Today we begin a three-week discussion around Justin Lee’s fantastic book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate as part of our series on sexuality and the Church. We’ll talk about Chapters 1-5 this week, Chapters 6-10 next week, and Chapters 11-15 the following week.
As I said in my endorsement of the book and in my review, I cannot recommend Torn highly enough. It’s the only book about homosexuality and the Church that I feel comfortable recommending to everyone—from my gay friends to my parents. The minute I finished, I turned to Dan, tears streaming down my face, and said, “This one is a game-changer.” Dan too finished it in a matter of days.
Full disclosure: I know Justin and consider him a friend. In fact, we recently bumped into one another, quite by surprise, when we were both in Nashville for an interview for a TV station. I convinced him to pose for a picture in front of a stuffed turkey they had on another set because, you know, that’s what friends do when there is a large stuffed turkey in the room. Justin was also our guest for “Ask a Gay Christian…”, one of our most popular interviews ever. I respect and admire this guy a lot.
I know many of you have read Torn as well. So let’s talk about it…
Chapter 1 – Battle of the Century
Justin begins with a frank discussion on what’s at stake in this discussion. He explains how the culture war between gays and Christians leaves people like him, a gay Christian, caught in the crossfire. He cites a 2007 study by the Barna group in which 16- to 29-year-olds were asked to choose words or phrases to describe present-day Christianity. Out of all the responses—good and bad—the most popular choice was “anti-homosexual.” Not only did 91 percent of the non-Christians describe the Church this way, but 80 percent of young churchgoers did as well!
“Today’s young people have gay friends whom they love,” he says. “If they view the church as an unsafe place for them, a place more focused on politics than on people, we just might be raising the most anti-Christian generation America has ever seen, a generation that believes they have to choose between being loving and being Christian.”
Furthermore, this culture war has presented people like Justin, and people like Cindy—a mom who contacted Justin in a panic after learning her son was gay, knowing that her church was the last place she could turn if she wanted her son to feel loved and supported—with a dangerous false dichotomy: It’s gays vs. Christians. We all have to choose whose “side” we are on.
Chapter 2 – God Boy
Justin grew up in the evangelical church, was raised by loving and involved parents, and became known to his public school classmates in high school as “God Boy.” He was a straight-A student, active in youth group, trustworthy and friendly.
“I was a committed Christian, and everybody knew it,” he says. “If I didn’t have a Bible in a my backpack, I at least had a church bulletin and some tracts about salvation. I was ready to witness to anybody, anywhere, at the drop of a hat. More than anything in the world, I wanted to represent my God well, and I prayed every day for the wisdom and opportunity to do so. I was confident in my knowledge of my faith and always eager to explain some minor point of theology to my friends and classmates.” (p. 13)
Justin was also convinced that homosexuality was a sin.
“That didn’t mean that God hated gay people,” he says. “On the contrary, I was sure that God loved them! I was also sure, however, that God didn’t want them to be gay.”
Chapter 3 – The Struggle
But God Boy had a secret.
“It was, I thought, the worst secret in the world,” writes Justin. “It was the deepest, darkest secret I could ever imagine having, one that I could never tell anyone, not even my parents or best friends. It was the secret I would take with me to my grave.”
Justin was attracted to other guys.
While his friends noticed and talked about girls, Justin was sexually drawn to men. He tried to fit in by dating girls. He prayed his attractions were part of some kind of sexual confusion James Dobson said might happen during puberty. He begged God to take his “affliction” away. He hated himself.
“Night after night, I cried myself to sleep begging and
pleading with God to take away my sexual attractions to other guys,” he writes.
When Justin befriended a guy who identified as bisexual, Justin hoped that maybe he had found a word to describe himself: bisexual, attracted to both men and women. “Finally having a ‘diagnoses,’ I felt hopeful about my sexuality for the first time,” he said.
