Last week, after some reflections on the first chapter of Tim Otto’s excellent book, Oriented to Faith, we promised you an excerpt. We are thrilled to share that with you today. Oriented to Faith is beautifully written and heartbreakingly authentic. Tim’s story is powerful and offers a rare, precious, redemptive lens into the conversation on faith and sexuality. We hope you’ll buy it, devour it, and talk about it with your friends and family. Here’s an excerpt from chapter one we think you’ll love!
When I was six years old, I accepted Jesus into my heart. My parents were missionaries in Uganda, East Africa, and I would stand my mother’s accordion case on end, open the family Bible on top of it, preach loud ‘sermons,’ and recruit a parent, pet, or peer to listen. Waving my arms flamboyantly and conducting hymns, I loved playing “church.” This was also the year I discovered the game “doctor.” When other missionary kids would sleep over, I realized I had more interest in the bodies of the boys I explored than those of girls. Even at age six, playing “doctor” made me feel intensely ashamed. In this chapter I’ll try to relate what it was like to grow up gay.
Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of others and I will tell you how much you have loved them. —Helmut Thielicke To understand homosexuality, in all its complexity, we must not speak in the abstract, but rather pay attention to particular people. As my mentor Jack taught me, paying attention to particular people might help us understand what God is doing here and now, among us. Moreover, although same-sex attraction can be a helpful curriculum, it is important not to overlook the pain of growing up gay. An honest answer of how God is at work among us must take into account pain and difficulty. Of course I can’t speak for all LBGT people, but I hope my story will help illustrate the kind of painful history that needs to be remembered.
As far as I can tell, I never consciously decided to be gay. The desires I experienced in myself shocked and shamed me. I didn’t lie in bed as a six-year-old and wonder rebelliously, “How can I mess with my parents? Maybe I’ll get a tattoo. No, too painful. Maybe I’ll join a rock and roll band. And do what, play mom’s accordion? I know . . . I’ll be homosexual!” When I was eight, the dictator Idi Amin kicked my family out of Uganda, and we returned to the United States. When I first came back, I knew I was attracted to boys, but I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t think about it too much. When I started school in California, I was called all kinds of names. Some names I could dismiss. Once I learned what the f-word meant, I thought about being called a “mother f-er” and realized, “well actually, I don’t do that.” But fourth-graders have amazingly good ‘gaydar.’ I got called names like “sissy,” “faggot,” “homo,” “gay,” and “queer” all the time. I began to realize, “Oh, those words actually apply to me.” And so my peers taught me the words with which I would hate myself. If there was any way I could have chosen differently, I would have. After having gone to fifteen schools by the time I was in the sixth grade (my parents, as missionaries, moved around a lot), I desperately wanted to fit in. I was uncoordinated, bookish, lonely, and beginning to develop pimples; the last thing I wanted was another way of being different.
A Life Paragraph
As I grew older I began to research sex and homosexuality by secretly reading the Christian books my parents had about sex. When I turned thirteen my parents bought me James Dobson’s book Preparing for Adolescence. I devoured the book, and found its one short paragraph on homosexuality under the heading, “Questions of Fear.” Question number nine is: “Wouldn’t it be awful if I became a homosexual?” The book goes on to explain:
A homosexual is someone who is not attracted to the opposite sex, but who is attracted to the same sex. It’s a boy’s interest in boys or a girl’s interest in girls. Homosexuality is an abnormal desire that reflects deep problems, but it doesn’t happen very often and it’s not likely to happen to you.
After the questions the chapter concludes this way:
Your sexual development is a normal event that is being controlled inside your body. It will work out all right, so you can just relax and let it happen . . . if you can learn to channel your sexual impulses the way God intended, this part of your nature can be one of the most fascinating and wonderful aspects of your life, perhaps contributing to a successful and happy marriage in the years ahead.
While some people have a “life verse,” I adopted those last sentences as my “life paragraph.” I hoped my attraction to boys would be overcome if I channeled my sexual impulses “the way God intended.” I wasn’t sure what that all meant, but at least it meant “choosing” to be attracted to girls as much as I could. In junior high I found myself vaguely attracted to a smart, articulate, athletic girl named Elaine. She often wore a beret and dressed like a guy. I prayed my affection for her would grow, and that somehow she might be interested in me. Later I realized I was interested in her because she was the most masculine girl I knew. In college Elaine came out as a lesbian.
In junior high, I got beaten up regularly because I was “queer.” Each day I contemplated three separate ways home from school, and each one had its share of bullies who would taunt and tease me, then beat me up. As the end of the school day approached, nausea and dread filled my stomach as I played Russian roulette route home. Thankfully my family moved again when I began high school. Though the bullying and name calling stopped, it continued in my head. After an innocent thought like, “Ken has such beautiful green eyes,” I would think, “Tim, you are such a sick faggot.” When I was honest with myself, the word “handsome” seemed inadequate to describe some of the guys in high school. They were achingly beautiful to me—both proof of God’s existence and of my own stench, weighing me down with shame and guilt.
