LAST YEAR, THE SCHOOL where I work — Yale University, colloquially known as “the Gay Ivy” — was galvanized by a visit from the Christian speaker Christopher Yuan, a self-described “former homosexual.” A student evangelical group had invited Yuan to campus to tell the story of his transformation from out-and-proud gay meth addict and drug dealer to mild-mannered celibate Bible teacher via a stint in federal prison. Yale’s outraged LGBTQ and allied students showed up in droves and passed out rainbow stickers at the door, turning what had been planned as an intimate evangelical event into a fraught, standing-room-only campus happening.
Yuan’s visit and the impassioned protest it provoked might seem to confirm the common perception that gays and Christians play for different teams. But they also call that assumption into question. Queer Christian students helped to organize the protest, and more than one gay clergyperson from the community was there as well. Meanwhile, the decision to invite Yuan was quite controversial within the evangelical student groups, and I heard that some LGBTQ-allied evangelical students were boycotting the event as an informal protest of their own. At the time I was a student at Yale Divinity School, and I attended the talk with a large cohort of queer and allied ministers-in-training. Many of us had grown up in or been thrown out of churches that preached hate, and we wanted to make sure that we were there as witnesses for the gospel as we had come to know it — a hard-won gospel of love and liberation for all.
We were also there for the show, and it didn’t disappoint. Nothing quite beats anti-gay melodrama for sheer camp value. Yuan, a Chinese-American, HIV-positive man in his forties, travels the world with his formidable mother, Angela, showing PowerPoint pictures of his former self dancing in leather and glitter, and speaking out in favor of “holy sexuality,” which he defines as incompatible with same-sex desire. To hear Christopher tell it, Angela is a kind of Tiger Mother for Jesus: She simply refused to accept that her son was hopelessly gay, and that (eventually) was that. At Yale, Angela cut short the heated question and answer period by demanding that gay and allied students go easy on her son since his white blood cell count was low and it was time for him to take his meds.
Christopher and Angela have written a book together, Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God. A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope, in which they each cast themselves in the role of the Prodigal Son. In alternating chapters, they tell how they were both brought low by Christopher’s homosexual lifestyle. When Angela saw the gay porn that Christopher had hidden in the insulation in the crawl space by his bedroom, she contemplated throwing herself in front of a train. And when Christopher dropped out of dental school to plan gay dance parties, he found himself alone and emaciated, a crack pipe his only friend. After years of wallowing in shame, mother and son finally found their way back home to a life with Jesus and each other.
In some ways, the Yuans are telling an old story. Parts of it are as old as the parable on which it is based. But it is also new. The Yuans’ decision to present themselves as fellow prodigals in need of forgiveness — rather than casting Christopher alone as the sinner — is an especially interesting twist. It makes Angela’s initial rejection of her gay son into a sin somehow comparable to the “sin” of Christopher’s homosexuality.
And Christopher’s relationship to his homosexuality is more nuanced (or contradictory) than it might first appear. Although he has worked with the ex-gay organization Exodus International, at Yale he disavowed “ex-gay” rhetoric, saying, “I don’t even know what the ex-gay movement is.” In his book, Christopher writes that he is not defined by his sexuality, past or present, and that his only meaningful identity is Christian; his goal is not heterosexuality but purity. Still, at Yale, he kept returning to sexual labels with a half-affirming wistfulness. At one point he said with tears in his voice, “I have a lot of gay friends. I have some who have passed away. LGBTQ family is dear to me.” Maybe in memory of this lost gay family, he interspersed his talk with conciliating pleas to his predominantly gay and politely hostile audience: “I want to get to know you.” “Let’s start with love.”
The Yuans’ double-prodigal act is unforgettable family theater, poignant as well as camp. Mark D. Jordan would argue that it is also a consequential rhetorical construction of character — part of the vast body of texts (sometimes invisible to the secular or straight worlds) that continuously redefine who Christians and gays are. In Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk About Homosexuality, Jordan reads a century of pro- and anti-gay religious writing in order to identify the recurring and evolving rhetorical patterns that subtly shape our sexuality and our selves. Jordan writes about old surveys, blogs, newsletters, pamphlets, and pulp with the care and sympathy of a brilliant literary critic interpreting the classics, and he takes the cast of characters he meets in the archives very seriously indeed. He writes, “We think that persuasion is changing opinions by moving passions — when it is not supplying slogans for whatever people already wanted to do. We forget that persuasion also makes people.”