“There was only one problem with this. The word ‘bisexual’ refers to people who are more or less equally attracted to males and females. The truth was that I wasn’t equally attracted to makes and females. Even though I was dating a girl and wanted desperately to be attracted to her, I had sill never experienced even a moment of attraction for a woman, ever, in my life. All my attractions were for other guys.” (p. 26)
While Justin’s friend had made peace with his sexuality, Justin wept because “unlike him, I had to be rid of these feelings. My faith required it.”
Or so he thought.
Chapter 4 – The Truth Comes Out
Chapter 4 describes Justin’s painful process of telling the
truth to his family and friends. During this time, Justin also confronted the
fact that he wasn’t bisexual; he was gay.
“As strange as it may seem, in all the years I had struggled with my sexuality, the idea that I could be gay had simply never crossed my mind,” Justin recalls. “Suddenly, it seemed that every guy I knew was talking nonstop about hot girls, with me only pretending to agree. ‘Fag’ and ‘gay’ had become ubiquitous insults overnight; I was sure they hadn’t been before. Every TV show featured punch lines about a straight guy being mistaken for gay, resulting in raucous laughter from the audience. Every sermon at church was either about the goodness of marriage or the sinfulness of homosexuality. Though none of them knew it, they were talking about me. Laughing at me. Condemning me.” (p. 32-33)
Justin’s friends reacted in a variety of ways—from support, to bewilderment, to suggesting he may be able to make peace between his sexuality and his faith and pursue relationships with other men, to handing him porn in hopes it would help make him straight.
Justin found several Web sites for organizations promising “freedom from homosexuality.” Some of these Web sites even included testimonies from people who had lived gay lives in the past but said they had overcome their homosexuality through Jesus, gotten married, and started families. Justin became convinced that this was what he needed: deliverance. “Whatever might have gone wrong to make this happen, I knew God had the power to fix it. To fix me. I just needed willingness and faith.”
Justin’s Sunday school teacher connected him with Rick, and assistant pastor at Justin’s church who introduced him to a group called Homosexuals Anonymous.
At Justin’s first meeting, he listened as a small group of middle-aged men shared their theories as to why they had gay feelings, “mostly connected to faulty upbringings and other childhood traumas I couldn’t relate to,” says Justin. Then they shared their latest progress in “trying to become straight.”
One man with a wedding ring on his finger shared the exciting news that, while on vacation at the beach with his family, he noticed a woman in a small bikini. The group erupted into cheers and congratulations, but Justin felt horrified. “Was this my destiny?” he wondered. “Was I going to end up someday in a room like this one, middle-aged, married to a woman I wasn’t attracted to, trying to act the part as well as possible for my wife and kids, and getting excited because after years of therapy, one day I noticed one woman walking by me in a bikini on a beach, for a few seconds?”
The moment marked a low point in Justin’s journey.
Justin went back to his pastor who helped arrange a meeting with Justin’s parents; it was time to tell them. Anyone who is gay or loves someone who is gay really must read for themselves the story of Justin’s coming out to his parents. I am so grateful for Justin’s willingness to share this part of his journey with such honesty and vulnerability. This was no easy thing for Justin to do; it took a lot of guts.
Justin’s parents reacted with unconditional love…but also with surprise and feelings of guilt.
Justin acknowledges that not everyone is as fortunate as he was to have parents who reacted first with love. “Some parents have kicked their kids out, disowned them, and written them out of their wills. Some have even told their kids they wished they were dead. Imagine hearing that from your own mother and father!”
With this in mind, Justin lists five things Christian parents often say upon learning that their child is gay, and why they don’t help:
1. “Don’t tell anyone” – Even Justin’s parents urged him to keep his attraction to other men a secret. But Justin explains that this is unhealthy, and places terrible burdens of shame and guilt on a child. “Gay kids are already at increased risk for depression and suicide, and adding to their feelings of isolation by asking them not to talk about what they going through only makes matters worse.” Furthermore, in a day and age when talking about sexuality among one’s peers is the norm, asking a child to cover up his sexual orientation may mean asking him to outright lie to his friends and family.