In the early 1980s, there was very little awareness of LBGT students. I didn’t imagine that there were any other students at my small town high school who were struggling with similar feelings. It was rumored that the drama teacher was a “dyke,” but that was said with scathing contempt. Gay jokes were a constant part of joking between guys. As Brad East puts it, “To be gay was the worst thing possible. To call another guy gay was the worst insult possible.” I believed if anyone knew I was attracted to guys, he or she would despise me. Believing I was fundamentally loathsome, I settled for what I unconsciously thought would be a substitute for love: admiration. I got good grades, won speech contests, and got elected junior class president and then student body president. But the admiration I earned turned out to be shallow. As I stood in front of hundreds of students at pep rallies and games, I wished that I could be with just one guy who knew all about me and loved me anyway.
Living the Victorious Christian Life
When I began applying to colleges, I told myself that if I could be around more committed, loving Christians, my life would be better, so I decided to go to a Christian college in southern California. My parents moved back to Uganda, and I drove down the I-5 freeway until I found the turn-off to my new life. At first I thought Christian college was heaven, but I was still trying to achieve admiration through good grades. I had little time for friendships and didn’t have the courage to tell others about my attraction to guys. The sunny campus culture dictated that being a good Christian meant living the “victorious Christian life.”
For the summer, I fled the strip-malled, white, sterile, “courtesy capital of the world” for the streets of San Francisco. I knew some missionaries, Steve and Laura Reed, who worked with Salvadoran immigrants, and I joined Laura to work as a paralegal in her newly established law clinic. I loved the colorful chaos of the Mission District, the aroma of carne asada burritos mingled with fresh fish markets and gutter garbage, the “painted lady” Victorians strutting their gaudy colors, the sound of Spanish and Cantonese and swear words and salsa music filling the air, the drug dealers and prostitutes and homeless and gang bangers who made the “fine” world feel fake, shallow and distant. Some nights I literally skipped down the streets—knowing that skipping was “gay”—but in the anonymity and freedom of those streets, skipping was the perfect expression of the joy I felt.
One night, achingly curious, I walked into an adult bookstore. After looking at the gay magazines, I walked into the back where there were video-viewing booths for X-rated movies. Someone propositioned me, and we went into a dark booth together that smelled of cigarette smoke, Pine Sol, and stale semen. New at sex, I was awkward and anxious and clumsy. But here was another person like me. I was allowed to touch another guy’s body and it felt glorious. Hugging was amazing and the other sensations—well, I didn’t know my body could feel so good. Sex felt like a type of grace that cared for the part of me I most despised. But the experience was quickly over. The person left and I realized that I now felt as bad as I had felt good. As I walked out of the store everything in my upbringing screamed that having gay sex was filthy, sinful, shameful, wicked, and disgusting. But I didn’t just feel guilty about doing something bad, I felt the shame of feeling that my very being was bad. That sense that such “badness” was really, truly, completely me, settled in with such force that I bent at the knees and laid down on the litter-strewn, urine-sprayed sidewalk outside the store. I had been depressed and despairing before, and had even contemplated ending my life, but that night, as I lay on the sidewalk in front of an adult bookstore, the fact that the Mission Street pawn shops sold guns began to seem like a solution. I wondered if I would need a permit to buy one. Could they just check a driver’s license? Would they have bullets for the gun? Finally, I became aware of people walking out of their way to get around me, and I managed to get up, bypass the pawn shops, go home, and take a shower. As I stood in the warm water, naked and ashamed, I resolved that Dobson’s advice hadn’t worked. I had tried as hard as I could to be “normal.” I had to tell someone, and I had to deal with being gay.
Now, over twenty-five years later, when I pass that place in my city, I am reminded of the poor choice I made that day, and I also remember the pain of growing up gay. Now, as then, I wish that somehow, rather than ending up in the arms of that anonymous man, I could have found myself in the arms of the church. I wish that the church had communicated to me that it could be trusted with my deepest secret, with my sense of alienation, with my self-loathing. I wish that in the church, I had found myself loved. I’ve heard a phrase—sometimes mistakenly attributed to Saint Augustine—that rings true for me, “The church is a whore, but she’s our mother.” This book is my attempt to talk with mother church. Realizing that I’m a part of mother church, I want us to do better by our children. I sometimes understand the church as lying on that sidewalk. We’re a mess. We’ve been fighting with each other and have done poorly by our gay and lesbian and transgendered children. The world sees us as an embarrassment and sidesteps us. I don’t think the solution to our problems is simply a matter of choosing the “right” position. Whether liberal (affirming) or conservative (traditional), we can all reflect on the debate about homosexuality and seek to faithfully incarnate Jesus rather than churning out a doctrinally ‘correct’ position paper. Let’s get up off the sidewalk and give the church another shot. Better yet, by faith, let’s invite God to raise us up. And maybe this time we’ll look and act more like Jesus—which would be good news for us and for the whole world.
Tim Otto may be followed on Twitter, or you may receive word of other articles by Tim by liking the Oriented To Faith Facebook page. The above excerpt was adapted from the recently released book Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Same-Sex Relationships and used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, www.wipfandstock.com.