Jordan is a historian who is interested in how people are made, and his method is “restag[ing] texts for their rhetorical patterns — texts, not lives.” The people Jordan writes about are, above all, textual. They are characters, fashioned and self-fashioning, formed by discourse and reverse discourse, and reforming themselves through “rhetorical feats.” They find their sexuality in and through reading. Often their textual awakenings rewrite religious conversion, creating queer new versions of the “take up and read” imperative of Augustine’s Confessions. In the pseudonymous autobiographical novel Better Angel,
[Kurt] rereads biblical passages “that suggested hidden knowledge: Leviticus, the story of Onan, the affairs of David, of Sodom, of Lot, the Song of Solomon.” This scriptural reading excites him: he is drawn to his mother’s room, where he masturbates for the first time to the point of ejaculation.
Meanwhile, somewhere in America:
One man remembers finding The City and the Pillar in a drugstore. Raised Methodist, he had fallen in love with a young veteran at a church camp during high school … [H]e began to pray that his desires would be taken from him. Then he found the pulp edition of Vidal on the rack. “I stood there for three hours and read it. I could not believe what I was reading.” But he did believe it, and went to find other books that would help him be a homosexual man, sexually and emotionally.
And at a bar in L.A.:
A man, with Mormons on both sides of his family, makes his way from Utah to the gay neighborhoods of Los Angeles. A bartender at The Gauntlet recommends that he read The City and the Pillar. On his own, he finds Song of the Loon. He remembers that reading them together was the turning point of his life.
Jordan’s characters, both straight and gay, are rhetorically created by the Bible, by gay literature, and by gay erotica. Their sexuality may be God-given, but they experience and express it through a mélange of man-made stories. In most histories of American sexuality, Anita Bryant is simply an anti-gay crusader; in Jordan’s account she is a “papier maché torso fashioned out of scraps of speech.”
One of the consolations of Recruiting Young Love is Jordan’s faith that gays and lesbians are able to sustain themselves with such scraps, especially unlikely ones. “Christian churches,” he writes,
have long provided both the space and the material for fashioning an alternate self. Churches have done so regardless of their explicit teaching on sexual sins … The most homophobic churches can offer the gaudiest material for the construction of counterselves right in the pulpit, just next to the altar.
As a case in point, Jordan shows how “aging showgirl” Anita Bryant was available for passionate camp appropriation and critique even as she starred in her own anti-gay morality play: At the height of her war on gay civil rights, when she was proclaiming that gays were child molesters on national television, a host of drag queens discovered that impersonating Bryant helped them turn the lemons of homophobia into nourishing and delicious gay lemonade. Similarly, in his reading of the masturbating-to-Leviticus scenes in Better Angel, Jordan shows how even the most recalcitrant verses of Scripture, verses that have been used to terrorize gay people for centuries, can be read for pleasure and self-fashioning and even ecstasy. A boy who has never heard of homosexuality can open his Bible and read, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” and in these words he can miraculously discover the ancient precedent and awesome power of his desires.
But despite his faith in the redemptive potential of sacred texts, Jordan is frustrated by the fact that the most potent of these texts have historically been used for homophobic purposes. In order for them to be sustaining for gay Christians, their deathly rhetoric must somehow be drained of its sting. At one point he asks, “Is condemnation the only strong rhetoric that churches have for shaping homoerotic desire? Is there no happier narrative for churches to offer through ritual?” In other words: Do progressive Christians have any narratives to offer gay people that can compete with the powerful plot of the Prodigal Son? Can they offer any dramatic personae to rival the diva theater of Anita Bryant and Angela Yuan?
As a Christian, if not as a scholar of Christianity, Jordan finds hope in the sacraments. His book begins by invoking communion — with an affirmation of “the invention or improvisation of new characters by those still willing to entrust themselves to Eucharist” — and ends with a benedictory baptism: “The only interesting future for church debates over homosexuality will come with the ritual invention, the poetic projection of a Christian character for same-sex love — I mean, for burning desire beyond the binary of sex and gender. We need to bring this already blessed sodomite to the baptismal font.”
It was the “ritual invention” of marriage that transformed the life of Jimmy Creech. Creech is a former Methodist minister who twice stood trial in church court for performing gay marriages and was ultimately defrocked. Creech is also straight, and in his memoir Adam’s Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays, his focus is less on what Christian stories can mean to gay people and more on what gay stories can mean for Christians. In Creech’s case, they can mean everything. The book’s title refers to the coming-out story of Creech’s longtime parishioner Adam, who in 1984 threatened to leave their small Southern congregation because the international governing body of the United Methodist Church had just officially condemned gay ordination. Until Adam stormed into Creech’s office to confront him with the pain of being gay in a homophobic church, Creech hadn’t thought much about homosexuality. But through Adam’s narrative Creech experienced a textual awakening of his own: “Adam’s words rushed from his soul like water pouring through a broken dam. I listened with rapt attention, losing all track of time, as he opened to me a whole new world.”
