenly kicked the doors wide open with endless opportunities to impress and win over any of the dozens of attractive girls who were suddenly walking down the same hallways and sitting in the same classrooms. But Melissa Schaefer was clearly the most attractive of the lot. Despite the fact that her prospects had likewise expanded, I was brimming with confidence, so I determined to win her over.

I learned soon enough that she was a “church girl,” and while I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time, I wasn’t about to let it stop me. I had stopped going to church as soon as I made my confirmation in the Lutheran church and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would actually choose to wake up early on Sunday morning. But Melissa did, and one week she invited some of us to come out to the youth group at her church, and I didn’t skip a beat.

The whole thing was surreal to me: the music was upbeat and nothing like any church music I’d heard before, people were praying out loud for things as pedestrian as apple blossoms, and the sheer number of people who seemed to think it was a good idea to hang out at a church in the middle of the week was messing with my mind. But none of that really mattered, because at the end of the night, there was a sign-up sheet being passed around—something about a bus trip for an upcoming event—and there it was for the whole world to see: Melissa Schaefer’s phone number! I quickly copied it down and considered my first foray into this strange church world a ringing success. The rest, as they say, is history.

One spring night, I raised my hand in the air, walked down an aisle, and from that night on, that Pentecostal church took me in and raised me up in my faith. There were so many good people, all with the best possible intentions, who came together to take a lost and wandering teenager and give him a sense of purpose and mission in life. Right from the start, I was so hungry to learn, to experience, to grow. I jumped at every opportunity I could to be involved with the life of the church and my understanding of what I had signed up for slowly but surely took form.

The story of how my dormant faith came to life in that Pentecostal church is a really good one, but to keep things moving along here, I’ll skip ahead to the part where my journey intersects with the theme of same-sex attraction.

Pentecostals have their roots in a holiness tradition and find themselves in good company within the broader Evangelical community when it comes to Christian morality. I had never really thought about what sexuality had to do with faith, but it was made crystal clear to me very early on that the two were tied very closely together. The Bible, after all, spoke clearly to the boundaries of appropriate sexual expression—including homosexual behaviour. Aside from one girl at our high school, there weren’t many gay or lesbian people in my circles of influence, and that became all the more true as my life became more entangled in the church. After all, the church wasn’t a place for gay people, and it was part of the holiness narrative that guided our thinking to ensure that only those who were prepared to live according to God’s law were part of the community.

Now that I think about it, there was one family I knew who had a member of their extended family come out as gay, eventually entering into a relationship with another man. For all intents and purposes, this man was cast out of his family. It’s important to say that I don’t write this as a detached outsider, either. Whatever fears that family would have had, whatever comments they would have made, whatever judgment they would have passed, I was right there with them.

Please know that it is nothing short of heartbreaking for me to write this all these years later. But it’s part of my story and is part of the stories of so many people who have grown up both in the church and in a broader culture that was marked with a fear of people who were “different.” The question of how attitudes like these develop in the hearts of good, honest people is rarely given the weight it deserves. Dismissing it as religious brainwashing or casting a whole generation of people as bigoted doesn’t help. We can do better than that. We need to do better than that.

During those formative years, I honestly don’t think I ever once questioned the prohibition of homosexual behaviour. There were plenty of straightforward passages in the Bible that spoke loud and clear to the issue, from the Levitical references to homosexual sex as an abomination to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed because the townspeople wanted to have gay sex with an angelic visitor. But it wasn’t just the Old Testament that referenced homosexuality; the New Testament was equally clear in its assertion that such people would not enter the Kingdom of God.

If you’re ready to throw whatever device you’re reading this on at the wall for the simplistic and ignorant way that I’m writing about this, I’d encourage you, Please, keep reading. The only way we can move forward in this conversation is to be brutally honest about where we’ve come from and how we got to where we are today.


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