2. “You’re not like those people” – For many parents, the only thing they know about homosexuality is what they know from gay pride parades or stories of lewd, immoral behavior. So when Justin’s dad learned his son was gay, he responded in shock, saying “but you’re not like those people!” Justin reminds readers that just as straight people can have very different lifestyles (Kim Kardashian, for example, has a different lifestyle than, say, Hillary Clinton or Lynne Hybels), so can gay people. There is no single “gay lifestyle.” Explains Justin, “When parents tell their kids that they must not be gay because they’re not like the negative images in their parents’ heads, it doesn’t change their kids’ understanding of themselves as gay. Instead, it convinces the kids that their parents now associate those negative images with them, and the only way they can avoid that association is to pretend not to feel what they feel.” (p. 48)
3. “How could you hurt us like this?” When a child works up the courage and trust to tell his parents he is gay, it is important for parents not to respond defensively. “Resist the temptation to make it about you,” advises Justin. “Focus on being there for your child.”
4. “What did we do wrong?” Sadly, many Christian parents have been told wrongly that homosexuality is caused by poor parent-child relationships. This is a pervasive myth and destructive myth within the evangelical Christian subculture that we will address more directly in next week’s discussion. But as Justin puts it: “I had a strong, warm relationship with both of my parents, felt fully and completely loved, was given healthy amounts of discipline and independence, and everything else I’ve heard recommended for parents. If I turned out gay, any kid can turn out gay.”
5. “This is the devil’s way of trying to stop you from doing what God wants.” Justin encourages Christian parents not to jump to any conclusions about how God will use a situation like this in their child’s life. “Denying it won’t make it go away, but if we respond as Christians, with open hearts to what God will do, we can be surprised what happens.”
Next week we will continue our discussion as Justin shares his experiences with an “ex-gay” ministry
I think Justin’s story speaks for itself, but a few things resonate.
The first is how similar our backgrounds are. I too was raised by loving, wise, and involved parents. I too was active in church. I too grew up assuming that homosexuality was a sin. In fact, I was even known as “Bible Girl” at my public high school!
But I’m straight, attracted to men. And so I avoided the sort of internal turmoil that Justin faced when it came to his sexuality. (Well, even us “good Christian girls” had our own kind of internal turmoil when it came to sexuality, but that’s a topic for another day!)
My point is that Justin’s story is a reminder to me that LGBT folks are not “out there” but “in here.” They are our friends, our neighbors, our siblings, our family members, our fellow church members. Justin’s attraction to men did not emerge out of some strange, deviant culture, far removed from my own; it emerged out of a culture and background exactly like mine! As he said himself, if Justin can be gay, anyone can be gay. I’m convinced that he didn’t choose to be attracted to the same gender any more than I chose to be attracted to a different gender. Next week, we will discuss this a bit more in depth as Justin asks the question “Why are people gay?”
My second observation is simply that, in light of the fact that the “gay community” is not separate from the “Christian community” and that there are many like Justin who identify as both Christian and gay, we have to move past the culture war mentality that pits these two groups against one another. It leaves people like Justin and his parents in impossible situations, situations that have resulted in heartbreak, destroyed families, and far too many suicides.
This is why we are embarking on this series, and it’s why I am so grateful for Justin’s willingness to share his story with honesty and grace.
Some questions for discussion:
1.) Are there people in your life who are gay? How did you respond when you found out? What is life like for them?
2) What parts of Justin’s story do you relate to? What parts have stuck out to you – as sad, hopeful, encouraging, or strange?
3) For LGBT folks: What else would you like us to know about how NOT to respond when you tell us you are gay?
I’ll be monitoring the comment section closely to ensure that it remains as safe a place as possible to discuss this sensitive topic.
Update: I'm so pleased with how the conversation has gone in the comment section! Thank you for sharing your stories and responding to one another with grace. I'm going to close the thread simply because there are too many comments to monitor carefully, especially as I'm travelling over the next couple of days. Thanks for understanding!