Adam’s story gave Creech a way to make a liberating new meaning out of having grown up straight and white in the mid-century South. For many young people growing up in the church then — and today — sex was taught in terms of high-stakes right or wrong acts:
I learned that sex was filthy before marriage, but glorious afterward. It was mysterious and fearsome, eliciting powerful urges and fantasies that had to be controlled and disciplined. Unmarried people who were sexually active because they could not control these urges, or didn’t care to, were contemptible, and their reputations were scarred for life … Almost every other fault and sin can be overlooked or forgiven, but not the sins of sexual indiscretion.
Consequently, the erotic desires I had first discovered … become mixed up over time with feelings of fear, shame, and guilt.
After a lifetime of living with the aftermath of this “sex education,” Creech found a new way of understanding his own sexual story through listening to the stories of lesbian, bisexual, and gay people. He found hope in their understanding of sexuality as an identity in which we live and move and exist, an orientation that structures our senses and memories. Creech believes that gays are not the only Christians who need to be saved from sexual shame.
Adam’s story also gave Creech a way to reclaim some of the lost legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement. The Movement era was a high point in the history of liberal Protestantism, and since it ended, mainline denominations have been dwindling in numbers and influence. Creech had originally discovered his call to ministry as an idealistic teenager working among impoverished black migrant workers in the segregated South, but the 1980s found him serving in a quiet country parish. Becoming a religious advocate for gay civil rights relocated Creech’s ministry from the parish to the world, and plunged him into a new life of marches, arrests, unlikely alliances, trials, purpose, risk, sacrifice, vigils, and tears. Although Creech has been stripped of his ordination, his ministry continues.
Jimmy Creech, Mark D. Jordan, and the Yuans would agree: What we need, desperately, are stories to live in and characters to be. We come to porn or pulp fiction or religion with this need, and, at least in the case of religion, we often come away empty.
When I was an alienated evangelical teenager growing up in the Northwest, I found the stories I needed not in church but in Dan Savage’s raunchy sex advice column in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. “Savage Love” was my own textual awakening, offering not only accurate sex education but glimpses of a world of love and lust beyond the limits of the Christianity I knew.
These days, Savage is most famous as the mastermind behind Rick Santorum’s “Google problem,” and, with his husband, Terry Miller, as the creator of the It Gets Better Project, an online video archive that is the largest anthology of gay stories to date. Savage is no longer a believing Christian — he defines himself as a cultural Catholic — but he has a lot more time for Christians than his Santorum campaign might suggest. (Full disclosure: Last year I sent Savage a sermon I preached on sexuality and suicide and he posted it on his blog.) In a recent lecture at the Riverside Church, he said, echoing Jordan, “For many LGBT people, faith is both the affliction and the solution.” When asked what advice he would give young LGBT Catholics, he said, “If you believe, stay in the Church.”
In It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, Savage and Miller have collected stories that narrate a range of gay experience, including Christian experience. There are tales of terror from people who grew up sleeplessly praying to be straight; who saw their first picture of men embracing in a tract about people destined for divine destruction. And there are messages from Baptist seminary professor Stephen V. Sprinkle (“Never turn loose what gives you hope!”) and Episcopalian Archbishop Gene Robinson (“God Believes in You”).
The stories in It Gets Better show Christianity’s ability to devastate and kill. They remind us that every day churches give sanctuary to bullies and bigots while driving gay children to despair. But they also testify to the truth of Jordan’s claim that “Christianity remains a repository for archaic, transgressive characters of desire and gender. They are inscribed into its scriptures, especially in the person of its founder.” Or, as Gabrielle Rivera puts it in her “It Gets Better” story, entitled “Getting Stronger and Staying Alive”:
First of all, it doesn’t get better but what happens is this: you get stronger … As for me and God, I view our relationship as hella strong. God made all of us so God made me. Therefore, in my mind, God is cool with being gay. And if Jesus were alive today, he’d chill with us because everybody else hates us.
I’m with Gabrielle. Christ isn’t a poster-child for normalcy, and he didn’t come to earth to give a stamp of approval to presidential candidates. He came to be a savior to people who need saving. And when it doesn’t get better and you don’t get stronger and you’re trying to stay alive, it might matter a lot to believe you can chill with Jesus.